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John Harvard's Journal

Concerning the Union, Disunion

3.1.96

The freshman have had their last supper in the Harvard Union. On January 29 the Great Hall, where students dined for decades, was empty. But not for long. Construction work began in early February on a $23-million makeover of the Union, which will become the core of a new humanities complex. 

A group of alumni and others raised a last-minute hue and cry about the planned changes to the Great Hall, calling it an architectural treasure that ought to be preserved intact. "Archicide may not be a word," says H.A.Crosby Forbes '50, Ph.D. '61, secretary of the Committee to Save the Great Hall of the Freshman Union, "but that's what this remodeling will be, an act comparable to homicide. It will destroy that room." 

The plan is to divide the hall into two large parlors. A prominent stone staircase within the hall between the parlors will connect all five floors of the building. The barrel-vaulted ceiling will go (except for a small piece that will be removed and later set into a wall on an upper floor). In part of the recovered space, architects have positioned a partial floor of offices, with two full floors of offices above. In some places, the present height of the hall will be retained. Much of the room's original paneling and the two lavishly scaled fireplaces will be retained. So will one of the antler chandeliers, said to be the gift of President Theodore Roosevelt, A.B. 1880, LL.D. '02. So will the John Singer Sargent portrait of Major Henry Lee Higginson, A.M. (hon.) 1882, who gave Harvard $150,000 at the turn of the century to build the Union. 

"The Union project will result in a remarkably beautiful interior that will work very well," says Philip Parsons, member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for physical planning. "The architects, Goody, Clancy & Associates, have created the right kind of relationships between office spaces— which must be quiet, private, and well lit—and spaces in which people may mingle. The building will be not just functional, but will bring much aesthetic pleasure to its users." 

The fuss erupted strenuously in January. "We want to ask, what responsibility does Harvard have for its historically important buildings to the community and the nation," said Forbes, "and will it share information with and receive input from an oversight group?" He was nervous about getting answers to these questions because of the abrupt demolition of Carey Cage on the day after Thanksgiving ("Brevia," January-February, page 69). "If Harvard starts ripping up the Great Hall ahead of schedule to avoid conversation," said Forbes, "there's going to be hell to pay." 

President Neil L. Rudenstine was out of the country for two weeks injanuary, but he and Jeremy Knowles, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, met with five members of the alumni committee on February 5. "We agreed to disagree," said Forbes. Said Rudenstine, "We understand and share the concerns about preservation, and we've tried to take them carefully into account in this project as well as in others. But a balance needs to be struck between past and future, and the project as planned offers a good solution to the challenge of reconciling different aims. It's sensitive to the historic fabric of the building, and it will make productive new use of the space for important academic purposes." Rudenstine added that Harvard "would remain open to a wide range of views whenever similar projects are planned in the future." 

The humanities-center project has been in the planning stage for eight years. As reported in the January-February 1995 issue of this magazine ("In Union, Strength for Humanities," page 65), a complex of buildings just to the east of the Yard, including the Union, Burr Hall, and Warren House,will shelter a dozen departments and pro-grams now scattered throughout the cam-pus. Boylston Hall, by Widener Library,will be remodeled when work on the Union com-plex is completed and will house five humanities departments. Then, for the first time, every professor in the humanities will have an office.

After extensive interviews with faculty members during the planning process, says Parsons, no appropriate new use could be imagined for the Great Hall. It is a 90-foot room with carved paneling and a 30-foot-high barrel-vaulted plaster ceiling adorned with rosettes and "H"s intertwined with garlands (a ceiling at which generations of freshmen, armed with knives as catapults, launched butter pats; the trick was to position the pats on edge; if the pats were shot flat, wind resistance slowed them, and they failed to reach their mark). It made a magnificent dining hall. As a classroom it would offer bad acoustics and would be often empty, a dead space at the heart of what is hoped will be a vibrant academic enterprise. 

How would it be as a baronial living room, where people could read the newspaper and converse in hushed tones? Major Higginson wanted to provide a congenial gathering place for students not flush enough to join a Gold Coast club. When the building, designed by McKim, Mead and White, opened in 1902, students dined in rooms adjacent to Great Hall, which at that time was indeed called the living room. (It became a dining room for freshmen in 1930.) What Henry James called a "great, grave, noble hall" occupies, Parsons estimates, between 20 and 25 percent of the Union's cubic volume. If it were left unaltered, as a living room today, it would require an awful lot of living to justify its size. More likely, Parsons says, it would be "a dark, heavy space that people wouldn't want to be in."

The HarvardCrimson, in an editorial, called alumni objection to the plan"hyperbolic and misguided….The issue at hand is simply a misunderstanding between those who value the past and those who value the future." Architectural historian Leland Roth, on the other hand, told the Boston Globe that he supposed Harvard's adaptive reuse plan for the Union "is well-intentioned, but it's very much like what the Goths and the Vandals did to Rome." 

Tweed Roosevelt '64, chair of the committee to save the hall, sent a letter to some hundred alumni he thought likely to regret the proposed "demolition," urging them to protest in writing to President Rudenstine. Few alumni are aware of the planned "irreversible changes that will destroy the Great Hall," Roosevelt wrote. "Concerned friends of Harvard must insist that key elements of the University's history and traditions—those things that make Harvard unique—shall not be swept away." 

After this magazine published, more than a year ago, a floor plan and artist's rendering showing how the hall would look after remodeling, three letters to the editor strenuously objecting to the scheme appeared in these pages, in the March-April 1995 and July-August 1995 issues. (In his letter, architectural historian Daniel D. Reiff '63, Ph.D. '70, referred to "planned barbarism.") Renovation architects John Clancy and Joan Goody, M.Arch. '60, writing with Faculty Planning Committee chair Christoph Wolff, defended the plan in a letter, commenting, "Few buildings—even our greatest architectural icons—remain untouched from generation to generation. The potential of remaining under-used is the most serious threat to any building's integrity." 

"The committee that I and 60 others are now on will not disappear," says Forbes. "We will be an oversight group, independent of the University, concerned with Harvard's architecture. We will make a formidable effort to keep the alumni awake. Our slogan will be, 'Never Again.'"