Law School Urban Legends I: The Texas Concrete Massacre


I decided that, after months of writing this column, it was time to finally make a name for myself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many people I had to hurt and leave broken along the way. And what more pressing question is there to HLS students, at least a certain segment of them, than why Gropius is still standing. In all fairness, the building isn’t that bad. We have kitchens, single rooms, lounges, and those communal showers they showed in The Paper Chase have mercifully been remodeled. The exorbitant price of cable is a problem (come on, surely Harvard’s umpteen gazillion dollar endowment can stretch far enough to enable me to catch Battlestar Galactica without paying an extra $50 per month), as is the lack of cell phone reception, but presumably that has little to do with the building’s architectural design.

Still, when I see the fireplaces in Hastings or catch a glimpse of the insanely huge rooms over at the Yard in which they lodge college freshmen, for God’s sake, I can’t help but get a bit jealous. Yes, Gropius rooms might be ten times nicer than the cardboard boxes the University of California stuck us freshmen in (you may think I’m exaggerating; before Arnold, I might have been), but I’m a Harvard student now, damn it. Where’s my Harvard student caliber room?

To answer this question, we have to probe deep into one of HLS’s most enduring rumors: is Gropius really a protected historical monument?

At first, it sounds pretty ludicrous, largely because the buildings are, for lack of a better word, ugly. I, for one, initially dismissed the entire idea as a falsehood arising out of either (a) disgruntled students’ attempts to make sense of an unfair and chaotic world or (b) the administration’s attempt to pacify an irritating and litigious student body. But when I did some searching, I started to wonder.

Certainly, the Harvard Crimson, a fine publication with editorial diligence matched only by that of the Record itself, claims Gropius is a historical monument. A March 19th, 2002 article (in which, incidentally, our own Dean Kagan describes the dorms as “jail cell” style) claims that the complex is “a major example of the international modern architectural style and cannot be torn down without going through a long and complicated set of procedures, including approval from the Cambridge Historical Commission.”

Well, that certainly makes sense, right? We wouldn’t want the world to be deprived of a rare example of, umm, normal looking rectangular buildings made of normal looking beige brick, right? Admittedly, I can’t see the inherent beauty, but let’s face it: if I had any real sense of aesthetics, I probably wouldn’t be in law school in the first place.

Still, a real investigatory journalist never takes things at face value – I called the Historical Commission myself, and was told that while it’s not officially designated locally, there’s an agreement that the director of the Historical Commission will be consulted before any changes are made. Generally, it seems, changes that damage or destroy features of the building necessary to its historic character will not be allowed.

In the case of Gropius, it’s not entirely clear what those features are. According to Wikipedia (What do you mean real journalists don’t use Wikipedia? Shut up.), Walter Gropius is known for designing building using modern materials (check), encouraged students to use mass-produced furnishings originally intended for industrial settings (check) and his works are often compared to abstract paintings, which sounds plausible to me, if only because as an aesthetically challenged law student, I don’t really understand those either.

What does this mean, disgruntled students of Gropius? It means that, unless someone manages to negotiate a bold deal to switch housing with the undergraduates over at the Yard, you’re probably stuck. Personally, I think we have the perfect leverage for such a switch: the continued use of Hemenway Gymnasium. Because if my only source of cable television is going to be taken up by a bunch of gossipy biology majors, I’d like something in return.

In conclusion, I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the question of how, precisely, Gropius got on this pseudo-protected list. Is it really a timeless piece of architecture or did Machiavellian HLS staffers contact the Historical Commission as part of a devious plan to avoid having to make renovations? No doubt we’ll have to wait for the Oliver Stone docuflick to discover the answer to that one.

Join us next week when we’ll discuss whether McKinsey really splits the 1L class into sections.

Katie Mapes, 1L, wasn’t kidding about the cable.

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