BY ADINA LEVINE
Harkness Commons, Harvard’s student center and cafeteria, was completely renovated during the summer, upgrading the building’s interior and façade with additional furniture, increased lighting and more space. The $12 million brainchild of Dean Kagan represents a step in her continuing goal of enhancing student life.
“The need for renovation of Harkness Commons has been apparent for years,” said John Arciprete, Director of Facilities. “It finally got done because of Dean Kagan’s commitment to student life.”
“The goal was to take this building that everyone had thought of as horrid and convert it into a place where people actually wanted to spend time,” Kagan stated. “It’s a project that’s taken so much of my time that I fear I’ve lost perspective. I like it, but what’s important is whether students like it.”
The Hark’s construction was accomplished very quickly, beginning after graduation and ending before first year classes.
“The evening of graduation, we started demolishing the building,” noted Kagan. “It was an enormous project to do over the summer and we needed every day to do it. It was pretty much of a miracle that it all got done.”
Renovating the Hark was one of the first projects that Dean Kagan advocated upon her accession to Dean in July 2003.
“One of the first questions I asked was whether we could renovate the Hark that very summer,” recollected Kagan.
Kagan was eventually convinced, however, that to complete such a large project in such a short period of time required significant advance planning that occupied last year.
“When everything has to be done between graduation and first year classes, you pay a premium on how much you’ve planned in advance,” said Kagan.
Indeed, students, faculty and the architects spent a significant portion of last year planning the Hark renovations. John Holleran and Gene O’Connor of Facilities worked with architect Tsoi/Kobus and Associates of Cambridge in redesigning the building. The Law School team was chaired by Professor Meltzer and included Professors Halperin, Sander and Singer and two students, Molly Dunham and Ron Varnum.
“Student input was solicited continually during the design,” Arciprete observed. “Ron and Molly organized several focus groups to pursue questions of preference to guide the direction of design. At two critical progress points there were open meetings to engage students in discussion about design options. Student input lead decisions about program and the look and feel of the furniture and finishes.”
The architectural significance of the building represented an obstacle to the renovation plans. Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus Movement (House of Building), one of the most influential architecture and design schools of the 20th century, designed Harkness Commons as well as the dorms, that are subject to significant limitations by the Cambridge Historical Commission. The Commission specified that the outer shell of the building, as well as the ramp, could not be altered because of its historical significance.
“The project was tricky because we had to deal with the Cambridge Historical Commission and others,” Kagan asserted. “The way I thought about the project was working within those confines, how could we create a wonderful space that students could use for a variety of work related and social purposes. And I hope that’s what we did.”
The $12 million project included deferred maintenance costs, such as repairing the electrical and mechanical systems, that were necessary even without the renovations.
“Beyond what you see – you see new floors and new ceilings – there are systems in the building that were ready to collapse,” Kagan observed. “The building went up fifty years ago, and nothing had been done since. [Now] all the systems are new.”
Other components to the cost included the stones outside of the building which had to be taken off and reattached because an engineering report had said that they were about to fall. The renovations also included an elevator to make the building ADA compliant.
“Some part of the cost is stuff that has to be done,” Kagan stated. “But then some part of the cost is all the good stuff.”
The Dean is still looking for donors who are interested in naming parts of the building.
“We certainly hope to raise money from people or firms or entities that would like to fund parts of the building,” asserted Kagan. “We’re looking for as many donations as we can find.”
Nevertheless, Arciprete predicts that the significant expenditure this past year might take its toll on the Law School’s current spendings.
“We spent the budget of three typical years this summer so we may have a lean year,” Arciprete stated.
The changes in the Hark include air conditioning and upgraded furniture, a nicer patio outside of the Hark, and increased space for the walkway. There are certain drawbacks to the design, however, that the committee considered, such as the reduced size of the Coop.
“It was not a preference to reduce the size of the Coop but a high priority to was to remove clutter and congestion from the concourse,” said Arciprete. “Reducing the size of the Coop made it possible to pull the mailboxes into an alcove.”
The Dean eventually plans on building an expanded student center on the north lawn that would allow more space in dividing student activities between the Hark and the new student center.
In the meantime, the Dean’s next project, set for this coming summer, is to completely renovate the Hemenway gym. Tentative plans for Hemenway include fewer squash courts, but making the squash courts international size, bigger and better exercise rooms, and redoing the locker rooms. “There will be a lot of planning over the course of this school year,” asserted Kagan. “We’re going to leave the shell of the building, it’s a pretty beautiful red brick building, but I hope a fair amount will change within it.”
One of the difficulties in renovating Hemenway gym is that Harvard Law school does not own the Hemenway building, leasing it from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“We don’t own Hemenway,” Kagan noted. “Different faculties own different facilities. Our students use it very considerably but we have no control over it.”
The Law School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have reached a tentative agreement that involves each paying approximately half the cost of the renovations of Hemenway gym. The Dean anticipates that the Law School’s half will be between five and eight million dollars.
“There are many challenges with our physical plant but none so glaring as Harkness was,” observed Arciprete. “You may enjoy using the building but all of us in Facilities are thankful for the opportunity to add one more building we can be proud of. The Dean’s commitment to excellence has been demonstrated once again.”