I want to start my letter, as Professor Hunsberger did last week, by thanking The Misc for writing the article on April 4, 2019 describing the resolution to demolish Williams apartments (The Miscellany News, “Faculty Housing to be demolished,” 04.04.2019). Considering the impact of this decision (there are 21 apartments and at least that number of people getting evicted), there was little public discussion of the topic, so the Misc’s initiative to bring this issue to the community is much appreciated.
The Faculty meeting devoted to this decision (in February) was overwhelmingly dominated by President Bradley’s polished PowerPoint Presentation outlining the many reasons why demolishing Williams was the only solution to the problem of where to locate the Inn/Institute. Among the justifications was the promise of better faculty housing that would be built in the near future to “replace” Williams apartments. Perhaps because the discussion was framed to have only “one” best possible solution, and many persons in attendance (myself included) were exhausted by her nearly one-hour-long presentation, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of President Bradley’s (and the board’s) decision.
So, as a long-time resident of Williams (37 years!), I wish to briefly highlight the historical value of the Williams buildings with three points: They were an early example of an urban planning initiative (they were built together with the Alumnae House and the big lawn); they were built for female faculty members so they would have independence from the administration in 1921; and last, they were built with a very generous 50th reunion gift from Harriett Williams, an alumna of Vassar College class of 1870. Each of these three points is of interest and worthy of further study. As such, it would make sense to locate the Inn/Institute elsewhere.
Last, this rush to tear historical buildings down is puzzling to me, perhaps because I was born in another country where tearing down a building almost never happens and is considered irreverent and disrespectful. The history of a place and an institution is also given by its buildings and urban planning. This past week, Michael Kimmelman wrote about the lasting impact that tearing down the original Penn Station has had on NYC in the New York Times (New York Times, “When the Old Penn Station Was Demolished, New York Lost Its Faith,” 04.24.2019).
Although Williams is certainly not Penn Station, some of Kimmelman’s arguments regarding tearing down old buildings are applicable. A current exhibit at the renovated Trolley Barn (489 Main St) brings this point closer to home as it details the decisions to bulldoze Poughkeepsie neighborhoods to build the Route 9 arterial in the early 1960s and the east-west arterial in the late 1960s to mid-1970s. The exhibit highlights the unforeseen consequences of bad urban planning and how it can impact a community. We certainly don’t want Vassar to make a similar mistake. The closing event is Friday, May 3 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
When Kimmelman wrote “New Yorkers embraced the mantra of change, assuming that what replaced a beloved building would probably be as good or better,” my personal story is reflected. Since my arrival to the U.S., my family was forced to move three times in the 1970s, because elite residential buildings were being built on the site of tenement buildings in Manhattan. My elementary school and my high school were torn down to build new skyscrapers. My neighborhood church, a Gothic church built in 1886, was torn down in 1969 to build a new skyscraper. At Vassar, Mudd Chemistry, a building that I worked in for 32 years, was torn down but three years ago. What next?
In closing, to my colleagues and members of the administration who stated they could not wait for the new Inn to be built so they could walk to a quality restaurant, many of the current Williams tenants would be happy to invite you over for a delicious home-cooked meal.
Thank you for reading.
Miriam Rossi, Professor of Chemistry on the Mary Landon Sague Chair