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Roberts Hall Renovations Look to Revitalize the Music Department

Haverford’s musicians eagerly await the completion of the Roberts Hall renovations. After over a year of canceled performances, huddling under tents, and practicing in cramped dorm rooms, the renovations are a reminder of hope and excitement amidst uncertainty.   

Union Hall, the current home of the music department, has a rich and interesting history. Designed by architect Walter Price, a Haverford graduate in classical studies, the building was constructed in 1907 and originally served as a space for the student union, hence the name. Union Hall had rooms for students, an apartment for a professor, classrooms, and even a billiards room (which is now the music library). 

In 1977, Union Hall was adapted as the music building. Although Union Hall served its original purpose well, the building’s design has proven to be a challenge to the music department and musicians. One major problem is the lack of soundproofing. Across the music department, professors and students noted Union Hall’s thin walls, leading to disrupted practices and rehearsals as sounds from all over the building clashed with each other. 

Another major issue was temperature control. Instruments are very delicate, and as such, they are sensitive to temperature. Even a slight change in degrees can cause instruments to become untuned or worse. Heidi Jacob, Professor of Music, explained, “Although Union is a beautiful building, it…has terrible climate control, a problem for musicians needing an appropriate environment for storage of their instruments.” Marshall Auditorium also had inadequate climate control, and Professor Jacob recalled an incident when “the instrument of a professional clarinetist cracked when he came to play a concert in Marshall.” Besides instruments, temperature control is also difficult for musicians as they are forced to play without proper air conditioning. “I recorded 95 degrees in there at one the first orchestra rehearsals a few years ago,” Professor Jacob remarked. 

Currently, Union Hall’s facilities are not very accessible. The building lacks any ramps or elevators, and the stairways are claustrophobically narrow. David Harrower, Assistant Director of Facilities Management for Planning and Design, stated that, at Haverford, it was a priority that “all primary spaces are handicap accessible.”

Construction on Jaharis Hall, as seen from Lloyd Green. Photo by Max Cox ’23.

The Roberts Hall renovations is the final project in a series that revitalized Sharpless Hall, transformed Lutnick (formerly Magill) Library, and converted the old Ryan Gymnasium into VCAM. The four projects were part of the $269 million Lives that Speak fundraising campaign, which wrapped up in 2017 under former college president Kim Benston.

Designed by William Rawn Associates of Boston, who were chosen because of their experience working on music buildings, the renovations are expected to cost $15.8 million, of which about $11.2 million is the cost of construction. The music department was involved in every step of the renovations, and they made sure that the needs of musicians were met, such as adjacent rooms with proper soundproofing.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic had a minimal effect on the renovations, and Roberts Hall is still expected to be open by the fall semester of 2021, a year and a half after breaking ground. Richard Freedman, Professor of Music and John C. Whitehead 1943 Professor of Humanities, expressed the goals of the renovations: “We aim to create spaces for private study…with comfortable, welcoming rooms for individual practice…rehearsal and creation…with dedicated spaces for our small and large ensembles…and shared experience.”

The renovations’ benefits are not limited to Haverford College. Nathan Zullinger, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Choral and Vocal Studies, noted, “…the new recital hall will be a great asset, not just to the Bi-Co music program, but to the entire region.” The renovations will also bring new opportunities that were not possible with Union Hall and the old Roberts Hall building. With the renovations, the music departments could offer small ensemble performances with stunning nature backdrops or host larger workshops with visiting artists.

All renderings and floor plans from Haverford Music Building Project website.

One major highlight of the renovations is the new Michael Jaharis Recital Hall, named after the late pharmaceutical entrepreneur, whose son, Steven M. Jaharis, is a 1982 graduate of Haverford. The Jaharis family provided a $8 million gift towards revitalizing the music facilities back in 2014. The hall will have one hundred audience seats and will be able to accommodate all of the orchestra or choir. Compared to MacCrate Hall, Jaharis Hall will have adequate air exchange, and proper soundproofing will prevent interrupted performances. Furthermore, behind the performers will be a glass wall that boasts a beautiful view of the Duck Pond.

Arguably, the most important feature will be the lobby. Union Hall lacks a proper appealing hangout spot. The entrance was cramped, and students were forced to socialize on the stairways. By including a spacious lobby, the renovations accomplish its goal of bringing not just the musicians and music department but also the entire Haverford community together.  

The future of Union Hall is uncertain. According to Nancy Merriam, the Music Performance Coordinator, the MacCrate Recital Hall will still be utilized. It is unclear if the faculty and practice rooms in Union will also be used, although there were suggestions that they would be turned into academic offices for faculty. Currently, the college is seeking ideas for future use from across campus. However, unless Union Hall fixes its pressing accessibility issues, it may not see much operation. 

COVID has been exceptionally difficult for musicians, and even before the pandemic, there was a general feeling that music was not valued as reflected in the lack of dedicated spaces for musicians. With the renovations, the needs of the music department are finally being met. 

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