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Dickson reminisces about helping to build the MIT campus

Describing himself as a "builder at heart," Senior Vice President William Dickson gave a nuts, bolts and history tour of the MIT campus to 30 people gathered for an Information Group luncheon on May 20. Mr. Dickson will retire on June 30.

Mr. Dickson's lighthearted one-hour talk was accompanied by a slide show depicting the evolution of the MIT campus and punctuated by bursts of affectionate applause.

Mr. Dickson, a native of Framingham, MA, first came to MIT as a freshman in 1952. He was a "commuting student, as was much of MIT in that era," he said, recalling that there were 27 graduates from Boston Latin High School in his class. "Most of those would have been commuters. That's a vastly different situation now," he said.

Mr. Dickson received the SB in building engineering and construction in 1956. He began working here in 1960 and has served as director of Physical Plant (1960-80) and vice president of operations (1980-82).

As senior vice president since 1982, he has been a key decision-maker on construction and renovation projects, reengineering, the administrative budget, and a wide range of the operations involved in running a university community of approximately 20,000 people. Reporting to him are Physical Plant, the Planning Office, Purchasing, Management Reporting, Insurance and Legal Affairs, Campus Police, the Safety Office, the Copy Technology Centers, Audio-Visual Services, Endicott House and the President's House.

Mr. Dickson's talk to the Information Group focused on that "vastly different situation"--a difference of 6.8 million square feet of built space, to be exact--between MIT in 1960 and today.

"The biggest change in my whole tenure here has been the fact that the Institute, from the standpoint of facilities, is three times as large as it was. I have participated in the construction of two-thirds of MIT," he said.

He opened with images of a simpler time, when MIT, which received its land-grant charter in 1861, held classes at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley Streets in Boston (next to the building now occupied by Louis' haute couture). That was in 1866, and the Institute's budget for the entire year was $32,500.

Optimistic plans to develop Cambridge as Back Bay "fell on hard economic times," he said, and the Institute purchased 55 acres of uncertain land along the Charles River.

Mr. Dickson chronicled first how fill was acquired--from dredging the Charles River and digging the subway. He then explained how dirt, sand and clay are layered beneath the MIT campus, affecting buildings differently.

A builder's view often resides in the evidence of things not seen by others. Mr. Dickson revealed that, to build the 30-story Eastgate dormitory (where the bottom layer of fill lies 80 feet below the surface), piles had to be driven to that depth. If piles had been used under Westgate, they would have needed to be 222 feet long to get through the clay layer.

"Therefore, Westgate basically floats. Its basement is a bathtub," Mr. Dickson said.

Commenting on a slide showing construction in 1915 and 1916 of MIT's main group of buildings ("The king of it all--the Building 10 dome!"), Mr. Dickson called the process "remarkable--750,000 square feet built in less than two years!" He cited manpower, stiff-legged derricks, a railroad and mixing concrete right on the site as reasons for that wondrous efficiency.

Throughout his talk, Mr. Dickson enthusiastically shared his insider's view of the campus. For instance, the substantial and dignified lobby at the midpoint of Building 10 rests over "two streams of the tidal basin, quite close together" that have caused "differential settlement, having washed most of the sand away.

"They had to pound piles through the sand into the clay, becoming friction instead of point-bearing piles," he explained. "Those places settled nine inches, while most others settled four. But you don't see any cracks in the structure," he said with satisfaction, even delight, in a job well done, a building well made, a challenge of nature met with ingenuity.

Mr. Dickson's slide show guided his audience forward in time, providing context and commentary on the campus at present. In general, the 1960s saw more than the expansion of educational and laboratory facilities. The decade of expansion, including construction of dormitories Eastgate (1967), Westgate (1963) McCormick (1968), Random Hall (1968) and MacGregor (1970) ushered in a residential rather than a commuting student body.

For Mr. Dickson, memories live in the buildings.

On Building 7, built in 1938, he remarked, "Welles Bosworth had this vision that we were all going to walk on water��������������������������� many people around this place think they do to this day," he observed, to appreciative laughter among the audience. (Welles W. Bosworth, who graduated from MIT in 1889, designed Buildings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 11.)

On the Alumni Pool building: "The first European-style modernist building on any campus in the US. Well done, well recognized among architects, it now requires about $10 million in repairs." On the three best pieces of architecture on campus: "The most significant is Baker House (designed by Alvar Aalto and built in 1949), closely followed by the chapel and Kresge (both designed by Eero Saarinen and built in 1954 and 1956, respectively.)"

On the Hayden Library, designed by Voorhes, Walker, Foley & Smith of New York and built in 1951: "It tried to walk the line between Bosworth's classical architecture and something modern." On the the Cecil and Ida Green Building, designed by I.M Pei and built in 1962: "A fine piece of architecture, impractical for a laboratory building. The floorplates are too small: people would rather walk 300 feet horizontally than 12 feet vertically. I.M. Pei was a very persuasive architect."

(Mr. Dickson later described the Green Building project as his all-career favorite, because he enjoyed his colleagues so much.)

On the Camille Eduoard Dreyfus (chemistry) and the Jerome Weisner (Media Lab) buildings, designed by I.M. Pei and built in 1969 and 1984, respectively: "These buildings look simple--just a little concrete, finely placed--but they're terrible to build." On the Julius A. Stratton Student Center and the Grover Hermann Buildings, designed by E. F. Catalano and built in 1965: "His buildings look like fortresses."

And, for a builder's last look back, Mr. Dickson related the saga of Kresge's roof, beginning with the original paintable roof ("Saarinen's Dream--it cracked"), followed by the lead roof ("It crept and leaked"), followed by the copper roof. The current version was "the design of my colleague, Bill Combs, construction coordinator, and myself. Twenty years later it shows no sign of distress," he noted, to loud applause.

And what do the leaks and the storms and the building, building, building of a new MIT campus show to a seasoned builder at heart?

"If you're really under the gun, you can do a lot more than you think you can do," said Mr. Dickson.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.

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