Renovation eyes evolving mission of Memorial Church

April 18, 2017
The University Choir sign from the loft of Memorial Church during Pal Sunday services.

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

The Memorial Church is fully open to the Harvard Community following an eight-month renovation designed to transform the 85-year-old building into a more accessible, comfortable and versatile place for the evolving mission of Harvard’s “space of grace.”

The multi-million-dollar project, completed in January, is one of the most extensive renovations of the church since its construction in 1932. Visitors will notice little, if any, change inside the historic sanctuary. But those who venture downstairs will discover a complete redesign of the ground floor into a contemporary space featuring a new “Student Oasis,” meeting rooms and music rehearsal suite.

Students settle into the new Student Oasis

Students settle into the new Student Oasis.

“This renovation is a result of collective moral imagination,” said Jonathan L. Walton, The Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. “When we began discussing the plans with architects about how best to redesign this space, we wanted the layout and design to capture our commitment to student well-being. We wanted the walls to convey a message of calm and comfort — an oasis from their otherwise fast-paced schedules.”

The project was on a quick-track for completion. Demolition began in early June following Commencement week. By the end of July, the lower level of the church was just a shell of brick walls, concrete floors and bare columns underneath a tangle of wires and pipes.

During the Fall Term, new air-conditioning and mechanical systems were installed, and the new spaces started to take shape as winter set in over Harvard. The work wrapped up in January, just in time for the beginning of Spring Term.

Today, about eight months after work began, the church has resumed services and events in the sanctuary. The pews are again filled with congregants on Sunday mornings and for University Choir concerts and services in the evenings.

“We took Jonathan’s words to heart that ‘we are more than just bricks and mortar,’ while we were away. At the same time, it’s nice to be back,” said James Lawson ’72, who with wife Ann, have been members of Memorial Church for decades. “From my perspective, the sanctuary is the same, but improved, at the very same time. Everything is spiffed up, painted and before too much longer we will be grateful for the air-conditioning.”

James and Ann Lawson attend Sunday service in the Memorial Church sanctuary

Long-time members James and Ann Lawson attend Sunday service in the Memorial Church sanctuary following the reopening.

Meanwhile, on the ground floor, members of the staff are getting acquainted with new offices and students are settling into a space created especially for them. The Student Oasis was designed to be a place for Harvard students to study, socialize or to just take a break between classes. The open design features work tables, comfortable furniture, a meeting room and a kitchen where students can cook a meal or make a pot of coffee.

“The Oasis is a really good work space centrally located with a lot of outlets and quiet most of the time,” said Alice Newkirk ’17, a member of the University Choir. “It feels like a more intentionally designed space than the old Buttrick Room. The free tea and coffee is also a great bonus.”

The project focused on an upgrade of the HVAC system, installation of a sprinkler system and providing better access for people with physical challenges and disabilities. Plans also concentrated on creating a more inviting, high-tech and versatile atmosphere for students, staff and others who use the church for weddings, meetings and other events.

In the sanctuary, a new air-conditioning system will keep congregants cool when the pews are full during Commencement services or at summer weddings. Outside, a new ramp provides a more accessible pathway to the west portico entrance for people with disabilities and mobility issues. Before, people in wheelchairs had to enter through a back door on the lower level.

“All these were important and necessary changes for the church, and now we can all come in through the same door,” Lawson said. “And downstairs, I know it is the same number of square feet, but it feels twice as large. I think it is a great utilization of the space and while I don’t use the space that much, the students that I talk to are thrilled with the overhaul.”

Members of the Harvard University Choir socialize in the new kitchen before rehearsal

Members of the Harvard University Choir socialize in the new kitchen before rehearsal.

The most striking change to the church is on the ground level below the storied sanctuary. A new entrance on the north side of the building opens up to a contemporary space for students, staff and visitors. The new kitchen is accessible to those with disabilities, and flexible meeting rooms with glass walls open to accommodate a variety of gatherings and events.

The reconfigured space also includes a new music suite for the University Choir, and staff offices that allow the natural light from outside to reflect inside though glass walls and doors.

“We say that MemChurch is a ‘space of grace’ at the center of Harvard Yard,” said Walton. “This means that students should feel a space of radical hospitality, acceptance, warmth, and belonging. In other words, we want them to experience a sense of God’s grace. We tried to capture architecturally what we stand for morally.”

