Sunday, September 28, 2008

University of Massachusetts: Preserving the Modern?

The University of Massachusetts last month announced plans for a sweeping internal renovation of the modernist Campus Center, designed by Marcel Breuer. The emphasis in the press release was on improving amenities and general levels of service, with an eye to maximizing profitability in a competitive hospitality industry:
For the first time since the Campus Center Hotel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst opened its doors in 1970, the facility is undergoing a complete renovation of its guest rooms, lobby and adjoining areas.

According to Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center/Student Union complex, all 116 guest rooms are being gutted and modernized. The remodeling will be completed two floors at a time so that the hotel can remain open and accommodate guests during construction. Work on the initial two floors is scheduled to begin Aug. 22. The tentative completion date is April 2009.

“This is more than just re-carpeting and changing bedspreads—this is a total makeover,” said Schmidt. “We are trying to create a three-star hotel. We know we have location and now we want to offer a very upscale product to the community.”

[. . . .]

Instead of one-bedroom or two-bedroom junior suites, the refurbished hotel will offer a mix of room types with new king, queen or double beds. Each room will be outfitted with new desks with ergonomic chairs, dressers, coffee makers, hair dryers, plasma televisions and high-speed Internet connections. Closets with glass doors will be constructed and in the bathrooms, bathtubs will be removed and replaced with walk-in glass showers. Even the room doors will be refinished to a dark walnut color, said Schmidt.
As an afterthought, the piece noted the architectural significance of the structure:
Schmidt said the firm’s renovation plans reflect a conscious respect for Bauhaus architect and influential modernist Marcel Breuer, who designed the Campus Center with his associate Herbert Beckhard.

Two things raise possible concerns:

1) The fact that the rooms are "being gutted." If all the fixtures are being ripped out and finishes changed, it is not clear what "respect" is being shown for the internal aesthetic integrity of the structure.

2) In particular, the fact that the work is being financed by the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, which callously pushed ahead with the destruction of historic agricultural buildings this past fall and winter--and even after being found in violation of state law, repeatedly obstructed and delayed agreement on a memorandum of understanding brokered by the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Still, the mere fact that the University is (1) acknowledging in advance and (2) promising to protect the character of a historic structure offers at least modest grounds for optimism. To the extent that progress has been made, we owe that to the vigilance of Preserve UMass. Whether any such confidence is justified, only time will tell. The University indicates that the work is being carried out two floors at a time, so that the building can remain in operation. Work is expected to end by April 2009.

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