Connection to the Past

At the information session held by several members of the Academy’s administration in Ropes earlier this term, proponents of the now-familiar renovation plans presented several arguments in favor of destroying the interior of Pearson Hall in order to turn it into a community center. According to these administrators, a community center would unite the functions of George Washington Hall, the Ryley Room, and Commons, for the greater convenience of faculty and students, and encourage interaction between the groups. They said that moving the Classics department to bright new quarters in Bulfinch would be pleasing to those suffering the squalor of Pearson Hall’s current state. By knocking down the ceilings and turning two floors into three, they said, we would return the building to its original character – since it had three floors until 1908. Furthermore, the administration seemed to represent these renovations as an absolute inevitability. I asked whether the building was structurally unsound, but received no conclusive answer. The fact is, something needs to be done about Pearson. But what needs to be done is a serious investigation into the possibilities for preserving its current historical interior. A community center is a fine idea, but the plan we have seen is almost laughable. Those who believe that students and faculty will mingle simply because there is pastry and coffee available in a common space must never have entered our dining halls. I once had lunch with Mr. Scott in Lower Right, who expressed curiosity about this self-segregation. It is simple to me why students don’t eat in Upper Left: there are teachers there. Likewise, adults avoid the pandemonium of the other dining halls. In addition, this community center would take on Ryley-like aspects, selling food and drink in a space where students and faculty could meet to discuss schoolwork. I have never been an advocate of institutional political correctness, but it seems to me completely contrary to our tenet of “youth from every quarter” to associate education with some sort of retail facility. It is disgusting to imagine that this community center might alienate those who cannot afford or do not wish to pay for items not offered for free in Commons. The idea that these renovations would please the Classics Department is completely risible. I have spoken to many teachers and students, none of whom believe that this plan is actually good for the Department. Although the administrators at that meeting claimed that the building was near-useless on account of abject decrepitude, from having actually sat in class in Pearson Hall I have ascertained that, in fact, the lights work, the heat works most of the time, the desks are in good repair, and the ceiling is not, contrary to popular belief, caving in. It is true, nevertheless, that Pearson is an inefficient use of space. But perhaps the most convincing argument for saving Pearson is its value as a building. It is the last old interior on campus, the last lovely one. The would-be renovators assured us that they know how to preserve its “charm.” But that is clearly impossible under the proposed plan. There is nothing “charming” about administrative offices, or sweaty dances, or junk food: all the new proposed occupants of Pearson Hall. Furthermore, I take offense at that word “charming.” It is a diminutive. It degrades the true character of the stately old building: Pearson Hall is beautiful. Destroying that beauty is a travesty. It doesn’t matter that the interior is only a hundred years old, or that Charles Bulfinch didn’t design it. Pearson Hall is a relic of our history. Although Gelb, George Washington Hall, and Shuman are clean and new, none is beautiful. The claim that the renovations would actually restore Pearson’s historical character is absurd. It is a fact that Pearson Hall has undergone many transformations. But it has never served as a venue for hawking unwholesome comestibles, nor has it housed the foul mess of a high-school dance, nor has it been a main administrative building. Charles Bulfinch’s simple masterpiece has sheltered lecture halls, classrooms, a chapel, and an exhibition hall, but through all its permutations it has remained the spiritual and intellectual nucleus of campus. The Classics have always been a cornerstone of the Phillips Academy education, and relegating Greek and Latin to a sterile corner of some new wing represents a disturbing shift in attitudes, an erosion of our values, and a disregard for our history. In his defense of the Classical education, Headmaster Alfred Stearns wrote: “Only by such all-round training shall we develop a human product that is something bigger and finer than a mere piece of mechanism designed to fit into a place in a practical world but devoid of aspiration and idealism, bereft of vision and imagination, forever denied the privilege of tasting the things of the spirit which alone is life.” Admittedly, something needs to be done about Pearson Hall. But what better community center can we build than Pearson? It is already a rallying point for faculty, staff, and students. In Pearson we recognize our long history, our responsibility to the past. Why are alumni gatherings and presentations to prospective students so often held in Pearson? We are proud of Pearson. It represents us. Those who are so wantonly eager to wreck the guts of this beautiful building should heed Stearns’ closing words: “God spare us from the day when a sordid materialistic gluttony shall leave us no room for or no appreciation of the beauty, the fragrance, and the inspiration of the things of the spirit.”