The University Botanical Gardens was established on Iroquois Street in 1915. By the 1940s the major activities of the gardens centered on the support of instruction in botany, the provision of plants to be used in campus laboratories, and the propagation or care of research materials requested by faculty members or doctoral students. During World War 11, operational difficulties due to shortages in staff and supplies had to be overcome. A substantial area on the south and west side was made available in small plots for "victory gardens" tended by faculty and Ann Arbor residents. With the surge in enrollment in the late forties the instructional support functions predominated. Plants and plant parts were delivered to the campus almost daily, scheduled to meet the needs of laboratory sections of botany courses. In 1952 a small classroom addition was built adjacent to the largest greenhouse in order to permit an undergraduate course in applied botany to be taught there by Professor Elzada U. Clover. This course proved to be highly popular, and would have led to other courses had the facilities been more adequate.
In view of the impending retirement of the Director, Professor Harley H. Bartlett, a faculty committee was appointed by Dean Charles Odegaard in 1954 under the chairmanship of Professor Frederick K. Sparrow, to examine the role, program and organizational position of the Botanical Gardens. The report reaffirmed the desirability of its retention as an autonomous, separate budgetary unit within the College, but with some administrative cross-ties with the Department of Botany, including the provision that the directorship should be held by a faculty member in the Department.
Page 2Professor Bartlett, who had served as Director for 36 years, retired in 1955 and was succeeded by Professor A. Geoffrey Norman who had come to the University in 1952 to lead a research group on plant nutrition as a part of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project. He immediately commenced a reappraisal of the Botanical Gardens facilities in the context of recommendations in the Sparrow report. The Iroquois site, at one time over 50 acres, by then had become an enclave in a built-up zone of high traffic density, reduced to 40 acres by the construction of the South Industrial Highway and expanding commercial development. The land was level, poorly drained, wholly lacking in site diversity. But more seriously the buildings and greenhouses were by this time obsolescent and, even if expensively rehabilitated, could not meet the projected program requirements. Accordingly, he was directed by the executive officers to seek a new site within reasonable distance from the campus. Several possible locations were studied, but eventually an area along Fleming Creek just south of Dixboro about 5 miles from central campus was chosen. Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Matthaei in 1957 made a gift to the University of some 200 acres of the northern portion of the Radrick Farms estate, which with the purchase of the adjacent farm land along Dixboro Road provided an area of more than 300 acres with desirable diversity in topography, soil and vegetation. A further monetary gift from Mr. Matthaei, then a Regent, aided in the acquisition of the contiguous Matteson farm. In retrospect the decision to seek and acquire a new large site for the Gardens was most timely, in view of the rapid development of the Ann Arbor area and sharply rising land values.
Meanwhile, with the aid of a faculty committee, planning for the new facilities progressed. The role and program of a university botanical garden was defined. Requirements and specifications for the buildings were developed. Late in 1957 the University appointed Alden B. Dow of Midland, Michigan, as architect, and transmitted to him the planning document from Page 3which he developed the details of an attractive and highly functional complex of greenhouses, laboratories, classrooms, and offices, at an estimated cost of $1.6 million. Because of the urgent need for additional buildings on campus, the executive officers were of the opinion that Botanical Gardens facilities could have only a low priority in the request to the Legislature for capital construction funds. Accordingly, the decision was taken to proceed with phased construction as funding from other sources became available. This was a key decision but involved the necessity for a while of carrying out operations at two sites. Compromises and ingenuity were required in modifying the architect's plans to implement the step-by-step strategy.
Construction of about two-fifths of the buildings was commenced at the new site in August, 1959. By mid-1960 it was possible to transfer the permanent collection of indoor plants from the old greenhouses to new houses of high quality aluminum construction, with fully automated temperature and ventilation controls, and supplementary lighting as needed. Classes in applied botany were offered there that fall.
A second phase completed in 1961 added more greenhouses and laboratories, and permitted the transfer of the remaining propagation and research activities from the Iroquois site which the University Gardens had occupied for 45 years. The land was an asset which, when sold, partly financed this phase.
The new Botanical Gardens was dedicated by President Harlan H. Hatcher at a ceremony attended by the Regents in June, 1961. The main speaker was Dr. William C. Steere, then Director, New York Botanical Garden, but earlier Chairman of the UM Department of Botany.
In 1962 and 1963 much site development occurred with construction of roads and ponds. The basic plan was prepared by the landscape architect, Edward A. Eichstadt of Eichstadt and Grissom Associates of Detroit. Permanent Page 4plantings of trees and shrubs were made, some of which were moved from the former site prior to its disposal. Nature trails were laid out through the woodland and along Fleming Creek. In 1963-64 Dr. Marion T. Hall of the University of Oklahoma served as Acting Director during the absence of Dr. Norman, on leave.
