March 13, 2015 by Justin Roczniak
No tuition dollars were used to create The Summit, the new “not-a-residence-hall-but-kinda-a-residence-hall” at Drexel University. The new residence hall comes entirely for free, financially speaking, and without any strings attached, financially speaking.
In actuality they came with the loss of one extraordinary building: The Frederic O. Hess Laboratories. It was dirty. It wasn’t code-compliant. It was falling apart. The ventilation was bad, and the interior layout was even more confusing than the Main Building, owing to the fact that it was converted from the stables for horses delivering milk from Abbot’s Dairy (now F lot). The concrete was merely a facade overlaying 19th-century building with load-bearing Wissahickon Schist.
It also had spaces for heavy civil engineering research, a strong wall for seismic research, enough space for large-scale structural testing, a space for a race car team, the concrete canoe team and the steel bridge team, the machine shop and so on. (There was also a lab for testing explosives, which was unfortunately unused for all of recent memory.) These were labs for fields of engineering and science without research-dollar-multiplying prefixes, like “bio” or “nano” or “green,” but nevertheless essential.
Some of these spaces have been replaced, by (frequently much smaller) labs in 3101 Market Street or the Woodring Laboratories. Some of them have gone away entirely. (There is, to my knowledge, no strong wall for seismic research any longer.and Drexel Racing also has not been provided a new space.)
What’s done is done. It wasn’t done with tuition dollars, but that’s beside the point: Why demolish one of the core research facilities on campus without a concrete replacement plan that satisfied all (or even
In probably the most significant book that you haven’t heard of in the 20th century, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” author Jane Jacobs made the point that “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” You can throw money at brand-new “maker spaces” and “app labs” chocked full of 3-D printers and the latest computer-aided design software, but in reality one of the best spaces for real innovation is a 100-year-old labyrinthine stable-cum-engineering lab with 40 years of research use and 40 years of equipment and spare parts lying around inside, where you can swing a hammer and turn a wrench without worrying too much about scratching the floor or putting a hole in the wall.
Now that it’s gone, we’ll have to wait another 40 years for an adequate replacement. I doubt The Summit will last as long.
Like an old-growth tree, labs like Hess are nearly irreplaceable. Juniper trees, for example, can live for over 1,000 years, and, coincidentally, gin is made from them. (What you just saw in those last two sentences is called a “comically bad segue.”) I recommend a martini, whose ingredients can be remembered easily through rhyme thanks to musician and mathematician Tom Lehrer:
Hearts full of youth! Hearts full of truth! Six parts gin to one part (dry) vermouth!
Shake with ice, strain into a martini glass, garnish with an olive. Drink to remember bright college days when we had labs for heavy engineering research.
Justin Roczniak is the editor-in-chief at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected]