At press time, the blocky, brown-brick building was surrounded by a high chain-link fence, and workers were busy removing asbestos prior to taking the whole building down.
The Fleming Building was designed by Alden Dow, a well-regarded modern architect who designed eighteen buildings in Ann Arbor, five of them on the U-M campus. Its most distinctive feature, the slit-like windows scattered around its facade, were Dow’s attempt to make a large, blocky, brick building more interesting.
Instead of conventional rows of windows, Dow decorated the building with what he called “cut stone tracery” in straight lines up and down and inserted windows at various spots and orientations. This arrangement meant that some of the rooms had windows at ceiling level and others were along the floor.
Most of the criticism of the building is of its interior. Like his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, Dow was more interested in the look than the function of his buildings. The first floor was low, with barrel ceilings that gave it a cave-like feeling. The next five floors had more light but had identical floor plans, no matter what their function.
Opinions vary on whether tearing down the Fleming Building is a sacrilege or long overdue. In an email, preservationist Susan Wineberg calls it “a courageous attempt by architect Alden Dow (later the Architect Laureate of Michigan) to challenge the monotonous red brick of the University.”
On the other side are people who are not at all sorry to see it go. During the student protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, students assumed that its fortress-like design was intended to keep them out. Though that urban legend persists to this day, the design was completed well before campus protests became a concern. The regents’ meeting room was on the first floor, and students had no trouble getting in. A 1969 Ann Arbor News photo shows them in the Regents Room, protesting the location of the campus bookstore.
People who worked in the building, or were connected with it, have mixed feeling about tearing it down, although none of them seriously objects.
Retired university planner Fred Mayer says his choice would have been to save the building and instead gut the interior but adds, “I can’t say it’s wrong to tear it down.” Work on the building was already far along when he took over, but he was involved in planning Regents Plaza out front.
Mayer remembers a meeting that included Dow; representatives of landscape architects Johnson, Johnson, and Roy; and Tony Rosenthal, the artist responsible for the “Cube,” a sculpture with a hidden pole in the center that enables it to be spun around. This activity is not limited to young people—another campus legend has it that during Mary Sue Coleman’s first tenure, she spun it each morning to start the university’s day.
When Mayer first heard of the planned demolition, he was worried that the plaza would be affected, but it is outside the fenced area and people are still enjoying it, unfazed by the work on the building.
“I’m always a bit sorry when I hear that a U-M facility that I spent time in was scheduled for demolition,” emails Jim Duderstadt, U-M president from 1988 to 1996. “But I also understand that times change and buildings deteriorate so change is inevitable.” He admits that the bottom floor “conveyed a fortress sense” but adds the “the upper floors were quite functional for the times, with offices surrounding an open space where clerical work could occur.”
Duderstadt’s successor, Lee Bollinger (1996–2002), tried to move the president’s office out of the building; according to a Michigan Today article by Jim Tobin, he called it a “bunker-like, repelling structure.” But Anne Knott, who worked for Bollinger as a special counsel, says his main objection was to the location: Bollinger believed the president’s office should be more in the middle of the campus, not off to the edge behind the buildings that front State St.
His plan was to move into Angell Hall, which in fact had been the location of the president’s office before Fleming was built. But moving the president’s office and all his support staff would have been a logistical nightmare, and like many of Bollinger’s ideas, it didn’t happen.
Bollinger didn’t hesitate to dream big, but most of his suggestions were either too expensive or impractical or both. Other ideas included moving the house that Robert Frost lived in during his U-M residency from Greenfield Village back to Ann Arbor and putting important houses in Ann Arbor, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer House, into university care.
When Knott worked for Bollinger, it was her second stint in the building. During Harold Shapiro’s administration (1980–1988), she worked on the sixth floor setting up a development office. While she wasn’t a big fan of the building, she says, “the interior is what you make of it. It did the job of housing people and giving them room to do their work. The windows, although in odd places, did bring in light.”
But Knott has “no feelings one way or another about what happens to the Fleming Building,” she says. “It’s not a campus treasure.”
Though young by Central Campus standards, Fleming’s brick facade is already coming loose—a surprisingly common problem with buildings of its period. The university cited the estimated $40 million expense to replace the facade and redo the interior as the reason for tearing it down. Preparations for demolition started after students left for the summer, and the work is scheduled to be done before they return. For now, the site will be planted with grass.
President Ono will instead work in the newly renovated Ruthven Museums Building. Centrally placed between the Diag and the Hill dorms, it’s a much more gracious and welcoming structure.
Instead of Dow’s gloomy tunnel, visitors enter via the airy rotunda of the former Natural History Museum. And Robben Fleming is not forgotten: a large oil portrait of the university’s ninth president hangs in the reception room.