Mayo-Smith Ballroom on the Chopping Block
By J. Robinson Mead, Staff Writer
When students crowd around the floor plans in the hallway outside the Dean of Students Office in anticipation of this spring’s Room Draw, many of the renovations made over the past year to Mayo-Smith House will be all but invisible.

According to Assistant Director of Facilities Tom Davies, director of design and construction for physical plant, “All building systems are being replaced, life-safety enhancements like fire separations are being built and many energy improvements made.”

However, students are most likely to notice what will be missing from the floor plan—the building’s traditional first floor and much-loved ballroom or “Great Room.” “The ballroom is being converted into a lounge and several new bedrooms,” Davies explained. “The lounge will be at the east end, highlighting the fireplace which is being restored.”

News of the room’s destruction has shocked many students and alumni. Upon hearing the news that the Great Room will no longer exist, Enis Moran ’07, who lived in Mayo-Smith last year, expressed his dismay. “I’m very sad to hear that the Mayo Ballroom will no longer exist,” he said. “The common spaces in the Triangle dorms were perhaps the best heritage the Greek system left to Amherst, and I feel like this decision is going to hurt the social atmosphere for students by pushing them to gather in smaller and rather unpleasant spaces such as Social Dorm basements.”

“The decision to get rid of the Mayo Ballroom shows a continuing lack of communication and interest on the part of the Board of Trustees to the student body,” expressed Matt Stolper ’10, frustrated at the news. Echoing Stolper’s sentiment, Samantha Miller ’08 explained, “As a senior, with just three years in Mayo, I can only imagine how many disappointed alumni will see some of their fondest memories literally demolished with this careless oversight.”

Boris Bulayev ’07, a Mayo-Smith resident last year, called the demolition of the Great Hall no less than a “tragedy.” He jokingly added, “I may even reconsider my $10 donation to the College next year.”

While Hamilton and Porter Houses had their common spaces left largely intact when renovated, Mayo-Smith’s ballroom is the first large common space to fall victim to the College’s Residential Master Plan (RMP).

“One of the goals of the Residential Master Plan is to provide equitable distribution of common spaces throughout the College’s dorms,” Davies said. “Mayo-Smith will be less of an outlier after renovations.” Prior to the 2001 RMP, common space was concentrated in upperclass housing, mostly in the former fraternity houses. The addition of the O’Connor Commons in Charles Pratt Dormitory and small floor lounges throughout the renovated dorms is intended to reverse the imbalance in common space between first-year and upperclass housing. In addition, the move represents a cost-saving effort by the Board of Trustees to add more dorm rooms to the campus without having to build a new building.

The current work represents perhaps the biggest change to Mayo-Smith House since its construction in 1923 to be the Chi Psi fraternity lodge. However, Davies assured the building would maintain its original character, even without some of its celebrated common space. “Like Hamilton and Porter, the building will retain its historic feel though preservation of original woodwork and historically accurate new components like windows, doors, wood floors, etc.”

The historic character will perhaps be most evident in the library, which will also see renovation. “The library is being restored, preserving the woodwork, fireplace and decorative vaulted ceiling,” Davies said. “The northern section of the room will house a kitchenette and study table area, while the library proper will have soft seating and TV. The large stained-glass window was removed to protect it, and plans are underway to have it restored.” He added, “Access improvements will make the entire area fully accessible to all.”

Yet, Jeff Gruskay ’77, who lived in the house from 1974-1976 when it was still Chi Psi, fondly recalls memories of the Great Room the way it was. “‘The Great Room,’ as it was called in the ’70s, was the site of parties, dances, post-football game tailgates, late-night pizza bashes and world-changing conversations,” he remembered. “To think that the College is planning to replace it with four single rooms is disappointing.”

Jesse Corradi ’08, a resident of Hitchcock, expressed concern that the precedent set by the removal of the Mayo-Smith ballroom will extend to the planned renovations of Hitchcock and Seelye Houses. “My fear is that the renovation of Mayo-Smith, which eliminates the ballroom, will encourage similar renovation strategies for Hitchcock and Seelye—leaving all three dorms without adequate hallway space,” he said. “The dorms will lose character, student camaraderie, heart and consistency if they remove the valuable student spaces in place of more student rooms.”

Hitchcock and Seelye Houses are planned for renovation next year, as part of the RMP. “They will come back on line in September 2009,” Davies said. “Existing common spaces in those buildings will all be fully renovated and will largely remain in their current configurations.”

Charles Drew House, also currently under renovation, will see similar improvements to Mayo-Smith. Davies described the work there as “a comprehensive renovation of all aspects of the building. The large common spaces on the first floor will be largely retained. A new full kitchen will be created instead of the former study room.”

-Josh Glasser contributed to this report

Issue 17, Submitted 2008-02-20 07:19:16