Built in 1863 of timber and Harvard brick, Grays Hall is historically Harvard University’s leader in adapting contemporary methods through historic context. When the new freshman residence was completed, it was the first building at Harvard College to provide indoor plumbing to the approximate 100 freshman students, introducing a new culture of convenience and inclusion within Cambridge’s historic Harvard Yard. In 2017 the College, again facing the need to lead, offered the University’s first student space dedicated to gender equality and diversity: the Office of BGLTQ Student Life and the Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. Grays Hall, located prominently on Harvard Yard and an anchor to the College community was determined as the most appropriate location. Grays Hall completes the south edge of Harvard Yard - and with the John Harvard statue and University Hall viewed from the main entrance – the project makes an important statement of acceptance, support, and leadership. The decision, and challenge, was to transform 10,000 sf of partial below-grade defunct classroom space and remove an abandoned exterior elevator while preserving the integrity and identity of Grays Hall and the Harvard Yard surroundings.

Meeting with students in town hall sessions, the program began by a discussion of how to engage the historic character of the building with the radically new program. How can a historic space express diversity and inclusion? Architecturally, how can privacy be respected when transparency is a goal? What is the significance of threshold both architecturally and experientially? Through this process, KVA developed an architectural agenda for Grays Hall of honesty and acceptance that works to support the mission of the student space and reveals the building’s historic material language. The presented design emphasizes the material beauty of granite foundations, brick walls, and arched wooden lintels through their exposure and juxtaposition to new lighting and a simple monolithic material palette. The removal of antiquated mechanical ducts, deep cavity walls, layers of gypsum board, paint and surface contaminants along with damaged and moldy ceilings worked to restore the space to its original character, increase ceiling height, and provide a sense of openness.

The former double-loaded classroom corridor is transformed into a materially-rich gallery-like space where a library, lounge, and kitchen are linked by a colorful “activity thread”, a public bench that unifies the entire program. The activity thread adapts and changes as it moves through the space from a wall to a bench to a work surface or a lighting canopy creating a programmatic threshold to public spaces like the lobby, library, lounge, kitchen, and bathrooms where students can interact and socialize. Along the entire south wall, passing though social spaces and administrative offices, is a newly exposed granite foundation revealing astonishing masonry handcraft and building engineering.

At the exterior, the abandoned lift and concrete stairs that were added in the 1980s were removed in an effort to create an entry that is universally accessibly. Sloped ramps at a 5% grade were used to create an accessible entry without the accompanying railings and guardrails required by a steeper conventional wheelchair ramp. The walkway is anchored at each end by simple granite load-bearing retaining walls, contemporary in form but historically familiar in color, texture, and material make-up. The sloped walkway, inserted between this series of new and old stone walls, celebrate and preserve nearly 150 years of new and old masonry craftsmanship and demonstrate how new and old can complement both the legacy of a place and welcome the diversity and inclusion of its community.

Date: 2017
Status: Completed
Client: Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, MA
Design Team:
Frano Violich, FAIA; Managing Principal
Sheila Kennedy, FAIA; Principal Consulting on Design
Shawna Meyer, AIA LEED AP; Project Architect
Daniel Sebaldt, Sarah Gunawan, Bob White, Ben Widger; Project Designers
Architect: Kennedy & Violich Architecture
Civil Engineer: Nitsch Engineering
Code: Jensen Hughes
Construction Management: Turner Construction
Geotechnical Consultant: GZA
Hazardous Materials Consulting: American Environmental
MEP/FP, Structural, Lighting: BuroHappold Engineering
Photographer: John Horner

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Centers for BGLTQ, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion