A New Life for Memorial Steps

The historic stairway, built in 1929 to commemorate Tufts’ war dead, undergoes a complete reconstruction
Memorial Steps viewed from the top of the Hill
“We want to be respectful of this space,” says Raymond Santangelo. “It’s such a prominent piece of Tufts history that we wanted to make sure we did it right.” Photo: Kelvin Ma
January 19, 2016

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If the Memorial Steps on the Medford/Somerville campus could speak, they would tell a thousand stories—of Tufts men and women who served in the armed forces, from the battlefields of the Civil War to today’s conflicts in the Middle East. Now they also tell a story about how Tufts commemorates its history.

Combining engineering and craftsmanship with admiration for the military service of alumni, a complete renovation finished at the end of December has given new life to the campus landmark.

Crumbling concrete has been replaced with New Hampshire granite; plaques commemorating alumni who served in conflicts from the Civil War to the present day have been reworked, and the surrounding wrought-iron fences and gates have been restored. Bulky shrubbery skirting the steps has given way to what promises to be a spectacular spring show of flowering magnolias, cherry trees and 2,000 daffodils.

The stairs “will be there for a long, long time—that granite isn’t going anywhere,” says project architect Tim Smith. “We tried to maintain a design authentic to the 1920s, when the steps were first built. If people walk the steps now and say, ‘Oh, they’ve always looked like this,’ that’s the greatest compliment we could hear.”

The old steps and the landings were replaced with rough-textured New Hampshire granite, ideal for stairs because it is skid-resistant. Photo: Kelvin MaThe Memorial Steps were part of a master plan created for Tufts by the firm founded by the renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Daniel Abramson, an associate professor of art history and director of architectural studies, notes that after World War I, it was not uncommon for institutions planning new buildings or plazas to envision them as memorials.

“It’s likely the university wanted to complete access from College Avenue to the academic quad and thought, Why not also have these stairs be a memorial, why not make them grand?” he says.

But more than eight decades of rain, snow and sleet took their toll; the stairs started buckling; and the memorial plaques became tripping hazards. Because of subsurface drainage from the hill, the steps sustained water damage, too. “A tremendous amount of water drains down that hill,” says Smith. “Once water gets into a small space, it creates more space for ice and frost, and the water just continues to seep in.”

Last year’s severe winter put the structural integrity of the steps “over the edge,” says Raymond N. Santangelo, Tufts’ senior manager of project administration.

Still, a permanent fix wasn’t going to be easy. The steps cascade down a steep, 50-foot vertical rise, and the neighboring slope is home to many mature trees. Tufts officials spent a year building out a comprehensive project plan with architects from Timothy D. Smith Associates, contractors from Your Space Landscape and Construction and landscape architects from Marc Mazzarelli Associates.

When construction started in May 2015, workers dug up the stairs and found the culprit behind decades of decay: the steps had almost no foundation, inconceivable for construction in New England today. “They were basically sitting on ash and cinders; they had minimal support,” says Smith.

The new foundation for the steps not only makes them more stable, it features a radiant heating system that pumps hot water downhill from Miner Hall and back up, minimizing the need for ice melt and sand in winter.

The old steps and the landings were replaced with rough-textured New Hampshire granite, ideal for stairs because it is skid-resistant. The height and depth of risers now conform to accessibility codes. The steps were also extended past the portico that runs between Miner and Paige halls so they blend with the upper campus road that circles the top of the Hill.

Landscape architects tackled neglected and overlooked slope-side areas. Two shady garden patios were created on both sides of the stairs behind Paige and Miner halls, complete with benches and bright blue Adirondack chairs.

“We want to be respectful of this space,” Santangelo says. “It’s such a prominent piece of Tufts history that we wanted to make sure we did it right. That means it should have some visual impact any time of year. But it will be really noticeable in the spring. When parents and students come to campus, they will see a beautiful piece of history.”

A Fresh Look at Inscriptions

Photo: Kelvin MaRepairing the steps went beyond structural integrity and aesthetics—it encompassed their place as a historical symbol of appreciation for the men and women “who served their country with unselfish devotion in time of war,” as one of the plaques puts it.

Engraved tributes, funded largely by alumni over the years, now have more visual presence. The black granite plaques stand out, with the etched tributes circled by an inset of green granite, cut into a wreath of ivy.

The renovation provided an opportunity to take a fresh look at the inscriptions on the plaques. Now they honor both military women and men, and one recognizes alumni who served in Iraq and Afghanistan “and elsewhere throughout the globe.”

“Now the stairs better reflect Tufts’ involvement with the military,” says Gresh Lattimore, F65, F70, F72, a retired Navy Reserve captain and commercial banker, who coordinated the plaque review. “The work on the Memorial Steps, for me, confirms that Tufts is very committed to educating students who go on to become officers who appreciate the complexity of international affairs.”

Taking stock of the preservation project, art historian Abramson says that the university has done the right thing. “Liberal arts colleges are supposed to be stewards of past accomplishments and cultural memory,” he says, “and in that regard, the university has an obligation to take care of its own history. It’s part of its mission to keep memory alive and to renew it.  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.