Divinity Hall Wins Architectural Access Award

The Massachusetts Architectural Access Board awarded the 2000 William D. Smith Memorial Award to the architects for the recent renovation of Divinity Hall at Harvard Divinity School.

The Architectural Access Board's annual awards program recognizes "excellence in the design of buildings or facilities which are accessible for persons of all abilities." In particular, the William D. Smith Memorial Award is given for work on "buildings for which the design integrates accessibility with historic preservation."

The renovation design for Divinity Hall, which was built in 1826 and is the oldest Harvard University building outside the Yard, was developed by Gail Woodhouse and her colleagues at the Boston firm Amsler Woodhouse MacLean. The jury for the Architectural Access Board competition includes representatives of the AAB, architects, representatives of organizations representing the disabled, and previous award winners. The awards themselves were presented at the State House in Boston on November 1, 2000.

"It was fundamental to the design to come up with a solution that solved the accessibility issues to the building and to do it in a way that was appropriate to the historic nature of the building," said Ms. Woodhouse. 

"When we were talking to the historic commission," she continued, "there was a concern that the grass berm at the back of the building should be preserved if it was original, so we went back to some historic photos of the building in the 1800s to try to figure out what the original grade was on what is now the courtyard side of the building. We were able to prove it was not original but was added when the biology labs were built, so it felt appropriate to remove that non-original artifact by exposing the buried basement. Ultimately, we came up with a design that was respectful to the history of the building and provides direct accessibility without having to include ramps. There's something about ramps that is off-putting since it separates out the wheelchair population. If it's ever possible to come up with a solution without ramps, I try to do it."

Timothy Cross, associate dean for finance and administration at the Divinity School, said: "This richly deserved award provides affirmation from the broader architectural and disability communities for the remarkably successful design Gail produced for Divinity Hall. Her ability to hear and understand the needs of the School, her creativity in translating those needs into a tangible design, and her integrity and commitment in seeing the project through to completion have all been of the highest order."

J. Bryan Hehir, head of the Divinity School, which in 2001 completed renovations to its Andover-Harvard Library according to another Woodhouse design, said: "This award highlights the work of Gail, her colleagues, and the other members of the project team (Bond Brothers Construction and the Harvard project manager, David Dower) and shows that Divinity Hall, the School's original building, has now been successfully restored, refreshed, and repositioned to serve the HDS community productively well into this century."