Henry Whittemore Library marks 50th anniversary with ribbon-cutting ceremony: Celebrating the evolving “heart of campus”

Hannah Coco / THE GATEPOST

By Thomas Maye

Editorial Staff

Library faculty, administrators, and students celebrated the history of the Henry Whittemore Library as the building commemorated its 50th anniversary in a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 23. 

The crowd beamed as President F. Javier Cevallos and Dean of the Library Bonnie Mitchell spoke about the continued importance of the library for students and campus culture alike. 

“In this multi-purpose building, the library staff and faculty members have been supporting and advancing the academic and cultural mission of the University since 1969. We continue to support the research and information needs of a diverse educational community, and we strive to provide students with the skills they need to be lifelong learners,” Mitchell said. 

“Library staff members make every effort to create a respectful and welcoming environment for everyone who comes into the building, whether it’s to study, go to class or the IT help desk, or just socialize,” she added.

Mitchell said the building underwent a major renovation in 2009 and has continued to adjust to the community, such as by adding more technology and resources. She said changes were made “all in an effort to respond to student feedback, make improvements, and continue to be a vital part in the University community.”

She said, “Now that Hemenway Hall Science Center is complete, the library is even more connected to the center of campus through direct pathways. All the upgrades have contributed to the library’s groove as a hub of activity. 

“Numerous events and exhibits, displays, student artwork, workshops, and monthly programs engage the almost 800 people who enter this building on a daily basis,” she added.

Cevallos called the library “the heart of the campus,” praising its contributions to learning and community engagement, but said it was important the building continued to adapt with the times. 

He said, “As we kick off the 50th anniversary celebration of this library, we are also asking for the commonwealth to start renovations after 50 years, so we can actually make it a library that reflects the needs of our students in 2020, 2021, 2025 – as opposed to 1969.”

In an email, Cevallos said, “The plan, in very rough lines, is to consolidate the stacks to create a lot more open space, to create classrooms as well as study and gathering spaces. The renovation would not change the architectural design of the building.”

Dale Hamel, executive vice president, added the developing project will also include preservation of the building, improving reliability of its safety systems, and instituting new employment and job-seeking initiatives.

Students said the library was an important part of their college experiences. Sophomore Spencer Lezin said, “I remember being here with some of my friends, hanging out and studying. … Those nice memories will always stick with me.”

Lezin said he hopes in the future, the library will renovate the bathrooms, fix doors, and add more electrical outlets.

After Cevallos spoke, photography professor Robert Alter, who specializes in architectural photography, came ready to ruffle feathers, as he then gave a presentation on the architectural history of the building and the context behind the structure’s controversial “Heroic Concrete” design.

“I hope that no one will be shocked by the language I’m going to use, so please, if you have a faint heart, you might want to grip your chair or something like that,” he said.

He explained the library’s design was inspired by Brutalism, an architectural movement with baggage due to present-day assumptions – “It’s a word that evokes images that are not particularly pleasant, and are very strong and harsh in their connotations.” 

Alter instead proposed using the phrase “Heroic Concrete,” which scholars also use to describe the style. 

Alter said Heroic Concrete design arose from an international and distinctly modern mindset.

“Modern architecture promised us a new way of living, a fresh start, free from the problems of the past. Modern architecture would be clean, rational – it would be simple. It would be affordable. 

“Gone was the old architecture of the past with decorations and columns and unnecessary items that just took up space. Now, we would have an architecture that was functional, that was pure, that was clean, and promised a better life for all of us,” he said.  

He emphasized how elements praised in modernism are reflected in the Whittemore building, including functionality, spaciousness, light, and – nearly above all – concrete.

Alter said the material was considered something of a modern marvel – it was cheap, quick to build with, easily moldable into different shapes, and was thought to have extreme longevity at the time. As such, Brutalists had something of a love affair with concrete, distinctively marking the architectural style.

“One of the things I love about this building is, looking at certain walls, surfaces, you can see the pattern of the plywood they forged the form [of the concrete] into. The pattern of the wood is still there on the wall after 50 years from when the building was made,” he added.

Alter said its Heroic Concrete design was bold and unafraid to challenge norms of the past. “In fact, we’re going to put it right there, in your face, and you’re going to learn to love it. Or at least, some people learn to love it.”

However, students have mixed opinions about the building’s design.

Senior Rylee Holmes said she “almost didn’t come here because the library was so ugly.”

Junior Michael Perry, who works at the library circulation desk, disagreed. “I like the design of this place. It has an old-fashioned feeling.”

However, he also said the layout of the building is “a bit confusing. I have a lot of students say, ‘Where’s UM? Where’s LM?’ because they don’t know the floors.” 

Marion Slack, a reference librarian who has worked at the library since 1978 and is the longest-serving employee there, said that “before they started renovating the library, this building was a Mecca for [art] students studying perspective. She said the “harsh beauty” and angularity of the building’s structure lent itself to artistic depictions.

Alter said Boston was considered the epicenter of Heroic Concrete design with the rise in urban renewal projects and a hub of architects from prestigious universities such as MIT and Harvard. 

In an effort to revamp its declining reputation during the 1960s, Boston “knocked down” the entirety of the old Scollay Square, a “den of iniquity,” and converted it into Government Center – including the construction of the “iconic” Boston City Hall. 

Discussing the “love it or hate it” controversy over the City Hall’s design, he said contemporary audiences continue to debate what to do with Brutalist structures going forward.

“So, we have the challenge – what are we going to do with all these buildings? What are we going to do with this legacy of architecture that’s been left to us? Some people say it’s ugly, some people say it’s magnificent – I think it’s the ongoing challenge of trying to understand what that legacy is, and then do the best thing for all of us going forward for our students, for our next generations,” he said.

After Alter’s presentation, Special Collections Librarian and Archivist Colleen Previte then shared ideas going forward for future library programs and events, including creating a time capsule to preserve FSU history for students to come. 

Previte called the anniversary “a yearlong celebration. This is just the beginning,” she said.

She discussed upcoming events at the library, including a ’70s cosplay disco party on Halloween at 1 p.m. in UM-14, “video history” interviews with  alumni and informational guides. She also highlighted more displays of the history of the library being and a bulletin board filled with student memories about the impact the library has had on them.

An unnamed individual wrote on the board, “Did you know that there was a dog ‘working’ at the library? Cricket the Healing Dog was here with a former special collections librarian for four years.”

If the drawing on the note is any suggestion, Cricket appears to have borne a striking resemblance to Snoopy. 

Previte said plans to create a time capsule are still underway and do not have a formal date set. 

Senior Marco Cadavieco expressed interest in the idea. He said, “Especially now with how things are progressing … I think it would be cool to include some archive photos, along with some trinkets from the current time.”

Freshman Makayla Lorance said she would like to include writings from students on their hopes for the future, which they could reread once the capsule would be unearthed. 

Henry Whittemore, the library’s namesake, was a principal of the Framingham Normal School during the early 20th century. Whittemore was president as the school underwent a variety of changes including, but not limited to, the construction of Peirce and Dwight halls.

[Editor’s Note: Asst. News Editor Evan Lee contributed to this article.]