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Upcoming Cafe in Lobby 7 Highlights Renovations

By Karen Robinson

Almost everyone at MIT walks through Lobby 7 at least once a day, hurrying to a class or meeting. Lately, however, people are stopping, and looking up.

The Lobby 7 skylight is uncovered, for the first time in almost sixty years. The lobby itself has also undergone significant renovation and cleaning, and the addition of a small cafe and changes to drop poster policy are underway.

Lobby 7 serves four important functions for MIT, said Kathryn A. Willmore, vice president and secretary of the MIT Corporation and leader of the project group to restore Lobby 7. It is MIT’s front door, it is a gathering space for people around MIT and for visitors touring the Institute, and it used to be the home of MIT’s doughnut stand. It is also where people get information of all kinds from posters and publications. The restored Lobby 7 should still perform all these functions, Willmore said, while also reflecting the excellence of MIT.

MIT to put cafe in Lobby 7

After the floor cleaning is finished, a small cafe will be put near the entry from Lobby 7 into Building 1. Willmore said that such a cafe will replace the function of the former doughnut stand.

Dean Wellington “Duke” Reiter, professor of the practice of architecture and advisor to the project group, headed last year’s renovation of the Information Center in Lobby 7. The cafe will have a similar look and feel, he said.

The project group will also consider how to dispense and display information in Lobby 7. Willmore said that pamphlets, newspapers, and other information will be available in dispensers on the east wall of Lobby 7, heading toward the Infinite Corridor.

Reiter said that information dissemination is the project group’s current focus. He added that now that the scaffolding is down, he can set up “real tests to look at lighting” to plan other features, such as the information wall and cafe, as well as large information displays. “There are a lot of interesting computer simulations we have of how the space could look,” he said, “but we didn’t really know how light the stone would be.”

Another question the project group will address is what to do with the statue pedestals currently on the edges of Lobby 7, Reiter said. The original designers of Lobby 7 intended to have statues lining the lobby with inscriptions on the walls near them, but now Reiter is looking for creative solutions for the pedestals, he said.

And after all that? “Then, we might be done,” said Gayle M. Gallagher, also a member of the project group. She added that one more possibility is the addition of airlocks coming in from Massachusetts Avenue to prevent winter winds from blowing into the lobby. MIT’s Department of Facilities is exploring that possibility, she said, but anything that alters the outward appearance of the building is much more delicate because of the building’s historical nature.

New drop poster policy in works

The next big decision facing the project group will be how to replace drop posters, Willmore said. She said that drop posters do not fit with the new look of Lobby 7, but that the ability to display information with high visibility is an important function.

The project group will be holding meetings open to the student body this week and next, to generate ideas for displaying information. There, “we will discuss what needs to be said, how best to say it, and how to have flexibility and keep Lobby 7 looking great,” Reiter said. Reiter, Lobby 7’s lead restoration architect, David Fixler of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, and Ted Johnson of MIT Public Relations Services will be at both sessions.

“Students go through [Lobby 7] more than anyone,” Willmore said.

Willmore and Gallagher both said that the group is looking to different technologies for a new method of displaying information. The meetings on January 17 and 23 in La Sala de Puerto Rico will discuss high-tech media and elaborate announcements as well as consider how to incorporate quick, small notices. “This is a fact-finding stage,” Gallagher said.

Experts overhauled Lobby 7

Restorers replaced the glass bricks in the skylight, put new, brighter electric lights between the skylight and colored “laylight”, the glass visible from the lobby floor, and repaired the laylight itself. Some pieces of the current laylight were still installed in the ceiling of the dome, Fixler said, while others were remade based on drawings from the MIT archive.

The green railings and metal doors in the lobby are painted so that they look like bronze, but are aluminum, he said. Painters repainted the aluminum -- first with a coat of paint to look like new bronze, then with layers of green paint containing purple and brown flecks “so that it looks like naturally aged bronze,” Fixler said.

Another challenge was the ceiling and inscription on the inside of the dome. The original is an exceptionally hard plaster, meant to look like the limestone on the outside of the building. “For some reason, in 1938, they had had problems with staining [the plaster],” Fixler said. To avoid removing the original coatings the group tested several cleaning methods, which resulted in unexpected delays, he said.

Some new letters for the limestone face of 77 Massachusetts Avenue had to be carved, Fixler said. He said that some damage may have come from the street work, and he has placed monitors on some remaining cracks to see whether they get big enough to need replacement

In addition to the new light from the skylight, architects and restorers renovated the lighting on the balconies and around the base of the dome. The light fixtures on the third floor were original, but were modified and relamped to be brighter and more effective, Fixler said.

Skylight shut for WWII

Institute lore says that the skylight was covered during WWII, due to fears that light coming through the glass would make a target for bombings along the Charles River.

Fixler said the skylight was closed in 1941 or 1942. “We know that it was briefly reopened at the end of the war, because there is a 1945 photograph of the skylight taken by Harold Edgerton,” Fixler said.

Reiter said that a 1997 report detailed all the advantages and disadvantages of Lobby 7. “[The restoration] was a committee effort,” Reiter said. He added that especially when considering so public a space, “things take a lot of time. Consensus needs to be come to, voices need to be heard.” Once the people involved decided to go ahead, things went quickly, he said. The decision to restore Lobby 7, including the dome, was made in Feb. 2001, and in May the scaffolding went up.

There was something of a funding crisis back in 1997, however. According to Willmore, there was a donor who helped with “a big part” of the restoration effort, but no specific fundraising drive. The Corporation is thinking of creating an “explicit funding opportunity,” however, she said. “Most people are interested in contributing to the future,” she said, not necessarily to restoration of the past. “The Lobby 7 project is a hybrid.”

More restoration could follow

David Myers, Architect for the Department of Facilities, called the Lobby 7 restoration a “real historic preservation in a public space” and said it is important to have restored the most public space first. He said that with the completion of the Lobby 7 project, administrators and designers will naturally think now about other key signature spaces at MIT, but declined to comment specifically about possible future projects.