The University Record, August 13, 2001

Michigan League gets more than a little help from its friends

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

From left to right, Mary Ann Austin, chair of the Friends’ garden committee; with volunteer Darragh Weisman and Robert Yecke, manager of facilities at the Michigan League, discuss ongoing Friends and League projects. The recently mounted plaque at left beckons visitors to enter the garden. (Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
Many campus buildings evoke fond memories for alumni, but few inspire as much devotion as the Michigan League. While it is one of the most beautiful buildings on campus, the reasons behind the attachment go deeper into its history.

For most other buildings, the University recognized a need, found the funds and organized construction. But the women of the University—students, faculty and faculty wives, and alumnae—actually raised the money to build the League. From its dedication in 1929 until the mid-1960s, it functioned as the center of all women’s activities at the U-M, and as the focus for many community activities.

Certainly it is one of the few U-M buildings to have its own Friends organization, founded specifically to make people aware of its existence and history, ensure its continued existence as a unique and beautiful building, and preserve the history of both the role of women on campus and the role the League played in the history of the University.

Friends President Connie Olson says the group was formed about five years ago. From a small working group of 10–15, the Friends have grown to about 100 active members, with a newsletter that is mailed three times a year to some 8,000 alumnae and friends.

The Friends have a large impact as they have taken over fund-raising activities for the facility. A research project funded by a grant from the Alumnae Council will result in a published history. The dinner theater shows produced and directed by Nancy Heusel consistently play to capacity crowds. The two Friends activities with the most impact on day-to-day life at the League, however, have to do with improving the garden and collecting the artwork that now adorns the walls.

“The Grounds Department has the entire campus to worry about and hadn’t had time to keep up with our garden,” recalls Mary Ann Austin, who coordinates the Friends’ garden committee. “It was overgrown, it needed a lot of trimming, and some of the planters were falling apart.”

Now it is a lovely retreat in the heart of campus. On nice days at lunchtime, diners at the League Buffet bring their trays to the garden, where they are joined by people with brown bags or food from outlets in the League Underground.

The garden’s small opening in a high brick wall on the Fletcher Street side sometimes makes visitors feel as if they have discovered a secret garden. Once inside, statuary, a fountain and plantings that were carefully chosen to provide year-round color bear witness to the committee’s hard work.

“There are only about five or six of us, and we’re always looking for additional volunteers,” Austin says.

To her co-workers, Fran Holter, who coordinates the art program, is a miracle worker who can charm pictures out of thin air. However, she insists that for the most part, the art that is rapidly filling up every bit of wall space has been donated by dedicated alumni with happy memories of the League.

She will admit that she’s actually gone after a few pictures, most notably the striking triptych by Gerome Kamrowski that hangs on the second floor outside the ballroom. The area also contains other pieces by distinguished faculty emeriti, including three by Richard Wilt, two by William Lewis and a watercolor by Jean Paul Slusser.

The latest acquisitions, nine delicate radiograms of flowers prepared by Albert Richards, professor emeritus of dentistry, share wall space in the fourth-floor hotel area with a series of meticulous drypoint plant etchings done by Warren Lombard in the 1930s. Lithoprints by Emil Weddige and serigraphs donated by artist Audrey Kuhn brighten the walls of the rooms. Meanwhile, outside the meeting rooms on the third floor, Ann Arbor scenes by Milton Kemnitz and William Shurtliff give visitors a visual tour of town.

Facilities manager Robert Yecke is enthusiastic about the Friends’ contribution to the League. “The Friends do things we don’t have the staff to do—things like the dinner theater, all the work finding and hanging the art, keeping the garden so beautifully,” he says. “It’s tremendously important for an organization like the League, with its deep-rooted history, to have people like this who really care about the institution and the building.”

A long-term goal, Olson says, is to re-establish the League endowment that was abandoned when many donors were unable to honor their pledges during the Depression.

“The League is essentially self-supporting. It doesn’t get any money from the general fund, so we really need that endowment to ensure its continued existence,” Olson says. The Friends hope to have the fund established in time for the building’s 75th anniversary in 2004.

For more information or to obtain a booklet describing the art in the League, contact Faye Traskos, (734) 647-7463 or traskosf@umich.edu.