Hopes for Hilles
A reflection on the Quad library’s future
This is, in a way, exactly why the administration is looking to cut back services at Hilles so harshly, even too harshly—eliminating librarians, most reserves, three floors of books, limiting hours. Many Quad students, though not all, have an interaction very similar to mine with the library: they see it when the walk home, appreciate its aesthetic, its role as a landmark—but have little other use for it.
Yet during this reading period, I was forced to actually use Hilles for something other than a paper lantern; I was assigned a final paper for which every single source I needed to use was on reserve and not available for check-out. Prior to this I certainly had nothing against Hilles—I had used it once or twice before—but with my spacious single in Cabot House (Go fish!), I had little reason to seek out a private hovel for my studying (I had one). Being a Quadling with an exaggerated sense of distance, I knew Lamont was too far, and so I set myself up in Hilles.
Understanding now that it’s on the chopping block, I really wish I had found it sooner.
There is, without question, a lot to love about Hilles Library, and from the sound of things, an awful lot about to be changed. In a way I’m really glad that the structure will have a new lease on life as a sort of student center, as it is currently rather neglected by the student body (myself included), and in some places, neglected in terms of maintenance. But like every good editorial editor and Harvard student, I’m also really afraid that the University is going to screw it up royally.
Foremost are my worries about Hilles’ architecture. If there is a unique building on the College’s campus, it is Hilles. Stepping inside is like opening the cover of a copy of Architectural Digest from 1965; the building has an incredible unity of design, its clean and spare modernist lines extending from the gross structure of the building—evocative, in a way, of traditional Japanese homes—into the details of its original furniture. It is simultaneously massive and weightless, airy but enclosed. Unlike the other major Harvard libraries, its focal point is a beautiful conduit-like hardwood staircase (with tropical flowers), not a giant reading room; the interior layout of exposed concrete and shelves appears to be designed to avoid such a space, instead creating a myriad of private alcoves or study space, washed in natural light.
Given the somewhat inexplicable popularity of Lamont’s concentration-killing reading rooms among undergraduates, I fear that the College is going to call in the same crew to cover Hilles with bicolored wood-paneling, floor lamps, and giant, plush chairs, clear out all the books and create a new “reading” room in the Quad Library. Not only would this be inefficient in terms of space (where the library is eliminating essentially all of its holdings and consolidating to a single floor) but would be practically sacrilege to Hilles’ amazing architectural pedigree. The architects who designed Hilles—Max Abramowitz and Wallace K. Harrison, a Worcester native—are also credited together or separately with the design or layout of Rockefeller Center, the United Nations Headquarters, and the Lincoln Center complex (including the Metropolitan Opera House, an obvious cousin of Hilles) in New York City, among others. The College certainly can’t go wrong deferring as much as possible to their original design.
Obviously, there are some things to be changed. The typewriter rooms, for one, are clearly obsolete, though they’d make fine computer labs. On the large part, however, the transition of Hilles from “library” to “library and student center” shouldn’t be overwhelmingly painful; after all, Hilles is equipped with a cinema in the basement (another vastly underused resource), a grille-style eatery with terraces and wide-open study spaces in the Penthouse, and plenty of built-in exhibition and office space (currently occupied by house tutors), not to mention very inviting grounds and a courtyard.
The only thing that would be painful is if the College ignored Hilles’ heritage and gutted it, turning it into Lamont Redux—just another Harvard building.
Peter C. D. Mulcahy ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a government concentrator in Cabot House.