May 27, 2024
‘Tied to the People’: As Renovations Loom, Harvard Affiliates Say House Culture Will Persevere | News

Lowell Tea has been the highlight of the week for David I. Laibson ’88 since he became Lowell House’s Faculty Dean in 2019.

A cherished House tradition since the 1940s, the weekly Thursday evening event provides a space for students to enjoy tea and baked goods in the Faculty Dean’s residence.

“We have amazing people that are very committed to this tradition,” Laibson said of Lowell Tea. “The whole community is committed.”

But as part of renovations from 2017 to 2019, Lowellians were forced out of the House and into temporary swing housing. Accommodations at the Inn at Harvard — used for housing during a number of renovations since being converted from a hotel in 2013 — threatened a number of Lowell House traditions, including its weekly teas.

“We didn’t have the full kitchen we needed,” Laibson said of the “Lotel,” the name given to the Inn while it housed displaced Lowell residents.

“The kitchen at the Lotel was a bit small. It was much smaller,” Laibson said.

Harvard’s House system sorts all of the College’s upperclassmen into 12 Houses, each home to between 350 and 500 students and complete with its own flag, colors, traditions, and mascot. Inaugurated in 1930, the Houses are the “foundation for the undergraduate experience at Harvard College” according to the Dean of Students Office.

But House Renewal — a more than $1 billion, 13-year project to renovate the aging Houses — threatens the promised vibrant House life for students who live through renovations.

So far, renewal projects have been completed in Dunster, Winthrop, and Lowell Houses in addition to partial renovations of Leverett and Quincy. Adams House is in the fifth year of its renovation, which has been plagued by delays due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Planning for a renovation of Eliot House began in January — raising the possibility that some current freshmen placed in Eliot will only have a year to enjoy the House proper.

Renovated Houses are among the most desired among freshmen on Housing Day because of their modern amenities and comfortable arrangements. But the prospect of living through a renovation — as in Eliot — has worried many freshmen about the connection to House life becoming blunted.

Still, despite initial fears, alumni and affiliates who experienced living through past renovation projects expressed optimism surrounding House culture — saying that they were able to preserve their Houses’ long-standing traditions, culture, and spirit.

‘A Little Devastated’

Current freshmen had mixed feelings about the prospect of being placed in a House slated for renovation, which they feared would halt House traditions, disrupt House residency, and disperse students across DeWolfe, the Prescotts, or the Inn, among other overflow housing spaces.

Some students who were placed in Eliot House worried that their experience would be affected by the impending renovations.

“I’m a little bit sad about the possibility of it affecting Eliot community,” Lily Song ’27 said.

Others said that they were frustrated by a lack of communication about the renovations.

“I was a little devastated when I found out,” Katelyn M. Dorry ’27 said. “All the communication has been really, really messy.”

“There’s so many rumors going around about what’s going on,” Jamie A. Herfort ’27 said.

Still, they said that they had faith that Eliot residents would, in Dorry’s words, “figure it out.”

“Harvard students are so amazing,” said Song. “I think that, either way, wherever I am, I’ll be fine and my undergraduate experience will be good because of the people I’m surrounded by.”

“I’m just excited about the community itself more than the House,” Hertfort said.

‘Tied to the People’: As Renovations Loom, Harvard Affiliates Say House Culture Will Persevere | News

Sungjoo Yoon ’27, the incoming Operations Director at Y2Y Harvard Square — a youth overnight shelter — raised concerns over students taking Harvard housing for granted.

“It somewhat baffles me to see people complain about House renovations,” Yoon said. “It’s one of those drastically overblown issues that people should take a step back and consider how fortunate they are to be just living in one of these spaces.”

He said he tries to put the situation in perspective.

“You see these people who are really just trying to find housing and make a better life for themselves,” Yoon said. “You come to realize that having to move from Eliot to the Inn or Eliot to the Prescotts, that’s such a ‘whatever.’”

