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It was with shock and dismay that I discovered the University's plans to destroy the Freshmen Union's Great Hall. Harvard's administrators and planners claim that since the Union is being moved, the 90-foot-long hall--which has hardwood paneling, an extravagant plaster ceiling, and stone fireplaces, and which has served as a gathering place for Harvard students for 100 years--is expendable. They want to rip out the hall's decoration and subdivide it into offices. Before this happens we can only hope that the administration comes to its senses. The hall should be preserved not only became it is a space of enormous architectural and historical importance, but also because it could become a setting for functions that would enhance the university's quality of life.
The Union was designed by McKim, Mead & White, a renowned turn-of-the-century architecture firm whose works include the Harvard Club in New York City and the Boston Public Library. The planned destruction of the hall recalls the wanton destruction of the firm's greatest work, Pennsylvania Station in New York City in 1964. This monument fell victim to the disastrous urban "renewal" programs of the '50's and the '60's. The loss of Pennsylvania Station is now universally regretted. Yet the administration of our great university seems bent on committing a similar travesty.
Administrators claim that the hall must be sacrificed due to the pressing need for new office space. Since the first-year dining hall is being moved to Memorial Hall, they feel that the Great Hall no longer has a practical use. The space, they claim, would be more effective if its ceiling and paneling were torn out to make way for office cubicles and a fire stair. If the Hall is to be sacrificed, then why not pave over the Yard as well? We could use the parking space.
Why not tear down Massachusetts Hall and put up an office slab in its place? Eighteenth-century buildings are not very efficient, after all. It should be clear that what is at issue here is not just the destruction of a single room. What is at issue is the imminent loss of an integral element of this ancient institution's heritage.
It may well be that the University needs more space--for classrooms and living quarters, as well as for offices. However, why can the University not find less sensitive spaces to convert into offices? Or why not build a new building? Since the early '80's the University has wisely placed a moratorium on most new construction and instead concentrated on upgrading its existing buildings. It may be time, however, to lift this moratorium in order to build functional yet architecturally elegant new buildings.
And what of the hall itself? The administration has already concluded that it is useless. The administration, however, lacks foresight. The time may come when just such a space is needed. The lack of gathering spaces at Harvard will leave a great void in University life. The Great Hall, however, could easily assume some of the functions which house dining halls once had. The hall could be used as a multi-functional center. Its location and size are obviously ideal. Meetings, receptions, speeches, dancers, exhibitions and small concerts and recitals, could be held in it. The Union Hall would thus continue to do what it has for the past century--enhance the quality of life at Harvard. --Anthony Vermandous GSD '96
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