This is not the first reconfiguration of the ground floor, but it is the first time the lower level of the church has been completely gutted. The ground floor was last updated in the 1980s.

Todd Sloane, a member of the project design team from Payette, a Boston architecture firm, said this round of renovations created an opportunity to make the space more accessible to the entire church community, and provide a versatile environment capable of hosting events and meetings large and small.

“I hope it’s a space that is not only communal to the church, but also to the campus,” said Sloane, whose late father Carl was a professor at the Harvard Business School. “We worked very closely with the structure to set up the rhythm of offices, partitions, glass walls and entrances where windows lined up. And we did not want to rub the original structure the wrong way. We respected it and worked with it as opposed to setting some new geometry into the church.”

The ground floor of the church following demolition in June.

The ground floor of the church following demolition in June.

The redesign on the ground level was secondary to the complicated tasks of installing new HVAC and fire suppression systems without disturbing the celebrated Memorial Church sanctuary. The new energy-efficient climate control systems and a new water line from the Yard for the sprinklers required the lower level to be gutted out to the brick walls and down to the cement floor to accommodate new mechanics and ductwork, as well as the electrical and plumbing systems to power them.

Payette worked closely with the University, Walton, church staff, student groups and building contractor Elaine Construction on the final design of the new spaces. The Student Oasis, open concept design, exposed columns and steps to bring in natural light were the result of those early meetings.

“To do it right we really had to take everything out and start over again.” said Sloane “And I think it was an opportunity for staff to get what they needed and for students to get what they needed. It was the perfect storm.”

Students are already discovering the space. On a recent busy day, a group of students settled into smart desk chairs at the new work tables, where they studied and chatted. A few steps away, several members of the University Choir perched on stools in the kitchen sipping soft drinks between classes as they watched church staff arrange tables in an adjoining conference room for an evening event.

Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister in the Memorial Church, said the staff is working with student groups connected to the church to unearth their vision for the oasis, kitchen and other spaces. One of those discussions, for example, focused on whether there is more of a need for social gathering space or collaborative study, she said. 

“Students who are part of the MemChurch community have begun to make the space their own,” said Sullivan. “The kitchen overflows with UChoir members for tea time prior to their rehearsals on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And Student Advisory Board members are inviting their friends to hang out in between classes.”

Isabelle Desisio '20 bakes muffins for her team mates on the Harvard Women's Swim and Dive Team

Isabelle Desisio '20 bakes muffins in the new kitchen for her teammates on the Harvard Women's Swim and Dive Team.

With the open-concept design of the lounge and meeting spaces on the ground level, the church can now accommodate large gatherings and catered events. Nearly 100 students attended a reception in early February celebrating the opening of the space. The annual Shove Tuesday Pancake Supper drew more than 110 students in early march.

Students are also asking about using the oasis and meetings rooms for group gatherings for dinners, movie and game nights. In addition, Harvard Events Management is booking dates in the church for future weddings, conferences and other events.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the official opening of the Student Oasis,” said Ben Schafer ’19, a member of the church’s student advisory board. “I’ve had so many people approach me about when the space is opening and about booking it for their campus organizations, and there is a lot of excitement about having a real oasis right in the center of the Yard.”

The oasis is open during the academic year from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.  During those hours, students have access to the lounge area, the Sperry Room and the kitchen. A group study room is also available from 5 to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday, and during weekend hours.

Walton said he hopes students will take full advantage of the space dedicated to them at the church.

Professor Jonathan L. Walton speaks at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel

Professor Jonathan L. Walton speaks at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel on the first day of Spring Term.

“The Memorial Church is so much more than bricks and mortar. Nor is it simply a tribute to the past,” he said. “MemChurch is a vibrant, active community of students — students in whom we are confident will help shape a more just, loving, and beautiful world.”

The church is hosting several reopening events next week. A special service of Morning Prayers on Friday, April 21, at 8:45 a.m. will feature a project-focused talk by Walton, followed by a dedication of the original Memorial Church bell, newly preserved and located outside the main entrance.

Reopening festivities on Sunday, April 23 from 9:30 a.m.- 2:00 p.m. will include a Faith & Life Forum presentation by the project design team, the unveiling of a newly commissioned work from artist Janet McKenzie, an open house and reception, conversations with the architects, and film screenings.