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Former occupants recall Building 20 goings-on

The following reminiscenses about Building 20 were taken from an EECS web site and an RLE web site devoted to memories of the building.

Little red riding bike

My earliest memory of MIT is of Building 20. I was about four years old. I used to ride my red bicycle with training wheels that had a little license plate on the back that said "LISA" through the hall of that old musty building. My father and mother occasionally took me into Cambridge and I would ride my bike along the Charles River. We always detoured through Building 20; my father had space in that building and he would always stop and show me something or check and make sure everything was OK.

Being the kid of two longtime MIT employees, I have spent most of my life at MIT, one way or another. My first paycheck came at the age of 10 from RLE's Mary Scalleri for collating papers during a day off from school. Although I have been working at MIT for 12 years, every time I pass through Building 20 and smell that old familiar musty odor, I see myself riding through the halls on my little red bike.

-- Lisa Ann Bella

Ms. Bella is currently an administrative assistant in EECS. "My parents are Charles and RoseCarol Bella," she said. "My father started in 1947. He then became the RLE facility officer. He retired around 1982. My mother started in 1951 and worked in various MIT offices, mainly EECS and RLE. My parents met while both were working in RLE, they married in 1965, and had two children who have worked at MIT. She retired from EECS HQ's office after working 12 years as the administrative assistant to the administrative officer, then continued to work part-time until her death in 1997. I worked with my mother in the same office since 1984."

Watching it take shape

I watched the construction of Building 20 from my office in Building 22 (where building 26 now stands). It was the middle of World War II. A, B, and C wings went up together, and amazingly fast. You know these time-lapse pictures of building construction? It was almost like that in real time. Men would be starting nails in floor boards; behind them men with sledgehammers would drive the nails with one blow; behind them would be more men bringing up posts for the next floor.

E wing was different. They tried to build it in midwinter. They came with a steamshovel and trucks to excavate for the foundation pad. But the steamshovel could only make scraping noises on the frozen ground, so that afternoon they came back with a wrecking ball. They used the steam shovel to drop the ball on the hard ground. I could feel the earth shake while I stood at Mass. Ave., but the ground held. The next day they brought an air compressor and jackhammers, and they excavated the site. The concrete was to be poured the following day, but that night there was a heavy snowfall. They waited until spring.

-- Professor Emeritus Robert L. Kyhl

Another hole in the wall

In a paroxysm of frustration at the progress of his thesis, a colleague burst from his cubicle one afternoon and began to kick one of the composite board partitions in 20D-102, to the accompaniment of a rhythmic chant: "Deep structure! (WHACK!) Surface structure! (WHACK!) Semantic interpretation! (WHACK!)." The third whack put his foot through the board and into the wall space, leaving a hole that quickly sprouted a sign reading "The H.B. Lasnik Memorial Hole." In a couple days' time, two workmen arrived, cut, fit and painted a new panel, and were gone in half an hour. Building 20 triumphed again, invincible as always. It would not surprise me to hear that wrecking balls bounce off its sides, or perhaps pass through cleanly, leaving negligible damage. I devoutly hope so.

-- Gary Milsark

Gary Milsark was a linguistics graduate student in the early 1970s.

'A surreal aura'

As a graduate student in the early 1960s, John MacDonald, Tom Kincaid and I worked with Manuel Cerrillo in Building 20. Cerrillo's interests were in mathematical theories of art and music, and his lab had a surreal aura about it. At one point, Jerry Lettvin and Walter Pitts spent many long sessions with Cerrillo with the eventual goal of explaining his theories at an RLE colloquium. Sessions typically began around 11pm and lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. They would typically sit at a conference table, while we graduate students would sit in the background and listen in. On the table was a plaster hand with lines drawn to indicate the artistic flow of a hand. This, along with dim lights, stream of consciousness conversation, strange and exotic pictures on the walls, candles and other artifacts associated with the research all combined to lend an air of mystery and intrigue.

-- Professor Alan V. Oppenheim

Heartbreak, then delight

When I first saw Building 20, I was, of course, devastated. I had come from a United Nations skyscraper in Addis Ababa and had thought that most of the United States was like downtown Manhattan! But I got to love Building 20. It had a personality all its own: the creaky wooden floors, the leaky windows, the sprinklers that went off whether there was a fire or not, and there was so much scope for interior decoration: I remember painting each pipe a different color! When we moved to brand-new Building 36, I hated the shiny floors and touch-me-not walls.

