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Zesiger, Simmons dedicated

Al  and Barrie Zesiger enjoy an early morning swim Friday before dedication ceremonies  for the Zesiger Center.
Al and Barrie Zesiger enjoy an early morning swim Friday before dedication ceremonies for the Zesiger Center.
Photo / Donna Coveney
Simmons family members in  the front row at the new dorm's dedication include (left to right) Richard Simmons,  Erin Sebastian (on his lap), Porter Simmons, Reilly Simmons and Richard's son  Brian.
Simmons family members in the front row at the new dorm's dedication include (left to right) Richard Simmons, Erin Sebastian (on his lap), Porter Simmons, Reilly Simmons and Richard's son Brian.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Two major landmarks in MIT's evolving campus--the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center and the Simmons Hall dormitory--were dedicated Friday in back-to-back ceremonies at the fitness center's pool and on Briggs Field opposite the new dorm.

The buildings usher in a new era in Institute life. The dorm marks the first time that freshmen can be universally accommodated in campus housing, and the fitness center is a state-of-the-art facility that brings the entire MIT community together for recreation, fitness and athletic activities.

"The Zesiger Center and Simmons Hall demonstrate the crucial and enduring bond between MIT's alumni community and its students," said Alex d'Arbeloff, chair of the MIT Corporation. "They also confirm the centrality of our undergraduate students in the life of the Institute."


The road to the Simmons Hall dedication on Friday was a golf cart route from the Johnson Athletic Center that wound through the athletic fields, affording a broadside view of the building from a distance. The multicolored aluminum sheathing glittered over the 10-story concrete block perforated with some 5,500 two-foot square windows.

Donors and their family members, students and staff trouped into a six-peaked white tent for the dedication, set up directly opposite the new undergraduate residence that on Aug. 20 marked the first time all freshmen could be housed on the MIT campus.

Simmons Hall, designed by New York-based architect Steven Holl, has generated critical acclaim from a number of critics. That enthusiasm was mostly mirrored by the crowd, who later toured the building.

President Charles Vest, welcoming the group, described Simmons Hall as "far more than a dormitory. This new residence provides dining, meeting and performance spaces, a fitness center, music rooms and more. It is already a remarkable student community."

Vest underscored the diverse challenges and pressures inherent in designing any new building at MIT, and he emphasized that Simmons Hall symbolized not only the "courage and commitment of Dick and Dottie Simmons" but also a "harmonious whole far greater than the sum of its parts."

To illustrate his "harmonious whole" point, Vest cited pressures on the design and building processes that included mandates to create daring and innovative architecture; to truly serve the needs of its users; to be a good neighbor to its abutters, and to realize the commitment to community-building stressed in the 1998 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning.

"The brilliance Steven Holl brought to the design of Simmons Hall makes it unlike anything on this campus or anywhere else. It will be a marker for architectural excellence for years to come. Thank you, Steven, for this extraordinary gift," said Vest.

President Vest thanked major donor Richard P. Simmons (S.B. 1953) and his late wife and partner in philanthropy, Dorothy Simmons, for their generosity.

"Like so many of MIT's great financial donors, Dick has been generous not only with his money but with his time. His service with the Corporation and with our visiting committees has been of enormous value to the Institute, and has kept him in close touch with the needs and aspirations of his alma mater.

"As an alumnus, an accomplished and successful businessman, and a sympathetic advisor to the Institute, he has been in a perfect position to make many contributions to the improvement of student life at MIT," said Vest.

He also acknowledged another "debt of thanks" to Bill and Betsy Leitch, who endowed the Leitch Professorship in Residence to assure that MIT could provide the necessary support for a senior faculty member to serve as a housemaster for Simmons Hall.

Vest departed from prepared text twice to express his personal enthusiasm. Describing his own early-morning runner's-eye view of Simmons Hall as one of "flashing brilliance" due to the way the windows reflected sunlight, Vest recommended everyone "get up at 6:30 a.m. to get the view." He also asked Vicki Sirianni, director of the Department of Facilities, to stand for a round of applause for her leadership in the construction and maintenance of MIT's facilities.

The program of speakers at the Simmons dedication event featured Vikash Gilja, house president of Simmons Hall; Chancellor Phillip Clay; John Essigman, Simmons housemaster and professor of toxicology and chemistry; Richard Simmons; and his children, Amy Simmons Sebastian and Brian Simmons; and Alexander V. d'Arbeloff (S.B. 1949), chairman of the MIT Corporation.

Each person who stood at the Mondrian-style stained glass podium expressed enthusiasm for the building, gratitude to the donor and his family, and confidence in MIT's vision of a strong and constantly renewed residential community.

Said Gilja, "Living groups are the building blocks of MIT community life, and the 240 upperclassmen and 110 freshmen in Simmons Hall express our gratitude to Richard Simmons. It's a work that's still under construction. It's a place that's changing every day. Thank you!"

Clay declared, "This is a wonderful day. We celebrate this new milestone in our campaign to increase community at MIT. We believe education should not stop when students cross Massachusetts Avenue. With its spaces for study, student collaboration, performance and artistic work, Simmons Hall has already shown itself to be a building that is also a vessel for a continual renewal of student community."

Essigman focused on the positive effects Holl's design has had on his own role as housemaster of the new dorm.

"What a gift! This is really the right direction. I've seen the effects of overcrowding elsewhere, and this is great. As for mandatory dining, it is really working. It allows several hundred students to come together nightly over dinner. And, to Steven Holl, thank you for the great acoustical insulation," Essigman said.

