The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
Hill Auditorium

In 1894 Professor Stanley and two other members of the University Musical Society met and determined that something must be done to secure an adequate auditorium for the University. By January, Page  16411895, a set of plans for a new building had been drawn. For years these plans were submitted to various people who were considered possible donors.

In 1904 Arthur Hill ('65e), whose first term as Regent began in 1901, became interested in the project. In March of that year the Regents approved a plan for trying to secure outside assistance. The response was discouraging, and Regent Hill inserted a provision in his will, setting aside $200,000 to be used for such a building. He informed no one of what he had done, and his intent was not discovered until his will was made public. The University received his bequest in 1910 (R.P., 1906-10, pp. 815-16).

The auditorium was constructed on the site of the old octagonal Winchell house on North University Avenue. It was the fourth fireproof structure to be erected by the University. Completed in 1913, it cost, unequipped, approximately $282,000. Including equipment, the total amounted to $347,600. The contractor was James L. Stuart, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The massive and plain brick exterior of the building is relieved by the color scheme of dull reds and browns, with limestone trim. It measures 171 by 174 feet and contains 71,914 square feet of space.

The parabolic interior, with its balcony and gallery and its immense platform which has a seating capacity of 300, is impressive. When built, Hill Auditorium seated 4,300 people. On the second floor just back of the gallery, is a large recital and lecture hall, which has a seating capacity of about 400 and which would be ideal for a small concert hall. At present, however, it is used to house the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments. A bronze relief of Regent Hill was placed in the foyer by Mrs. Hill. In 1913 the Frieze Memorial Organ was moved from University Hall to Hill Auditorium, and a new front was provided for it at a cost of $2,500. In 1928 this organ was replaced by a new and modern instrument, but the name was retained.

The dedication of Hill Auditorium took place on June 25, 1913 (Alumni Day). President Angell presented the building in behalf of the Hill estate, and Regent Clements accepted it for the University. Governor Ferris represented the state, and Senator Charles E. Townsend delivered the main address.

Upon the completion of the auditorium a new problem arose with which the Board of Regents wrestled for years — namely, what restrictions should be placed upon its use. Should religious services be permitted? Should collections be taken, or subscriptions solicited? What of political addresses? The following excerpt from the will of Regent Hill reveals his wishes regarding the general use to be made of the building:

That the said sum of Two Hundred Thousand ($200,000) Dollars be expended in the erection of an auditorium for the gathering of the students and college body, and their friends, on large occasions such as graduating exercises and musical festivals; the property to be controlled by the proper officers of the University, and I request that it be open to the people of Ann Arbor, among whom I have enjoyed both when a student and during my connection with the Board of Regents a generous hospitality, upon such occasions and under such terms as shall seem reasonaable and right to the Regents of the University.


(R.P., 1906-10, p. 815.)

From the first, the Regents permitted the use of the building for religious services of a nonsectarian character, or for those representative of all the churches. The taking of subscriptions and pledges has never been permitted, and for years the Regents were reluctant to have the building used for the raising of money. This restriction has been somewhat relaxed since 1922.

As early as November, 1913, the Upper Peninsula Education Association requested Page  1642quested that Hill Auditorium be open to the free discussion of all topics. The Regents set up a committee to study the question, and in April, 1914, concluded that "the use of Hill Auditorium for free discussion of all topics is not now necessary nor expedient" (R.P., 1910-14, p. 966). In pursuance of this policy, they denied former Governor Sulzer, of New York, the privilege of speaking on prohibition in 1916 and refused to permit a series of lectures on the League of Nations in 1919. In 1923 a request that former Attorney General George W. Wickersham, representing the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association, be permitted to speak in the auditorium was also denied.

In December, 1920, the Regents adopted the following resolution, in an effort to make their policy more explicit:

Resolved, That the use of Hill Auditorium may be granted to student organizations for lectures or addresses by prominent men on topics of the day, under guarantee that during such addresses there shall be no violation of recognized rules of hospitality, nor advocacy of the subversion of government or of the state, and that such meetings shall be in spirit, and in expression, worthy of this University.


(R.P., 1920-23, p. 79.)

In May, 1924, at the request of the Regents, the several Deans of the University presented suggestions, arrived at in conference with the President, concerning the auditorium. Their report, which follows, was adopted as the policy of the Board.

  • 1. No addresses shall be allowed which urge the destruction or modification of our form of government, by violence or other unlawful methods, or which advocate or justify conduct which violates the fundamentals of our accepted codes of morals.
  • 2. Speeches in support of particular candidates of any political party or faction ordinarily shall not be permitted. The discussion of matters of public interest relating to our political, legal, economic, and general social institutions, if conducted in the right way, by proper persons, is of the very essence of education and is of as much importance as a discussion of any subject in the whole field of knowledge. It will not do to say that there shall be no discussion before our students of matters of public concern by intelligent, well-qualified, and honorable persons.

(R.P., 1923-26, p. 302.)

Two primary considerations, size and acoustics, were taken into account in designing Hill Auditorium. The University needed an auditorium which would seat approximately 5,000 people, but at the same time it was necessary that every seat be so situated that even a whisper from the stage could be heard. Throughout the country auditoriums noted for their acoustic properties were found to be much smaller than the one proposed for the University.

Hugh Tallant, of New York, was consulting engineer. It was decided that the exterior should be similar to that of the typical theater and that the interior should be shaped like a paraboloid of revolution. This plan made possible a sufficient intensity of sound so that every word from the stage could be heard in the most distant parts of the auditorium. Within a limited range of fifty feet, for instance, this occurs directly; beyond this range, reflected sound must be employed to supplement direct sound. Reflected sound must not be diffused, however, and it must arrive at the ear of the auditor within the necessary fraction of a second after the arrival of the direct sound in order to avoid confusion and echo. The curved surface served to prevent diffusion, and tardiness of arrival was avoided by preventing any reflected sound from traveling more than seventy feet farther than the direct sound. Unwanted reflections were avoided by padding the rear walls and the rear part of the side walls. The audience was calculated as padding for the floors. Provision for resonance was limited to the platform. Page  1643The design for this provided for a wood floor over a concrete slab, with a six-inch air space intervening.

As John T. N. Hoyt ('91), chief engineer for the architect, Albert Kahn, said, the principles to be observed were simple, but the execution of the plan so that every seat would have the proper acoustics was immensely difficult. The results, on the whole, were gratifying. Some difficulty was experienced because of an echo in the upper gallery, and in 1921 experiments were made to eliminate this. To prevent sounds from penetrating the auditorium from without, a combination of solid brick exterior wall, four-inch air space, and four-inch hollow brick interior wall was used. The roof was tiled.

In 1949 renovations were made and new seating was put in. The auditorium now has 4,200 seats. During the past year, 1954-55, the Frieze Memorial Organ has been rebuilt and reconditioned by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston. Tonal changes have been made, the mechanism has been renewed, and a new console has been installed.