-- Neena Lyall, Laboratory for Computer Science

Gunning for glory

On my first day as a research assistant at DACL [Dynamic Analysis and Controls Laboratory] in Building 20, I heard some loud noises which sounded very much like gunfire emanating from the floor below. I was even more surprised when, in response to the gunfire, some of the other researchers in my lab proceeded to lift up a desk and drop it on the floor a couple of times��������������������������� making even louder noises. Building 20 was not known for its soundproofing. It was then explained to me that the "guys" downstairs were shooting bullets through things like apples and the purpose of dropping the desk was to send them a message to cut down on the noise.

The "guys," as I later learned, were Professor Edgerton's group and the photographs that they were taking with strobe lights are now well known. Fortunately, Doc Edgerton and his "guys" had not been intimidated by the sound of the crashing desks.

-- Don Bruck (SM '58)

After leaving MIT, Mr. Bruck went on to earn MBA and JD degrees and started several companies. He is now chairman of the board ofBaron Industries, Inc.

"I attended the 'wake' last Friday and found it both entertaining and moving," he said this week. "Admittedly, I was just a peon in that illustrious building back in the '50s and 'insignificant' would be an overstatement as to my research contribution. Although at the time I didn't think too much about what else took place in Building 20 before or after my two-year stint, I came away Friday with the realization of the extent to which the course of history was affected by that beloved eyesore. Indeed, the 'free world' owes a debt of gratitude to the Radiation Lab and its progeny."

Abuzz with unrest

In 1972, I was studying the "shaking dance" of honeybee workers in Building 20E. This research, sponsored by the RLE under the gentle guidance of Professor Larry Frishkopf, required a non-air-conditioned building. My self-designed observation beehives lost heat easily since the frames were oriented vertically instead of horizontally.

I usually had to observe the dances on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War was still being waged and Nixon had just bombed Cambodia. Since Building 20 was also being used by the campus ROTC, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) decided to strike and occupy the building. When I went there to do my work, the Campus Police graciously allowed me to enter the building. On the way in, they asked me to unleash some of the bees into the building in hopes of rousting the strikers out of the occupied offices.

I was unable to comply because most of those bees were tediously color-coded on their thoraxes so I could tell how old they were. Releasing the bees would have cost a year of data. Eventually, I published my data in the Journal of Animal Behaviour which helped me gain admission to medical school.

I believe no other building on campus could have afforded me the opportunity to do this important research.

-- Robert A. Gah

Airy -- and creaky

I occupied an office on the top floor of D Wing. I say it was an office, but it often felt like an open-air tree house -- whether or not the windows were open. It was light and airy, to say the least.

Walking the halls of Building 20 always sounded like the sound track from a Hitchcock thriller. I swear that I could hear footfalls all the way from A Wing, especially at night. I hope someone thinks to record the sounds of the building before it's gone.

Entering the building at the end of D Wing did have its advantages for an impoverished research associate. Not a few items of basic office furnishings and building supplies in the form of large shipping crates ended up at the house after having been liberated from the trash room.

-- Ed Walker

First job site

Building 20 was the site of my first job! I remember looking at the building, which bore no resemblance to the elegant main complex, with some misgivings, but I was thrilled to have been offered a job at the Institute and told Ralph Sayers I didn't really care about the money! Inexperienced as I was, however, and new to this country, I soon realized that Building 20 housed an eclectic community.

As bilingual secretary and linguistic informant for German, I worked for a small group of linguists toiling over the hopeless vagaries of "mechanical translation." Little did I then anticipate that one of our postdocs would soon be famous for his "universal grammar"

-- Noam Chomsky.

Nor would I have imagined that then EE professor Jerry Wiesner, with whom I shared a wild ride in Dick Keyes' car as he tried to rush us all home to the western suburbs during a hurricane, would later become a US president's science advisor and an MIT president.

Building 20 was a lively, not very quiet place in the late '50s. Machines hummed on the first floor, and students and staff were coming and going constantly. Much of that has changed. But every once in a while, one encounters an old colleague from the Building 20 days at the Quarter Century Club.

-- Eva Ritter-Walker

Truly an incubator

Describing Building 20 as a Magical Incubator is an accurate description, since incubators need heat and Building 20 had a lot of it. All the machinery in the building created so much heat that the radiators in the drafting room were turned off permanently. As a result, one day the window was left open and the boss' tropical fish nearly froze over a weekend. They did, however, recover. The drafting room had a dehumidifier except all the humidity was exhausted into the Ozalid Room.

-- John (SB '60) and Anna Hillier

(Anna Hillier worked in the Drafting Room, 20A-109, in 1966.)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 1, 1998.

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