Disunity at Harvard Over the Union

A landmark building becomes the stage for a battle of university vs. historic preservationists

A building can get under people's skin, especially a building designed by important American architects for the nation's oldest college.

This is doubly true of a building that, while neglected in the past, has become the center of a dispute between university planners and preservationists.

Such an edifice is the Harvard Union on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. At issue is a $23-million project that includes the renovation and reconfiguring of the Union to serve as a Humanities center.

To historic preservationists, the most egregious part of the plan calls for splitting up the Union's 40-by-93-foot Great Hall and creating a central staircase to link departments. They say Harvard is reneging on a fund-raising pledge that interior open space would not be altered. They also argue that such changes violate the building's integrity.

Construction work had already begun when a group of preservationists, alumni, and members of the architecture faculty filed a last-minute court challenge March 26, after months of protest. They succeeded in temporarily halting construction, but on April 4 a Middlesex Superior Court judge ruled in Harvard's favor, allowing work to resume.

The underlying debate is an old one and not unique to Harvard. In American society, the clash between keeping historic places intact or adapting them to serve the present remains constant.

The architectural firm behind Harvard Union, McKim Mead & White of New York, was an unwitting catalyst in the preservation movement: Two of the firm's most important buildings were demolished in the 1960s to make way for new structures. As Boston University art history professor Keith Morgan says, "Preservationists got religion after the tearing down of [the original] Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station."

McKim Mead & White public buildings that have survived changing fashions and finances include Boston's Symphony Hall and Public Library, and New York's Columbia University. The architects made up the nation's premier firm from 1880 to 1910, although they are now viewed as less progressive than others who paved the way for modernism, namely Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Harvard Union was built in 1902 of deep-red brick in the Georgian Revival style. Its purpose was to serve as a social center, with the Great Hall containing a memorial plaque to students who died in the Spanish-American War. From the 1930s until January of this year, freshmen dined in the Great Hall.

Harvard's planners sought a way to make the Union, which is drastically in need of renovation, serve an updated purpose. Currently, the nine departments under the Humanities umbrella are scattered across campus. So the Union's fate was linked to the Humanities.

Philip Parsons, director of planning for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says the decision to reconfigure the Union was arrived at slowly and painstakingly. The committee wanted the new Humanities center to reflect a contemporary Harvard, where barriers between disciplines were lower and discourse among students and faculty was more casual and fluid.

"The Union's fabric is analogous to what's happening in the humanities," Mr. Parsons says. "Our thought was to redefine the interaction and currency of ideas" on campus.

Joan Goody, of Goody Clancy & Associates, the architects who are redesigning the Union, says the Great Hall's new configuration is aimed at bringing a more democratic approach to a hierarchical building. "We're trying with this design to bring light down from the top [with skylights], with vertical links [the grand staircase] so that everybody relates to one another."

Preservationists hear a politically correct message in such statements, and accuse the planning committee of jumping on the currently fashionable PC bandwagon to justify their project.

To intensify matters, the flap over the Union has a political and racial component as well. According to local press reports, the glittering star in the Humanities firmament is the Afro-American Studies Department, led by the charismatic Henry Louis Gates Jr. Professor Gates wants to build the top Afro-American studies program in the country. His department is slated to move into the new Union's East Wing.

As the debate over the Union heated up, Gates was quoted as saying the Great Hall "is not part of the contemporary culture anymore. We don't need a place to sit in deep-lined leather chairs and smoke cigars," referring to the image of white male privilege that persists at Harvard.

Parsons, for his part, reiterates the planning committee's purpose to serve campus needs. "The Union was a dead space," he says. "We wanted to create the environment in which faculty and students can do their best work. The primary goal of social and academic architecture is to serve the people but be respectful of the past."

Parsons and his staff also considered the Union in the context of other projects at Harvard over a 10-year period: the restoration of Memorial Hall; and work in Harvard Yard that included dormitory refacing and repainting, replacement of 200 elm trees, and renewal of all the ornate McKim Mead & White gates.

Preservationists praise these efforts. Where they part company with Parsons is the Great Hall.

Art historian and alumnus H.A. Crosby Forbes and other critics contend that Harvard is sacrificing an architectural jewel and arbitrarily scrapping a historic interior. They predict that the Humanities Department's space requirements will change in five or 10 years, and then it will be too late to undo the damage.

Harvard planners disagree, saying that sufficient research and forecasting was done to keep the project abreast of future needs. They also take issue with preservationists over the Union's importance to its architects' body of work.

"We've been through the McKim Mead & White archives, studying original design plans," says Elizabeth Randall, capital projects manager for Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "McKim's correspondence shows that it [the Union] wasn't a high priority."

Mr. Forbes says the planning committee has tried to assert that the building is inferior to further its own aims. He declares that McKim's perfectionism is reflected throughout the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Nobody is opposed to renovating the building," Forbes says. "But the heart and soul of the Union is the Great Hall. We are asking if changes are made, let them be reversible. It's the same principle in art history and restoration: 'Do no harm.' "

Ms. Goody, the architect, says the committee discussed reversibility issues, and talked about a movable divider instead of a permanent wall in the Great Hall, but ultimately rejected the idea. "Among other things, the acoustic considerations were not good," she says.

As construction resumed Friday, the preservationists were disappointed but unbowed. The debate between those who want to preserve an architectural legacy and those who wish to build for the future is unresolved.

To his alma mater, Forbes says, "Let the hall be something we pass on to the next generation."

The planning committee's Parsons says, "I believe that when work on the Union is completed it will be loved in a way it hasn't been before."

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