Harvard Magazine
Main Menu · Search ·Current Issue ·Contact ·Archives ·Centennial ·Letters to the Editor ·FAQs

Your wooden arms hold outstretched to shake with passers-by. The College Pump

Dining in the Round

This is a full-service magazine. Looking for an obscure bit of Harvardiana? A lost classmate? Seeking the source of some fugitive fragment of verse? Be assured that one of our staff members will attend to your query. And if the answer proves sufficiently arcane or dotty, it may wind up in this space.
Plan for a circular tray, circa 1949: geometrically elegant, but lacking a niche for one's glass. DRAWING FROM THE WALTER GROPIUS ARCHIVE (GARLAND, 1991)

Case in point: G. MacKenzie Gordon '62, of Lakeville, Connecticut, wrote a while back to tell us that he had recently attended his thirty-fifth reunion and been disappointed to find that the College dining halls were no longer serving meals on the circular tray/plates of his day.

"For those who do not remember," Gordon continued, "these light tan- (or perhaps putty-) colored cylinders were about 16 inches in diameter and were subdivided with radial fins so as to provide pie-shaped sections of various size for entrées, bread and butter, salad, dessert, etc., with a round section directly in the center for a student's beverage of choice. Since plate and tray were one, the clutter of dishes was greatly reduced. In those days when B.F. Skinner's Walden Two was one of Harvard's favorite books, these trays/plates seemed almost inevitable.

"One of my fellow reunioners suggested that they had been designed back in the late forties by none other than Walter Gropius. Even if they turn out not to have been the work of the Great Man, I would like to know more about their history, and, if possible, how I might be able to acquire a set for entertaining old classmates."


Gropius, you recall, was one of the exiled German scholars who found refuge at Harvard in the years before World War II. He had founded and directed the Bauhaus school, which revolutionized contemporary art, architecture, and graphics by integrating design with craftsmanship and technology. The Nazis closed down the school, and in 1937 Gropius accepted the chairmanship of the architecture department at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. After the war, he and some of his former students formed The Architects' Collaborative. TAC was commissioned in 1949 to design Harkness Commons and graduate dormitories in the Law School area, a complex that is almost the first example of modern functionalism at Harvard (see the Centennial timeline, "War and Peace").
Mid-fifties chow lines: President Pusey (top, far left) and guests, students, round trays. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY THE HARVARD UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES

The concept of a unitized plate and tray is in keeping with Bauhaus ideals. A plan found in TAC's files (above) shows that the firm worked up a design for a circular plastic tray for Harkness Commons. There's no indication that it was actually manufactured.

The round tray that was used in College dining halls for the better part of two decades was differently sectioned, but it could have been Gropius's creation. Documentary proof, say in Gropius's papers, has not surfaced. But Gropius has that reputation. Ruth Sears Chute, A.M. '33, then in her third year as a member of the Overseers' Committee to Visit the Kitchens and Dining Rooms, wrote for the Harvard Alumni Bulletin of November 29, 1958, an article that was titled "A Finger in the Pie: Twenty-One Mothers Keep a Finger and an Eye on Harvard's Dining Halls." "These trays, off which the boys eat, are interesting," Ms. Chute declared. "Especially designed for Harvard by the celebrated architect and Harvard Professor, Walter Gropius, they are of circular cream-colored plastic, divided into six pie-shaped sections around a central circular one. Harvard owns the die, and nobody else can use it without Harvard's permission."


Frank Weissbecker, retired director of the Food Services Department, remembers that the round trays came into use in the early 1950s. (Anyone with a more precise fix on the date is invited to share that important information with the College Pump.) People were forever wanting to buy the trays for domestic use, says Weissbecker, but they were not for sale.

John Shaffer, manager of the Eliot and Kirkland House dining halls, says the tray was phased out for everyday service in 1968 or '69, but that it was used at Commencement in the river Houses until 1975. After that, he says, "The trays just disappeared. Trashcan lids, we called them."

The University Archives possesses a specimen of the tray. To enhance his dinner parties, reader Gordon may wish to apply through proper channels for a license to reproduce it.

~Primus IV

Main Menu · Search ·Current Issue ·Contact ·Archives ·Centennial ·Letters to the Editor ·FAQs
Harvard Magazine