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Seeking Money for Memorial Hall

By Sarah J. Schaffer

Looking out the window of my fifth-floor Currier House room on a clear day, I can see the landmarks of the Cambridge and Boston skylines: the mighty Prudential Center, the slender Memorial Church spire, and the sleek Hancock Tower. In the middle of these spirited architectural statements, however, sits a stubby and overlooked square tower--the top of Memorial Hall as it now exists. Every time I notice that forgotten tower from far or near, its incompleteness pains me.

When Memorial Hall was dedicated in 1878 as a remembrance of Civil War veterans, it included a tower composed of much more than the current cube with gargoyles. This projection stretched 195 feet into the air, making up one-third of the height of the entire structure. The building, designed by Henry Van Brunt and William Robert Ware, dominated the Harvard skyline long before the Science Center, William James Hall and Holyoke Center bullied their way onto the scene.

After the class of 1872 added a clock in 1897, according to Bainbridge Bunting's Harvard: An Architectural History, "Even the townspeople were beholden [to the building], for anyone who lived within a quarter mile could see the face of one of the clocks and hear the tolling of the quarter hour." The tower completed an edifice so monumental in its Gothic exuberance that it could only be crowned by overstatement.

Until, of course, the tower burned in 1956, leaving what we have now. It was being restored, and rumor has it that a worker with a blowtorch accidentally sparked the conflagration.

And so, for more than 40 years, Harvard students, professors, administrators and staff have been forced to look upon a sorry shadow of what could be, leaving the tower only in their imaginations--and in their line drawings of the hall with tower, as Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles is apt to pencil off in a free moment.

You might ask: Why care so much about a building, when Harvard offers so many other important issues to tackle? Why not discuss the poor quality and large size of sections, the inadequate quality of dorm room lights, the need for cheaper food at Loker Commons, or the recent ineffectual report on the Core Program?

My answer to these questions is that, while Harvard's curriculum and student life are integral to the Harvard experience, so is the architecture. Would we come to Harvard if it looked like the bland, mustard-yellow public high schools that have infiltrated America? Would we appreciate our education as much if every building in the Yard resembled Vanserg Hall? Of course not, because Harvard's allure arises in part from its massive buildings that remind us of its past and our history: Memorial Church, Widener Library, the old river houses, the dorms of the Old Yard, Harvard Hall. Much of our quality of life originates in the peace and awe such buildings inspire in us every day.

Fortunately, current administrators have recognized the unfulfilled promise in Memorial Hall and are now seeking the approximately $2.5 million needed to reconstruct its tower. About $1.5 million has already been raised, according to Special Assistant to the President Fred L. Glimp '50, $1 million of which was donated by Katherine Bogdanovich Loker.

The goal is to raise the rest of the money by the end of the five-year, $2.1 billion, University-wide capital campaign which ends in 1999. As Glimp daydreamed out loud in a conversation this week, "The dramatic idea of it would be if sometime in the fall of 1999, we get one of those enormous helicopters that holds big logs...and just drop [the tower] on top."

This is probably the best chance Harvard has had to rebuild the tower since it burned down, because at the end of a capital campaign, the more pressing expenses such as "new professorships, the Library, the Government Department building, and financial aid" (as Knowles mentioned in a fax) will likely be taken care of, at least for a while.

And so I urge alumni to give--first, to the substantive part of a Harvard student's career, by endowing chairs and reducing section sizes, and second, to the more intangible element of our University experience, by helping to rebuild the tower. Because a Harvard education often begins when a student looks up from studying in one building to muse on the ornament and scale of another. Then, on the brink of the next century, Harvard can boast it has restored, finally and completely, a building from the last century. As Bunting wrote in his 1985 history, "When the tower roof, clock, and cresting have been replaced, Memorial Hall in century-old splendor will resume its pivotal visual role in the world of Harvard." We can only hope.

Sarah J. Schaffer's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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