'Mem' And Its Long, (Still) Controversial History

from Harvard's ARCHIVES An economical series on University history

For almost 60 years, all students in the Yard had to do to get the time was glance north toward Memorial Hall's 200-foot-high clock tower.

Then, on September 6, 1956, a worker involved in a project to restore the clock left his blowtorch on. The subsequent inferno raged for four hours and completely destroyed the tower, its clocks and its 3,000-pound bell.

In the years since, controversy has swirled around Memorial Hall. Alumni and historians have argued unsuccessfully--and colorfully--that the clock and tower should be replaced. Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, writing for the Boston Globe last spring, described the towerless Memorial Hall as "an architectural Bobbitt case."

The ongoing renovations don't include replacing the tower, but they have, yet again, raised controversy. A local architect, working with the Massachusetts and Cambridge Historical Commissions, has been fighting the University's plans to add loading bays and a kitchen to the Kirkland St. side of the historical hall.

"Harvard is ruining an extraordinary piece of post-Civil War architecture," the architect, Philip A. Rizzo, said in an interview last week.

While the loading bays may or may not ruin the building's look, the irony of Rizzo's objections is that the rest of the renovation plans dovetail nicely with Memorial Hall's history.

When it re-opens in 1995, Memorial Hall will again become what it was in its early years: a campus center where students gather to eat, drink and talk.

Monument to Union Dead

With the Civil War won and the Union preserved, Harvard alumni in 1865 began discussing the construction of a monument to those classmates who died while fighting for the North.

The University hired esteemed New York architects William Robert Ware, Class of 1852, and Henry Van Brunt, Class of 1854, to build the so called "Alumni Hall."

Construction began in 1870. The Great Hall was completed in 1874, Sanders Theatre in 1876. The building was dedicated in July 1878.

Harvard installed clocks and a bell in the original 200-foot tower in 1897. Memorial Hall chimed at the hour until the 1956 fire.

From 1878 to 1925, students could join the Memorial Hall Dining Association and take their daily meals in the ornate Great Hall.

Beginning next fall, the Great Hall will re-open again as a dining hall for first-years. The building will also house a new student center, the Loker Commons.

In its heyday--from the 1880s to the early 1910s--Memorial Hall was home to boxing matches, gambling and social drinking. Students of those lays affectionately referred to it as Mem."

Sanders Theatre has been the site of remarkable addresses by visitors, including: Edward, Prince of Wales later King Edward VII); British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill; President Dwight D. Eisenhower; and Carrie Nation, among others.

Nation, who visited Harvard in 1902, was mobbed by students in Sanders Theatre who grabbed at her bonnet and shoved cigarettes in her face after a speech in which she preached abstinence from alcohol and tobacco.

The prohibitionist crusader promptly exited the building, slapping students' faces along the way and crying that everyone at Harvard was a "hellion."

As cafeteria-style eating became popular in the 1910s and 1920s, Memorial Hall's high prices fell out of favor with most students. All first-years began taking their meals at the Harvard Union in 1925.

Neglected and Doubted

In the years since 1925, the building has often been neglected and its relevance called into question.

Since that time, the hall has been used to train United States Army chaplains, feed Navy cadets and host special University events.

Even when it was relatively new, many were repulsed by the high Victorian style. In the 1920s, President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, used to deliberately avoid taking visitors to Memorial Hall due to embarrassment over the building's poor design.

Much of the ornate ironwork that was added during the early part of the century was removed and melted in the 1940s for use in the war effort. The fire did even greater damage, though everything but the clock and tower were eventually repaired.

After the blaze, several prominent alumni launched a campaign to demolish the hall and replace it with a more usable building. President Nathan M. Pusey '28 publicly entertained the idea, but eventually decided against it.

So "Mem" has survived. The Cambridge Historical Commission succeeded in having the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. And restorations in 1976 and 1985, as well as the current construction project, have returned it to a less squalid state