During its many years of occupancy, Bexley Hall added a splash of color to the narrative of MIT dormitories. One of the first dorms to become coed, and one of the first to allow cats, Bexley also became known for its own culture.
When extensive structural deterioration was discovered in the walls of Bexley Hall in April 2013, the Institute explored options to save the building. Significant water infiltration had loosened Bexley’s masonry exterior, and analysis showed that the safest course of action was to raze the building. The demolition process is scheduled to begin during the week of June 29.
Upon learning that Bexley would have to come down, MIT was faced with both a loss and a dilemma. The Institute needed a short-term solution to make the post-demolition site usable and useful during the time needed to develop a longer-term plan of action. And what might be the best transitional use?
The answer: An accessible outdoor open space where community members can enjoy restful moments on a bench, have lunch together, and perhaps view short-term installations engineered by MIT faculty and students from a range of departments. This space would expand the campus landscape on Massachusetts Avenue, a primary gateway for MIT.
“The Bexley site is right at our front door,” notes Laura Tenny, senior campus planner at the Office of Campus Planning. “It’s a fitting place to showcase work by the MIT community.”
In the interim
During a series of meetings in the fall of 2014, a student-faculty stakeholder group worked with the Office of Campus Planning to develop a conceptual plan for a temporary park or garden at the site. Together, the group identified priorities for the site and sketched out a vision of what the park might look like and the amenities it might include. The resulting conceptual plan — developed by landscape architects Studio 2112 — was presented to the Cambridge Historical Commission, which approved it in May.
In the meantime, student and alumni members of the Bexley community have urged MIT to preserve key aspects of their well-loved Hall. In response, a collection of bricks from the building will be saved, and a number of interior doors — identified by students as the most unique — have been removed and preserved. In addition, MIT has photographed some of the artwork in the building.
Shawmut Design and Construction will undertake the demolition and construction activities at the Bexley site. Abatement activities began in April and will continue through mid-June, after which the demolition of the building will begin. The site team will dismantle the structure using excavators, a process that is expected to continue through the summer and be completed in about two months. By late August, construction of the landscape will begin, with a completion target of October.
As a dormitory, Bexley Hall provided housing for 116 undergraduates, and the loss of these rooms is an important housing consideration for MIT. The Institute’s West Campus Study, currently in development, will help the Institute evaluate potential sites for residential as well as academic uses, to address both short- and long-term needs.
An engaging space
The student-faculty stakeholder group recently met with Facilities and Campus Planning personnel to review design proposals for the interim open space. “We were pleased to have a strong conceptual plan to present,” Tenny says. “This was also a chance for the group to provide some additional input.”
As envisioned in the conceptual plan, the site — which will front on Massachusetts Avenue, almost directly opposite MIT’s main entrance — will offer an expansive area along the public sidewalk with a long curving bench where people can sit while waiting for a bus or shuttle. Beyond this area, the space will unfold gently toward the MIT Chapel, easing down to a slightly lower elevation before rising up again with a sloping lawn on the far side. Grassy areas will alternate with sections of asphalt and stone dust pavement, framing walkways that are fully accessible. Numerous benches will offer places to rest or eat lunch.
The site plan calls for the re-use of salvaged materials from Bexley Hall, including foundation and basement walls that will be left in place. The stone archway from Bexley’s entry gate on Mass. Ave. will start a new life as a park bench. Around these established pieces, the park will feature simple plantings such as poplars, rain gardens, and shrubs chosen to provide bright winter color.
“In one area,” Tenny notes, “there will be space for installations by MIT students and faculty. A system of underground footings with eyeholes will be available as tie-downs if needed. We hope a variety of MIT departments will be interested in this opportunity to engage the community with their work.”
Tenny and her colleagues are exploring the site’s potential with J. Meejin Yoon, head of the Department of Architecture, and Miho Mazereeuw, assistant professor and director of the Urban Risk Lab. “There is no shortage of great ideas for experimental installations on this site by faculty and students,” Yoon says. “The department is looking forward to developing the first installation once a formal process is established.”
For the duration of the project, a pedestrian walkway in front of the Bexley site will remain available but pedestrians will be encouraged to use the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. During demolition and landscape construction, the site will be contained within a fence, and the alleyway between the site and the chapel will be closed to the public.
Questions about the construction project may be directed to MIT Department of Facilities program manager Joseph Collins.