A New Beginning for Barnum Hall

A one-year renovation transforms a Tufts landmark into a place of new academic purpose and vitality
People milling about the front of a large building. A one-year renovation transforms Tufts landmark Barnum Hall into a place of new academic purpose and vitality.
“We wanted to create diverse and vibrant spaces that would signal this is a new Barnum,” Gretchen Von Grossmann said. Photo: Alonso Nichols
October 31, 2019

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Barnum Hall has a storied past. P.T. Barnum, showman and Tufts trustee, gave the building to Tufts in 1883—it became the Barnum Museum of Natural History, housing his collection of animal specimens. It was here that the world’s most famous elephant, Jumbo, was later prominently displayed, eventually becoming Tufts’ college mascot. Biology classes and laboratories also came to be synonymous with Barnum and with adjoining Dana Laboratory, built in the 1963.

Now Barnum has begun a new chapter. This summer Tufts completed most of a one-year renovation that encompassed new windows, updated heating, ventilating, and air conditioning and electrical systems, and a fire sprinkler system. Tufts also has refreshed the interior with contemporary materials, colorful furnishings, and even enlivened the new front entrance lobby with a color not typically seen at Tufts.

“It’s called fire-engine red,” said Trina Jerich, project manager. “Barnum has seen a lot of changes over its lifetime. It’s historic—but not traditional. We tried to embrace its quirks.”

Work began on Barnum in 2017 when the Department of Biology moved to the Science and Engineering Complex. In addition to critical operational upgrades, Tufts converted four floors—including laboratories—into administrative offices, classrooms, social spaces, and studios for programs that now will support civic engagement, film and media studies, environmental programs, and studio art.

Alexandra Abal, A22, joins other students in the newly renovated lobby of Barnum Hall. Photo: Alonso NicholsGretchen Von Grossmann, director of capital programs, said that envisioning a new purpose for Barnum led to several key architectural achievements. Among them are carving out a common gathering space at the front entry by removing walls, creating an accessible connection between the corresponding floors of Barnum and Dana (whose floors are at different levels), and adding glass to open up interior views as well as views to the exterior.

Design expertise from Needham-based Studio Eneé also informed decisions to incorporate contemporary finish materials and brightly colored furnishings, all of which add up to a “clean, modern expression,” Von Grossmann said.

“We wanted to create diverse and vibrant spaces that would signal this is a new Barnum,” she said. “It’s been our goal from the beginning that we establish a sense of community. It’s important that campus leaders in civic engagement, sustainability, and the arts are encouraged to come together and develop new collaborations.”

Many New Tenants

The first to move in this summer included four environmental groups: the Center for International Environment and Research Policy, based at The Fletcher School; Tufts Institute of the Environment; the Environmental Studies Program at the School of Arts and Sciences; and the Office of Sustainability.

“The new space in Barnum is truly an environmental hub,” said Sara Gomez, assistant director and program manager of the Environmental Studies Program. “Frequently interacting with colleagues and students in the other environmentally-focused groups at Tufts will undoubtedly lead to exciting collaborations. The best part is to have a sense of home. For the first time ever, faculty, staff, and students in our program will have a dedicated space in the same building and this will allow us to continue to build a strong community around environmental issues.”

The new entryway to Barnum. Photo: Alonso Nichols Also relocating into Barnum this fall is the Film and Media Studies Program, a popular course of study for growing numbers of students. “We couldn’t be more thrilled by our new footprint in Barnum,” said Malcolm Turvey, director of the program.

“For the first time in the history of Tufts, our filmmaking faculty and students will have a studio designed specifically for filmmaking along with a state-of-the-art editing lab and finishing studios for sound,” he said. “Meanwhile, Barnum auditorium [008] will have the best projection facilities on campus, allowing us to screen movies to a large audience.” The new spaces and facilities, which will come online in spring 2020, “will enable us to deliver a first-rate education to our students and will provide a home for them on campus.”

Tisch College Makes a Move Next Year

Because some of Barnum’s stonework required additional repairs, two other groups are scheduled to move in during school break in January. Tisch College of Civic Life will occupy the entire first floor of Barnum Hall.

“Tisch College’s move to Barnum Hall, which will occur as we kick off our twentieth anniversary year, is a real milestone for the College and for Tufts,” said Alan D. Solomont, A70, A08P, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of Tisch College. “We will be moving to a bigger space in an iconic building that stands right at the center of the university’s academic life. This reinforces the importance of civic engagement to the Tufts mission, and it is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our staff, faculty, students, and alumni supporters. We envision this space as the true home of civic life at Tufts, we have some exciting events and uses for the space planned, and we hope the whole Tufts community will feel welcome at our new and improved home.”

The School of Arts and Sciences studio arts program will move into renovated laboratories where artists will have generous natural light pouring in from towering windows in the high-ceiling spaces.

“Having the opportunity to teach core SMFA classes to our degree students on both the SMFA and Medford/Somerville campuses is a game-changer for our faculty and students,” said Nancy Bauer, dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA). “Our two large studios in Barnum will allow us to expand our degree-program offerings in media arts, drawing, and painting and to collaborate more closely with students and faculty members in film and media studies.”

Barnum was originally the Barnum Museum of Natural History, as shown in this postcard from about 1910.Those now—or soon—to call Barnum home are not alone in their appreciation for what Barnum means to their enterprise and, indeed, to the university as a whole.

Former provost Sol Gittleman, H10, said Barnum speaks as well to Tufts’ resilience. He can recall April 14, 1975 when fire tore through Barnum Museum. The collection was completely lost, including Barnum’s desk and bust, and the stuffed hide of Jumbo.

“When Barnum burned, that was like a nadir,” he said. Tufts was struggling financially, he said, and “with Jumbo gone—what a shock.” He credits the arrival in 1976 of tenth president Jean Mayer with not only getting Tufts on track, but with also raising its reputation around the world. “We rose, you could say, out of the ashes,” he said. “Barnum is the best symbol of Tufts rising from a low point to our current eminence; it reminds us how far we’ve come.”

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