Forget Animal House. Residential life for Harvard first-years does not involved 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 stairwells, 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 drop-in 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 characterize first-year living across the board, though. The effort to preserve an authentic Kennedy-and-Roosevelts-slept-here fell 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 and central administration occupy the building's first two floors.
This means you may find some 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 several 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 entryway system: its hallways are actually social.
Thayer is embroiled in a stupid 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 time, 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 suited 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, much-coveted Grays, known as the "Harvard Hilton," also features large common rooms with scenic views. Four- and five-person suites with wood floors and private bathrooms make this dorm the most luxurious in the Yard.
Stoughton and Hollis, the almost identical North Yard dorms, offer one huge room for two people. Hollis and Stoughton roommates either become bosom buddies fast or spend the year aching to slit each other's throats. In any case, they get to know each other well.
Tucked away behind these two dorms are small, oft-forgotten Mower and Lionel. Only about 70 people live back here in the secluded, re-landscaped courtyard. Lionel and Mower suites have large common rooms with beautiful wood floors, and most residents live in singles for part of the year. Some residents of these intimate dorms say the close-knit experience is nurturing and caring. Others complain that the family atmosphere can grow a bit too suffocating.
Wigglesworth, the Yard's most oddly shaped dorm, consists of several unconnected sections strung out along busy Mass. Ave. Wigglesworth residents may never meet the students in their neighboring entries. If the dorm lacks cohesiveness, however, it scores high points for quality of living. Its spacious triple and quadruple suites have a close-up view of lively street activity, and traffic quiets down late a night so residents can sleep. Wigg is also the most recently renovated first-year dorm.
Straus, hidden in the Yard's leafy southwest corner, is the second-youngest dorm in the Yard. Straus' smallish but nice quad suites contain private bathrooms.
Weld has a funky, castle-like trim on the outside and large, social hallways on the inside. The dorm, which underwent a massive renovation in 1992, was the first yard dorm to be fully handicapped-accessible.
Matthew's Gothic exterior resembles the set of a horror movie, and its dark interior hallways can be a little spooky. But the wood-paneled rooms are nicely sized, and Matthews residents often turn the hallways and stairwells into an arena for creative dorm games. Matthews was renovated in 1993.
Less history--but sometimes more fun--awaits the residents of the Union dorms. Located just a few feet behind what used to be the first-year dining hall, these dorms are converted apartment buildings with reputations for wildness.
Pennypacker's central circular staircase is a great place for congregating. And people do. "The Pack's" bright landings are full of people at all hours, and a four-story beer funnel makes an appearance on its open stairwell once a year or so. Pennypacker's rooms are not massive, but their quirky shapes offer a change of pace from the standard Yard dorms.
Hurlbut residents--who call their dorm "the Butt"--live in "pods;" huge circular common rooms with singles branching off of them. Most of Hurlbut's oddly shaped rooms are comfortable and in good repair.
Unlike the other first-year residences, Greenough feels much like a "typical" college dorm. Long narrow hallways, tiny boxy rooms and communal bathrooms are the norm here.
Students at other colleges, most of whom live in minuscule two-person boxers with cinder block walls and linoleum floors, tend to get jealous when they see pictures of elegant Harvard quarters. And with good reason. Harvard's dorms have some drawbacks, of course; students need to develop the stamina to climb stairs and a high tolerance for old architecture. But a housing system that involves working fireplaces, wooden floors, spacious rooms and beautiful landscaping isn't such a bad start to a Harvard career.