John F. Kennedy Slept Here; Soon You Will Too

First-Year Dorms Have Characters as Charming as Those of the Students Who Live in Them

Forget "Animal House." Residential life for Harvard first-years does not involve frat houses caked with years of party residue.

Nor are there any immaculate sorority houses with teddy bear wallpaper and plush pink carpets. And there are very few generic college dorms, with long communal hallways, box-like cinder block bedrooms and bathrooms shared by the entire floor.

Harvard is different. In large, that's because most dorms in and around Harvard Yard are old--many date back more than 100 years.

Most first-year dorms are also designed around an entryway system. This means each dorm consists of several unconnected stair-wells, with only two rooms per floor.

Some students try to pretend Harvard is just like every other college by calling the entryways "vertical hallways." This is deceptive logic, though, since climbing stairs to the fifth floor of Matthews is significantly tougher than gliding effortlessly down a normal dorm hall.

The entryway system has its ups and downs. The rooms are more likely to be private and quiet, a boon if you're into a sedentary lifestyle. ON the other hand, casual dropin visits to anyone above the third floor are bound to seem a little contrived. Some find the entryway setup picturesque and charming. Others are less gracious, grumbling that a social life determined by stairwell is both tiring and stifling.

It's hard to categorize first-year living across the board, though. The effort to preserve an authentic Kennedys-and-Roosevelts-slept-here feel in the dorms has created wide discrepancies in room size and quality. Three months from now you could be showing your quarters to a photographer from House Beautiful. Or you could be consulting a shrink about your newly-acquired claustrophobia.

Massachusetts Hall is the quintessential historic dorm. Dating from 1720, it's the oldest academic building in the country. Now, it's the 10 Downing St. of Harvard Yard: the offices of the president, provost and central administration occupy the building's first two floors.

This means you may find the occasional diplomatic motorcade stationed outside your front door. Unfortunately, it also means that VIP guests see your rooms when Harvard decides to show them a typical student lifestyle, Mass. Hall residents are rumored to be hand-picked by some mysterious criteria that somehow qualify them as model Harvardians.

Not all Yard dorms have such impressive histories, however. Built in 1974, Canaday is the newest Yard residence. This massive dorm consists of seven rectangular buildings located in the northeast corner of the Yard.

Canaday is ugly. Its functional, housing-project architecture won't be featured on any Harvard postcards, but most Canaday rooms have three bedrooms for four people in addition to a common room. That means each student can enjoy a single for one semester.

Thayer Hall, south of Canaday, is a nice, fairly nondescript dorm. About 20 people share each of Thayer's hallway bathrooms. Thayer adds a new twist to Harvard's entry way system: its hallways are actually social.

Thayer is embroiled in a stupid but fun rivalry with nearby Holworthy Hall. Legend has it that the dispute originated when Holworthy was built on Thayer's polo ground, or vice versa, depending on who you ask. The rivalry usually surfaces in "Holworthy Sucks!"

--"Thayer Swallows!" shouting bouts. At times, the conflict escalates to more serious warfare involving water fights and hostages.

The living is easy in Holworthy, perched at the top of the North Yard. Its four-person suites feature large common rooms and two bedrooms. Each Holworthy floor has two connected quads, which lends the dorm a social air.

At the opposite end of the Yard, muchcoveted Grays, known as the "Harvard Hilton," also features large common rooms with scenic views. Four- and five-person suites with wood floors and private bathroomsmake this dorm the most luxurious in the Yard.

Stoughton and Hollis, the almost-identicalNorth Yard dorms, offer one huge room for twopeople. Hollis and Stoughton roommates eitherbecome bosom buddies fast or spend the year achingto slit each other's throats. In any case, theyget to know each other well.

Tucked away behind these two dorms are small,oft-forgotten Mower and Lionel. Only about 70people live back here in the secluded,relandscaped courtyard. Lionel and Mower suiteshave large common rooms with beautiful woodfloors, and most residents live in singles forpart of the year. Some residents of these intimatedorms say the close-knit experience is nurturingand caring. Others complain that the familyatmosphere can grow a bit too suffocating.

Wigglesworth, the Yard's most oddly-shapeddorm, consists of several unconnected sectionsstrung out along busy Mass. Ave. Wigglesworthresidents may never meet the students in theirneighboring entries. If the dorm lackscohesiveness, however, it scores high points forquality of living. Its spacious triple andquadruple suites have a close-up view of livelystreet activity, and traffic quiets down late atnight so residents can sleep. Wigg is also themost recently renovated first-year dorm.

Straus, hidden in the Yard's leafy southwestcorner, is the second-youngest dorm in the Yard.Straus' smallish but nice quad suites containprivate bathrooms. With Store 24 right across thestreet, Straus residents are set for the manyall-nighters that first-years invariably end uppulling, particularly when expos papers are due.

Weld has funky, castle-like trim on the outsideand large, social hallways on the inside. Thedorm, which underwent a massive renovation in1992, was the first Yard dorm to be fullyhandicapped-accessible. Those first-yearsstationed in Weld will be only the fourth group tolive there since the renovation. The observatoryis a nice touch. And you can't beat the laundryroom right in the basement.

Matthews' Gothic exterior resembles the set ofa horror movie and its dark interior hallways canbe a little spooky. But the wood-paneled rooms arenicely sized, and Matthews residents often turnthe hallways and stairwells into an arena forcreative dorm games. Matthews was renovated in1993. The renovations did not include elevators,and living on the top floor can be extraordinarilydifficult, although occupants are often in greatshape.

Less history-but sometimes more fun-awaits theresidents of the Union dorms. Located just a fewfeet behind what used to be the first-year dininghall, these dorms are converted apartmentbuildings with reputations for wildness.

Pennypackers' central circular staircase is agreat place for congregating. And people do. "ThePack's" bright landing are full of people at allhours, and a four story beer funnel makes anappearance on its open stairwell once a year orso. Pennypacker's rooms are not massive, but theirquirky shapes offer a change of pace from thestandard Yard dorms.

Hurlbut residents--who call their dorm "theButt" and themselves Hurl-beu-tians--live in"pods;" huge circular common rooms with singlesbranching off of them, or "suites," four rooms andbathroom adjoining a small hallway. Most ofHurlbut's oddly shaped rooms are comfortable andin good repair.

Unlike the other first-year residences,Greenough feels much like a "typical" collegedorm. Long narrow hallways, tiny boxy rooms, andcommunal bathrooms are the norm here.

Students at other colleges, most of whom livein minuscule two-person boxes with cinder blockwalls and linoleum floors tend to get jealous whenthey see pictures of elegant Harvard quarters. Andwith good reason. Harvard's dorms have somedrawbacks, of course; students need to develop thestamina to climb stairs and a high tolerance forold architecture. But a housing system thatinvolves working fireplaces, wooden floors,spacious rooms and beautiful landscaping isn'tsuch a bad start to a Harvard career.Crimson File PhotoCanaday, the newest first-year dorm,consists of seven rectangular buildings in thenortheast corner of the Yard.