Building is Now Center for Freshman Activities The Harvard Union was Begun as Part of a Crusade for Democracy
After a long and stormy history, the Harvard Union seems finally to have found its place in the College. Originally part of an effort to "democratize" Harvard, the solid building on Quincy Street caromed from function to function for almost thirty years. Then in 1931 it entered its present role as freshman dining half and more important, as the center for most organized freshman activities.
In the beginning however, the Union promised to be the fulfillment of a furious crusade for democracy in the College. The turn of the century saw Harvard wrestling with a two-fold problem: high school graduates and scholarship students lived in the economical Yard, while the rich moved off to "Gold Coast" quarters on Massachusetts Avenue and Mount Auburn Street: moreover, find and "waiting" clubs were forming, with luxurious new clubhouses also erected on Mount Auburn Street. Harvard College, both physically and socially was splitting into two camps.
Believing that Harvard could achieve unity in social life as well as athletic endeavor. Major Henry L. Higginson. donor of Soldiers Field, granted a $150.000 financial bedrock for a building where "pride of wealth, pride of poverty and pride of class would find no place. Choosing a site proved the initial trial to Harvard University democracy: Gold Coasters pressured for a Massachusetts Avenue site, while Yard dwellers suggested a lot near Memorial Hall. In a gesture of compromise, the building was erected on Quincy Street, a four-minute walk for both rich and poor. The Harvard Union's dedication in 1902 was an impressive display of class and College spirit. Poet Charles Warren breathed:
"This is the House of Fellowship.
Binder of bonds that ne're shall slip:
Here but one word on every lip.
Harvard-and Harvard alone.
Here, no bar of classes or creed:
Here, no lines of club or breed:
Here, one common cry, God-speed
To every Harvard son."
In the building itself, decorated with Teddy Roosevelt's African game trophies (since sold to bargain-hunting undergraduates), oak paneling, and coat of arms, there was opportunity for a real Harvard club. Its basement held a large room with eighteen billiard tables where a member could obtain free instruction from "a well-known professional." A kitchen, a printing office, and some rooms of the CRIMSON completed this floor. Above in the hall now used as freshman dining rooms, was a living room. An athletes' training table occupied what is now the Union kitchen. Upstairs, a library of 25,000 volumes filled one room, while on the third floor were clubrooms. guest bedrooms. staff bedrooms, and the offices of the Harvard Monthly and the Advocate.
Since Major Higginson intended the Union, like all democratic institutions, to be, self-supporting, its overseers rapidly constructed a system of officer elections and dues to sustain the clubhouse. The Harvard Union offered speakers, pre-game rallies, post-game dances, debates, and discussions to members. The restaurants and snack bar were open all week long, ladies were permitted on weekends, and professors-either guests or members-were welcome anytime. Since Cambridge was a no-license city in those days, students had to go either to a final club or to Boston for "exhilarating beverages." For returning alumni, the Union was to be a "Harvard Club of Cambridge." where under-graduates would meet those "Who ask for the sunshine of their fresh years." Dues, bringing privileges and voting Dowers, ran from $5 Associate membership for Cambridge residents to $50 Life privileges for alumni.
As the century wore on, the Union faltered, both socially and financially: by 1912 membership and participation had fallen off drastically. World War I plunged the Union into financial chaos, so that only the firm, paternal hand of the University maintained it through the twenties and into the Depression. But Edward Harkness, author of the House system, was responsible for the Union's final social demise. With the new Houses an undergraduate building was no longer needed: and the University, looking carefully into Major Higginson's will, discovered that the benefactor had made allowances for the failure of his institution as a club, and promptly named its new freshman half the Harvard Freshman Union. No one was terribly sorry about this development-except one or two recent alumni who grumbled something about the $50 Life Membership appearing valid only for the life of the Union, not its members.
Today the Union's primary purpose is to feed the freshmen: there is no talk of its becoming an undergraduate club-in fact, the College has even given up most of the rhetoric claiming it unifies the freshman class. As a common eating experience through which the poor and the rich must suffer together, however, it is an indirect force for democracy.
While the dorm common rooms and the Yard Program have somewhat decentralized an already amorphous freshman activity program, the Union is still the center of most of the purely freshman extra-curricular ventures. The Freshman Council, a relatively powerless group which often attracts a large group of power-minded people, is generally in charge of the Union activities, although actual execution of the programs rests with the Secretary of the Union.
The Council usually ends up doing little more than cleaning the bulletin boards, sponsoring several well-attended mixers, and making tentative studies into various aspects of man, the world, and the Harvard student. It serves in more useful roles, perhaps, as a sounding board for freshman discontent, an outlet where politically-minded freshmen can get student politics out of their system, and as a dispenser of class monies.
The Council, along with the Freshman Dean's office, has a modest amount of money to spend on various activities. One of the better ones is the Yardling, a periodical of indefinite periods that permits the literary freshman to break out in print. While in some years much worse than the Muncie. Indiana. North High Turkey Gobble, the Yardling has recently improved, perhaps reflecting the growing maturity of incoming freshmen, and last year changed its name to the Harvard Yard Journal.
Glee Club Prep
The Freshman Glee Club attracts large number of men each year, partially for the music and partially for the opportunity to meet with counterpart groups at women's colleges. Its one appearance in the Union, however, is to brighten the Christmas dinner. It also serves as a sort of preparation school for the varsity Glee Club.
At various times throughout the year the Council is apt to sponsor special events, such as photography contests, art shows, recitals, and forums. It also arranges a series of concentration dinners in the spring where freshmen can meet professors from their prospective fields of concentration and ask questions over the friendly influence of a glass of sherry. These dinners are among the most valuable activities of the Council, and often help share concentration plans.
Despite the increasingly serious nature of the freshman class, every year a peculiar phenomenon known as the Freshman Jubilee forces itself upon the calm Cambridge scene. The first announcement is a barrage of posters in the Union proclaiming the merits of various candidates for the "prestigious Jubilee Committee."
Once elected, the ten-man committee plans a relatively elaborate three day blast in April comparable to the upperclass Spring Week-end. Although the committee has found it increasingly hard to entice freshmen into attending this extravaganza, in 1967 the event, which included "The Temptations." was executed without financial strain. But the last two years. Jubilee has flopped.
The pool tables are still in the Union (though no longer free), but they are almost symbols of a gracious gentleman past than of a vibrant present. Seminar rooms and the headquarters for the freshman Debate Council are located just down the half from them. The once elegant club-rooms and guest rooms are now common rooms loaded with intellectual magazines and musical practice rooms.
Though no longer a great force for democracy or the center of anyone's existence, the Union still manages to hold a definite, if somewhat subordinate place in Harvard life. When the Harvard Council for Undergraduate Affairs suggested several years ago that the Union be converted into an all College Student Union, cries of pain were heard in the Yard. Freshmen rallied to the defense of their Great Dining Hall, vigorously extolling its importance and proclaiming there were those who love it. One wing has been completely expropriated by the Varsity Club and the band has the part of the basement left by the kitchens, but for the freshman the rest of the building provides a fragile security against the outside world and Harvard. Security to the freshman, no matter how illusory, is a most precious commodity.