Catalyst & Construction

Architectural Drawing of Waterman Gymnasium

Architectural Drawing of the Waterman Gymnasium. 

With the construction of this new athletic facility facing delay and disregard from the administration, a tragic event in November of 1890 motivated the University community to move forward with the building of a gymnasium. That month, militia in the area of the University fired musket shots to celebrate a marriage but tragically killed one student.[1] This wasn’t the only accidental death of this period. The Michigan Daily reported that another student had passed away after a sledding accident and two others had drowned while ice skating.[2]

These deaths motivated prominent community members to advocate for the building of a gymnasium, noting in the Detroit Journal that such a facility would be a “cure to these troubles due to the escape of youthful energies and spirits.”[3] Wealthy Yale University graduate Joshua Waterman offered to fund $20,000 for the gymnasium, if Michigan students and faculty would raise an additional $20,000. The University Senate led the fundraising drive, and by April 2, 1891 a total of $20,182.75 had been raised.[4] Construction of the gymnasium didn’t officially begin until April of the following year at an estimated cost of nearly $60,000— $20,000 more than anticipated.[5] The final cost of the gym was $65,134.14 or $1,686,274.27 in 2017 dollars.[6] The Regents authorized the expenditure of these extra funds from the University treasury to complete the building.[7]

Waterman Gymnasium opened in April 1893. It was equipped with the state-of-the-art athletic equipment of the era, from pulley weights to dumbbells and parallel bars. In October of 1894, Dr. James Fitzgerald — the Director of the gymnasium — helped supervise its first physical education classes. Throughout the rest of the 1890s, men and women used the gym during separate hours, with the former attending in the morning and the latter in the afternoon. During the 1894-1895 school year, it had nearly 1,500 members, 1,250 men and 150 women.[8]

[1] "A sociological history of intercollegiate football; the case of the University of Michigan, 1880-1908" 1981 box 7 Dept. of History (University of Michigan) Student Papers, University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Michigan Daily, April 2, 1891.

[5] Hagelin, Richard. "The Struggle for the University of Michigan's First Gymnasium." Studies in the History of Higher Education in Michigan. Ed. Claude A. Eggertsen. Ann Arbor: Lithographed by Ann Arbor, 1950. 97-100. Print.

[6] Wear, Robert E. History, 1950, “University of Michigan’s Waterman Gymnasium — Its Development and Expansion from 1894 to 1930."

[7] Proceedings of the Board of Regents, 1891-1896, op. cit., p. 337.

[8] Proceedings of Board of Regents, 1896-1901, pgs. 15-16.