01 Sep 2011

The Spangler Effect

When its doors swung open on January 22, 2001, the Spangler Center instantly transformed life on campus. Ten years later, it’s hard to imagine the HBS community without it.
by Roger Thompson


Last year the Spangler Center hosted 829 events and meetings, booked 9,314 student study sessions in project rooms, and served 725,244 meals.

Impressive as they are, numbers like these don’t reflect the building’s less tangible, but no less important, impact on the HBS community. From the beginning, Spangler was never just about meals, or study sessions, or events. Its planners and architects aimed to create a social and academic hub that students would regard simply as home away from home. By all accounts, they succeeded.

Angela Crispi (MBA ’90), associate dean for administration, recalls life on campus pre-Spangler. “There was so much energy in the classroom, but once class was over, that intensity went poof. There was no place for students to continue those discussions. Now, when the Aldrich doors open, students make a beeline to Spangler. It’s a place to see and be seen.”

Renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, whose New York–based firm won the competition to design the building, describes the inspiration behind his work: “The Spangler Center was conceived to give a new heart to the Business School, which had been atomized over time by many buildings and an increasing number of students living off campus.... From the day it opened, students adopted Spangler as their own.”

“It’s hard to believe it has been only 10 years,” observes Steve Nelson (MBA ’88), executive director of the MBA Program. “In that time, Spangler has become so much a part of the fabric of the HBS community. We had 32 buildings spread across a 40-acre campus, but no central space for students to gather before Spangler.”

When asked what he likes most about the building that bears his family name, C.D. “Dick” Spangler Jr. (MBA ’56), who returned to campus in June for his 55th class reunion, answered simply: “I’m pleased that students like being here.”

Indeed they do, as evidenced by fond memories a number of alumni recently recounted.

Rachael Anne Schaffner (MBA ’09): “During my first year, a coed group of friends often went to Shad and did separate workouts, then walked over to Spangler for what soon became known as ‘family dinner.’ We talked about life and classes, game-planned how to crack cases for the next day, and discussed how to survive HBS. Spangler was a place for my surrogate family during my first year.”

Anne Himpens Newton (MBA ’09): “I met my husband Michael Newton in Spangler early on the first morning of admit weekend. It was pouring outside, and a coatrack had been set up outside the Williams Room. I literally bumped into him (twice) on my way to the coatrack. It was super crowded, and we kept getting pushed, though my husband claims I bumped into him on purpose. It wasn’t until the happy hour that evening in Spangler that we started talking. We then sat at the same table at dinner in the Williams Room, where he finally asked me for my number.”Â

Hannah Schott Vazzana (MBA ’02): “I have many fond memories, but one that sticks out is of my study group meeting religiously every morning in the brand-new Spangler Center. One morning while we were discussing a case and eating breakfast, our lively bunch was greeted by a lovely older gentleman who said in a southern drawl, ‘May I join you for breakfast?’ We replied, ‘Of course.’ The next thing he said was, ‘I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Dick Spangler’ (which sounded more like Dick Spanglah).

“Well, you can imagine we were all a bit stunned and excited to meet Mr. Spangler, and we thanked him for the amazing building. What was really neat about the whole morning was he was so interested in hearing about what we were studying, and what cases we were doing. You could really feel how much this building meant to him — it was more than the beauty of it, it was the purpose of it. Definitely a highlight morning.”

From Master Plan to Blueprints

The idea for a campus center surfaced soon after Kim Clark was appointed Dean in 1995 and a task force was assembled to update the campus master plan. “We identified that there was no central place on campus for students to gather,” recalls Sharon Black, the School’s director of planning. At Kresge Hall, students shared crowded dining facilities with Executive Education participants and had no place to study or hang out, forcing them to disperse to their dorms or off-campus residences. And the Au Bon Pain in Shad Hall was too small and limited in fare to satisfy student needs for after-hours socializing around food and drink.

A frequent campus visitor, Dick Spangler remembers the day in Dean Clark’s office when the subject of a campus center first came up. “The Dean said, ‘I need to talk to you about something. Let’s walk over here to the parking lot then adjacent to Aldrich Hall.’ Standing out there in the parking lot, he said the School needed someplace to bring students together,” and he gestured at the surrounding asphalt as the intended site. “I thought he was talking about a snack bar,” Spangler facetiously adds. “We went back to his office to talk, and I said that our family would be interested in supporting the project.” Spangler — whose multifaceted career spans banking, construction, real estate, and higher education — chose Class Day 1998 to announce that he and his wife, Meredith, had pledged their support for a new student center.

Translating a concept into reality required an intensive effort involving faculty, staff, and students. What, exactly, should go in the center? The answer was as much philosophical as practical. From the beginning, Dean Clark voiced the view that the center had to reflect the spirit of HBS’s unique residential campus, where casual conversation and chance encounters complemented the learning that went on in the classroom. “We focused endlessly” on how to design a building that fostered relationships, recalls Graham Wyatt, a lead architect on the project.

To fully reflect campus life, the building also needed an academic dimension, something noticeably absent from most university campus centers. “We visited a lot of campus centers, and they were too much like shopping malls centered on food and a bookstore,” says Crispi, who at the time was the School’s chief planning officer overseeing the campus master plan. “We felt it was important for the building to have an academic anchor with an auditorium and study rooms.”

Neither of those decisions came easily, says Professor Emeritus Steven Wheelwright, the lead faculty representative on the planning committee who is now president of Brigham Young University–Hawaii. “We debated whether to put the study rooms in the library instead of Spangler, and how many seats to put in the auditorium.” Ultimately, Spangler got 29 study rooms and a 350-seat auditorium.

