The Rise and Fall of the Houses

The House system--in which students in the College spend all but their first year in one of 12 small residential clusters--was at its peak during the 1950s and 1960s. It was then that House masters loomed large in undergraduate life, then that social activity on campus began with House sports. It was then that a House assignment carried its most meaning.In the decades that followed, Harvard undergraduates grappled with issues that defied the confines of House life--the Vietnam War principally, and the increasing diversity of student interests which left the Houses less equipped to bring students together in unified activities.

The system created in 1930 by Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, had as its aims certain ideas of community that have always cut against the grain of Harvard life. In the face of social upheaval, the system that had seemed so stable in the years after the Second World War began to come apart, long before Harry R. Lewis '68 came along.

Genesis: 1929

Until 1869, when Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, became president of Harvard, the University was only a college. Eliot, however, wanted to turn the school he presided over into more than an undergraduate institution--he wanted it to offer the full range of professional training in schools that require a bachelor's degree for admittance, from a law school to a medical school to a business school. The College was given over to his system of "free electives" that basically allowed students to take any classes they wanted. They had total freedom from College curricular authority, as Eliot wanted it, and total responsibility for their own education.

Moreover, as College housing in Harvard Yard deteriorated--Yard dorms had no central heating or plumbing until the turn-of-the-century--Eliot allowed his students to live wherever they pleased, as was the practice in the European universities he was trying to imitate. By keeping the University out of the undergraduate housing business, Eliot could spend Harvard's money on projects that he felt were more pressing to its academic mission.

Soon, the so-called "Gold Coast," sprung up, a row of expensive and ritzy apartment buildings along Mt. Auburn Street, where Harvard's wealthy undergraduates could rent rooms. Buildings like Claverly Hall and Apley Court sported everything from squash courts and swimming pools to steam heat and elevators. For food, Gold Coast residents simply walked down the street to their social clubs, which offered some of the best cuisine in Cambridge. At the same time, public transportation was reaching new areas of the city. Boston and Cambridge were united by a modern and efficient trolley system, and soon it was difficult to convince students of modest means that they should live in Harvard's bedraggled dorms when the prospect of cheaper rooms off-campus presented itself.

The result was fragmentation and a hierarchy based on social class such that only 27 percent of Harvard students lived on campus by 1900. It was the antithesis of the kind of College life envisioned by Lowell, who took over for Eliot when his 40-year presidency ended in 1909. "We must construct a new solidarity to replace that which is gone," Lowell declared in his first year at the University's helm. Lowell's project became one of unifying the College and of providing equity--rather than freedom--to his undergraduates.As his successor Neil L. Rudenstine was to do in Allston half a century later, Lowell set to secretly buying plots of land surrounding the University. The territory between Mt. Auburn Street and the Charles River was, in Lowell's day, an unpropitious site, home to a few modest houses, a series of wharves and coalhouses, a power plant and a malodorous bank of mudflats.

Benefactor Edward Waldo Forbes, who would one day become curator of Harvard's Fogg Museum, formed a secret holding company called Riverside Associates that bought for Harvard nearly all of the land that was to be known as "South Yard." In an effort to reverse the trend toward living off-campus, Lowell commissioned four dorms for first-year students on the newly-acquired lands: Gore, Standish, McKinlock and Smith Halls. Ground was broken in 1914. With the eruption of the First World War, the Gold Coast apartments suddenly became unprofitable to manage. Harvard immediately bought them and had no difficulty filling its newly-built river residences.

Another 15 years would pass before Lowell could initiate his grandest housing scheme ever. In the late 1920s, oil magnate and Yale alum Edward S. Harkness became frustrated with the endless deliberations of his alma mater over what to do with his money. He turned to Harvard. In a few quick conversations with Lowell, Harkness became convinced that he had found a man of action and a man of vision. In 1929, he agreed to donate what became a $13 million gift to Harvard, funding a system of 300-person residences that would house Harvard's upperclass students. Four had essentially already been built. Smith Hall became Kirkland House, the Gold Coast apartment buildings of Randolph and Westmorly became Adams, Gore and Standish combined to become Winthrop House, and McKinlock, along with Mather Hall (now Old Quincy) became Leverett. By 1931, Dunster, Lowell and Eliot Houses had been built and Harvard had established its original seven Houses.

Original Intentions

The Houses were designed to give the College a new form of control over students by involving the educational institution in social life. The giant College was to be broken up into seven smaller communities of a few hundred. Lowell was part of a generation of social scientists, reformers who believed in progress and the possibility for educated social engineering, and he saw Harvard as an opportunity to put his ideas in action. Eliot's laissez-faire approach to College living was immediately discarded. The House system would give Harvard the means to influence more fully the lives of its students.

First, it would promote the American virtue of equality. No longer would the rich live in posh apartments while the poor rubbed their hands together for warmth in the Yard. The Houses would be "national and democratic," Lowell explained. Within each House, for example, large and spacious rooms, presumably to be occupied by wealthy students, were placed next to small ones in order to force the interaction that wouldn't take place if rich students were permitted to isolate themselves. Second, the Houses were to be representative. Lowell called them "a microcosm of the University," implying that they would each serve as cross-sections of the diversity of life in the College as a whole. Finally, they were to be social above all else. Their value, particularly as a vehicle for equality, was in the interaction they would foster between different students who would otherwise have no contact with one another outside of classes.

Lowell, however, held rather contradictory views, and his "democratic" vision was in many ways qualified. He believed that certain conditions were necessary for Houses to work the way he wanted them to. Though they were to cut away at Gold Coast elitism, Lowell's Houses nonetheless charged higher rents for larger rooms. Poor students got what they paid for, while the wealthy often paid twice their rent for more luxurious digs. Moreover, Lowell's equality did not apply to all. Notoriously, he forbade blacks from living in Harvard housing because, he said, it would upset Southern whites and thereby undermine the cohesiveness he sought. For similar reasons, he struggled to cap Harvard's Jewish contingent, installing quotas that dramatically restricted the enrollment of Jews at the College.

Despite strenuous objection from Eliot and from alumni, Lowell held to his policies, arguing that his community vision required certain common backgrounds of its members. And though he argued the Houses should represent the University as a whole, he strongly opposed a system along the lines of today's randomization. House choice must absolutely be "voluntary," he asserted, because undergraduates wouldn't feel the same strong allegiance to a House they were forced to join as they would to one that they picked. Without that sense of loyalty, the willingness to partake in a shared life would vanish and the students would again be thrust into the utter individualism of the Eliot years.

Finally, though Lowell saw the social side of living together as the driving force that would turn Houses into homes, he nonetheless wanted to mix a strong academic component into the House experience. The Houses were to afford students a chance at "self-education," the opportunity to learn from one another outside of class. Distinguished professorial masters were to serve as the focus of each House and tutors were to infiltrate student ranks.