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River Houses, Harvard University

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1929–1931, Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott. Memorial Dr.
  • (Peter Vanderwarker or Antonina Smith)
  • (Dr. Meral Ekincioglu)
  • (Dr. Meral Ekincioglu)
  • (Dr. Meral Ekincioglu)
  • (Dr. Meral Ekincioglu)
  • (Dr. Meral Ekincioglu)
  • (Dr. Meral Ekincioglu)

During the early 1920s, Charles Coolidge contributed to a second period of planning, which culminated in the construction of freshman dormitories on Harvard Yard and housing for upperclassmen along the river. The Malkin Athletic Center, originally the Indoor Athletic Building of 1929, was a keystone of this second phase, serving the growing student population in the southern part of the campus.

A major donation from Edward S. Harkness in 1928 further energized the collaboration between President A. Lawrence Lowell and Coolidge. A Yale graduate, Harkness first offered his alma mater funding for the construction of English-style colleges, but when Yale did not respond, he turned to Harvard, where Lowell promptly accepted the offer. Harkness donated $13 million to build the dormitories, which were called houses. Ultimately he made another offer to Yale, and a similar construction program followed there.

Coolidge's firm, then Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott, designed Lowell House (1929–1930) like all of the houses built during this phase. The design reflects the firm's talent in projecting a greater picture, literally creating a skyline and an image for Harvard, especially as seen from across the Charles River. The high tower of Lowell House rises above the towerless colleges to its south, creating a commanding spatial effect. At closer range, Lowell House benefits from the varying heights of its massing and the different levels of its two interior courtyards.

Dunster House (1929–1930) is an example of how the Shepley firm reinterpreted Harvard's early buildings, adapting familiar massing and detail on a grander scale. In this project, the firm turned to Holden Chapel (HY4.1), reworking its pediment and scrollwork. The inspiration for Leverett House, originally McKinlock Hall of 1925, was the Old State House (GC9) in Boston; its stepped gables, volutes, oculus windows, and balcony are repeated in the dormitory design.

Prominently sited on the corner of Memorial Drive, Eliot House (1930–1931) was designed with its triangular point pulled back, so that the building seems to welcome visitors from the south to the Harvard campus. Its dramatic cupola, recalling that of New York City Hall, emphasizes an important campus gateway.

Writing Credits

Maureen Meister


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Maureen Meister, "River Houses, Harvard University", [Cambridge, Massachusetts], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of Massachusetts

Buildings of Massachusetts: Metropolitan Boston, Keith N. Morgan, with Richard M. Candee, Naomi Miller, Roger G. Reed, and contributors. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009, 335-336.

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