In 1901, the Riverbank Court Hotel was erected on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge. On Wednesday, the building was feted at MIT under its new name: Fariborz Maseeh Hall.
Thousands of MIT students, faculty and staff turned out at Wednesday’s block party to officially welcome Maseeh Hall — the Institute’s newest undergraduate dormitory — to the MIT campus. Over the past two years, the building has received a thorough renovation, although the desire to transform it into housing for undergraduates has been long-standing.
“Maseeh Hall was a project we planned for many, many years,” MIT President Susan Hockfield said during Wednesday’s event. “It was the project that ran into the buzz saw of the financial downturn, and so those who made Maseeh Hall possible showed a huge amount of stamina and stick-to-itiveness.”
The Howard Dining Hall inside Maseeh Hall was named by, though not after, a generous anonymous donor whose gift helped spark the building’s renovation. The building itself is named in recognition of Fariborz Maseeh ScD ’90, who in September 2010 gave a gift to expand the undergraduate student body, helping assure the project’s completion.
Maseeh Hall housemaster Suzanne Flynn, a professor of second-language acquisition in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, worked with students from the beginning of the housing project to foster an inclusive, open community within the dorm. Flynn says that the renovated building was worth the three-year wait.
“Maseeh Hall has been restored to its original grace and glory,” Flynn says. “It really stands as a beacon here at the entrance of MIT.”
Laying the foundation
Situated at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Memorial Drive, the Riverbank Court Hotel had amenities pertinent to its era: What is now a grassy courtyard was once a paved lot for carriages and horses rode right into the hotel lobby. The pillars in Maseeh Hall’s foyer bear signs of that practice — visible scrapes from carriage wheels.
The hotel closed during the Great Depression, and MIT acquired it in 1937. The Institute repurposed the hotel as a graduate dormitory, although it chose to preserve certain features of hotel living, at least for the first few years. For example, hotel orderlies were kept on to change and clean students’ bed sheets.
The reopening of the building as a graduate dorm — on Sept. 19, 1938 — coincided with the infamous hurricane of ’38, one of the strongest ever to hit the Northeast. And when students moved into Maseeh Hall earlier this month, history repeated itself: Hurricane Irene, which closed the campus for a day, made landfall just as students were settling in.
Through the years, the graduate dorm evolved its own traditions, including the Cherry Pie Society, a group of students who, in the 1950s, met regularly in the dorm’s dining hall with then-housemaster Avery Allen Ashdown. The society held discussions about anything and everything, as long as it didn’t relate to students’ coursework. Ashdown made one other stipulation: While the dinner of the evening could vary, dessert would always stay the same.
Ashdown was a popular and encouraging housemaster who took an active part in shaping the dorm community for more than 20 years. After his death in 1970, students successfully petitioned to rename the dorm Ashdown House.
Housemasters who succeeded Ashdown kept up another of his traditions, inviting speakers to the dorm to give informal talks to students in the dining hall. The luminaries who visited included poet Robert Frost, novelists Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov, and physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr.
Jack Carroll, Flynn’s husband and her fellow housemaster at Maseeh Hall, recalls Ashdown House as full of physical quirks.
“If you walked by the building in the winter, all the windows were open because they couldn’t control the heat,” Carroll says. “So there was just all this heat pouring out. But the graduate students … loved the building.”
In 2008, MIT decided to convert the dorm to undergraduate housing. The building’s residents were relocated to a newly constructed building, aptly named New Ashdown House, in the thriving graduate community of the northwest campus.
Rising up from Ashdown
Soon after Ashdown House relocated, a group of 10 undergraduates met with Flynn and Carroll. The group established itself as an undergraduate task force for what would be Maseeh Hall and named itself the Phoenix Group — a new undergraduate community rising from the “ashes” of Ashdown House.
The group eventually grew to 50 students and continued to make plans for a new undergraduate community, even in the midst of an economic downturn that temporarily halted the renovation of the dorm.
But in September 2010, MIT received Maseeh’s $24 million gift, which helped jump-start renovations of “Old Ashdown.” The Phoenix Group gave architects regular input during the planning of the renovations; after extensive remodeling of the interior and reinforcements to the exterior, the building opened its doors to students earlier this month.
Maseeh Hall has plenty of new features, while retaining some of the old hotel’s original details. The carriage-imprinted pillars still line the lobby, and a grandfather clock, once connected to the building’s bell tower, stands in one of the dining rooms. Modern updates include a game room, a media room, conference rooms and a small gym, along with whiteboards and walls that can be written upon on every floor, a suggestion made by Phoenix Group members.
“We discovered that whiteboards became the centers of community, particularly for freshmen,” Carroll says. “They would gather in the halls at 2:00 in the morning and do P-sets, and [the architects] built a lot of whiteboards into the building.”
“The Howard,” the largest dining facility on campus, provides all-you-care-to-eat dining to students, faculty and staff. Diners can circulate among a number of food stations, including a salad bar, a kosher station, a stir-fry stand, a grill and a dessert bar that may, on occasion, serve cherry pie.
Dorm leaders hope to use The Howard not just as a dining room but also as a community hub. In the future, the hall may host informal gatherings, reminiscent of the Cherry Pie Society, in which students give presentations on non-schoolwork topics.
Carroll says the dorm also plans to invite MIT professors to dine and to speak with small groups of residents. The goal, Carroll says, is to forge relationships between professors and students on a more informal basis, outside the classroom.
“People are loyal to the houses they lived in, because that’s where their emotional experience of MIT was,” Carroll says. “So what we hope is that Maseeh will be the same thing, that it will create this new nucleus, this new home for people to come back to.”