The Case for a Memorial Plaque

The Mail

To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

It is not at all surprising that the question of a war memorial should have come to the present issue as between a simple but dignified recording of the names of the dead in the Memorial Church and a building in which a similar record would he associated with some daily use by the student body. There are obvious alternatives on the merits of which there is a natural difference of opinion.

The appeal of the first proposal to many comes from the belief that grateful remembrance of the Harvard men who gave their lives for their country should have the simplest possible expression, dissociated from any consideration other than pure sentiment. It would be, so to speak, a shrine, set somewhat apart from dust and clamor of daily life, but in an accessible place where the thoughts evoked by the memorial would occupy the observer's mind, undisturbed by the intrusion of extraneous interests, however important or useful.

Arguments for Utility

On the other hand there is much to be said for a memorial that is associated with the daily life of the University. But the strongest argument for it is not its mere utility but rather the fact that its location would tend to make it a daily reminder of the debt owed to the dead by succeeding generations. As a utility an activities center might not rate as high a priority as would some other urgent needs of the University. Moreover, emphasis on utility might suggest that the emotions inspired by the desire for a memorial were being exploited as the easiest way of raising money.


The special appeal of an activities center is its association with a general, rather than with a departmental interest of the members of the University; and the only question of its suitability as a memorial, apart from its possibly prohibitive cost, is whether its memorial character might wear away as years and generations pass, or be impaired by the obsolescence of the physical structure or, perhaps, by changes in the ways and needs of the student community.

Now this is a very real question if due weight is given to the prospects of permanence in a constantly changing world. The history of Harvard buildings throws light on this point. Old Gore Hall that for the better part of a country was the College Library was a memorial of Governor Christopher Gore; yet it had to give place to another memorial--the present Widener Library. Gore's name was transferred to a supposedly permanent Freshman dormitory which later became a part of Winthrop House. McKinlock Hall was a memorial to a Harvard here of the first World War, with every intention to keep it as a Freshman dormitory; but when the Houses were built it became a part of Leverett. The old Hemenway Gymnasium on the site of Littauer was built as the finest gymnasium of its time for the use of the entire student body. In half a century it became wholly outmoded. It was closed in 1935 and was soon torn down, though its name was given to the present Hemenway Gymnasium, with the approval of the donor's family. The present Hunt Hall of the Graduate School of Design was built as a memorial of William Hayes Fogg in 1895 as an Art Museum. It is now a memorial of the architect who designed it while a much worthier memorial of Mr. Fogg is provided by the new museum on Quincy street.

Memorial Hall

These are only a few striking examples of the abandonment or changed uses of Harvard buildings, whether memorials or not; but a case even more to the point is that of Memorial Hall, a memorial of Harvard men who died in the Civil War. The great dining hall, now abandoned as such owing to a change in the eating habits of undergraduates, and the subsequently added Sander Theatre were certainly "utilities"; but the heart of the memorial was the Transept. Until after the first few years of the present century it had the aspect of a sanctuary. Those who passed through it removed their hats, and the Corporation, in granting the use of Sanders Theater, were careful to protect it from breaches of dignity and decorum. When, after an absence from the University for twenty-four years, I first attended a concert in Sanders I was surprised to see receptacles for cigarette ashes in the Transept; a chattering throng such as fills the lobby of a theater between the acts. Harvard men of my time were brought up during a period when veterans of the Civil War, then still to be found in the Faculty, Corporation, and Board of Overseers, would have regarded smoking and chatter in the Transept as sacrilege. Their memories of comrades in the war were vivid and to them the tablet-lined walls were sacred.

I mention the change in the general attitude toward Memorial Hall not to criticize the manners of the present, for I think the change was inevitable with the passing of the Civil War generation; but the fact remains that the memorial aspect of the Hall has been impaired, due partly, perhaps, to the obsolescence of its design and physical structure.

Accepts Committee Proposal

All this has led me, for one, to accept the judgment of the committee on the War Memorial as best calculated to ensure an impressive token of our reverence for the dead. If I have spoken of the possibility of exploiting that emotion as an easy way of raising money, I have not meant to impugn the motives of those who advocate an activities center. But it would be only natural if the intensity of their desire for a monument that would undoubtedly enrich the life of the student body should obscure the considerations I have mentioned as endangering the permanence of a memorial.

The design of the memorial by the committee, with its architectural setting, is not accurately described as a "plaque." It is a dignified and impressive monument--a record for all to see who will, and one that has a good prospect of permanence. Jerome D. Green '96