The University Record, May 6, 1997
Diag closed to pedestrians during renovations
By Ryan Solomon
News and Information Services
This week marks the beginning of a facelift for the front yard of the University. The Diag will undergo its first major overhaul---a $1.3 million renovation that is expected to last until Aug. 15. While the renovation is in progress, people will not be allowed to walk through the Diag, even during the art fairs. Handicapped access to the Graduate Library will be unaffected by construction. The accompanying illustration shows the boundary of the fenced area under construction.
The Diag has seen many uses since its beginning as the center of the original 40-acres of land that was donated by the Ann Arbor Land Co. to become the University. Since 1840 when the first structures were built around what would later become the Diag, the site has been used as faculty gardens, grazing pasture, latrines, burial site for Medical School anatomical remains, and a student and community gathering spot.
Facilities Planning Design Engineer and Diag Project Engineer Julianne Chard says 157 years of use have taken a toll on the Diag. "If you walk through the Diag you'll see that the concrete walks are in real need of repair." Age and heavy use have caused the soil to become compacted and sidewalks to crack and crumble. In addition to correcting those problems, another major objective of the renovation is to improve the Diag's drainage.
Chard says improving drainage should reduce standing water, thus preventing damage to the root system of trees. Special caution will be used where construction is close to trees. Instead of tearing tree roots, the University Forester will prune the roots and add topsoil to lessen the chance of possible shock to the trees.
The renovation includes changes and improvements to familiar fixtures of the Diag people know and use. Granite seating benches will be installed, spaces will be left for the future installation of historical plaques, new lights will be installed throughout the Diag, extending north through Ingalls Mall to North University Avenue, and electrical outlets will be added to the base of the Graduate Library stairs for easier access for groups who require power.
All sidewalks will be replaced at their existing locations with new concrete. To improve the durability of sidewalks limestone will be used for the base instead of compacted sand. Two new sidewalks will be added where people have created paths from walking. Concrete will be removed from the central plaza in front of the Graduate Library and replaced with a 13-foot-square grid of clay and granite pavers. The block "M" will be carefully removed and shipped to a stone company where it will be inlaid and set flush in granite.
Diag now a favorite gathering spot
There was a time when the University faced outward and the Diag was its backyard, say history Prof. Nicholas Steneck and his wife, history lecturer Margaret Steneck, who teach a course on University history. The Stenecks say the Diag is a serendipitous occurrence of early building locations and paths created by students.
The Diag was not created from a formal plan; rather its origins date back to 1840 when students began walking between four faculty houses that were built that year. At that time the Diag consisted of faculty gardens, stables, outhouses, woodpiles, pasture for sheep and an old orchard. The first diagonal began in 1850 when the Medical School was built and ran on a pathway that laid northwest/southeast across the present day Diag. The Diag took its present form as an enclosed area in the 1890s.
Maintaining the health of the trees is one of the reasons for the current renovation. Many of the trees were planted by history Prof. Andrew Dickson White in the late 1850s and early 1860s. White wanted the campus to look more like that of Yale University.
The Diag did not become a gathering spot as it is thought of today until the focus of the University turned inward as buildings enclosed the Diag: original Haven and Mason Halls (19th century), Natural Science Building (1915), Chemistry Building (1910), Dana Building (1903), Randall Laboratory (1924), West Hall (1904) and the Graduate Library (1920).
The first evidence of the Diag being used as gathering spot is seen in the 1940s when some pep rallies were held there. Interfraternity Council sings took place there in the early 1950s. But the Diag did not assume its role as a meeting place for the free expression of ideas until the civil rights marches of early 1960s began ending at the Diag.
Margaret Steneck hopes the renovation will not change the role the Diag has come to play as a forum for public discourse. "We would be lessened as an institution if we did not have a common space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves."