In 1672 a Massachusetts farmer pledged a bushel-and-a-half of corn toward the construction of Harvard Hall. Although an Indian scalped him before the actual donation, the building was completed in 1677. For the next century it housed the College's social center, library, museum, laboratory, dining hall, and the colonies' largest kitchen.
Harvard Hall's facilities catered to the Governor and the General Court in 1764 when they fled from Boston's smallpox epidemic. Governor Bernard and the legislators awoke one snowy night at the cry of "Fire!" Harvard Hall was burning brightly in the middle of a Yard deserted for the winter vacation.
In nightshirts and shirtsleeves Bernard and the dignitaries passed the buckets to save Hollis, Stoughton, and Massachusetts, but Harvard was razed. In ashes was the nation's largest library, which had included John Harvard's collection, stuffed birds, the "Skull of a Famous Indian Warrior," and the entire "Repositerry of Curiousities."
Feeling responsible for the loss, the Commonwealth donated $23,000 for the "new" Harvard Hall, to be designed by the Governor himself. Ten years later the library and the lecture halls became the home for Revolutionary supplies and soldiers who stripped a thousands pounds of lead from the roof to make musket balls. The University issued a bill for L342 to the new government.
After the Revolutionary War came the "Rotten Cabbage Rebellion," waged by students against faculty and cooks. The major flare-up concerned the addition of 600 grains of emetic to the morning coffee. A reprisal failed when the administration suspended a student who "did publickly in Hall insult the authority of the College by hitting one of the Officers with a potatoe."
Yet the first floor dining room was not always the setting for affronts to authority. Students also were drawn to the tower containing the bell which tolled for rising, classes, and chapel services. Souls seeking revenge assaulted the bell with gunpowder, froze it with water, and stole its tongue. Police pursued one assailant, Joseph McKean, who raced down the slanted roof and leaped, four stories above the ground, to the roof of Hollis. Never caught, he later became a Boylston Professor of Rhetoric.
Harvard Hall was comparatively peaceful during the nineteenth century when it was host to lectures, exhibitions, and Commencement dinners. But once a year seniors recalled the old times when they entertained incoming freshmen with their knowledge and punch. According to James Russell Lowell, a "foreign admixture" overpowered whatever water might have been in the drinks, and "serious disorders resulted."
Where the riots of the past once erupted, students now push slowly toward their lecture halls. The bell, kitchens, books, and displays are gone, replaced by fresh paint, new seats and a sprinkler system.