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Venerable Building 20, `A Building With Soul'

("A Building with Soul" by Alex Beam originally appeared in The Boston Globe, June 29, 1988. It is reprinted with permission of The Boston Globe.)

I am sitting inside MIT's legendary Building 20 with three great minds, one of them encased in plaster.

Institute Professor of Linguistics Morris Halle and neurophysiologist Jerome Lettvin--seated on opposite sides of a bust of German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt--are rhapsodizing about the rickety wooden barracks that is their professional home.

"Building 20 is an admixture of all the interesting things at MIT," says Lettvin, a jovial mountain of shivering cerebra who is admired inside Building 20 not for his genius but as a man who first uttered a profanity on television, during a 1961 debate with Timothy Leary ("It made the front page of Variety," Lettvin insists. "You can look it up.")

What's so special about Building 20? Even the MIT Museum had trouble answering that question in 1980, when it organized an exhibit dedicated to the ramshackle "Plywood Palace," the least descript of all the Institute's studiously nondescript structures. "Why do we celebrate a building so modest, so meek and indeed so homely in its demeanor?" asked the introduction to the exhibit catalogue.

First off, we celebrate its history. One of several temporary structures thrown up on campus during World War II-it took less than an afternoon to design-Building 20 is the only one still standing. Many of MIT's greatest projects, including the wartime radar project and its first interdisciplinary labs started in Building 20, along with many of the Institute's leading professors.

Secondly, the building is the kind of academic melting pot that gives university presidents indigestion. Famed linguist and antiwar activist Noam Chomsky works just a few doors away from MIT's ROTC offices, which have decorated one whole wall with a colorful mural of an F-16 fighter.

The music department's piano repair facility-a "computer-free zone," according to a sign on the wall-shares a floor with the nuclear science lab's shop room. The model railroad club, which houses the most sophisticated toy train in the world, is just a stone's throw away from the chemical engineering department's cell culture lab, where a bulletin board message inquires plaintively: "Did anybody use toxic substances in the small Corning spinner flasks? About half of my cultures died without apparent reason."

After the war, many of the heavyweight research projects moved into their own buildings, and Building 20, with its creaky floors and poor ventilation, attracted researchers who couldn't find space elsewhere at MIT. Once they settled in, they fell in love with the place. "It turned out to be absolutely perfect for research," explains Halle, an ebullient bearded scholar who has made Building 20 his home for 37 years. "You can knock down a wall, you can punch out a ceiling, and you could get space. In academics, space is everything."

In the interests of space, Halle's lab launched an "expansionist" raid against the model railroad club's huge two-room suite. The land grab failed because the club argued that its computerized, 200-switch track layout could not be easily moved. Indeed, a move against the club might have set off a revolt among the building's older tenants, who fondly remember the five-cent Cokes dispensed from the club's specially programmed soft drink machine.

Not surprisingly, Building 20 has its own myths.

"I know someone who can tell you some hair-raising stories about the early days of microwave," Lettvin says, shoving aside piles of unopened mail to dial his phone. Unfortunately, his contact isn't in.

"Remember the phantom?" Lettvin asks. Indeed, Halle does remember the mysterious, homeless botanist who camped out in a Building 20 storeroom and haunted the building's corridors during the 1960s and '70s. No one knows how he supported himself, or who his family was. "He turned down a job at the Field Museum in Chicago in order to remain a phantom in Building 20," Lettvin says.

The professors say MIT tried to evict the squatter and lost their case in a Cambridge court. The phantom hung on until 1980, only to drift into oblivion--and into the history of Building 20.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 1996.

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