Enabling Beauty: Upgrades for Historic Robinson Hall

Harvard University Robinson Hall
Cambridge, MA

Robinson Hall is an ornate, three-story structure designed in the Beaux-Arts style by architect Charles McKim. Originally constructed in 1904, Robinson Hall became the academic home of the Department of History in 1972, prompting modernization efforts in the 1970s and 1990s to insert a more functional cellular arrangement of classrooms, meeting spaces, a graduate student lounge, faculty and staff offices, a mezzanine, and graduate student offices within the building’s grand halls and studios. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building’s red brick and limestone edifice extends the architectural language of Harvard Yard while the marbled floors, colonnaded Great Hall, and plaster details of its interior establish a lineage to Western classical tradition.

SMMA embarked on a collaboration with the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the History Department, seeking to preserve Robinson Hall’s architectural character while renovating the historic building to fit modern accessibility and code upgrades, evaluating the potential impacts of renovations on existing office, support, and common spaces, and developing design concepts to address both immediate and future needs. While the resulting renovation project centered on a series of discrete accessibility upgrades including toilet room renovations and an elevator to serve all floors, the scope of alterations triggered further code upgrades and a small chain reaction of office and administrative space relocations throughout the building.

A Focus on Accessibility

The primary focus of the Robinson Hall renovation entailed essential infrastructure work to improve the building’s accessibility. The installation of a new elevator ensures that all levels of the building, including its mezzanine, are physically accessible to all users. The need for ADA-compliant toilet rooms throughout the building required a combination of renovated and new facilities and included new fixtures, finishes, and lighting.

Other features like railings and ramp guardrails at building entrances and exits were replaced with code-compliant and historically appropriate statuary bronze systems. Various physical barriers were removed throughout the building such as raised floor thresholds and non-grippable door hardware, while electronically assistive door hardware was selectively introduced. Additionally, an accessible emergency egress route was provided from the Lower Level connecting to the on-grade exterior circulation system of Harvard Yard, with custom lighting poles to match those in the Old Yard.

Revitalizing the Great Hall

Within the building’s Great Hall, new vestibule spaces were created to connect the main circulation corridor to new restrooms. Elevator lobbies and office suite entrances were treated as extensions of the original McKim design, with matching marble flooring and wall base, and stained oak millwork-encased openings. The installation of fire sprinklers throughout the building helped call attention to new opportunities for restoring spatial clarity; obsolete steel and wired glass partitions installed in the main corridor in the 1970s were removed, opening up the axial hallway to its original extents and further enhancing spatial connectivity.

The minimalist approach to lighting adopted for the Great Hall corridors was twofold: not only does it brighten the underlit interior, but it simultaneously strips away any circa-1970 appendages that had visually undercut the original proportions of the interior. Concealed, high-efficiency linear lighting now brightens the space while accentuating the rhythm and relief of the building’s structural bays.

A Light-Handed Approach

The selective nature of project upgrades necessitated the formulation of a strategy along with the client to apply a light-handed aesthetic approach to the renovations. Since Robinson Hall holds historical and cultural significance, a conscious effort was made to protect the original spatial and architectural character of the historic interior to minimize disruption to occupied spaces and enhance the building’s spatial connectivity, all while acknowledging new layers of building technology as simply as possible.

Harvard Robinson Hall

Embracing Disruption

In addition to posing structural and mechanical challenges, the insertion of the new elevator and its resulting displacement of precious office and storage space within Robinson Hall presented an opportunity to improve the quality of the affected spaces. Harvard opted for a series of spatial shifts that consolidated faculty office space to the daylit perimeter zone and moved the media lounge, kitchenette/workroom, and storage to the interior. Shifting faculty offices to the perimeter of the building allowed for the right-sizing of previously undersized offices. Throughout the construction phase, the design team worked closely with the Construction Manager to coordinate selective modifications to the building’s masonry and steel framework that would further optimize the reorganization by supporting new, clear circulation patterns.

In keeping with the light-handed aesthetic approach, office mechanical, electrical, and fire protection systems were seamlessly integrated, and finishes were carefully matched with those of adjacent spaces to remain. New carpet, paint, and stained oak open storage units simultaneously provide a boost of vitality to the interior. Requirements for accessible toileting became another catalyst for rethinking the use of space, leading to the conversion of four previously undersized and technology-challenged meeting rooms into two highly functional seminar rooms with modern audiovisual presentation and lighting systems, ample writing surfaces, and flexible, lightweight furniture.