You are here

Peabody Terrace

-A A +A
1964, Sert, Jackson and Gourley; Sasaki, Walker and Associates, landscape; 1993–1995 renovation, Brunner/Cott; Paul Kruger, landscape. 900 Memorial Dr.
  • Peabody Terrace (Peter Vanderwarker or Antonina Smith)
  • Alternate view (Peter Vanderwarker or Antonina Smith)

In bestowing an American Institute of Architects' (AIA) first honor award in 1965, the jury declared Peabody Terrace “not merely a solution but a breakthrough in the grouping of high and low buildings. The site plan, the spaces between structures, the consistency of scale and the thoughtful facades are some of the elements adding up to a fresh, light quality and unity.” Recent critiques have been less benign. What was yesterday's paradigm is deemed today's problem. Both a significant landmark and an object of controversy, the prospect of further riverside development by Harvard University has renewed interest in these three twenty-two-story towers for five hundred married graduate students and their families. Composed of six acres, the high-rise towers are interspersed with three-, five-, and seven-story terraced structures in keeping with the scale of nearby houses. Buildings are disposed about open courtyards and a central plaza designed for community activities.

The design is composed of a cluster system of apartments and corridors and intermediary staircases repeated with variations in wall treatments and balconies. The building block of the complex is a standardized three-story six-unit module built about a central stairwell with an elevated corridor every third floor. Deterioration of the concrete curtain walls demanded major renovations, including the rehabilitation and modernization of interior spaces, the installation of insulated glass in thermal brick frames, and, not least, the creation of more user-friendly public spaces.

Peabody Terrace remains the most distinguished complex of modern buildings along the Charles River, once conceived as part of a projected high-rise spine. No other facades present as lively an entity—the concrete grids enriched by balconies, the fenestration by movable louvers, the exterior revealing the circulation plan, and the elevator shafts and fire stairs providing cross ventilations and access to skipstop elevators. But if the riverfront with its irregularly sited towers, enlivened by bright red and green panels contrasted with white trim, create a vibrant, visually exciting exterior, not so the facades bordering on the neighborhood. The dull gray concrete walls of the large multilevel garage (1964) and the Martin Luther King Jr. public elementary school (1969) designed by Josep Lluis Sert form infelicitous edges. Whereas the separation of vehicular traffic from pedestrian makes for fine play areas, it also creates the absence of street-generated activity. Sert's brilliant site planning, while conforming to the tradition of Harvard's Neo-Georgian riverfront houses, serves to exclude, rather than include the community.

The entire complex is an obvious homage to Le Corbusier's Unités d'Habitation, representing a vision of a new urbanity, one with implications for a more moral agenda. Whatever the verdict, Sert may still be lauded for his attempt to create a model of housing geared to a human scale, a modernist dream with the perhaps impossible goal of creating a better society,

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan


What's Nearby


Keith N. Morgan, "Peabody Terrace", [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, 336-337.

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.

, ,