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Graduate Center Bar turns 50

Undergraduates, grad students, alums find community, conversation in GCB

When the Grad Center Bar opened in 1969, students knew it as the “jelly bean lounge” with brightly colored seating and decorations, said Joe Petteruti ’69.

“It was quite fabulous and beautiful,” Petteruti said.

As the bar celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, its aesthetics have changed drastically. Now, the only sources of light in the otherwise dark room are blue lights hanging from the ceiling and twinkly string lights framing the space. Posters about Rhode Island and maps from around the world cover the walls.

Still, today’s GCB continues to play the same integral role in student and alum life that it did in 1969: bringing people together.

“I meet my friends there every Friday night,” said Jordana Siegel ’20. “It’s a place people like to come back to.”

With pool tables and specialty cocktails — including the “Brown University” and “Nor’Easter” — the GCB draws customers for all sorts of gatherings, such as alumni weekend or graduate student recruitment events, 21st birthday parties or just a regular Friday night.

In the 1960s and 70s, the space was primarily used by graduate students because undergraduate students spent more time in the bars housed in fraternity basements, Petteruti said. When the Rhode Island drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984, the basement bars closed.

Today, undergraduates flock to the bar, which helps to “recreate the Ratty experience” of spontaneous interactions with classmates, Siegel said. Since many upperclassmen live off campus, there are fewer opportunities for them to gather after classes, and the GCB provides one.

The GCB also grants newly-legal students a chance to experiment safely with bar culture, since the customer base is primarily the Brown and RISD community.

“Most of us are learning how to go to bars as we turn 21,” Siegel said.

True to its name, the GCB is “a cornerstone for many graduate students,” said Alastair Tulloch GS, president of the graduate student council. During his first time in the space as a recruit for a University graduate program, he was struck by its intimate and relaxed nature.

A community space like the GCB is “something that not all programs have,” Tulloch said. “It was pivotal, and it helped me decide to come to Brown.”

The bar is a membership-based non profit organization. While undergraduate students and Providence community members must pay $35 for a year-long membership or $5 per visit, graduate and medical students do not have to pay because they are granted entrance through a bulk membership purchased by the Graduate Student Council.

For the staff of the GCB, the fiftieth anniversary feels like quite a milestone. Susan Yund, manager of the GCB, has run the GCB for half its life, and the majority of her staff have worked at the bar for seven to fifteen years. Most of the staff are long-standing employees who “come to stay,” she said.

“There’s a sense of community among us,” Yund added.

In her 25 years at the GCB, the greatest change Yund has made to the College Hill institution is expanding the product selection on the menu, which she first did in an attempt to revitalize her customer base. Yund recalled that the bar was in “dire straits” when she first took over in 1994. “The goal was just to keep people coming in the door,” she added. Now, the bar is much busier than it was when she started, especially because of undergraduates in it.

For the fortieth anniversary of the GCB, the staff held a big celebration with live music and ice sculptures. But as Yund looks to celebrate the bar’s fiftieth anniversary, she is unsure if a celebration of this kind feels appropriate, given the bar’s current clientele.  Ten years ago, the anniversary party did not feel very relevant to students, who have little sense of how the bar has evolved since its founding.

But this does not mean that the iconic campus destination’s anniversary will be ignored.

“We will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary, but not with one party on one night,” Yund said. She hopes to mark the anniversary alongside her committed staff, who have more of a stake in the bar’s longevity and history than the students who come and go each year. “It’s a long time for a bar to be around,” Yund said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Jordana Siegel '20 as Jordana Siegal. The Herald regrets the error. 

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