November 15, 2019

In its more than 100-year history, Swartz Hall had never gone through a major renovation. While that meant its historic features and unique design (it is the only instance of Collegiate Gothic architecture at Harvard) were preserved, it also meant that its current functionality did not meet future needs.

One of the School’s main questions during planning for the current renewal was how do we maintain the former while changing the latter. In this post I want to offer some insight into how we are preserving the historical character of Swartz Hall while reorienting it to be better reflective and more inclusive of the diverse student body of our modern divinity school.

An important step was bringing on an architecture firm with experience renewing historic buildings. In selecting Ann Beha Architects (ABA), we were able to partner with a firm that has familiarity with the School and the building (they had renovated several classrooms and the Sperry Room in Swartz Hall) and has experience adapting historical buildings to modern use. According to Ed Rice, senior associate at ABA, much of the firm’s work is on historic structures.

While several areas of Swartz Hall (the lobby and second floor chapel) are designated as historic spaces by Harvard, the building itself is not on a local or state historical structure register or list. Nevertheless, Philip Chen, principal at ABA, told me the process by which the firm proceeded with its design review was similar to the one used for registered historic buildings. He said the process begins with research—learning the physical, cultural, and social history of the building to understand the most significant character-defining features.

It also includes conversations with the community. Ten community-wide information and input sessions were held at HDS. Philip said one of the key areas of conversation with the community was the chapel space, which was built at a very specific time and place for a School whose mission has changed in the last 100 years. He said the designers learned that there was a lot of understanding in community about the nature of that space—that it didn’t accommodate the multiple faiths now represented at HDS and a lot of the features were embedded in the architecture. Despite that, the feedback was that people didn’t think eradicating all the architecture would be a good thing.

What came out of that conversation is the best of both worlds. A preserved and updated chapel space that will be accessible for people of all abilities, and the addition of a new, inclusive multifaith space (see the below rendering) to be built in the old stack wing.

Rendering of Swartz Hall multifaith space

The renewal also includes restoring some aspects of Swartz Hall that have been a bit out of place or have become outdated. Windows installed during the 1980s on the side of the building near the Francis Avenue parking lot were not really in-line with the character or design of the building. The new windows will be more historically accurate. Additionally, the uniquely shaped and leaded glass windows will be restored to preserve their look and increase their energy efficiency. The 100-year-old slate roof will also be redone and replaced in kind, without the leaks.

Historic finishes in the lobby and some of the staircases will also remain. You can see in the picture below the wood has been covered up in order to protect it. When the project nears completion, the protective wood will be removed and the original wood will be refinished.

Swartz Hall lobby construction

For me, our effort to maintain the historical features of the building while modernizing it is being done with two key goals in mind, the first being inclusion of all members of our community regardless of faith or ability. We see this in the addition of the new multifaith space in which students who represent more than 32 different religious traditions (and none) will feel welcome. We see this in the addition of accessible entryways and added elevators.

The second goal is sustainability. I’ve discussed our sustainability efforts in this project before. But our efforts to preserve the historic features of the building also fall into this category. The easiest thing would have been to tear down the building and put up a shiny new structure. But the most sustainable thing we could do is preserve and enhance the current building.

Philip of ABA has said “our firm believes the surest way to preserve a historic building is to give it a vibrant use.” I think our efforts will lead to Swartz Hall becoming a true, vibrant campus center for HDS and will help preserve it for another 100 years.

Swartz Hall exterior

Site work: Window protection work is ongoing and crews will continue to dewater and excavate the courtyard in preparation for the building addition. Demolition of the mechanical area in the Swartz Hall tower mechanical room continues. The project will complete much of its demolition work and abatement work over the next week. Daily deliveries and dumpster swaps are ongoing. All activities are subject to change based on weather or other circumstances.

—Ralph