Arts & Culture

Play space

8 min read

Pool sets stage for students’ imaginations

Musicians are cleaning and tuning their instruments. Dancers are stretching. Singers are warming their voices. Exhibits are nearly all mounted. Arts First Weekend is about to begin, a time when the whole campus becomes a stage. There is one art space at Harvard, however, that’s often overlooked as audiences flock to the venerated Loeb Mainstage or the New College Theatre: a quirky, idiosyncratic space that has long sat at the fringe of the Harvard art scene, serving as home to an array of fresh, original, offbeat productions. Why, it’s barely even a theater (and it’s more than a theater). It’s … “The Pool.”

The Adams House Pool Theatre sits in the heart of Westmorly Court, one of the several “Gold Coast” dormitories that now make up Adams House. Originally built as a pool, the space has become home to unconventional, spirited productions and has gained a reputation as an alternative venue on campus. The unique character of this strange performance space is a result of its rich history … literally.

Built around the turn of the century, the Gold Coast dormitories were private accommodations for wealthy Harvard students. Westmorly Court was the most luxurious of them all. Renowned architects Warren and Wetmore designed the facility early in their careers, before moving on to build scores of architectural marvels including Grand Central Station and The Biltmore Hotel in New York. Only the wealthiest of Harvard students, such as former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could afford the lavish accommodation, where rent was three times the cost of Harvard’s tuition!

The pool was the elegant centerpiece of Westmorly Court. From the court’s main entrance, the path to this spa for the well-to-do flowed down a grand, curved staircase. Natural light from graceful skylights and arching windows filtered in and reflected off of rippling water and marble floors. The room was adorned with wicker lounge furniture, palms and other plants, and trellised walls. Water spewed into the pool from the mouth of a stone-carved River-God fountain. Two baronial fireplaces roared in the corners.

In the 1930s, when President Abbott Lawrence Lowell established the House system, the pool ceased to be a posh playground for the privileged. Several of the privately owned Gold Coast dormitories, including Westmorly Court and its pool, were purchased by the University and made part of Adams House.

Adams House was the only House with a pool, and its residents were fiercely proud of it — but they had to share. With the institution of the House system, the pool was open to a wide array of students, and pool rules and hours were instituted. A red sign still hangs on the wall of the theater announcing these rules, but, apparently, they were loosely followed. According to Michael Weishan ’86, an Adams House alum and member of the Senior Common Room — and informal historian of the pool — the rules only applied to those who couldn’t find a key. “If you knew someone,” said Weishan, “you could get a key.”

This disdain for rules grew with the years. By the notorious ’60s and ’70s, the pool was a hangout for the mischievous. Stories of raucous parties, often nude, abound.

To think of the pool as a space solely for rebellious students to amuse themselves would be unfair. Some simply enjoyed relaxing. Weishan recalls, “You could just sit and watch the snow fall on the glass roof and the water flowing out. … It was a great place.” The pool had other uses, too. In the early 1970s, the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship would reserve the Adams pool to perform baptisms.

But it was in 1978 that the pool’s singular future was foreshadowed by the legendary aquatic production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” by Peter Sellars ’80.

In Sellars’ inspired version, the audience was arranged around the misty waters of the filled pool. Cleopatra’s raft floated in the center, and actors pranced in and around the pool. A Crimson review explained, “[Sellars] pokes incessantly at the perimeters of his playing area, his actors drenching his audience, or leading it out of the room altogether, into Rome (A-entry of Adams House).” Sellars’ innovative use of the pool space gained national attention.

When Sellars made his splash in the Adams pool, the House already had a reputation being strong in the arts and a haven for those who preferred to live alternative lifestyles. Many artistic types flocked to the House, including well-known actors and directors Terrence Malick, André Gregory, John Lithgow, and Donal Logue, and now-world-famous theatrical and operatic director Sellars. But while the House retained its artsy cachet, the pool functioned as a pool more than a theater through the ’80s. And it continued to be the frequent site of student excess.

After a particularly raucous party in March 1990, at which students wore “jungle attire,” the pool was closed. A leak was detected before the pool could reopen, and the cost of repairing the ancient plumbing was estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, the Adams pool was drained forever. University officials steadfastly maintain that the pool was closed because it was too expensive to repair. But alumni still grumble that the administration was trying to regulate students’ moral behavior by its closing.

The pool languished behind locked doors for several years. Then, in October 1993, says former House Master Robert Kiely, “When it became clear that there was no money or will on the part of the College to restore it as a pool, the students and the drama tutor and I persuaded the dean to give money toward a theater.” Skylights were covered, windows boarded with slabs of wood, and the once-romantic swimming pool became a cavernous theater. The deep end was now a stage, and house seating plunged into the shallow end.

In the spring of 1996, the housing system converted to a randomized system in which freshmen could not choose their preferences for Houses. Current House Co-Master Sean Palfrey says, “After randomization, we wanted to maintain Adams as a place for celebrating the arts, music, and diversity at Harvard. … We wanted to maintain as much of the flair and character of Adams House as we could.” And so, to that end, the Pool Theatre, along with other spaces, was enhanced. In more recent years, the enhancement has turned into a renaissance of sorts.

Matt Corriel, the current Adams House drama tutor, has led efforts to reinvigorate the Pool Theatre. “The space is inherently beautiful,” Corriel says, “and I want to bring out that beauty.” Plush seating now graces the shallow end, and a high-end projector and screen system have made the space a sometimes-cinema. Mirrors have replaced the boarded windows, exposing some of the original architecture. A new light board and sound system replaced the “disastrous” old systems. Happily, the unique characteristics of the pool architecture, such as the fireplace, the curved stairs, the River-God fountain, and the pool itself, are still plainly visible. The improvements are paying off, says Corriel: “We are getting a higher caliber of shows coming into the pool than we have before. And we are getting more interest in using the pool for nontheatrical events.”

“The audience is actually in the pool with the actors, and the actors climb up onto the edges of the pool … and really interact with the audience,” says Hessel Yntema IV ’09, producer of this upcoming weekend’s (May 1-3) production of “Bajo la Arena … El Público,” which is described as a “meta-theatrical, surrealistic, experimental, avant-garde project that attempts to re-formulate theatre as we know it” — perfect for the pool. Directors of BlackCAST’s recent production, “The Exonerated,” sought out the pool for its intimate setting and because it allows characters to “break the ‘fourth wall’ of the theater.” In the upcoming dance show “Mainly Jazz,” dancers incorporate the pool’s edges and railings into the dances.

The pool no longer functions solely as a performance space, however. In between theatrical performances, students can now reserve the space for other uses — lectures, science demonstrations, readings, comedy and improv, and (most popularly) movie nights.

The vivacity once harbored by a swimming pool has been rekindled in a theater that is far more than just a theater, but a space that carries the karmic history of its past. Almost every night, there is something stirring in the pool. The Adams House Pool is once again a source of pride. Not because it was a pool. Not because it is a theater. But because it is whatever the students can imagine it to be.

Caitlin Rotman ’10 is a resident of Adams House.