History on the Hill: Alex’s Place

This article is the second in a series exploring the historical background of sites and buildings on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus.

The library roof is a perennially popular meeting spot for Tufts students and faculty alike, especially as spring approaches. However, the site has more to it than a view of the Boston skyline. Tisch’s rooftop houses Alex’s Place, a memorial dedicated in the spring of 2009 to honor Alex Mendell, who committed suicide in 2003 as a sophomore at Tufts.

According to Vice President of University Advancement Eric Johnson, it was Alex’s parents, Tom and Andrea Mendell, who first brought attention to the idea of a creating a memorial and initiated the project.

“When we decided to do a memorial for Alex, it was clear to us that the rooftop was special and underutilized and also a space that he cared about,” Tom Mendell told the Daily over the phone this week.

According to Johnson, who served as the university’s executive director of development at the time of the space’s unveiling in 2009, the rooftop used to have several large planter?like concrete boxes containing just dirt and grass.

“It was a fairly ugly space, but it could turn into a great place,” Johnson said.

According to Director of Galleries and Collections Amy Schlegel, the artistic and architectural design team for the project was selected through the standard Request for Quotations (RFQ) process, where different teams of architects and artists bid for the project.

“Because Tufts is an internationally recognized university, we felt it would be appropriate to look internationally for a public artist and/or landscape architectural team to refurbish the Tisch Library rooftop plaza/site,” Schlegel told the Daily in an email.

New York?based artist Jackie Ferrara’s design was chosen from 150 artists’ and designers’ submissions, according to a 2009 publication of Around the Circle, the newsletter of the Tufts University Art Gallery’s Contemporary Art Circle. Ferrara chose to collaborate with M. Paul Friedberg, an internationally renowned landscape artist, in facilitating the construction of the design.

“We liked the work of each of them separately, and they had worked together before, so it made sense,” Tom Mendell said. “So we had the combination of a landscape architect and an artist, several people from the university and us. Adele Bacow was very involved. Everyone we dealt with was terrific.”

The Mendells continued to be involved — both personally and financially — throughout the process of designing and constructing the memorial.

“The Mendells grew to love the project and the site so much they came along with the artists’ vision for transforming the site and made a larger gift that perhaps they were initially planning,” Schlegel said. “Of course they met Jackie Ferrara when she was first selected. So, in short, they were very engaged and involved throughout the process.”

According to Tom Mendell, Alex had an idea of someday building a coffee shop on top of the Tisch Library to create a space for students and faculty to meet up and hang out. To honor this vision, the Mendells originally thought about building a coffee shop as a memorial.

“The rooftop was a perfect place to do [this], but unfortunately the Tisch Library wouldn’t let that happen because they were going to put one in their library,” Tom Mendell said. Tisch opened the Tower Caf? in the fall of 2005.

“So we were only capable of beautifying the rooftop,” Andrea Mendell said. “Before, it was an eyesore.”

According to Schlegel, the Mendells decided by early 2006 that a renovation of the rooftop was ideal for the project, due to its central location on campus. This was meant to honor Alex’s involvement in a variety of student groups on campus.

Alex was a senator on the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate for the entirety of his time on campus. He also served as the co?chairman of the Women’s Union, a member of the club ski team and a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.

“[Alex] took a lot of pride in the Tufts campus, and he thought that students should actively be involved in the campus,” Tom Mendell said. “He got upset when people littered, things like that.”

The redesign of the rooftop was intended to reflect the rhythms of both Alex’s life and campus life. After Ferrara and Friedberg were chosen to redesign the space, efforts were made to make students and faculty aware of the project on campus.

“Students in a museum studies course I taught during the semester just before construction began organized a small exhibition of Jackie Ferrara’s indoor sculpture and ‘models,’ and they also produced a video interview with Ferrara and Friedberg that looped inside the exhibition,” Schlegel said.

Tom and Andrea Mendell said that one of the objectives in funding this project was to create something that not only honored their son, but also benefited the Tufts community.

“We think it’s a nice memorial for Alex and it’s terrific for the school,” Tom said. “We hear all the time from faculty, students and prospective students about how lovely the space is.”

The open area of the memorial contains a mosaic floor that doubles as a sundial, an L?shaped trellis, raised planting beds, a clear view of the Boston skyline and the view of campus that Alex loved so much. This area was intended for and is now used for various campus functions, exhibits and special events.

“We use it, actually, for alumni functions and a variety of large student functions, and there are smaller functions as well,” Johnson said. “It’s a space where people can go without having a particular function, and they can just hang out, too.”12


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