Housing the Humanities

Putting Harvard's past to use in the new Barker Center

The Great Hall is no more. Regret it not.

Though scores of first-years had passed through the Union's old distinguished dining room, in its last years it had grown tawdry. The famous butter-patted ceiling was looking more dirty than distinguished; the paint was peeling off the walls; the rotunda was encased with God-awful green-blue floral curtains; and the tray return area was a steam-filled Rube Goldberg contraption.

Now the first-years take their meals in a beautifully reworked Annenberg Hall. And the Union has become the Barker Center for Humanities, housing 12 different University departments and centers. The Great Hall has been subdivided into a lounge, seminar room, atrium and cafe.

Last year, numerous alumni, led by H.A Crosby Forbes '50 protested to these very changes. They sought to maintain the "integrity" of the Union, to preserve old architecture because it was old. They recalled their student days with such fondness that they sought to petrify it. They did not recognize the need for structural change, and mistakenly placed their priorities with Harvard's ancien regime.

Fortunately, the University did not heed the protests of these alumni, who (unsuccessfully) took their case to the courts of law and to the media: The New York Times and The Boston Globe to name but two. Rather, the University held firm, pursuing its plans to turn the stale Union into a working academic facility.

Kudos go to the University and its architects, who did a fine job balancing the old and the new. The old feeling is maintained through iconic touches like antler chandeliers, plaster casts of the old ceiling and busts of John Harvard and George Washington. But the new structure is evident in the C'est Bon cafe, the meeting rooms, the bright offices and the useful classroom space.

As we said last fall, architecture is meant to be used. And now the Union has been put to good use. Everyone gained from the University's decision to renovate. The Union is alive and productive First-years are--or should be--pleased to dine in Annenberg's stained-window-tiered Hall. And the campus looks all the better for it.

Harvard ought to continue renovating and revamping its other older buildings with a similar eye to that used in the Barker Center construction. The University's beautiful old campus will benefit from future updates which incorporate the spirit of the past into a productive future.