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A Plea for the Shower Towers:

Preservation of Place in the History of Computing


Update 02.19.2013:

-Spelling error in name corrected and broken demolition photo link replaced.


Update 10.03.2006:

-The text has been corrected to reflect the fact that BASIC really began in the basement of College Hall. This takes away some of the justification for putting in a plaque to mark Bradley's and Gerry's locations, although the buildings still seem to deserve some kind of marker. Demolition is to begin shortly.


Update 10.21.2004:

-The Dartmouth reports that the demolition of the Shower Towers is among the school's new construction priorities.


Update 06.09.2001:

-The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine noted Kiewit's demolition recently. The report that BASIC (1964) was created in Kiewit (1966) is incorrect: it was created in College Hall. [This sentence stated that the site was Bradley until 10.03.2006.]


Update 02.18.2001:


-Kiewit has been demolished, see Stan Dunten's Kiewit Demolition Photographs. The first blow fell on December 12, 2000. (See also the photo at the Computing at Dartmouth timeline.)


Update 11.12.2000:


-Dartmouth holds a "Farewell to Kiewit" ceremony September 22.
-Berry Library as completed in September includes a plaque recalling Kiewit.
-Kiewit and Bradley-Gerry still stand.
-Gerry and Kiewit are slated to be demolished and the first stage of the new Kemeny Hall mathematics building, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Philadelphia, will be grafted onto the remaining Bradley.
-Bradley will then be demolished to make way for Kemeny phase II. [These plans were abandoned during the North Campus design process, apparently.]




Bradley-Gerry east facade

The new The Berry Library by VSBA and the firm's adjoining Carson Hall on Dartmouth's campus have many things to recommend them: chief in the minds of many is the fact that they eventually will cause the demolition of the Kiewit Computation Center and Bradley and Gerry Halls. But are we too hasty to cheer the demise of these buildings? Few would argue that the grouping deserves to be saved forever: Kiewit is wasteful and bunkerlike, and Bradley-Gerry has good reason to carry the derisive moniker "the Shower Towers." But should we not find some solution more sophisticated than that of simply erasing them from the earth?


Bradley stair

A building is always hated by the generation following that of its builders, and these buildings are certainly unfashionable. (The paucity of Victorian buildings remaining on the campus is a testament to the success of their detractors.) But buildings always come back into fashion, and Bradley-Gerry for one is right on schedule. Neo-Modernists are coming to the fore, and nostalgia for sixties design makes the Gerry's shiny, curving stair rail suddenly chic again.



Kiewit west entrance



Kiewit northwest corner



Kiewit pier

Preserving these buildings in toto cannot be a proper solution. It is clear that their poor use of space and detraction from the new mall make their removal necessary. But in demolishing them, how can we avoid creating a tabula rasa that is inevitably simplistic, reductivist and impoverished of history? How can we create a site that is able to inform future generations? Our tired familiarity with Kiewit and the Shower Towers prevents us from recognizing that within a few years students will have no idea that such things ever stood. Surely there exists a way to leave a trace of the past that allows for a richer and more nuanced sense of place, rendering all parts of the campus full of historical meaning rather than just the sacred center. Unlike the Hop, which demolished a dozen houses and a Victorian gymnasium beneath it, Berry Library should follow the model of College Hall, which incorporates the front steps of the mansion that preceded it. The best campus is after all one of layers: Students should be able to know exactly where these structures stood and what went on in them.


Kiewit Machine Room



Kiewit 1st floor cluster

There is a substantial irony connected with marking the sites of computing history: computers tend to make place irrelevant, they defy geography. The prime example of this is the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System that was coincident with the advent of BASIC: various people could simultaneously share a computer from terminals located around the campus, making one's proximity to the actual machines irrelevant. The internet carries out this scheme on a global scale. (And anyway the "work" being done is not real in the sense that it is mechanical or visible; it consists of electrical impulses, making the idea that the work even has a "place" practically nonsensical.) And yet somehow this topocide can work the other way when it comes to collective memory. Cyberhistory is not inherently absent place: We need to know where these people did their thinking and programming, where real people dealt with these abstract concepts and caused this powerful language to exist.


The Buildings

1. George S. Koyl, ed., American Institute of Architects Directory, s.v. "Hunter, Edgar" (New York: Bowker, 1955), also, 1962, 1970. Mr. Hunter was the son of the engineer Edgar Hayes Hunter '01 (1876-1957), Dartmouth's Superintendent of Buildings from 1904 to 1912.

2 Charles Widmayer, John Sloan Dickey (Hanover: UPNE, 1991), 166, 171.

3 Architecture and Urbanism (May 1988), 51-54. The firm would later fashion the Burke Chemistry Laboratory as well as the Roth Center for Jewish Life.

4 Widmayer, 199, 237.

5 John G. Kemeny and Thomas E. Kurtz, Back to BASIC: The History, Corruption and Future of the Language(Reading, Ma.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1985), 21-22.

