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The Whispering Bulk of Sever Hall

By Richard Shepro

The dark-red massiveness of Sever Hall stakes out a solid claim on the land beneath, in contrast to the make-shift wooden pillars and ersatz Old-North-Church steeple of Mem Church next door and the Pusey library burrowing underground. The steps of Horace Trumbauer's Widener dominate the quandrangle, but Sever holds its space without demanding reverence. Widener, it is assumed, will last forever--it appeals to the scholar's upward gaze beyond forever, while Sever controls its ground right now.

The deep-set Syrian arch on the Widener side and the fortress doors that open wider than any other Harvard entrances can't prepare us for the horrors of dilapidation that wait inside. The clattering pipes, the papering done over in a demon green, the creaking stairs. The deceptiveness of time an place: no clocks, uneasy room-numberings that make us jump from floor to floor. Use of the word "egress." When H.H. Richardson designed the building in 1878 he and his associates paid careful attention to the details of the inside; and the outside, as well, was keyed to function (the long banks of windows, for instance, gave classrooms a then-unheard-of degree of natural illumination). But Harvard's modernization of the interior, years after Richardson's death, left Sever maligned.

I liked Sever from the start. As a freshman, I didn't know architects did too. But a lunchtime compatriot with a panache he could pass off as a plume of knowledge deigned to explain Sever's deficiences. It's awkward and contradictory, he explained. Look at the round turrets and the rectangular chimneys. They don't belong on the same building, he said. I can't recall his other criticisms; I assume they were each as contrived.

I don't know which one Sever is, a freshman living in the Yard told me this week, you'll have to ask my roommate.

Sever. That's one of the uglier ones, the roommate said. Mainly I don't like the doors. They're weird--big and ugly.

H.H. Richardson sketched only an ideogram for his buildings--a tiny undetailed fat-lined freehand drawing that the huge architect would work on from his sickbed. His assistants did the rest, under his careful eye. Richardson's studio was the first important group of architects to work under the atelier system in which even mature architects were subordinate to a single man acknowledged as the single genius of the firm. Other architects--most notably Frank Lloyd Wright--have worked the same way.

Nowadays the great man's studio has been replaced by a more cooperative concept of design, both in Richardson's own firm and in the architectural world in general. Most atelier firms--even in Richardson's day--would fall apart after the director died, but Richardson's survived, first as Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (Winthrop and Kirkland Houses) later as Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott (who designed the Fogg, Old Quincy, Old Leverett, Burr) and now as Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott (New Quincy, Leverett Towers, Mather). In Richardson's case, a dictatorship bred something of a cooperative. In Wright's and others, it bred collapse.

Something in the way Richardson chose and trained his assistants insured a continuation But the successor firms were never as innovative as Richardson himself. Sever and Richardson's Austin Hall at the Law School are far bolder and more vibrant than the buildings at Harvard by the firms with the long names. And Richardson went on to even more important buildings, such as the Marshall Field Warehouse in Chicago (now torn down), the full-block building that so influenced the fathers of the skyscraper.

The rich collection of sketches, drawings and furniture done by Richardson and his studio--at the Fogg through December 8--shows how effective the operation was. Richardson's schemes--which often changed in the middle of construction--were always in command, and the details, though left to assistants, always fit in with the patterns of Richardson's work. (Toward the beginning of his career, one F.E. Allen spent an entire week examining the intricacies of Sever, and I suppose the pediments and the cut-brick floral ornaments could hypnotize contemporary dilettantes as well.) The work done by Coolidge, Shepley, and others for Richardson was clearly first-rate--but for most of their lives they were constrained only to think of details. I am certain their imagination was squelched to let Richardson's soar.

This is the ugliest hunk in the Yard, another undergraduate said. It looks like a dungeon. It's just overpowering drabness. I think it looks forbidding--kind of monstrous looking--Mem Hall does, too.

Richardson initiated the Romanesque revival, drawing on the architecture of castles and fortresses from the turn of the first millenium. The arch, the doors, the turrets, apparently suggest images even to the cursory observer, narrowing the usual gap between the architect's conception and the everyday thoughts of the building's users. But Richardson's importance as an architect comes from his original manipulation of form and space, not from the round arches and towers he took from an earlier era. The scholar Henry-Russell Hitchcock termed Sever "vigorous," and "manly"--a phrase I deplore--and "rather more orderly" than other influential buildings of the time. What impresses me most is how Richardson subordinated the fine details to his concept of form. As detailed as it is, Sever is not decorated.

So the building conveys a spirit, and some people call that spirit dungeon-like. A friend of mine calls it "jowly and very heavy--just like Richardson." It should not be forbidding. Perhaps though, it should suggest a two-sided romanticism, an ambivalence best suggested by the main archway. The solid doors open easily-but is there a portcullis hidden within? I sometimes wonder. The arch is very deep: the iron points of the sinister descending gate might be met at any depth. But the arch is also an intimate whispering arch: a murmur spoken into any of the grooves may be clearly heard in the same groove at the opposite side of the doorway.

Externally it was one of my favorite buildings in the Square; internally it was a drag. I love the doors, always did. I guess it's kind of dreary looking; I always thought it was less dreary looking than the rest of Harvard Yard. Why? I guess because it was the only thing that looked even vaguely different from the other buildings, i.e. it had round doors.

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