It seems that rumors have been circulating recently about Wilson Commons. Some people have suggested that the shape of the building might be the result of a game played by I. M. Pei, the architect, to see if he could design a building to look like a giant pinball machine.

The rounded landings, the spiral staircase and the 18,000 square feet of glass make it easy to see why such a theory might exist.

But was that really Pei’s goal? George Morrison, the Assistant Director of Student Association Programs, doesn’t think so.

“I’ve never heard that, and I [have been working here since] six months before [Wilson Commons] opened,” Morrison said.

Morrison suggested that Wilson Commons was instead designed to resemble the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, a museum that features a courtyard with a glass ceiling.

“Joe Wilson [who Wilson Commons is named for] loved going to the Isabella Gardner Museum,” Morrison said. “[He] wanted that parklike atmosphere here. More than a pinball machine, it was designed to be an outdoor garden indoors.”

Even though it may not have been designed to look like a pinball machine, the architecture of Wilson Commons was liked so much that it became the prototype for a number of prominent buildings, including the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

So how did the pinball machine rumor get its start? Morrison has an idea.

“I’ve heard [student tour guides] saying some things that make me think, ‘Wait a second’.”

Smith can be reached at

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