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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Don’t forget: We have a literal castle on campus

When I was on a tour of Brandeis for the first time, we were told something along the lines of “Brandeis isn’t like other universities because we have a castle!” How Usen Castle helps set us apart remains unclear, however, considering that it remains largely abandoned.

Usen Castle, or at least what’s left of it, refuses to fit on the Brandeis campus. Surrounded by modernist brick boxes and laboratories, the medieval towers are a conspicuous outlier. This is because Usen Castle is so ancient that it predates Brandeis itself. It was originally built by Middlesex University, which would later provide the land on which Brandeis was built.

The Castle was part elaborate folly, part fully functional academic building. If Atlas Obscura, as well as campus legend, is to be believed, the founder of Middlesex University had originally intended to purchase an actual Scottish castle and ship it over to his school in Massachusetts. The owners, of course, refused and what’s more, refused to give him the blueprints. Undaunted, the founder simply sketched the outside of the castle and constructed Usen Castle based on those drawings.

Built in 1928, it was originally used as classroom and laboratory space, a striking contrast to its later use as a dormitory building. Photos from that time show desks and rows of lab equipment within brightly lit halls. It’s surreal to think that for Middlesex University, their equivalent to the Shapiro Science Center was a literal medieval castle, mixing antiquity and progress in a strangely harmonious way. 

Alas, however, the castle’s glory days could not last forever. The Hoot reported in 2016 that students living in the Castle had to face problems such as mold, leakage and ceiling cave-ins. That same year, the university stepped in. Half of the castle was torn down and replaced with the modern Skyline hall. As for the remainder, the iconic Towers A and B … nothing has happened. The administration promised that the university was “further analyz[ing] options and possible fundraising opportunities for their future.

Well, after seven years of analysis, the towers remain empty. From the outside looking in, you can see bleak rooms, some with visible graffiti. From a distance, it’s not a pretty sight either. Your eyes are drawn to the stone walls, the painted ornaments, and then to the massive black tarp draped across the battlements, blowing slightly in the wind. Why is it there, covering what should be the most recognizable feature of any castle? No one knows. There certainly isn’t any active construction going on there.

The only part of the castle that remains in use is Chums, a cafe located in the basement. It’s a small space available for clubs to reserve for certain events, such as SASA’s Dance Night, or for a dance party during the Leonard Bernstein Festival. The keyword is reserve. Because outside of those pre-arranged times, Chums remains as empty as the floors above it.

Does one of the most iconic buildings on campus have to be reduced to an abandoned, vandalized shell with only a small event space in the basement? It’s almost beyond belief that Brandeis has a literal castle just sitting there on campus, and the administration has been doing nothing with it since 2016. I mean, a lot of universities have churches and cathedrals, but how many do you know have a castle?

Usen Castle could have been a symbol of Brandeis’s distinctiveness. It could mean more than just a living space for students, or a laboratory, or as the last defense when the campus is raided by Norsemen. 

For starters, Usen Castle was beloved by the community. It was the focus of countless stories and whispered legends; the aforementioned story of its construction, or that Central Perk from “Friends” was inspired by Chum’s, or that it contained secret passageways and rooms within. (Only the last of these is true, by the way). For decades, Brandeis students dreamt of dwelling within its walls, dreamt of living out their fantasies of royalty and knighthood. Surely one of the most loved and talked-about structures on campus doesn’t have to end up like this, now that the Class of 2016 is gone!

More than that, however, Usen Castle could stand for an ideal. It is our only surviving building from Middlesex University, which according to the Farber Archives, was one of the few medical schools that “did not have quotas in its admissions policy and granted medical degrees to marginalized populations including Jews, African Americans and women.” It was that very philosophy of racial justice that was why Brandeis inherited the land from Middlesex, and which forms the groundwork for Brandeis’ values today.

And what could be a better physical, tangible symbol of these values than Usen Castle? What could be a better representation of a bastion of democratic and equitable values than a literal castle keep, towering over the landscape? 

The Brandeis administration must understand the immense historical, cultural and symbolic value of Usen Castle. The administration must be more forward and transparent about its analysis of plans for the castle, and perhaps even accept community feedback of its future use. 

Perhaps the remaining towers could be office or classroom space. Perhaps they could house more extracurricular groups. Or a museum, or a library. Or even student housing again! Of course, they will need to be renovated extensively, but the possibilities are still limitless and anything is better than their current abandoned state. 

It truly is a massive shame that this unique and beloved structure has been left without any discernible use or purpose. If Brandeis wants to maintain its distinctiveness compared to all the other universities, it must not forget its castle. 

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