Looking Back

Alumni who lived through House renovations said that displacement did cause minor headaches and strain their ties to their physical House.

“There’s that social dynamic of feeling displaced,” said Daniel Lu ’20, who lived in Lowell while it was under renovation.

Dhruv A. Pillai ’17 said his fondest memories took place in Winthrop House, where he lived for two years before moving into swing housing.

“The one image that comes to mind is being in the Winthrop dining hall with my blocking group and the extended friend group we ended up making,” he said.

But many said their House experience was defined more by cherished memories with their fellow House residents rather than the physical House space.

Lu said the renovations didn’t detract from his undergraduate experience.

“I don’t regret how it turned out. It’s a beautiful space ultimately,” said Lu. “I’m glad for both the swing housing and the renovated House.”

Pillai said that the housing system is “the best part about Harvard,” but that renovations were necessary considering the state of the House infrastructure.

“It sucks to be the people to have to go through it, maybe, but the housing needs an update and that’s kind of just how it needs to go,” he said.

“House culture was probably the most influential part of my life at Harvard,” said Lowell House resident tutor Sarah E. June ’14.

Despite living in swing housing during the renovation, she said that Lowell “made a big university feel small.”

June has been a resident tutor since 2017, the first of two years that Lowell residents were moved to swing housing. She lived in Ridgely Hall from 2017 to 2018 and in the Inn from 2018 to 2019.

“I think swing housing is challenging for every House undergoing renewal,” said June, but she added that the cons are “drastically outweighed by the benefits.”

“Having an accessible House and accessible space on campus is so important. I mean, it’s paramount and foundational and I’m happy that Harvard is continuing to work towards that,” she added.

Dunster alumni and former House Committee chair Emma M. Orcutt ’19 said that she found existing structures such as HoCo, Dunster Grille, intramurals, and the dining hall were major contributors to the strong sense of community she felt at her time in Dunster.

“Dunster dining hall has been renovated, so it’s beautiful, but I also feel like the better word for it is ‘restored,’” she said.

‘Tied to the People’

Though the Adams House renovations started in 2019 and will not be finished until the summer of 2025, the House’s culture and spirit remain strong, according to Adams Faculty Dean Salmaan A. Keshavjee.

He said that he was surprised that some Adams residents prefer swing housing in the Inn — affectionately called “the Oaktel” — which also temporarily houses the Adams dining hall.

“You still see the d-hall packed — you can’t get a seat,” said Keshavjee.

Though one of the biggest impacts of renewal, according to Keshavjee, was the loss of common spaces, he said they will be renovated to better promote togetherness and accessibility for all students.

“It’s going to be a very renewed space physically, of course,” said Keshajvee. “And I think the community is going to be renewed.”

Adams House is currently under renovations and is located at 26 Plympton St, Cambridge, MA.

Adams House is currently under renovations and is located at 26 Plympton St, Cambridge, MA. By Joey Huang

According to Laibson, the Lowell faculty dean, Lowell Tea survived its two-year-long stay at the Inn despite some inconveniences.

“It put a cramp in Lowell Tea but Lowell Tea bounced right back,” Laibson said.

For Laibson, House culture is “really tied to the people.”

“Traditions are both dynamic, but also respectful of their origins,” Laibson said. “I think that combination creates a vibrant community with a strong sense of identity and a strong sense of home.”

David F. Elmer ’98, the incoming Eliot faculty dean, stressed that incoming freshmen in Eliot need not worry about their future House experience, saying he has been “overwhelmingly impressed by the strength of the Eliot community.”

“I can’t emphasize enough that I think the House is really the people in the House much more than it is the spaces that the House inhabits,” Elmer said. “I can 100 percent assure first-year students who’ve been sorted into Eliot that they will have a full Eliot House experience.”

“It’s going to be, in the short term, certainly to an extent disruptive, but in the long term, it is going to vastly enhance House life,” Elmer said.