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Union Great Hall Has a Future--Just Look at New York's Harvard Hall



In regard to Harvard's near-incredible decision, now being implemented in unseemly haste (as if the perpetrators were well aware that what they were doing was wrong and were eager to get it over and done with) to trash Charles F. McKim's 1902 Great Hall of the Freshman Union by filling it with four levels of offices, seminar rooms and lounges designed by architect Joan Goody, the Boston Globe published on Feb. 19 an interesting article about this most un-Harvardian development by its respected architecture critic, architect Robert Campbell.

In it, Mr. Campbell referred disparagingly to a similar majestic chamber by the same greatly-gifted McKim, Harvard Hall (which the writer mistakenly called "the reading room") in the Harvard Club of New York City, as "a place where nobody goes anymore except to attend a programmed event."

As the author of a recent 490-page history of that Club (From the Age That Is Past), I know this to be quite untrue and wrote the editor of the Globe to say so, but for reasons which should soon be plain enough, the Globe did not print my letter. All the same, I believe that what I had and have to say is central to the whole controversy. Can I then hope that The Crimson will afford me the hospitality of its columns?

Far from being neglected, Harvard Hall remains, after nine decades, the living heart and soul of the New York Harvard Club (and far from being the old fogies Philip J. Parsons and the Planning Office crowd seem to assume we are, its members, reflecting Harvard's long-established admissions policies favoring diversity, are not all that much less diversified than today's undergraduates). The vast hall is the setting all year round for receptions, balls, concerts, recitals, lectures, colloquiums, theatrical evenings, film screenings and all sorts of other events, and when it is not in such use, it fills a rare and exalted function which only a chamber of equivalent proportions (100' by 38' with a 40' ceiling) can fill.

Like the interior of a great cathedral--or like McKim, Mead & White's 1910 New York masterpiece, Penn Station, demolished in 1962 and still ardently missed by many, many New Yorkers--Harvard Hall provides a welcome refuge from outside stresses (no less pronounced in and around Harvard Yard, perhaps, than in midtown Manhattan), a place for either relaxed conversation or solitary reflection, in which the human spirit can take wing and soar. Without a single exception that I know of, every one of the Club's 10,000-odd members takes pride in their Harvard Hall and delights in showing it off to guests; to them, even aware, as they are, of the club's need for more office space and bedrooms, the idea of chopping up their grand hall into mini-spaces a la Joan Goody would be anathema.

In his article, Mr. Campbell advances several cogent arguments for preserving the Great Hall of the Freshman Union but decides in the end that it is not worth preserving because (a remarkable statement coming from a practitioner of profession that calls for lots of imagination), "I can't imagine any future for this space, except as the pathetic, hollow stage of a forgotten era." This is, of course, the official Harvard line--and, on both the example of Harvard Hall and the promptings of common sense, the purest nonsense.

In fact, Harvard College confronts right now, though not for very much longer, the most spectacular real estate opportunity of its entire history: It can acquire, for no more than the cost of cleaning the Great Hall, an historic interior space of remarkable beauty, respected and even revered as such by countless architects, historians, architectural historians and other experts in such matters (though no, to be sure, by Mr. Campbell) which would instantly provide an ideal setting--something Harvard could certainly use--for the grandest, most solemn and most joyous occasions (as well as ordinary ones) and also, quite possibly most important of all, a place for quiet contemplation, for receiving the inspiring messages from the past emanating from the surroundings (including, perhaps, paintings and tapestries) and for simply congregating with other students and teachers, as the hall's donor, Major Henry Lee Higginson, intended.

If only--if only--the masters of Harvard College in Massachusetts and University Halls could see what a fantastic bargain is staring them in the face!

Incidentally, I wonder whether Mr. Campbell--who, like me, writes books, e.g., Cityscapes of Boston--should not, in candor, have informed his readers that his editor at Houghton Mifflin, Peter Davison, is married to Joan Goody. --Ormonde de Kay '45

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