Alumni, students, and leaders in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) donned hard hats and plunged shovels into the earth on Wednesday to mark the launch of the Old Quincy House Test Project. The initiative, which is scheduled to run through the 2012-13 academic year, will provide students with a 21st-century residential experience, and inform Harvard’s efforts to renew the entire House system.

Addressing a crowd of more than 100 students, faculty, staff, and alumni, Dean Michael D. Smith of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences hailed the groundbreaking as a celebration of Harvard’s residential system and its centrality to undergraduate education.

“Dean Smith has been extraordinary in the prototyping and ensuring that the materials used will really satisfy a need and meet the demands and expectations of the undergraduates. If we had done it 10 years ago, we might have ended up with something that wouldn’t endure the 50-year life span that we hope this project will have.” — Gwill York

“The House system is the institution at the very heart of the Harvard experience,” Smith said. “The Houses provide a structure that fosters transformative connections to peers, to faculty, to tutors. In turn, these connections further students’ intellectual, social, and moral growth.”

Smith, a computer scientist, spoke only hours after Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced the launch of edX, a transformational partnership in online education. He said that the type of living and learning experience that Harvard will offer future students will only become more important and relevant in the digital age.

“Technology has expanded our social networks,” Smith said, “but the quality of these digital connections will never replace the rich, unexpected, face-to-face experience of a House community. In today’s plugged-in, always-on world, the kind of connection afforded by the House system is a truly precious resource.”

Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds spoke about the House system’s efforts to live up to the ideal of a diverse and inclusive community since its establishment in 1931. The addition of Dudley House in the 1950s, Hammonds said, brought commuters into the system. The late ’60s saw an increase in African-American students. Women were integrated in 1970 when the Harvard and Radcliffe Houses merged. The result of all these changes, Hammonds said, is a distinctive, lively, and diverse living and learning experience for undergraduates.

“Today, the Houses retain much of their historical character, while still hosting a lively spectrum of students, tutors, and faculty members,” she said. “They are centers of cultural, intellectual, and social life in an otherwise decentralized campus. It has been the work of many generations to turn each House into a real home.”

Quincy Co-Master Lee Gehrke said that the day’s ceremony was the end of a long road of planning, consultation, and preparation that involved the House community. He singled out architects Steve Kieran and Joanne Aitken, as well as Steve Needham, senior director of project management, Merle Bicknell, assistant dean of FAS physical resources, and Suzy Nelson, dean of the Office of Student Life, for their contributions. Gehrke joked that he and his wife were considering a career change because of the House renewal process.

“Deb and I have also acquired practical skills,” he said. “As a result of attending innumerable meetings, we now know more about bathroom tiles, window frames, and shower ventilation than we ever imagined. We may be qualified for post-Harvard careers in building design consulting!”

Catherine Katz ’13 and Scott Yim ’13, co-chairs of the Quincy House Committee, said that students had been involved in every part of the renewal planning process. Yim expressed enthusiasm for the effect that the test project is likely to have on residential life.

“Old Quincy will look the same on the exterior. But the inside will be improved, not only in a physical sense, but also in the way students are brought together as a community,” Yim said. “We look forward to the example that Quincy will set … in bringing students together through the basement and terrace-level public spaces, as well as the common rooms.”

Also participating in the day’s ceremonies were FAS capital campaign co-chair Carl Martignetti ’81, M.B.A. ’85, and Harvard College Fund Executive Committee co-chair Gwill York ’79, M.B.A. ’84. Martignetti said he was excited to think of the type of living and learning experience that Harvard will offer students after the test project is finished.

“I think House renewal is as important a priority as any on campus,” he said, “and will do as much as anything else to enhance the undergraduate experience beyond the bricks and mortar. There’s really an opportunity to enhance programming and the overall experience for students. To see the first piece become a reality is an important moment.”

Deborah Gehrke, co-master of Quincy House (from left), Catherine Katz '13, Scott Yim '13, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds (podium), and Lee Gehrke, co-master of Quincy House, during the groundbreaking ceremony.

York shared Martignetti’s excitement and praised the University for taking advantage of a once-in-a-century opportunity to renew the Houses and enhance the learning experience at the College.

“I think the timing for this is exquisite,” she said. “Dean Smith has been extraordinary in the prototyping and ensuring that the materials used will really satisfy a need and meet the demands and expectations of the undergraduates. If we had done it 10 years ago, we might have ended up with something that wouldn’t endure the 50-year life span that we hope this project will have.”

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