“Holyoke center facade becomes hippie-drome,” ran a Crimson headline in 1967. Even in Cambridge, about 3,000 miles from the Summer of Love, the reporter’s point was clear: the rich kids in “Trick -loads of mod clothes and jewelry” and poor kids flaunting their “general mess [sic]were not suitable for this part of Harvard. A HUPD officer expressed a desire to “eliminate” the loiterers.
The writer Crimson envisioned an area filled with “clean colleges”, but the project’s architect had explicitly designed the Holyoke Center as a community space. The tension between that goal and its execution has followed the building to this day, even though the Holyoke Center is now the Smith Campus Center and the “hippies” are long gone.
Holyoke’s architect was Josep Lluís Sert, then dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He planned a hub that would connect Harvard Yard to the buildings near the Charles River by way of a ground-floor arcade lined with community stores. When construction finished in 1966, the huge mass of concrete was unlike anything the area had seen before. Abstract artist Mark Rothko painted a series of murals for the penthouse dining room. Sert called the building a “bridge”; future trustees would consider it “the gateway to Harvard”.
But the initial reception was divided. While architects and architecture students enjoyed Sert’s innovative brutalist design, some Cambridge residents were surprised by a structure that dwarfed its neighbors and took up an entire city block. One reviewer noted that the end of construction might give some comfort to locals who had seen the eight-year-old project and “perhaps feared that it would just continue to grow, like a hardy, appetizing organism.” For The Crimson in 1963, “Amdriw T. Wxsl” (probably a digitizing error) despised his height and build. “The massive concrete face of the Holyoke Center stands in stark contrast to all the structures around it,” Wxsl wrote, adding that while Harvard had built horrors before, “none had previously been visible from anywhere in Cambridge.”
The ends of the arcade originally opened onto the street but were permanently closed shortly afterwards, to alleviate what one writer calls Sert’s “apparent disdain for the harshness of New England winters “. It was the first blow to Sert’s dream. As more and more university services moved into the complex, its connection to the city faded. A 1979 article published by the American Institute of Architects recalls that Holyoke transformed Cambridge from a “college town of mostly cheap shops and restaurants into a fashionable, high-priced magnet”. Rothko’s murals have become a source of embarrassment, having unexpectedly faded after only a few decades of exposure to sunlight in the penthouse. By 1988, the facilities had been “ripped up, splattered with food, and marred with graffiti,” according to a New York Times article, and eventually they were put into storage.
Time would further clarify what was meant by “community”. In her memoir, Lauralee Summers ’98 recalled arriving at Harvard and meeting a Korean named Sam, who sometimes “slept upright inside the Holyoke Center, across from his usual bench.” He couldn’t sit down because a Harvard cop was telling him to move on. In 1993, a Harvard police lieutenant said of Holyoke, “The university is not in the business of supporting the community through homeless shelters.”
Holyoke remained that way for decades, withstanding the usual degree of structural decay. In 2013, following a donation from Richard A. Smith and Susan F. Smith, Harvard renamed the building in honor of its benefactors and began a five-year redesign process. This renovation replaced the lower floors with a new glazed and sunny space. Greenery now lines the walls. There are courtyards behind glass panels that house trees native to the area; the trees had to be lowered. Project directors hoped the rebranded Smith Campus Center would provide a “vibrant and vibrant central gathering space for the Harvard community, Cambridge residents and the many visitors who visit our campus every day.”
Proportionately little of the remodeled area is accessible to the public. The lobby has a reception, a coffee stand and a small work area upstairs. The large, multi-story common area plays lo-fi beats and requires a Harvard ID to access. Campus police routinely wake non-Harvard affiliates who attempt to sleep in the center in violation of its rules. Two years ago, HUPD officer Anthony T. Carvello received widespread criticism for apprehending a homeless black man in Smith by pushing him to the ground and yelling at him; it later emerged that Carvello had acted similarly in two previous instances, allegedly using a racial slur in one instance.
Around the time planning for the revamp began, the Harvard Art Museums used a new technique to redisplay Rothko’s dilapidated murals. Touching up discolored areas may cause irreparable damage. Instead, they developed software to calculate, pixel by pixel, the paint color that should have been in each part of the canvases, and used a low-powered projector to project those colors directly onto the murals. . The exhibition lasted eight months.
Many surviving photographs of the interior as it appeared in the 1960s were taken for architectural studies and are necessarily devoid of people. The fuzzy quality of the film accentuates their strangeness. Holyoke alternately feels abandoned or waiting for people to arrive, and it’s hard not to see it like the paintings that once hung there: either the skeleton of a dream or the beginning of a dream, rendered in some imagined glory by a tower of light.