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Harvard Yard

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The campus of Harvard University has influenced American collegiate architecture for centuries. From the beginning, Harvard was conceived as a residential college, its Puritan founders committed to creating a community of scholars. The Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard College in 1636 as the first college in the nation, in part to educate preachers, but also to produce capable leaders.

The first major building for the college, Harvard Hall I (1638–1642) was a massive U-shaped wood frame structure with a ground-floor hall for dining and classes, a library above and rooms for tutors and students in the projecting wings. By 1671, Harvard Hall was in poor repair and replaced by a brick building, Harvard Hall II (1671–1682), which had a gambrel roof interrupted by six cross gables to the front and rear. Old Stoughton Hall (1698, demolished 1781), a brick gambrel-roofed dormitory, was erected perpendicular to Harvard Hall, facing west toward Massachusetts Avenue, Harvard Square (HS1), and Cambridge Common (RA1). In 1720, another dormitory, Massachusetts Hall (HY2), the oldest surviving building at Harvard, was completed opposite Harvard Hall, thus forming a three-sided courtyard facing out to Harvard Square. Two additional brick structures north of Harvard Hall, Holden Chapel (HY4.1; 1742) and Hollis Hall (HY4.2; 1762), created a minor courtyard and continued the orientation to the street and square. When Harvard Hall II burned in 1764, the commonwealth provided funds for building Harvard Hall III (HY3) on the same site but without dormitory spaces. This core of the colonial campus remains as one of the most important pre-Revolutionary institutional complexes in the nation.

In the early nineteenth century, Harvard expanded away from the square and the Common. The most important structure in this process was University Hall (HY6.2; 1813–1815), built of Chelmsford granite to the designs of Charles Bulfinch and sited farther from the street. Bulfinch planned for University Hall to become the center of an inward-focused campus. Monumental pilasters framing two doors on the front and rear facades embellish the granite structure. Bulfinch's scheme for a newly ordered campus, however, did not happen. Between 1815 and 1869, Harvard added thirteen new structures, almost none of which survive, without the clear vision of the earlier complex.

Under the presidency of Charles W. Eliot, from 1869 to 1909, Harvard expanded dramatically. At first dormitories were added, consistent with the founders' early vision. To strengthen Harvard's graduate schools, Eliot oversaw construction for their programs. He also promoted an undergraduate elective system, based on lectures rather than recitations, and this reform required new halls.

Another significant figure of the period was Charles Eliot Norton, who began teaching art history at Harvard in 1874. Norton shared the reverence of English critic John Ruskin for the preindustrial past. Inspired by Ruskin's love of medieval architecture, Norton oversaw the construction of the Ruskinian Gothic Memorial Hall (NY1) and expressed his admiration for the early buildings of New England, playing an important role in encouraging the preference for Colonial Revival architecture within the Harvard community and beyond.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Harvard began several influential projects. The hallmark gates and fence, constructed to surround Harvard Yard, generated widespread publicity and imitations. Harvard's Georgian Revival buildings, dating from the early 1890s, offered additional inspiration to American campus designers. Furthermore, these buildings provided a theoretical underpinning for architects, working in other parts of the United States, who sought to establish campus identities through other styles that responded to regional traditions.

Many Harvard buildings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are the work of Boston architects who contributed to the development of other American campuses. Several had worked for Henry Hobson Richardson. They were close to each other both professionally and personally and reinforced each other's work at Harvard and across the country. Among them were Charles W. McKim; Alexander W. Longfellow Jr.; H. Langford Warren; and the members of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, who continued Richardson's practice after his death. These architects also designed buildings for Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Yale.

The Georgian Revival identity of Harvard's campus was extended under President A. Lawrence Lowell, who served from 1909 to 1933. Most important, Lowell hired Charles Coolidge to design dormitories along the Charles River, the River Houses (HS8), reasserting the early vision of Harvard as a community of scholars. After World War II, modernism took hold on the campus, at first with buildings that were stripped of historical detail but still clad in red brick. Harvard, like MIT, became a laboratory for influential modern architecture. Regard for historical context faded in subsequent decades but reemerged at the end of the century, especially in the Business School campus expansion.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan
Maureen Meister

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