Executive Editors Nat Bessey and Sarah Carr and News Editor Scott Moringiello recently met with Herb Allen ’62 to discuss his thoughts on the theater and dance complex. This is the first of two parts of the interview. With this interview, the Record is inaugurating a series of interviews where alumni will share their thoughts on the College.
What are your thoughts on how the plans for the complex have been progressing thus far?
Would you like them to speed up the process at all?
I would like to see the sophomores at Williams be able to enjoy the performing arts center. So that I gauge all of this in human time, so that if they spend ten minutes that they could have spent on the center on something else, they are taking away from the sophomores. I think it’s going to be the best center in the country or as good as the best. For that reason it seems as though the students themselves, if they have an interest in that field should be exercising their rights to be putting pressure on those involved to get this thing done. If there is such a thing today as student activism it might be in the administration and the running of their own colleges.
So is that the primary way you think the process could be sped up, or are there other things you’d like to see done as well?
I think the process has been sped up somewhat, but to build a complex, top quality center requires a terrific amount of work and luck to get it right. . . . Once committed to it, it has to be a priority. Now if the school had said that it didn’t want the center, then I wouldn’t care at all. But there is the fact that they’ve identified the need, and I think it’s a fairly obvious need when you look at the facilities around the school. The theatre is what, 50, 60, 70 years old and obsolete. There are no dance facilities at all. . . . And there’s no hall here where human beings can sit comfortably and see well and hear well for over 400 people. So there’s an obvious need for this type of facility. I hope we get it built fast enough for the sophomores to enjoy.
Do you think that will happen?
It’s a challenge I would put before the College. I think that it certainly should happen and could happen. If there’s one thing that I would request of the College, it’s that they get their act together with the various committees and the structures and inside the bureaucracy and organized in such a way that they are dealing with the people in the town who should be involved and they get the thing done. It’s out of my control.
Speaking of the town, how would you respond to some of the concerns that townspeople have raised about being left out of the planning process?
Well, you’ve got two totally separate issues. You’ve got the right of an individual to develop his or her own property within the law. That’s an inalienable American right and obvious. Separate from that you have the concerns that a neighbor should have for her or his neighbor. . . . That’s the problem of the College, and I think that has to be discussed on a constant basis with the people in the neighborhood where the facility will be constructed. And I don’t think that is that hard to do. I think most of the people in the Knolls are well intended and the College is well intended, and I think it’s just a matter of discourse. . . . And certainly the emphasis that we are going to place on this building will be one of fitting into its natural surroundings. Whether we succeed nobody can guarantee. I think that the people in the Knolls, who are the only ones who are concerned, as best as I can tell, or adversely concerned if I may, should be told exactly where this structure is going, that they should be given the plans as soon as they have them. They should be addressed as a good neighbor should address a neighbor.
In deciding that donating the money for this purpose would be a good idea, was the Knolls what people had in mind in the interaction?
The parking lot area is what we’re talking about. Again, I think it’s important to focus on the fact that the general area here today is a paved parking lot. This is not an issue of tearing down some beautiful structure or beautiful trees. There’s one building which wouldn’t pass code for inspection, which is going to be torn down if this facility is built or not. There is a parking lot which no one has ever called beautiful. There’s a dried out. . .stream, but the water doesn’t flow through. It’s a fairly grassy area.
People are wondering if the whole Sasaki process is more or less pro forma.
I’m not involved in the Sasaki process.
Did you want the facility built in the Knolls?
No, I wanted to build it in front of the library so you could never see the library again. The library is one of the ugliest structures in New England. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could build a beautiful building in front of an ugly building and bury the ugly building. But President Payne thought it would be too constricted in there and he was right.
Do you think the College has set a precedent for being a good neighbor?
I think the College has been a pretty good neighbor. Since nobody has moved into this town before the College was built, and since the College is the largest landowner in the town, I think that people who move to Williamstown. . .have to realize that the College is the dominant factor in the community. I think they’ve exercised their enormous power and wealth very well. Generally speaking, I think they’ve been a pretty good neighbor. It’s much easier to be a good neighbor if one person is speaking for the institution. In the case of a college, it’s a bureaucratic process that makes every decision. So that process can sometimes be clumsy and I’m sure that at sometime they’ve not been a good neighbor, but generally speaking I don’t think people have major complaints about the College in this town. I’m sure somebody does, but I don’t think it’s fair. It’s like moving next to an airport and complaining about the planes.
How long have you owned your house?
I’ve owned this property for 16 years, but I’ve been around Williamstown since 1958.
Do you visit a lot?
Yes. I enjoy considering myself an outsider. I interact plenty with the town, but I think it’s nice to have the perspective of an outsider. And also traditionally in New England, the only people who are really insiders are the ones that have been born and raised in the town and live there every day. I think it’s fairly attractive that way.
You mentioned the library as a particularly glaring example of ugly architecture on the Williams campus. What do you think in general of the recent trends in Williams architecture, most recently of the Spencer Art Studio?
Well I haven’t been inside the Spencer Art Studio, but I understand that it’s a wonderful building. I’m most appreciative of the gift that was given by Jack Wadsworth. I think it was great of him to give it. I don’t know what the architectural process that they went through was. It’s not a building that would fit in the narrow confines of my taste limits, but I don’t really have that much of an opinion of that building not knowing that much about it. I’m not a fan of Bauhaus or of modern architecture, with some exceptions, although not many. Nor, by the way, do I have any credentials as an architectural critic outside of my own taste level, which, as you are, I’m eminently entitled to.
How familiar do you feel that you are with the College?
I’d say that I’m pretty familiar with the College. I spend more than a fair amount of time with the students in the last 15 years, a fair amount of time with some of the trustees. I think some time, although not enough with the faculty. I, generally speaking, read the periodicals, not on a regular basis, but regular enough. I try to stay in touch with academia in the country. I think the trends and the threats to the educational system are very interesting. So I’d say fairly familiar. Certainly not an expert, but reasonably conversant with what’s going on. I miss a lot, but I catch some.