Oak Room 86ed, Cultural Centers Move

Check, please: Duke's dining room closes

Check, please: Duke's dining room closes. Photo: Duke University Archives


Faced with declining revenues, the Oak Room, a West Campus dining landmark since 1946, has closed its doors. The space it occupied on the second floor of the West Union Building will be renovated for use as the new Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. The Williams Center's current spot, in the basement of the union building, will become the new home of the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Life. The LGBT center's current space on the second floor of the Flowers Building will be transformed into office space for a division of student affairs.

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, says that the Oak Room's continuing financial struggles and the university's commitment to provide better cultural space made the timing right for the changes. A cultural-space report released in May 2001 recommended that the Mary Lou Williams Center be given a more prominent location and granted additional space. "Both moves address not only cultural and diversity initiatives, but address broader issues of space in the community," Moneta says. "I see this as a double win." The shuffling of cultural space is one of Moneta's goals, as he begins to realign student space on West Campus into a "student village."

The Oak Room had undergone a series of redesigns in recent years, failing to attract enough patrons as other, outsourced dining venues emerged on West Campus. The restaurant has been losing money for the past decade, says Jim Wulforst, director of dining services. "I have kind of mixed emotions about this," he says. "I think we've done some great things with the Oak Room, but the trends we're seeing are that students may not really have an hour and a half to sit down." The Faculty Commons, also located beside the Oak Room on the second floor, will continue to serve meals to university faculty members. Administrators say they hope to entice faculty members to dine there more often and may allow students to dine with faculty to increase interaction.

Leon Dunkley, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, says the new space will be an improvement over its current location, as the center continues to expand in scope. "It will allow us to have more room to house some larger functions and a larger library," he says. "This will also open some space for a programmer we have coming this year." The center was founded in 1983 to strengthen the university's commitment to foster an appreciation of the heritage of black Americans. Featuring an art gallery, library, and lounge, the center sponsors events and speakers on diverse topics such as feminism, hunger, and poverty. "I feel that Duke is making a huge stride forward," Dunkley says.

Karen Krahulik, director of the Center for LGBT Life, says new space will better accommodate staff and programming. "Our current space can only comfortably accommodate meetings or programs with six or fewer people, yet most of our programs draw anywhere from twelve to seventy-five people," she says. "And, more important, it is centrally located yet discreetly positioned on the back side of West Union, which will also provide a certain measure of anonymity for students who are not comfortably 'out.'" When the center was founded in 1994, it occupied a single room in Flowers Building before moving to its present offices.

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