Further sources on the history of BASIC:

"John G. Kemeny: BASIC and DTSS: Everyone a Programmer"

BASIC from Jones Telecommunications and Multimedia Encyclopedia

John Kemeny

Further sources on software history:

list of references on the history of computing from the Babbage Institute for the History of Computing at UMN.

The Software History Project

The Computer History Association of California

Kiewit, Bradley-Gerry

Gerry in right foreground with Bradley behind; Keiwit at left

Kewit, Bradley-Gerry

Kiewit at right, Bradley in background.


E.H. and M.K Hunter

A local architect couple, Edgar Hayes Hunter '38 (b.1914) and Margaret King Hunter (b.1919) designed the two adjoining buildings.1 The couple helped bring Modernist residential architecture to Hanover in the late 1940s and also designed the 1957 Lutheran Church on Summer St. They taught at the College as well. Bradley stands northernmost behind Bradley Court, a walled concrete plaza that connects it to Main St. The building houses the Mathematics Department. To the south of Bradley is the 200-seat Filene Auditorium, funded by the Lincoln and Teresa Filene Foundation. The auditorium connects the building to Gerry Hall, home of labs, classrooms and offices of the Psychology Department. Edwin Peabody Gerry, a medical figure in Boston, gave the money for the building, which the College dedicated on May 18-19, 1962.2


Bradley corridor


Bradley Court

Dartmouth renovated Bradley and Gerry in 1980 and in 1987 commissioned R.S. Kliment & Frances Halsband to design a Computer Science addition to Bradley. The curving addition the firm projected remained unrealized.3 The College's purchase of the MHMH property in 1989 changed everything, and suddenly Bradley and Gerry were an impediment.

Kiewit Computation Center

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Kiewit benefitted from the design of a big-name firm. The building went up during President Kemeny's tenure and struggled to define how this new building type, a computer center, should look. The building's single low story was surrounded by peripteral piers of concrete, making the building vaguely Classical in form. The reinforced concrete roof sat heavily above a narrow horizontal band of transom lights piercing the building's wall. The College named the building for Peter Kiewit '22, and the giant international construction firm of Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. erected the building.4 The building's simple rectangular footprint stood on the site of Elm House and encroached on what were once the west end of the Clark School.


Kiewit main entrance lobby


Kiewit's print window

The building's strangely low appearance, as well as the fact that it contained the College's mainframes in its central Machine Room, led to the persistent rumor that the building had a nuclear-bomb-proof basement. The Defense Department was said to keep a computer node several stories below ground. Photographs of the interior of Kiewit typically appear dim, since that is how the building always looked.


Proposals: Place-Memory


As it falls, might Bradley leave a portion of one of its fine granite walls? Part of this wall, on which climbers once named their routes the way one does on the face of El Capitan, might remain as a fragment, as a landscape feature in the new green open space north of Berry. Or perhaps the College could trace some of the building's outline in brick on the grass. Either way, a plaque in the right spot could recognize the importance of the building in the history of computing, all the while bringing up interesting questions of how much place really matters in the world of computers. Such a plaque could also inform the reader about the character of the event being memorialized (my BASIC may be rusty here):

20 NEW
30 PRINT "On this Site from 1961 to 2000 Stood Bradley Hall"
40 PRINT "In Which Professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz"
50 PRINT "And their Students Developed"
60 PRINT "The Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (1964-1993)"
70 PRINT "Pioneering the Operation of Computers by Multiple Users"
100 PRINT "And Improved Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code"
120 PRINT "Which Became the World's Most Popular Computer Language"
130 PRINT "And, in Some of Dozens of Dialects, the First Product of Microsoft Corporation"
140 PRINT "And the First Language of Apple Computer."
150 PRINT "It Brought Millions into the Universe of Computing."
160 END

Proposal for a plaque to mark a standing fragment of Bradley5

For now this will remain a virtual plaque, if you will. (Perhaps soon one might carry a global-positioning satellite device in the style of something from the MIT Media Lab and, while walking around the campus, receive notes about events where they occurred. A filter could select the level of importance, from the mundane: "On this site John ate his first Collis tabouli on 25 September 1991" to the international: "President Clinton spoke on this spot on 11 June 1995.")

What will be the memorial to Kiewit? Kiewit was after all one of the earlier academic computer centers in the country and represents an attempt to devise an architectural expression appropriate to the new type of activities housed within, activities that had no typological tradition from which to draw. Will the computer area within the new library bear the name of Kiewit? The College presumably has to follow rules about keeping a donor's name on some building even if it demolishes the original, which is why Butterfield and Bissell and Clement are not the first buildings with those names. Will Kiewit follow a similar pattern? The building deserves at least a plaque or a stone monument--perhaps one of the Kiewit's signature steel columns could remain standing as an element of ruin. A monument to BlitzMail might read:


Proposal for a plaque to mark a remnant of Kiewit

These are not the first buildings on this site, and their construction removed any recognizable vestige of their predecessors. Indeed Elm Street itself, an eighteenth-century corduroy road, is about to be erased. But perhaps here we can alter the pattern of eradication; perhaps something of these buildings deserves to survive.


©1999 Scott Meacham
Created May 1999

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