Labor Day Weekend of 1917 marked the opening of MIT’s new student center, Walker Memorial — although not for its intended purpose. As part of the Institute’s contribution to the World War I war effort, 400 naval aviation students moved into the new building, taking over the gymnasium and balconies of the big hall for dormitory space, as well as the rooms on the second and third floors that had been built for student and faculty recreational use.
The building’s namesake, former MIT President Francis Amasa Walker, is still the only MIT president to have served as a military general, so he likely would have approved. As The Tech of the day reported: “the building erected in memory of him will be devoted to military purposes before becoming what it is destined to be, the social center of Technology.”
A hub for campus activities was considered the greatest tribute to President Walker, who was beloved by both students and alumni for his efforts to improve student life on MIT’s cramped Boston campus. But making that ideal student center a reality took two decades.
When Walker died in 1897, the Alumni Association formed a committee to plan and fund the project, and, by 1902, the funds and land had been set aside. The project was postponed, though, when MIT announced plans to relocate from Boston. It wasn’t until the Institute’s move to Cambridge 14 years later that construction on Walker Memorial finally became possible.
It became a landmark for MIT students began even before it was finished. On Feb. 9, 1917, the Class of 1918 gathered for “the first Class Photograph ever taken on the steps of Walker Memorial … this spot will probably be chosen as a place to take all class pictures in the future,” the 1918 edition of Technique reported. The tradition holds generations later: Walker’s steps are still used for alumni group portraits, most notably that of the 50th reunion class before they march in the Commencement procession as official Cardinal and Gray Society members in their distinctive red jackets.
After the Army and Navy aviation cadets moved out in January of 1919, the building was formally inaugurated as a student center. Henry A. Morss, Class of 1893 and then president of the Alumni Association, formally presented Walker Memorial to MIT “for the students that the student body would thereby be united and the Technology spirit be fostered.”
For many of those who have passed through Walker Memorial over the past 100 years, the most enduring images remain the murals in Morss Hall, which were painted by Edwin Howland Blashfield of the Class of 1869. Created and installed between 1923 and 1930, their allegories of alma mater receiving homage from scientific and academic disciplines have watched over countless MIT community functions, from dining hall breakfasts to the Assembly Ball and more.
For most MIT alumni and students, Walker Memorial holds indelible memories. A century after its completion, the tribute to President Walker has been realized in the best possible way — with the building continuing to serve as a community gathering place.