December 02, 1999
University Gazette


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Newly Renovated Holden Chapel Opens Its Doors to Song and Study

By Alvin Powell
Gazette Staff

Jameson Marvin, director of choral activities, leads the Harvard Glee Club on Monday in the first practice to be held in the renovated Holden Chapel in Harvard Yard. Photo by Justin Ide
The sounds of song replaced the pounding of hammers and the buzzing of saws Monday at Holden Chapel.

After six months of renovations, the Harvard Glee Club was the first of the Harvard choruses to use the newly renovated space. The 255-year-old building will now serve a dual purpose, hosting classes during the day and choral rehearsals in the late afternoons and evenings.

Director of Choral Activities Jameson Marvin rearranged Glee Club members at the beginning of the rehearsal to get the sound just right.

"The clarity of the acoustics we know about instantly. And that’s important because if we can’t hear, we can’t fix. And we can certainly hear in here," Marvin said.

Though a daytime class won’t be assigned until the spring term, Associate Dean of Harvard College Georgene Herschbach said the building’s prime location in the Yard and its planned classroom use reflect the importance of the University’s teaching mission.

"As a classroom, Holden will be very special," said Herschbach, who chairs the Classroom Committee. "It has a natural elegance, and certainly location. And now the hall also has excellent lighting, acoustics, and instructional media. All together, it sends the message to students and faculty alike that teaching is important here."

The renovated building’s inaugural rehearsal was preceded by a brief reopening ceremony that included a singing of "Happy Birthday, Holden Chapel" by the 60-member Glee Club. University officials attended the ceremony, including Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis, Senior Associate Dean in the College Archie C. Epps, Associate Dean of Harvard College David Illingworth, and Elliot Forbes, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music Emeritus and former Glee Club conductor.

The building itself contains one large room, with a high vaulted ceiling. A visitor walking into the room would first notice the shiny red oak floor, made of 5-inch bo ards rather than today’s narrower flooring, in order to emulate older floor styles. Next, a visitor might notice the maple sound baffles, which look like shutters lining the middle third of the room’s high walls.

The maple slats make up a unique acoustic system designed for Holden. The walls above and behind the slats are coated in sound-absorbing fabric to help dampen the sound of so many voices in a relatively small space. The maple slats are designed to reflect enough so that the sound isn’t dead. To adjust room resonance the slats’ design allows for removal of parts of the sound-absorbing fabric.

Even the vaulted ceiling has been altered to accommodate the building’s use as rehearsal space. The uppermost part of the ceiling’s arch has been filled with a convex structure that stops the curved ceiling from concentrating and echoing sounds.

"Acoustically, the challenge of the space is that you normally have 80 people singing in an auditorium, where their voices are going out into a lot of space," said Oliver Radford, M. Arch. ’86, of Perry and Radford Architects, who designed the renovation. "Here, when you have 80 people singing, it is very loud, which would overwhelm a room of this size without appropriate acoustic treatment."

From the Basement Up

In addition to the renovation of Holden Chapel’s main floor, the renovation replaced much of the building’s substructure. The half of the basement closest to the Yard was rebuilt to accommodate new system machinery. The building now has air conditioning, plumbing, and fire sprinklers, all new additions. It also has new fire alarm and security systems, as well as a new heating and cooling system with oversized air ducts to minimize air-flow noise during rehearsals.

It was the substructure renovations that delayed the building’s opening, however. Shortly after work began in June, human bones were found in an old basement cistern. Associate P rofessor of Anthropology Carole Mandryk was called in to examine the bones, which she determined were the remains of cadavers used for medical training during the building’s stint as Harvard’s Medical School in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Removal of the remains set the project back six to eight weeks.

With the exception of some landscaping, the renovations were limited to the building’s interior.

Completed in 1744, Holden Chapel has been used for many purposes over the years. It started out, true to its name, as a chapel. But Harvard Hall took over that function about 20 years later.

Since then, the building has served as a storeroom, a chemistry laboratory, barracks for colonial troops during the Revolutionary War, a garage for the College fire apparatus, and most recently, as the office for the Harvard Glee Club, the Radcliffe Choral Society, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum. Those headquarters have been moved to the basement of newly renovated Harvard Hall.

The Harvard Hall renovations were completed Sept. 19 and included five classrooms in the building’s upper two levels as well as student space in the basement. Most of that basement space is taken up by the offices and libraries of the choral ensembles. Harvard Hall and Holden Chapel were renovated as part of the same project, with a total cost of about $5 million.

Marvin thanked those involved in the project and said the restoration addresses both the need for classroom space and the lack of rehearsal space resulting from a 200 percent increase in participation in the performing arts at Harvard in the last 15 years.

"With this new beautiful rehearsal hall/classroom, Harvard has simultaneously addressed these concerns," Marvin said. "Especially meaningful is Harvard’s generous and thoughtful gesture of building a choral rehearsal in Holden itself, our home for some 60 years, thereby placing symbolically and literally the performing arts at the center of Ha rvard Yard."

Though the building’s use as rehearsal space was taken into account in designing the renovation, consideration was also made for its use as a classroom. In addition to movable chairs, a desk, and a lectern, the building has new audiovisual systems and a large, sliding whiteboard along the north wall.

"Given the prime location of Holden in Harvard Yard as well as its architectural beauty, we were eager to optimize its usefulness to the College community," Herschbach said. "We have a great need for modernized instructional space in the Yard and rehearsal space for our extraordinary choirs. Thus, the combination of classroom and rehearsal hall was perfect for Holden."


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College