EDITORIAL: Commend University decision on Usen Castle
On Monday, Interim President Lisa Lynch emailed the student body to announce that, beginning in spring 2017, students will no longer be able to live in Usen Castle and that every part of the iconic building beside A and B towers will be torn down over the summer of 2017. New dorms, with air conditioning and expanded bedding, will replace the aged Castle. Demolishing one of the most iconic parts of the Brandeis campus is obviously a painful decision for everyone involved; the Castle was historically recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and is beloved by students, alumni and visitors. However, this board agrees with the decision to take down the Castle.
While it is the most charming piece of architecture on campus and a unique sight that attracts prospective students to the University, the Castle is simply no longer a viable space for most any function, and particularly not for its current status as a dormitory.
According to a note on the Brandeis Alumni and Friends website from Jim Gray — vice president for campus operations, shared with alums on Sept. 5, 2015 — the Castle is the oldest dormitory on campus.
In a Dec. 9, 2014 article, Gray told the Justice that a lack of renovations could possibly be a threat to student safety, especially from falling objects during extreme weather, and that the structure’s infrastructure needed to be investigated. Although in a Feb. 9, 2015 article, Gray said that the building could still be used as housing for the 2015-2016 school year, it seems that these well-founded concerns about both student safety and the structural integrity of the Castle have been taken to heart.
Justice articles from February 2010 and 2011 cite multiple reports of leaking roofs, leading to the destruction of some residents’ possessions and extensive water damage. Additionally, the February 2010 article stated that heavy rain contributed to the collapse of a roof, forcing a student to relocate to Hassenfeld Hall in East Quad. It is far better to make sure students have a safe place to live raher than maintain a status quo that is potentially dangerous and literally falling apart.
Clearly, the Castle has presented safety concerns for the last several school years, and anecdotal evidence points to ongoing issues long before then. While the University has done everything it could to make the Castle viable for students, repair work simply can’t undo the structural issues in the Castle’s construction itself, many of which are the results of past renovations that had each attempted to preserve the deteriorating building for just a few more years.
The fact is that bringing down the Castle is a choice that has been a long time coming for the University; yet fond feelings and alumni memories —and a plurality of marketing material — have kept the inevitable formal conversation about the Castle’s sustainability and future mainly behind closed doors, as prospective students continue to be wowed by a building that few sophomores actually desire to live in once they are on campus. The hesitance around this conversation represents iconography and marketing material taking precedence to acknowledging hard realities. This board believes the University should have begun this public conversation long ago, before the situation became so dire. Deciding to tear down a major landmark is a difficult decision with many factors, such as legitimate concern about cost and the added concern of sufficient student housing in the interim period, but the aesthetic of the Castle should not serve as a legitimate cause for the University’s hesitation to act on the issue.
If the University had been more proactive and open, community members dedicated to the preservation at the Castle might have been part of the conversation earlier, and they may not have felt blindsided by the University’s move. Gray told the Justice in a Jan. 25 interview that the cost of this plan will be 37 million dollars, while renovating would cost many multiples of that and would not be sustainable in the long-term.
There are many people who will probably be upset about this decision, especially alumni who feel nostalgic about the Castle. However, nostalgia cannot be the reason why students do not have adequate housing, and it should not stand in the way of making an important call. Many of the most vocal defenders of preserving the Castle in University discourse thus far have been online commenters, many of whom no longer live on campus and do not have constant reminders of the Castle’s decayed state.
The safety of students now and increased on-campus accommodation of students in the future sadly must outweigh the fond memories of students past. Further, preserving A and B towers maintains many of the most iconic locations of the Castle, such as Cholmondeley’s Coffee House, which should serve to soften the blow and maintain the traditions associated with the Castle.
Allowing a level-headed, cost-effective decision that any business which maintains property would make to impact one’s perception of the University as a whole is irrational and prioritizes one’s own rosey memories above the realities of the current situation.
Following this decision, this board calls on the University to be transparent about where students will reside while new dorms are being built as well as to ensure the community is informed about the new building replacing Usen Castle, including construction costs and level of environmental efficiency.
According to Gray in an interview with the Justice, specifics on the new piece of architecture have not yet been finalized, so we hope that Gray will provide the community with regular reports as more information is set in stone. The board sees this difficult decision as a positive. This is a rare opportunity to add more state-of-the art housing to a central location on campus as the University faces a large housing shortage.
The efforts of the University to address this longstanding issue provide a step in the right direction. While the Castle holds a place in the hearts of many in the Brandeis community, this alternative is both a way of saving an important aspect of the Castle, ensuring student housing and prioritizing student safety. This board encourages the University to remain transparent in its endeavors while maintaining an important element of the Brandeis campus and its history.