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Renovation of the 12 undergraduate Houses—likely the College’s highest physical priority, and its most costly and logistically complex—will advance under a plan, announced today by Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Michael D. Smith and Harvard College dean Evelynn Hammonds, to empty and redo “Old Quincy,” one part of the Quincy House complex (see photo here), at the corner of Plympton and Mill streets.

During the test project, which is expected to require 15 months—a full academic year and the summers before and after, beginning in June 2012—180 students will reside in swing spaces from the Harvard Real Estate inventory of nearby properties.

According to the announcement, “Old Quincy House, about half the size of most of the neo-Georgian Houses and without its own dining hall or master’s residence, provides a valuable opportunity to test design concepts, while limiting disruption of the House community.” Preliminary plans have been drafted by the architectural firm KieranTimberlake (whose many higher-education assignments include the recent renovations of six undergraduate residences at Yale); they will now be reviewed with House constituencies and made final. Then, according to the announcement, Dean Smith expects to present a funding plan for the work to the Corporation this fall, and to proceed to construction in mid 2012.

Smith last fall identified House renewal as his principal building objective going into a University capital campaign. In a briefing for the faculty in October, he called the Houses the “cornerstone” of the undergraduate experience, and stressed that they needed to be reconstructed to make them physically and programmatically fit for twenty-first century education and life.

While physical and programmatic planning for House renewal has continued, and now may proceed to this pilot project, full construction is not yet scheduled. Today’s announcement makes clear, according to Smith, that the timing for system-wide House renewal would be tied directly to the availability of funding. The dean said in the release:

In preparation for this project, we have identified a funding plan composed of a mix of University investment and donor support. The upcoming University campaign will be critical to our ability to enlist the donor support we would need to launch the larger project of renewing all the Houses. As was true when the Houses were built, this project will require philanthropy on a transformational scale.
 
The renewal, both physically and programmatically, of Harvard’s House system is of critical importance to the future of this institution. While this is a long and complicated process, the results will ensure that the House system remains a strong and vibrant aspect of a College education for decades to come.

The full construction program—expected to cost more than $1 billion during an extended period in which undergraduates would have to be successively relocated to swing space—has been postponed in the wake of the financial and market reverses in 2008 that reduced the value of the endowment and caused budget cuts to be instituted throughout FAS and the University. Because FAS took on considerable debt to build large science laboratories during the middle of the last decade, reducing its current financial flexibility, Smith has sworn off further substantial borrowing for capital projects; hence the need to raise funds for this long-anticipated but costly undertaking. 

According to Bainbridge Bunting’s Harvard: An Architectural History, Old Quincy (originally Mather Hall) was erected as an addition to Leverett House. The U-shaped, Georgian Revival structure, built in 1930, was transferred to Quincy House when its larger, modern companion building was erected in 1958. The Quincy House website notes that the building “was constructed…with finely detailed suites, high ceilings, carved moldings and fireplaces. Until construction of New Quincy necessitated their removal, the now open East Side was closed by a one-story range of squash courts.”

Read the full text of today’s announcement