David Kazdan ’81 (right, with a classmate) at opening night of the Jacqueline Casey poster exhibit at the Burton House Gallery.
David Kazdan ’81 (at right) chats with a classmate at the 1980 opening of the Burton House Gallery’s Jacqueline Casey poster exhibit.

More than 35 years ago, a mysterious note on an old set of building plans inspired two roommates to create an art gallery in their dorm. Its debut show: one of the early solo exhibits of work by renowned MIT graphic designer Jacqueline Casey.

In early 1980, Burton House roommates David Kazdan ‘81 and Joseph Pingree ’81 were perusing building plans for their recently renovated dorm (often referred to more broadly as Burton Conner, to encompass the adjacent Conner Hall). They noticed an area labeled “student gallery.” The juniors were familiar with the oddly shaped space adjacent to the dining hall, but no gallery existed there. Asked why they were reviewing the plans, Kazdan says amusedly, “I can only guess someone was up to something nefarious.” But no hacks ensued. The administration sanctioned what they eventually created: the Burton House Gallery.

“We started walking over after dinners and looking at the space, and eventually we said, ‘This is kind of plausible. We should build an art gallery,’” says Kazdan, who, along with Pingree, double-majored at MIT (the former in humanities and in engineering, the latter within the School of Science). “It was one of those odd things you do as an undergrad. It was something we really didn’t have time to do, but we did it anyway,” says Kazdan, now an anesthesiologist and an engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. This wasn’t the first time Kazdan and Pingree teamed up to build something new. Both amateur (“ham”) radio enthusiasts, for a time they operated a small radio station from their room.

With the help of architecture major Annie Beitz ’82 and several other Burton One friends, they sketched plans for a gallery, then made an appointment with the director of the Housing Office to ask for funding. “We put on coats and ties, which was not typical for us,” Kazdan remembers. Soon after, they received a $1,500 grant, and their plans to create a gallery were underway. The only issue: “We had absolutely no concept whatsoever of what we were doing.”

They turned to the staff of MIT’s Hayden Gallery (since renamed the List Visual Arts Center), who taught them how to design displays and publicize a show. “They gave quite freely of their time and taught us the rudiments of how you display art,” Kazdan says. The staff also suggested they show Casey’s artwork. Her striking posters promoting campus arts and academic events were gaining attention worldwide. And since her medium was posters, the artwork could be easily replaced if their inexperience caused them to accidentally damage a piece.

The gallery went from idea to opening night in just a few months. “We decided to replicate the display cases used by the Hayden Gallery, so we purchased some sheets of plywood and some other lumber and, with the help of others from Burton One, put them together down in the Burton House woodshop,” says Pingree, a systems engineer with Boeing in California.

The friends held an opening night reception with wine and cheese in the spring of 1980. After the Casey exhibit, the Burton House Gallery held an exhibit of watercolors by artist Ku Ping-Hsing during the summer and then an exhibit of works by MIT architecture students, Pingree recalls. They eventually passed the running of the gallery on to other students. They are not sure how long the gallery lasted, but the memories of their unlikely foray into the art world have lasted through the decades.

“Joe and I have always talked about this as one of those things in life that started as an offhand comment that was meant to be funny and took on a life of its own,” Kazdan says. “It had MIT written all over it. It’s one of those things you do, and it’s odd, and then you move on and do something else that’s interesting and odd.”

Kazdan and Pingree’s relationships with their fellow Burton House residents also have lasted through time. In fact, Kazdan and Pingree met their wives—Laura Gooch ’82 and Karen Kensek ’84, respectively—at Burton House.

Coming in June 2017: Look for more stories of life on campus, past and present, in the forthcoming Spring 2017 issue of Spectrum: “Home at MIT.”

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