Northeastern transforms outdoor dining tents with a little help from Michelangelo and Raphael

Students Emily Bonnet and Terrance Dumoulin enjoy lunch inside the Renaissance themed dining tent on the Boston campus. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Why bother flying to Rome to gaze at Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when you can simply cross Huntington Avenue to see the iconic masterpiece on the ceiling of Speare Hall’s dining tent?

Alisa Lorden studies inside the bamboo garden-themed dining tent near Curry Student Center. The greenery reminds the freshman from Milton, Mass., of her dorm, which has succulents. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The enclosed outdoor venue, nicknamed the “ReNUssaince Room,” even boasts a realistic replica of Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, as well as working chandeliers, green plastic topiary, and faux white marble columns. The new décor is part of a top-to-bottom transformation of the six white big tops that dot the Boston campus.

The largest among them, “The Lodge” near Willis Hall, got its name from the digital fireplace, faux stone hearth, and rustic decor on the inside. Large evergreens on the outside will complete the forest ambience.

“The whole idea is to have the tents be very relaxing, very welcoming, and to attract the community to enjoy them,” says Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. He spoke while standing outside a tent in West Village near the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute while wearing a red and black face mask emblazoned with his likeness and a printed message for these pandemic times: “Keep Your Distance Please.”

Students Aidan Sevier, left, and Celeste Voutsinas-Klose, enjoy lunch inside the bamboo garden themed dining tent. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The structure next to the O’Bryant Institute is named “The Rainbow Room” for the 76 multi-colored umbrellas hanging by their handles from the ceiling. On one raw, cold day in November, the electric heater blew so hard that some students sat comfortably inside wearing shorts and T-shirts. Many were on their laptops, some were having lunch.

Jamie Lee, dining with a friend, said she has eaten at two other decorated venues but that “The Rainbow Room” was her favorite. 

“It’s pretty cute and it feels more cozy and homey,” says the second-year business major. Looking up at the mix of blue, red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, and green umbrellas, she adds: “It’s a lot brighter and is more welcoming.”

Back in the Speare tent, Emily Bonnet and Terrance Dumoulin were marveling at the ceiling panels of famous Renaissance works besides those of Michelangelo and Raphael.

Petrus Christus’s A Goldsmith in his Shop depicts three people inside a room filled with trinkets. A male and a female stand dressed in expensive-looking garb as the woman gestures toward a seated man in a red garment with a matching hat.

Other panels show Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages by Paris Bordon and Mars and Venus United By Love from Paolo Veronese.

“I’d love to know where they got the frescoes from because I feel like that would be cool, unlike the ceiling of my room,” says Bonnet, a second-year from Paris, France, who is pursuing a degree in communication and media and screen studies. She usually cooks in her dorm in West Village but decided to try the dining tent for the first time.

The tent decorations came from companies that could quickly find attractive wares, but that also met fire code regulations, explains Brian Loutitt and Tyler Manoukian, who handle interactive events for Northeastern. They worked collaboratively with facilities and design teams to make the upgrades. 

Students Levi Kaplan (right) and Lauren Aquino chat inside the lodge-themed dining tent outside the West Village complex. The fireplace is digital. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The process involved planning, tracking deliveries, arranging furniture, and then making sure it all fit together and looked right, says Manoukian. And it all had to be maintainable over the winter.

“There’s a lot of additional layers of things that you have to be conscious of when you’re putting stuff in a tent that’s going to be used for six or seven months,” Loutitt says.

He and Manoukian didn’t have the luxury of time. They had to decorate on the fly because the tents are integral to providing students with an outdoor space while indoor seating is limited because of COVID-19 restrictions.

This led to a fair share of misses as well as hits. They originally thought “The Rainbow Room” umbrellas would deflect the overhead LED lights and provide warmth to the space. It didn’t quite work out as expected, so the bulbs were gel-wrapped to retain heat.

“So it’s not really just ‘OK, we have the umbrellas, we have the tables and chairs. We’re done now,’” Manoukian points out. “We sort of look at it holistically, make sure it all works together.”

It does, as far as Alisa Lorden is concerned.

The freshman from Milton, Mass., is wearing a mask while typing on her laptop in “The Bamboo Room” outside Curry Student Center. Live potted bamboo plants are positioned around the inside perimeter of the tent while colorful plastic flowers hang from the ceiling.

“It’s my favorite of all the tents,” the chemistry major says. It reminds her of her dorm, which has succulents in it. “It’s very inviting and you feel like you’re in nature.”

A few feet away, Aidan Sevier and Celeste Voutsinas-Klose are seated apart and masked while enjoying lunch together. They were impressed with the great lengths the university took to adorn the dining spaces to improve the atmosphere.

“It shows how much Northeastern cares,” says Voutsinas-Klose, a freshman from New York. “These could have been plain white walls and look very hospital-y, but they didn’t have to go out of their way and literally put flowers on the ceiling. That’s really cool.”

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