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The ‘dormitory to end all dormitories’ turns 40

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Occupying an entire square block on the south end of campus, the Graduate Center is a lot of things to a lot of people. Some students see the building as a cement fortress. Others say it’s an example of modern architecture and geometry. But all agree it is not being used as was intended when it was built in 1968 – to house graduate students.

The Graduate Center was designed by architectural firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott and built by E. Turgeon Construction Company, according to the Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Before it was built, graduate students lived at 67 and 69 Manning St.

Grad Center was built “with the Oxford (housing) model in mind,” said Barrett Hazeltine, professor emeritus of engineering. “It was sort of fashionable in its time, this idea of small rooms all structured around a central corridor.”

Hazeltine, who has taught at Brown since the 1960s, said Grad Center was built to create a space for grad students to socialize and study together.

“There wasn’t a focal point for grad students to meet,” he said.

“It was supposed to be the dormitory to end all dormitories” and “immensely desirable,” said Professor of Mathematics Thomas Banchoff, who has been a professor on College Hill for over 40 years. “All the grad students were supposed to want to live there.”

But the building’s structure only made it possible for four units of grad students to live on a floor, Banchoff said, which may not have fostered socializing.

“It did become a desirable space for undergraduates, but the graduate students never warmed to it, even at the time,” he said.

Banchoff said grad students preferred to live off-campus in nicer housing.

Assistant Vice President of Planning, Design and Construction Michael McCormick said the building’s aesthetics may not have appealed to grad students.

“The architecture style of the time was very hard-edge and brutal,” McCormick said. “My guess is they pretty quickly realized that it was fairly cold and not very social.”

Sam Ewenczyk ’10 became well-acquainted with the building last semester, when he wrote and directed a five-minute video on Grad Center for HIAA 0850: “Modern Architecture.”

“The design was to give grad students privacy and a space for themselves” that also let them talk and communicate with each other, Ewenczyk said, adding that he thought the building was “constructed out of a good intention.”

“By limiting entrances to the complex, residents are spared from having pedestrians walk close to their windows. This way, privacy is ensured,” he wrote in the script for his documentary, based on information from architectural library archives.

Ewenczyk said some grad students at the time had spouses and children, so the building layout also sought to accommodate growing families.

Though he said he tried to stay objective in his documentary, Ewenczyk said he took issue with certain aspects of Grad Center.

“The fact that there’s a cement wall erected completely turns the building into a fort,” he said. “There’s definitely a certain element to it that people resent.”

The undergraduates who live in the building “feel isolated,” he said, adding that he had spoken to several Grad Center residents while researching for his project.

But Hazeltine said that while the building may be out of style now, it needs to be understood in the context of when it was built.

“It was a relic of the time, when people liked buildings like that,” he said.

McCormick echoed Hazeltine’s words.

“That was also just the style in that period of time,” he said. “It was really more about protecting the building from the street than participating in the street life.”

McCormick said there was concern about “urban crime” at the time, so the University wanted to build a safe and protective building. “There was a theory about defensible space that was very popular at the time,” he said.

Though the building is still around, there have been several changes since its construction, including the transformation of its cafeteria into the Bear’s Lair, Hazeltine said. He said he thought the cafeteria was nixed because it received so little traffic.

But the draw of alcohol kept one part of Grad Center popular then – and now. A lower drinking age in the 1970s made the Graduate Center Bar a bustling destination on campus, Hazeltine said.

The bar “was very fun” and undergrads would often play pool there, Banchoff said. But Banchoff doesn’t necessarily trot over to Grad Center to sample the beer on tap.

“I like the outside helix because it’s an example of a helicoid,” Banchoff said of the spiral staircase that leads up to the Bear’s Lair. He said the staircase is the largest helix in Providence and that he brings his mathematics students over to Grad Center “to try to get a feel for the geometry of it.”

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