Essigman also thanked Mr. and Mrs. Leitch for "removing from our shoulders the need to raise money for special events" and for "offering to come by with brooms and mops when it looked like construction might slow down."

Associate housemaster Muriel Medard, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, presented Simmons with a watercolor by Holl of the residence and a set of the final building plans.

Simmons' comments showed his warm regard for MIT and his love for his family. "We are proud to have our name identified with MIT and this new building," he said.

Simmons' daughter, son and grandchildren joined him at the podium. Said Amy Simmons Sebastian, "This means a lot to three generations of our family. Our father's love for MIT goes back many years, and Simmons Hall gives us a chance to thank MIT for all it has done for my father and all of us."

Sebastian also "appreciated the opportunity to honor the memory of my mother, who always encouraged us to strive for excellence," she said.

Brian Simmons, who had spent quite some time in Boston traffic and arrived a little late, said with enthusiasm, "What a thrill it is to see this building completed and to be here for the dedication."


The Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center was dedicated Friday in a ceremony beside the larger of the new center's two pools. Both the pool and the sports center are named for donors Albert L. Zesiger, a 1951 MIT graduate and a long-time member of the Athletics Visiting Committee, and his wife, Barrie M. Zesiger, a member of the MIT Corporation.

Thanking those who played a role in the project, Vest said, "Magnificent is not too great a word for what you have achieved here."

Alex d'Arbeloff and his wife, Brit (S.M. 1961), contributed the men's and women's locker rooms at the Zesiger Center. He spoke at Friday's dedication as chair of the MIT Corporation and as a friend of the Zesigers, whose gift made the fitness center possible.

"Let others lend their names to the more glamorous parts of the building: the pool, the fitness center, the squash courts and the refreshment center," d'Arbeloff joked. "Brit and I are happy to have our names associated with the elegant new 'his' and 'hers' locker rooms. Brit maintains that the locker rooms are every bit as glamorous as the rest of the facility."

D'Arbeloff (S.B. 1949) continued, "What was true in my student days is equally true today: MIT students like to compete and test themselves in many fields of activity. Athletics programs have provided both an outlet and proving ground for the natural competitiveness and drive to succeed so typical of MIT students."

R. John Hansman Jr., professor of aeronautics and astronautics and co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning, said that when the student group focused on ways of tying together the community, they talked about the intensity of the MIT experience. They talked about community space such as coffee shops, but never envisioned such a world-class facility.

"In my experience at MIT, I've never seen any facility transform the place the way this place has," he said. "You only have to come here at 5 o'clock to see the mix of students, faculty and staff."

Kirstin Alberi, captain of the women's varsity swim team and a senior in materials science and engineering, said swimming has been a continuous part of her life since she was seven. Through swimming, she said, she learned discipline, time management, leadership and acceptance of the importance of coaching.

"I am a swimmer and a learner," she said. "The Zesiger Center is a place where MIT athletes will be proud to compete and demonstrate the high standard of excellence we strive for each day. The swimming and diving teams can now practice together, strengthening the bond between teammates. After practicing in the pool for only two weeks, I see a desire in my teammates to push themselves even harder. MIT's athletics have steadily been improving for the last few years--it's my hope that the rise in the level of interaction between varsity teams and patrons will promote increased support and pride in MIT athletics. Thank you for this gift."

Alberi, on behalf of the MIT swim team, presented the Zesigers with honorary team warmup outfits. Wearing the red and black zipper-front jackets, the Zesigers took the podium. Recalling that he had gotten a $700 scholarship to MIT in 1947, Al Zesiger said, "If you took that $700 and compounded it every year, you would have a swim center."

Al Zesiger said he used to follow the regimen described in a book of the Royal Canadian Air Force exercises and one day decided to run outside instead of running in place as specified in the book. "I've probably run 50,000 miles since then," he said, until his hip gave out in 1984 and he stopped running and started swimming. "Some people say they're too busy for exercise. I've got to tell you, the more busy, the more stressed-out you are, the more you need the exercise. If you do it consistently, when you're 60 or 70 you can enjoy lifetime health."

The Zesigers tested the pool during an early morning swim prior to the dedication ceremonies.

Al Zesiger, who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, reflected that while he had done most things he had set out to do, an intimate relationship had eluded him until he met Barrie. "I've been blessed with one of the most loving relationships I can imagine," he said. "It's just like compounding interest and sports training--the longer you do it, the better it gets, and it lasts forever."

Barrie said there was just one problem with the new building: no number. She suggested 007--because of its good looks. "To the students who have asked why we do this, we do it for ourselves," she said. "It just makes us feel good."

Larry G. Benedict, dean for student life, said the Z Center has done more for student morale than anything else on campus in the last 10 years. He said students have been continually coming up to him and expressing amazement and appreciation for the world-class facility.

Candace L. Royer, director of athletics and head of the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation, called the building the "realization of a magnificent dream" for the department as well as for the Zesigers. During the tours led throughout the past two weeks since the facility opened, Royer said, "The prevailing exclamation throughout the building has been a resounding 'Wow!'"

Vest pointed out that when the Task Force on Student Life and Learning issued its final report in 1998, it noted that athletics have played a continuing role in fostering a sense of community at the Institute and that an upgraded athletics plant was urgently needed. The Zesiger Center is thus "a manifestation of the abiding community spirit that informs and energizes the physical, social and intellectual life of the Institute," Vest said.

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