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The Backstory of Killian Court

How MIT’s Great Court got a new name.

  • by Vincent A. Fulmer SM ’53
  • December 17, 2013

When I first set foot on the MIT campus 65 years ago, I gazed in wonder at the Institute’s signature massive dome. MIT was then on the cusp of its 10th decade since its founding in 1861. Little did I realize the confluence of 10s that would someday mark the site.

President Jerry Wiesner and Elizabeth and James Killian at Killian Court’s dedication.

Killian Court (known originally as the Great Court) is named in honor of MIT’s 10th president, who stands among our most accomplished presidents in national service and who did so much to build the MIT we know today. The first alumnus to serve as president, he oversaw the doubling of the Institute’s floor space and the establishment of two of MIT’s five schools, among many academic innovations.

Killian Court stretches out in front of the main building, which houses the president’s office. Though it’s officially named in honor of President Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, the driving force behind MIT’s move from Boston to Cambridge in 1916, students and staff still call it Building 10.

To complete the numerology of 10, the Great Dome is supported by 10 beautiful Ionic Greek columns—recalling the first 10 presidents of MIT beginning with our founder, William Barton Rogers, and ending with James Rhyne Killian Jr. ’26. Anyone who doubts that Killian Court is a special place should spend a quiet moment in this site of Frisbee competitions, freshman picnics, special convocations, and commencement exercises, pondering the seamless, symbiotic connection it makes between buildings devoted to science and engineering.

Fifteen years after I first visited MIT as a prospective student, and still captivated by its grandeur, I became vice president and secretary of the Institute; over two decades, I would—among many other things—supervise more than 100 dedication ceremonies and keep order in the naming of buildings. After several abortive attempts to find a suitable way for the Corporation to honor Dr. Killian, the idea hit me one Saturday morning in 1973 as I took a break in the Great Court from drafting the minutes of the latest Corporation meeting. Eureka! The memorandum I would later write, proposing the naming of Killian Court, remains the document I am most proud of in my long association with MIT.

Names at MIT are not a casual, impulsive matter. Perhaps nothing ever is at MIT, a scientific place that cares a great deal about truth and accuracy. So I followed standard MIT procedure, conducting a careful analysis of the effects of naming a structure before proceeding. Were there competing names? Might any feathers be ruffled? Were donors’ expectations in the picture? Was the tribute adequate, relevant, and appropriate? How unique was it? Would placing a name on a structure—or in this case, a courtyard—commit MIT to an indefinite period of maintaining it? Would the name prevent us from changing the future use of the space? Would it add a line item to the annual budget?

In mid-1973, I was able to assure Corporation chairman Howard W. Johnson that naming the Great Court for Dr. Killian would please the MIT community—and most especially the Killian family.

Frankly, I was lucky to have experienced what seemed like an epiphany. When the Great Court was constructed and dedicated in 1916, it was given only a generic name. The dusty, gravel-covered expanse was used as our ROTC drill field before its nondescript features were landscaped and beautifully transformed. Its donor, George Eastman, the anonymous “Mr. Smith” who gave the funds to construct the original main building, had been properly memorialized in the Eastman Court and the Eastman Laboratory of Physics and Chemistry (Building 8). The expense of maintaining the Great Court was already part of the annual budget. Thus, the pathway to proceed was free and clear.

When Johnson and the MIT Executive Committee presented the idea to Dr. Killian, he was totally taken with it. In his 1985 memoir, The Education of a College President, he recorded his acceptance remarks at the courtyard naming ceremony on June 3, 1974: “No accolade which has come to me in my lifetime has moved me as deeply as this action by the MIT Corporation. I simply do not know how to respond to a resolution so magnanimous, so felicitously phrased, and so heartwarming in spirit.”

Vincent A. Fulmer, SM ’53, was an MIT staff member for 34 years, retiring in 1985 as secretary of both MIT and the Corporation. He remains a stalwart volunteer.

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