Scholarly ambiance

Although you may not be familiar with the architect Ralph Adams Cram, you are certainly familiar with his work. In the first decades of the 20th century, Cram & Ferguson of Boston designed Williams Hall, Chapin Hall, Stetson Library and the Adams Memorial Theatre, along with other cherished spaces on campus. Instead of continuing the tradition of creating gorgeous, high-quality, useful spaces, the recent architectural choices of the College have been skewed to favor building expressions of momentary fads.

Cram, and the trustees who hired him, aimed to create buildings that would inspire scholarly ambitions. Stetson “was meant to evoke the world of history and literature that was inside,” said a Chapin librarian. Across the top of the soon-to-be built Stetson Library, Cram decided that the names of key figures in the intellectual history of the West should preside over the elegant windows of the building. Harry Garfield, then President of the College, cared so deeply about the philosophical consequences that he engaged in written debate with Mr. Cram about which names should be included, feeling that Bacon was more relevant than Shakespeare, the eventual choice. This was intended to challenge students by emphasizing the great thinkers and scholars of the past – those who created the canon of great literature, natural science and philosophy contained within the library – and to force students to consider what their contribution might be.

Today, many of the older College buildings, while still perfectly usable, are in a rather shabby state – especially the exquisite row houses, which are down-at-the-heel shadows of their former selves. Spacious, high-ceilinged dining and living rooms are furnished only with a few cheap teflon couches and the ubiquitous brightly colored bins. The wood paneling in elegant old libraries and studies is splintered and decaying, etched with phalluses by students. Great fireplaces are bricked over and their hearths are used as trash pits. Bookshelves sit barren. The outcome of decaying social space is that students do not often find themselves in environments conducive to scholarly discourse. Instead, these public spaces are trashed and abused. It is is little wonder, however – how could one possibly expect students to respect spaces that are institutionally maintained superficially and in which they have no stake for improvement?

Very little attention is given to the deliberate defacement of our buildings by decidedly sober students. It is considered normal and acceptable to deface college property with chalk for any number of reasons or purposes. A quick glance around the Frosh Quad and Chapin area reveals years of chalk graffiti that have long outlived the relevance of its message. No one has bothered to clean this up. Besides chalk, posters are also out of control. For a school that likes to talk tough about environmental responsibility, we are wasting an unconscionable amount of paper. Is it so difficult to have designated bulletin boards and take down any other offending posters?

Perhaps you’ve seen discarded and broken chairs in Paresky. Is anyone surprised that those cheap pieces of plywood with awkward wire stands snap very easily at the joint between the back and seat? After some research at the College archives, not only are sturdy, traditional chairs more durable, they are actually more affordable. It turns out that the College paid a premium to have furniture that looks like it was plucked from Ikea’s idea wastebasket. The path outside the North Academic Building had to be moved because the roof made icicles fall off and hit people. These failures are symbolic of the violence recent architects have perpetrated against beauty and utility. In these economically challenging times, how can we as inhabitants of this campus stand for lavish spending on ugly and useless things?
The students on campus lack a space that feels scholarly. To accomplish this critical component of a storied liberal arts institution, we implore the College to make available a comparable reading room space to the one sitting empty in Stetson. Some don’t believe we have the capability anymore to make buildings that will last as inspirations for future generations, and they assume the era of stone carvings, elaborate mouldings and sensible design died during the birth of Postmodernism. Our student center, faculty offices and library could be just as timeless as Thompson Chapel or Stetson, but we failed to make that choice.

During the recent projects, students and alumni were consulted to see what aesthetic style they preferred. The response was overwhelmingly toward the traditional dark wood motif, but the aloof architect scoffed and replied that the people had no idea about what they wanted. If you believe the poor choices represent only a brief and regrettable period in Williams’ architectural history, look to the prototypes of the Stetson-Sawyer project on the first floor of Sawyer. We must continue to stand firm and vigilant against those who would mar the tradition of creating beautiful, timeless spaces.