Home » Sections » Opinions » Invite Waltham to observe the squalor of Usen Castle

Invite Waltham to observe the squalor of Usen Castle

By Andrew Elmers

Section: Opinions

April 1, 2016

In the movies, historical societies and commissions are always portrayed as the good guy—or at least the underdog—and everyone likes an underdog. Usually, they work to save a beautiful, old building from being demolished by a greedy developer. They work with limited funds and try to convince a community to listen to their heart instead of their mind. Save the theater because it was a part of our childhood, even though a new business park will bring more jobs to the community. And this same argument has come to Brandeis.

The Waltham Historical Commission (WHC) does not agree with the university’s plan to demolish sections of the structurally compromised Usen Castle to build a new dormitory, with more beds for students. Brandeis is a private university and should be able to do what it wants with its campus, but Usen Castle is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so this construction plan has to be scrutinized. If anything, the WHC has created a hurdle for Brandeis to construct a much-needed residence hall.

I’m confident that the administration is right to demolish a majority of Usen Castle. The Castle was poorly constructed to begin with and certainly does not meet the needs of the current student body. The building itself is outdated and not accessible for those with disabilities. But the greater Waltham community doesn’t understand this.

That is no fault of the community, as they have no reason to visit the Castle and see the state that it is in. Though that does not mean they, the citizens of Waltham, shouldn’t now see how the Castle stands. The university, in its attempt to gain the WHC’s approval to demolish the Castle, should invite them to an open house for Usen Castle. Allow community members to walk inside the residence hall and observe how students live there every day. Allow them to witness the ceilings that have collapsed, the staircases that lead nowhere, the fact that the Castle can not be retrofitted with electronic campus card access. Simple things now common in every modern living arrangement, be it a college dorm or a residential apartment, are not possible in the Castle. And if students here at Brandeis can easily understand how the Castle simply doesn’t work anymore as a viable living arrangement, Waltham citizens will be able to do the same.

Probably the most important reason there needs to be a new residence hall in place of the Castle is that the university needs more accessible housing options. Most of the quads on campus do not have elevators that allow physically disabled students to live on higher floors. While there are a few options on campus, we need to provide accessibility in all of our buildings, not just the newest ones. Some of the older buildings could maybe be retrofitted with elevators and other amenities for handicapped individuals, though the cost might be a bit excessive. It is impossible, however, to install an elevator in the Castle. The design and structure of the building does not allow it.

While the Historical Commission’s idea to preserve the Castle without using it as a residence hall is viable, Brandeis needs more housing options for students regardless. The Commission suggested the University use some of the green space on campus to provide the space for a new building. They are wrong to compromise the environmental sustainability of campus in favor of a building that is a leech on the school’s heating bill (since there is no insulation).

Both the physical state of the building and the need for accessible housing need to be communicated to the Waltham community so they can eventually agree with us at Brandeis that the Castle needs to be replaced. Of course that includes saving Towers A and B, the most prominent features of the Castle, and preserving them to stand the test of time. It is a simple case for the Brandeis administration to win, and one of the rare times that the student body agrees with the administration. It’s a shame, however, that we have to squash the underdogs in the process.

  • chadberg

    Perhaps this editorial’s author is unaware that the WHC includes alumni from the school who have seen the castle and are well aware of it’s nature, or that the university did indeed present all of these facts regarding its age, construction quality, accessibility, and low dorm room density. The WHC is also concerned with preserving features of interest and character in the town, whereas the University is not. They have asked if there are other options to preserve more of what benefits the town while also trying to meet the needs of the University.

    As the author rightly points out, accessibility is an issue across many of the dorms, which include some of the older buildings on campus. There have been multiple new dorms built in the past decade, but more can and should be done with other older dorms. This is in fact, exactly the opposite of singling out the castle for demolition and replacement. Replacing the castle would not in any way improve the other dorms on campus, and I’d much rather see a plan that at least suggests that the other dorms on campus are also candidates for improvements.

    I think it is disingenuous to state that the student body agrees with the administration when a large and well signed petition to preserve the castle was disseminated on campus, and when there are substantial numbers of alumni also in protest. I think it is well within the purview of the WHC to ask the administration to not rush through a focus on only one option and to instead take the time to consider all the ramifications and opportunities.

    • Alum

      I’m wondering how many hundreds of millions is the City of Waltham interested in investing in “preserving features of interest and character in the town?” After all, if the projected cost of the proposed plan is $80 million, then how much more would it be to save the entire thing? As an alum who knew Brandeis was for me the moment I set sight on the Castle and spent a very happy year living in a splendid pie shaped room (though I was lucky, even close to a decade ago I had friends whose rooms flooded, ceilings collapsed, and had nonfunctioning heat all winter due to the irreparable state of the dorms), I can’t stomach the prospect of the university frittering away millions of dollars for a landmark that few in the city of Waltham ever engage with when that could be spent on student scholarships and research. I love the Castle and, were there any way to feasibly save it I would certainly advocate for it. But there’s not.

      Towers A and B are what can be seen from Waltham itself – is that not enough? If that’s the case, those who feels strongly are welcome to put their money where their mouth is. This alum, however, is going to continue advocating for what is undeniably best for the university and – more importantly – the students and that is a new, accessible, not-falling-down residence hall. Future students shouldn’t have to wear hard hats to access their rooms.

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