Letter to the Editor: Response to University Center renovations

This letter is in response to the evident resolve of our administrators to forge ahead with an extensive renovation to the U.C., Lehigh’s foundational structure.
We all understand that the University Center has to be functional as well as beautiful, and that there are issues with the building. However, we should not let the refurbishment of early last decade necessarily alter our aesthetic appreciation. The last renovation changed the second floor Grace Lounge, formerly our ‘living room,’ into a dining room, while a deli was introduced into the south main room. The deli does not fit, nor does it look attractive, and turning Grace Lounge into cafeteria space was a poor idea to begin with. The last renovation, therefore, of c. 2000, was an unfortunate mistake, and we should not let it skew our conceptions about these spaces or even the building as a whole. But we understand that there are issues with the U.C. nonetheless.
President Simon and the administrators speak of the ‘path to prominence.’ While I agree an excellent strategy, is it not strictly illogical to consequently expect results within 10 or 15 years, even a generation? Great achievements sometimes require more time. Who is to say quite when, even if, we are to achieve first-tier research school status? We must be patient with the process, as well as with being at times ambitious. Further, the university is engaged with numerous other expensive projects in the path to prominence initiative, such as the Health College, replacing Christmas Saucon, and the revision or replacement of the Business School, among others. We therefore have quite a bit on hand regardless. And there are many alternatives for Packer Hall and the student center that we have not thought of as yet, some we could investigate more. Are we really so ashamed of our University Center that we must tear a third of it down, wrap much of the remaining with glass walls, while replacing stone with brick? Do we not seem to be going backward here?
 Accordingly, I propose a 20 year delay in construction start on any serious revision of the U.C. until 2039, therefore. The present proposed renovation, actually a reinterpretation and deconstruction, being very broad and sweeping, could be a serious mistake. This 20 year postponement would give Lehigh more time to accrue ideas and perspectives, while allowing technology, even art and architecture, to advance and change. In the meantime, the U.C. might be given a far simpler makeover, while possibly using the second floor spaces as they were intended.
We should understand, as we do, that there are many facets of a great university, and in keeping with this not so often take a ‘brick and mortar’ perspective on change and progress. May we also occasionally think as poets and not always as scientists or engineers?  A 20 year pause is what I respectfully suggest.

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    • John G. Lewis '90 on

      Marie: The hour is late… I do not know the timeline of the administrators, but I have been watching, and it appears as if the process is held up immediately prior to final approval. The U.C. renovation project has been given at least temporary approval, and a go ahead to examine costs, work on designs, etc. But the project may commence as early as this fall or summer.

      I am merely a humble graduate here, and am not associated with the Board of Directors, or even of the administration more broadly. I have however been an admirer/critic of Lehigh’s architecture and our campus since I have graduated, and have followed various developments.

      I have attempted to come up with alternatives to the administrator’s proposal myself, noting university needs and desires at present… yet this is difficult. My proposals have been, among others: a) to wreck Drown Hall and place up a stone and wood southeastern extension; b) a stone and wood southwestern extension; c) both; d) some other, separate, student center facility to be constructed either on the Trembley site or somewhere else; or, e) a postponement of 20 years to allow us time and resources to come up with some excellent idea that will appeal to as many as possible. The present suggestion really only appeals to lovers of modern architecture and those who do not especially care much for Lehigh’s traditional Gothic.

      I might incline personally to either a, b, or c myself. A couple of notes, quickly. First, we realize that Lehigh’s architecture is not medieval European Gothic, quite, nonetheless we have to work with what is given to us here in America; and secondly, that stone and wood architecture has become expensive.

      The key issues I have with the proposed renovation are three: 1. the plan involves tearing down the southern extension, of stone and wood, that was placed on the back (south side) of the U.C. in 1958; 2. the consequent elimination of the Asa Dining Room complex (though not the great central room itself); and, 3. the adjoining of modern architectural forms and materials contiguous with the old building (Packer Hall, 1868). A further issue involves a slippery slope type of argument: after the U.C. what might be the next building to be reinterpreted? And, there may exist future additions to the modernized U.C. we are not presently aware of.

      Returning to my list of alternatives, shortly (above, third paragraph), option “d” is an interesting alternative and worthy of much exploration. It was attempted, of course, c. 2000 with the Ulrich Student Center located in Grace Hall, but which failed and was removed. However, if this type of idea fails once, it does not mean it will always, or must, fail… Option d, in conjunction with preserving the architectural integrity of the U.C. is a prime option and worthy of further exploration, and therefore my proposal of a 20 year delay. One may object and say, option d has failed once, and is conjectural in regard to success. Yes, but so are the plans of the administrators. Option d will at least preserve the U.C.’s integrity… There are a million other options, inside of “d”, which do not involve Grace Hall.

      Very well…. I apologize for the extended introduction. What can be done? We need to move quickly here, and I am open to hearing all suggestions to this end. One possible action is to write letters to University President Simon, or the Board. I usually prefer the former. We can also propose a meeting with the President to express our concerns in person.

      One final point is that the proposal of the administrators is problematical and speculative, and new construction is naturally like this. Yet this would be a sort of ‘experiment’ with our founding and central structure. I think the risk is great, and is to a good degree unwarranted, without deep exploration of alternatives, or of possibly spending more money on stone and wood.

      • John G. Lewis '90 on

        I have a further suggestion here for all: in regards to option d (above), why not consider wrecking the old (smaller) Mart library, and placing in a student union structure in its place…? It is beautifully located right in the heart of the campus, with interesting views and vistas in a number of directions, and is surrounded by modern architecture.

        The original Mart was a small science and engineering library that was constructed in the expansion north into town under the Whitaker and W. D. Lewis administrations. It was largely superseded in 1984 with the Fairchild-Martindale Library and Computing Center or “Super-Mart” as we would sometimes call it.

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