Office of the Arts at Harvard

In January 1996, Harvard opened a $25 million student center in the basement of the university’s famous Memorial Hall, replete with dining options and study spaces, as well a wall-sized electronic screen and a fully stocked newsstand. As they unveiled the new Loker Commons, Harvard officials described the facility as a campus hub that would unite students from across the university in one central location.

But just months later, the Loker Commons project was widely considered a failure. Plummeting attendance left the building nearly deserted on Friday nights. The newsstand was losing money, and with students gravitating elsewhere, Harvard was forced to reduce the number of employees staffing the dining area.

In October 1996, a headline in the Harvard Crimson summed up the first year of the center’s existence in six blunt words: “The decline and fall of Loker.”

Two decades later, the failure of Loker Commons highlights the inherent risk of any project designed to fundamentally change the pattern of campus life. It may also illuminate the potential pitfalls of Yale’s own student center project: the $150 million Schwarzman Center, a campus study spot and social gathering place scheduled to open in spring 2020. When he announced the project in May 2015, University President Peter Salovey outlined a vision for the Schwarzman Center that echoed what Harvard administrators hoped to achieve with Loker Commons: “A central gathering space that can serve as a locus — and a catalyst — for students … to interact with one another.”

The Schwarzman Center, which was funded by a donation from Blackstone Group founder Stephen Schwarzman ’69, is currently in the planning phase, with construction expected to begin in August. As the story of Loker Commons demonstrates, it is difficult to predict how students will respond to the new center when it opens in three years.

“It’s a little bit of trial and error that’s going to end up happening. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Elizabeth Mo GRD ’18, who served on the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee. “We’ll see how it goes in the first year and then in the second year. There’s a lot that needs to go on while the center is evolving.”

At Harvard, the decline of Loker Commons began just days after the center opened, according to Rudd Coffey, who was involved in the planning process as an undergraduate in the 1990s.

“There was an incredible amount spent on this giant wall LED board, and that was a particular point of pride and emphasis for the design team,” Coffey said. “And that was the first thing that failed. It was a joke the day it opened.”

Harry Lewis, who served as dean of Harvard College when the student center opened in 1996, described Loker Commons as “the project of the architects and some grown-ups who thought they knew what college students really wanted.”

He added that the residential system at Harvard, where students live together in “houses” akin to Yale’s colleges, made it difficult for Loker Commons to find a place in the university’s social ecosystem.

A 2011 report by Harvard’s student council identified another key problem with Loker Commons; its various functions contradicted each other.

“Students who went to Loker Commons to study became perturbed with people there socializing,” the report stated. “As a result, students who were looking for a centralized social space gradually stopped gravitating towards Loker.”

In later years, Harvard tried to salvage the project, adding a student pub and a new slate of dining options. But it was too late: The center had already developed a reputation as a mostly deserted hangout spot frequented only by the occasional freshman. Nowadays, the center is “rarely traversed except for a bathroom run,” according to an article in The Crimson. In January 2013, Harvard announced plans to build the Smith Campus Center, the university’s latest attempt to create a centralized gathering space for students.

Two years after Harvard began the Smith project, Yale hired an architect to begin designing the Schwarzman Center, and Salovey set up an advisory committee of students, administrators and staff members to plan programming for the center. As part of the planning process, a team of Yale affiliates, including Associate Director of the Center for Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration Erin Johnson, conducted research into student centers at dozens of other universities, briefing the advisory committee on their findings.

According to Johnson, the research focused on recent projects at institutions ranging from the Ivy Leagues to public universities but not on the failed plans for Loker Commons.

“The studies I prepared were more about current projects, and so I presented information about the project in Harvard Square,” Johnson said, referring to the Smith Campus Center. “We didn’t focus on any one project but rather provided a range of information about many different campus student centers.”

Still, in many respects, the planning process for the Schwarzman Center has differed dramatically from the lead-up to the failed Loker Commons project. In 2015, the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee — which included four undergraduate representatives — held listening sessions with more than 2,000 students as it developed plans for the center, according to Associate Dean Susan Cahan.

In February 2016, Salovey released the advisory committee’s final report, which outlined recommendations for programming designed to attract both undergraduates and graduate students. Since then, Yale has continued to hold planning meetings, the most recent of which took place last month.

“After the work of the committee was completed, planning continued with input from hundreds of constituents: students, faculty, staff and internal and external experts in a variety of fields,” Cahan said.

Still, Mo said Yale must be careful not to let the Schwarzman Center turn into a space like Loker Commons, dominated by freshmen and torn between conflicting functions.

“I think that’s definitely a real concern and a real danger,” Mo said. “We need to think carefully about how we’re going to make it feel more like a universally inclusive space.”