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Gleaning history from long-time University planner


Mayer (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

Fred Mayer starts the tour at the president's house, as he typically does, and tells the story of how the University came to Ann Arbor with this residence as one of the original buildings.

He walks toward the Diag and talks about buildings, sculptures and the original 40 acres. What he doesn't say, unless prompted to do so, is how much he's had to do with the way the campus now looks.

As university planner since 1968, Mayer was here for a revamping of campus including new buildings, landscaping and sculptures. When he started here, first as assistant university planner, the campus looked much different.

"The image of the campus as a whole was pretty weak. A lot of buildings were scattered around," says Mayer, who will retire Jan. 3. "If you had asked me then if we'd be able to accomplish what we've done, I'd have said, 'Not in my wildest dreams.'"

Mayer is so knowledgeable about campus that his bosses asked him to participate in a video tour that can be used even after he leaves.

"He has been a great addition and tradition to the Plant Extension team and has a wealth of University information and history. He has story after story that reflect the richness of the planning of our campus," says Marina Roelofs, director of Plant Extension. "We're pleased Fred agreed to complete a video tour of the campus, so generations to come may glean a sample of the history Fred has shared with so many of us."

Mayer is fond of stories about the campus in its early days. During his tour, he notes that the Diag once was a grazing area for cows and sheep. "As you can imagine, it was a little dicey for pedestrians to walk through," he says. A boardwalk was put in to help keep walkers out of harm's way, and the area then earned the Diag nickname.

At the turn of the century, the University was outgrowing the 40 acres. Many buildings on campus were "firetraps," leading to a big push to rebuild the campus, including many scientific facilities, he says.

The regents moved the hospital to the Catherine Street area and moved athletic facilities south of campus. "That gave them room to develop the main academic areas," Mayer says.

He talks of many other changes through the years as he walks toward the Ingalls Mall—his "proudest achievement." Mayer was involved in many facets of the project, but is quick to share the credit by pointing out that many others took part in shaping the Central Campus area.

"When I first came, Ingalls was a street that functioned more as a linear parking lot. The setting for the fountain was disreputable, lost in a sea of parked cars," he says. "Now it's really a focal point."

Other changes that happened during his tenure were the Regents Plaza, the East University walkway and renewal of the Diag. He oversaw the development
and implementation of master plans for all of the University's campuses, including Flint and Dearborn.

He doesn't have a favorite or least favorite building on campus, but he notes that some of the residence halls and buildings on the medical campus are "uninspired." Among the buildings he likes are the Union, the League, Hill Auditorium, the Law Quad, the Kraus Building and the School of Music. Mayer notes that other buildings, such as the Bentley Library, work nicely within the campus context. "You can't have every building being a prima donna," he says.

Now, as he approaches retirement, Mayer says he wants to consult, write or teach part-time so he can continue to use his planning expertise. And will he return to the University to walk through the campus he helped to change? Mayer doesn't hesitate.

"You bet," he says.

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