By 1964 it was found possible to proceed with the third and final phase of construction of the buildings, thereby completing the original plan prepared by Alden Dow and permitting the redistribution of activities internally so that each was housed in the space designed for it. The salient features of the 1965 additions were the large conservatory of 11,460 sq. ft. in which the permanent plant collection could be displayed, the main entrance lobby and, most significantly, an adjacent multi-purpose meeting room. Now, at last, much wider use of the Botanical Gardens became possible both for academic and public purposes. The University of Michigan possessed a facility "second to none among university botanical gardens in this country," an objective specified in the deed of gift of the land by Regent Matthaei.
The total cost of the completed buildings (classrooms, laboratories and offices of 9,750 sq. ft., greenhouses of 35,000 sq. ft., and a general purpose meeting room of 2,400 sq. ft.) was not far above the original estimate of $1.6 million. Land and site development costs were additional. Funding for the total project came from University sources, gifts, the sale of the Iroquois site, and from the National Science Foundation for a part of the cost of the large display conservatory and some controlled environmental facilities.
Dr. Warren H. Wagner, Jr. succeeded Dr. Norman as Director in 1966 and began vigorously to expand activities at the Botanical Gardens in research, teaching, and public service, as made possible by the completion of facilities. The new gardens permitted more campus classes to be wholly or partially taught and to be made to view relevant plants or ecosystems. A Page 5significant advance was the institution of courses in botanically-related topics through the University Center for Adult Education of the UM Extension Service. Generally these lectures are given on week day evenings by university faculty or graduate student instructors. Field courses, often on Saturday, are scheduled at the optimum period for the topic. These offerings have proved to be most popular; some attract up to 50 students in such classes as Spring Flora, Woody Plants, Summer Flora, Orchids, Ferns, and Indoor Gardening. Public service was also expanded by use of the facilities available for meetings by a diversity of societies with botanical or natural history-related interests. Some, such as the Michigan Natural Areas Council and the Michigan Botanical Club, have made the Gardens their headquarters and hold regular meetings there. Others with specialized interests, such as the Michigan Chapter of the American Orchid Society, the Huron Valley Rose Society, The Herb Study Group, the Ikebana Society, organize an annual display or show there.
Research activities burgeoned during this period, primarily because of the availability of greenhouse space, but some continuing field projects, such as an extensive plantation of aspens for selection of improved, rapidly growing trees, were established. In the immediate vicinity of the buildings, there were landscaping developments to enhance the setting and to provide for centers of interest, such as a Medicinal Garden. The Botanical Gardens also was given administrative responsibility for an undeveloped area of about 24 acres northwest of the Plymouth Road — Dixboro Road intersection known as Horner Woods, a wooded ecosystem long undisturbed and not easily accessible, which has been designated as a Natural Area Preserve.
In April 1969 the Regents took pleasure in naming the Botanical Gardens of the University the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in appreciation of the Page 6generosity and encouragement provided by Mr. and Mrs. Frederick C. Matthaei in the improvement of its facilities and the furtherance of its programs.
Professor Erich E. Steiner succeeded Dr. Wagner as Director in July, 1971. He commenced the process of up-grading the supporting and service staff to a higher skilled or professional level commeasurate with the broadened programs and opportunities. Of necessity this was accomplished slowly because of budgetary strictures and as vacancies occurred. Responsibility for the internal management of the diverse operations was assigned to designated persons with prior experience. Positions such as Chief Horticulturist, Collections Botanist, Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds, Greenhouse Supervisor, were established and appropriately filled.
Primarily through the initiative of Dr. Helen V. Smith, a supportive organization entitled the "Friends of the Matthaei Botanical gardens" was formed in 1974 with a membership of more than 100 Ann Arbor area residents. Through various endeavors the Friends raise several thousand dollars annually which has been made available to the Director for expenditures enriching the Garden's activities, adding to facilities or acquiring equipment not possible from the university budget. Organizations regularly meeting at the Gardens subscribe to institutional membership in the Friends, who also participate in offering workshops for the public.
Visitation by the public and by school and other groups continued to grow along with the general interest in plants, nature study and the environment. Further, to meet these interests, regular monthly education exhibits were brought together in the entrance lobby and, with some assistance from Garden Clubs, additional special gardens were established — a Woodland Wildflower Garden, a Rose and Perennial Garden, an Ericaceous Garden and an Herb Garden.
One significant step was the computerization of the records of all plants in the indoor collection, and another, the initiation of an accurate grid Page 7system covering the field areas in order to identify permanently the positions of all introduced plantings. The academically-related programs continued to increase with some 50-60 research projects dependent upon the Gardens for space, cultural care or material. In addition, of course, the steady flow of living plants or plant parts to the campus for use in laboratory courses continued with high priority. This function, though not apparent to the visitor, requires skilled personnel, and importantly contributes to quality instruciton.
By 1975 it could be said that the Matthaei Botanical Gardens had established itself as a distinguished center for botanical and horticultural activities in keeping with the stature of the University.
In 1977 Director Steiner resigned and was replaced as of August, 1977, by Professor William S. Benninghoff, who had long participated in the development of the Dixboro site and in its research and instructional activities.