Literature Professor David Stern had planned to teach his first-year seminar, “Harvard’s Greatest Hits,” on the history of books and their physical forms, last academic year in a newly renovated space at Houghton Library.
But due to the pandemic, Houghton was closed for nearly double the 12 months scheduled for its renovation. It wasn’t until after the library reopened to students, faculty, and staff in September that Stern finally found himself back in its classrooms, leading a discussion on materiality as his students examined shards of pottery, delicate papyrus fragments, and parchment scrolls.
Teaching in the new Houghton, he said, was worth the wait.
“It’s spectacular,” said Stern, Harvard’s Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Jewish and Hebrew Literature. “It’s more welcoming, more friendly. I’m so impressed with the job they did.”
In a typical year, Houghton engages a multitude of scholars and is one of the libraries at Harvard that receives the most visitors from outside the University. The world-renowned research center and teaching laboratory holds millions of primary sources and hosts open exhibitions and events every year, as well as nearly 300 visits from classes like Stern’s. It is expected to reopen to visiting researchers on Monday.
When construction on the building was completed in February, library staff couldn’t wait for its safe reopening to users, said Thomas Hyry, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library.
“As wonderful as it was to see construction completed, we were even more excited for the day when the spaces could be used again,” Hyry said. “The work done to renovate Houghton was meant to be appreciated not only by staff members but by students, faculty, and the community.”
After all, he said, the vision for the project was to create a more welcoming and accessible building that all community members could use and enjoy.
The renovation was led by Ann Beha Architects in partnership with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Physical Resources and Planning. It was funded in part by generous gifts from alumni, including Peter J. Solomon ’60, M.B.A. ’63, and his wife, Susan, who also gave a children’s literature collection to the library and an additional gift to construct a new gate in Harvard Yard.
The reopening of all library buildings this year has been gratifying, said University Librarian Martha Whitehead, and Houghton especially so.
“Library users are returning to a space that is instrumental to their teaching, learning, or research,” Whitehead said. “In addition to this, Houghton is now an enhanced version of the space they knew and can serve their needs even better than before.”
On a brief tour through the building this month, Hyry pointed out some of the new things he and his colleagues are most excited for users to experience.
The changes to Houghton are evident before stepping through its doors, as the front of the building now includes a grand staircase and two wheelchair-accessible paths — as well as the new Appell Plaza, gift of the Powder Mill Foundation in honor of Louis J. Appell Jr. ’47, and Josephine S. Appell. These renovations are part of a conscious shift to make Houghton easier to navigate, Hyry said.
Inside the building, new features include visitor elevators and lockers; gender-neutral, wheelchair-accessible restrooms; modernized wayfinding and signage; and a welcome ambassador in the lobby to greet and provide information to visitors.