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Oak Room closes in space reorganization

After 57 years as Duke's "fine dining" facility, the Oak Room has closed its doors for good. Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta cited the restaurant's continued financial woes and the need for multicultural space as reasons for its departure.

The Oak Room's former space on the second floor of the West Union Building will soon be occupied by the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. In a reshuffling of sorts, the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Life will move to the West Union basement, and part of the Office of Student Affairs will replace the LGBT on the second floor of the Flowers Building.

Moneta said a confluence of factors contributed to the Oak Room's demise, most notably changing student tastes and more variety on and off campus. "Now, a student looking to have a fine dinner on campus can go to the Washington Duke," he said.

The Oak Room has also gone through a series of transformations in recent years, as various managers tried changing the menu, lowering prices and aiming for the atmosphere of a large chain restaurant such as Outback Steakhouse. Efforts to jump-start sales, however, were unsuccessful.

As recently as last year, the future of the Oak Room seemed secure. ARAMARK Corp. regional manager David Randolph said in Jan. 2002, "I don't think Duke's ever going to shut it down." ARAMARK, which manages most of the University's eateries, relinquished control of the Oak Room earlier this year to the University.

With the Oak Room's closing, a void exists on the University dining scene.

"We do still need a decent, long-term, sit-down, full-service venue," said Moneta, who is in discussions with Director of Dining Services Jim Wulforst about a possible successor to the Oak Room.

Moneta said the reshuffling could be more reflective of how space will be allotted in a new West Campus student village, currently in the planning stages. He said he personally envisions a first-floor restaurant located off of a walkway, with outdoor seating.

With the Oak Room vacating a prime location on campus, the Mary Lou Williams Center stands to reap enormous benefits. Director Leon Dunkley said the added capacity in the new location will help the center better accommodate speakers, music concerts, house courses and meetings. An art gallery and library will also be expanded.

He said the increased prominence of the center will have far-reaching implications. "The institutional resonance of the center will be more sound," he said. "The symbolism of having a black culture center in a basement has been strong for some." He noted that he did not give too much credit to such symbols.

Replacing the Mary Lou Williams Center in the West Union basement will be the LGBT center, a move Moneta said could benefit students who seek a more anonymous venue.

Center director Karen Krahulik agreed, also citing increased space as a reason she thinks it is an "extremely good move."

Completing the musical chairs will be a part of the Office of Student Affairs, much of which is currently housed in the Crowell Building on East Campus. While it is uncertain which division will move into the former LGBT space, Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek said it will probably be some part of her office, including Judicial Affairs.

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