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Let the Destruction of the Great Hall Not Be in Vain



Many groups share blame for the destruction of the Great Hall in the Freshman Union. Harvard's planners, who have an otherwise excellent record for preserving and invigorating Harvard's historic buildings, are guilty of poor judgment. However, while their judgment on the hall's fate may have been wrong, it came through rational deliberation and can at least be respected as a professional decision. Harvard's administration is guilty of creating another public relations gaffe.

While incidents like the capture of the Unabomber and the Dunster House murder-suicide may have sullied Harvard's image among the masses, the Great Hall's destruction has tarnished Harvard's image among the educated elite, including its own graduates. However, since all bureaucracies seem to have a habit of shooting themselves in the feet, the actions of Harvard's administration, while unacceptable, are not entirely surprising.

It is perhaps time now to cease chastising Harvard's planners and administrators--what is done is done. One group which played an important, probably pivotal role in the decision to destroy the hall cannot yet be forgiven, however. That group is the Faculty of Humanities, the future occupants of the rabbit warren which is replacing the hall. I must admit that I initially was unable to believe what a number of Harvard professors and administrators have in the past suggested--that the Humanities Department refused to support the hall's preservation not because it was desperate for space or ignorant of its historical importance, but because the hall did not meet their criteria for political correctness. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly evident that this is, in fact, the case.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the well-known professor of African-American studies, has argued, for example, that the Great Hall was a redundant symbol of Harvard's elitist past. Since we have now largely managed to put that past behind us, he claims, we might as well erase its physical evidence as well.

At first this argument seems logical and demagogically appealing. A dialectical look, however, reveals its utter hypocrisy. The Great Hall is not the only example of a redundant monument to a defunct, "oppressive" culture. Another excellent example of such a work is the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak, Egypt. While ancient Egypt is very much the culture du jour, those of us who appreciated this civilization long before it was fashionable to do so realize that, like turn-of-the-century America, it had many not-so admirable aspects. For 2,000 years, the Egyptian Pharaohs and High Priests poured the wealth of their nation and the labor of its inhabitants into the construction and maintenance of the Karnak temple, a shrine dedicated to a god which did not exist.

Yet if present day Egyptians, who--like modern Americans--bear few cultural or ethnic ties to their predecessors, were to decide to subdivide Karnak's great hall, it would undoubtedly spark international outrage, much as Harvard's destruction of the Union's Hall has. I would not be surprised if at these protests' forefront were the very same Humanities professors who seem to have had so much pleasure watching Harvard's Great Hall be destroyed.

Instead of acknowledging both the positive and and negative aspects of Harvard's heritage, the Faculty of Humanities has chosen to ignore it. This is clearly nothing more than historic revisionism at its very worst and is not in keeping with the spirit of a great university. Perhaps if the Faculty of Humanities took the time to appreciate the traditions they are so fond of snubbing, they would realize just how deplorable their current attitude is.

Harvard must take measures to ensure that a tragedy like the destruction of the Great Hall does not happen again. Technically, other great interior spaces at Harvard--including the newly restored Memorial Hall--are not protected for future ages either. They too could someday fall victim to the programmatic needs of the moment or the whims of humanities professors.

To prevent this, I suggest creating a list of interior spaces to be preserved for posterity. The list need not be a long one--perhaps one or two dozen rooms. Moreover, the list's provisions should not rule out alterations or even interventions within these rooms, only that their overall character and proportions be preserved. Candidates for this list might include Memorial Hall, the main reading room in Widener, the dining halls of Dunster and Eliot Houses, the common room of Straus Hall and the main staircase and lobby of Sever. I recommend the formation of a panel to compile this list.

The panel should include historians, planners, students and alums. Also, as an Iroquois-style conciliatory gesture, I urge that a representative of the Faculty of Humanities--perhaps Gates himself--be invited to participate. Thus the humanities departments can establish a new role for themselves, one that will help preserve Harvard's past and enhance its future. --Anthony Vermandois   The author is a student at the   Graduate School of Design

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