Certain amenities also sparked intense discussion. “We had a huge debate over the fireplaces in the first-floor lounge,” Wheelwright continues. “There was concern about heat going up the chimneys, but we decided that fireplaces would make the student lounge a more attractive social gathering place. They make it feel a bit more homey.”

On the practical side, the building provided an opportunity to consolidate student services previously scattered across campus. MBA administrative offices moved into the top floor, and the lower level included a casual-dining grill, the Harvard Coop, IT support services, a copy center, a post office, Student Association offices, an ATM, and 1,800 mailboxes for case distribution. The days of waiting in long lines to pick up cases at the Baker 20 window in the basement of the library were finally over.

Architecturally, Stern’s design for the 121,050-square-foot building has been praised for its harmony with the rest of HBS’s Georgian campus and for its south-facing orientation toward Western Avenue, a feature central to the School’s openness to the surrounding Allston community and the University’s envisioned presence on the Boston side of the Charles River.

Of all the building’s attractions, none drew more praise than the food service. One alum from the Class of 2001, a group that bridged the old and the new, compared the food in Kresge Hall to “a bad airport lounge.” By contrast, the Spangler Food Court fare was “amazing,” an assessment that holds true a decade later. “People who come back for reunions are really blown away,” says Todd Mulder, food services general manager for Restaurant Associates, the hospitality firm that manages all campus food operations. “They are impressed that you can get sushi made to order,” in addition to soups, sandwiches, a huge salad bar selection, a range of hot entrées, and fresh-baked pastries and desserts.

Over the years, Dick Spangler has formed a bond of friendship with Mulder and taken time to strike up acquaintances with many of the food court staff. It’s not unusual to see Spangler at breakfast or lunch, and he uses the opportunity to engage students in conversation. Tellingly, he keeps his visits low-key. “He gets in line and pays for his meals,” says Mulder. “Just because his name is on the building, he made it clear that he didn’t want any special treatment.”

“This Place Means Something to Us”

The first in his family to attend college, Spangler arrived on campus in the fall of 1954 straight out of UNC–Chapel Hill. After HBS, he served two years in the Army and then joined the family business, C.D. Spangler Construction Co., in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over time, he expanded the family’s holdings and turned around the fortunes of the Bank of North Carolina, founded by his father, which merged with North Carolina National Bank and today is Bank of America. From 1986 to 1997, he served as president of the University of North Carolina system.

While deeply committed to advancing public education in his home state, Spangler always felt a strong connection with HBS that extends beyond his own campus experience. During his first semester at HBS, Spangler invited his father, a successful businessman, up from Charlotte for a visit and arranged for him to attend some AMP classes. He fondly recalls what transpired:

“I lived on the fourth floor of Mellon, and my dad came up to my room and said he really enjoyed the AMP classes and would like to attend the program. But he didn’t have a college degree, and he felt like he needed one to be admitted. My dad didn’t have enough money to go to college, nor did my mother.

“I told him to go talk to the associate dean in charge, which he did. The dean told him he could come to the next session. At 49, my dad started the AMP Program in the fall of 1955. I remember walking across campus to Aldrich with him and wishing him happy birthday, and they sang Happy Birthday to him in class. As far as I know, we were the first father-son team at HBS.

“I can recall Dad saying it was a good place, and he was learning a lot. It was the only college he ever attended. I remember he said something like, ‘I hope we’ll be able to do something to be of assistance one day.’”

Years later, Spangler’s daughter Anna came to HBS, where she met her husband, Tom Nelson, both MBA ’88.

For the Spangler family, the cumulative experiences of three generations on the HBS campus created a deep reservoir of goodwill. “This place means something to us,” Spangler explains. “It was significant in my dad’s life, my life, and my daughter’s and son-in-law’s lives. But more than that, it the Spangler Center was an opportunity to do something we hope will benefit people long into the future, long after everybody’s forgotten about any of us.” (Inspired by the story of how George F. Baker insisted on covering the entire cost of building the original HBS campus, Spangler did the same for the eponymous campus center, in addition to creating an ongoing operational fund.)

Not someone who seeks public attention for his family’s philanthropic generosity, Spangler remembers his surprise at learning that the building would bear his name. “I didn’t quite know what to say,” he recounts. “I know it sounds naive, but it never occurred to me that they would call it the Spangler Center.” What did occur to him was the opportunity to pay tribute to his wife and his favorite HBS professor, Charlie Williams. Spangler requested that two large meeting rooms be known by their names: Meredith and Williams.

From the day it opened, the Spangler building was a hit. “Every event that took place on campus wanted to be in Spangler,” recalls Wheelwright. “It was like a magnet.”

“In many respects, Spangler has surpassed our expectations,” says Crispi, who points out that the building frequently hosts events sponsored by Allston community groups and Harvard University. “We have more requests for meeting rooms and the auditorium than we can possibly accommodate.” Not on the approved list of uses, despite frequent inquiries, are weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs, she adds.

“Spangler is a very special place,” says Steve Nelson. “It relocated the center of gravity for the campus.”

For Dick Spangler, there’s evident pride in the fact that students have made the place their campus home. He observes approvingly: “It turned out better than anybody had imagined.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1990, Section D
Class of MBA 1988, Section A
follow @stevenrnelson
Dick Spangler
Class of MBA 1956, Section D
Class of MBA 2002, Section H

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