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.

Taking his cues from Cambridge and Oxford, Lowell devised a "tutorial" system that would pair undergraduates with a scholar from their field of study. That tutor would live in the House and, for three years, instruct the young student in his discipline in preparation for oral exams at the end of the senior year. "The relation between the mature scholar and the student will be made less remote," he explained. The Houses would thereby be much more than the communities in which students at the College lived; they were to be the lynchpin of Harvard's academic program.

The cross-purposes built into Lowell's plan actually highlight the importance he wanted the Houses to have for Harvard students. Though some alumni and students--partisans of final clubs, in large part--objected to Lowell's attempt to gain control of students' lives beyond the lecture hall, his plan met with immediate success. In their first year, all of the Houses were booked full.

In Their Prime

Twenty years later, Lowell's Houses were thriving. In some ways, they didn't quite reflect his original intentions, but as colleges within the College, the Houses were creating smaller divisions that undergraduates could call their own.

Life was in many ways uniform from House to House. They all held annual dinners, which were attended by the president of the University, and they all celebrated athletics. They vied for the same little luxuries: a pool table, a dark room, a formal dance in the spring. And they worked to make their members feel that they were part of something significant. Nearly 200 Leverett House residents, for example, turned out to watch their team in the inter-House football championship in the early 1950s. Leverett was invigorated, fresh off its attempt to claim Gore Hall from Winthrop House in the celebrated "Gore War." Students recorded their pleasure at having tutors in the Houses, known to invite undergraduates into their suites for "sherry parties." The College held a different attitude toward alcohol then, using it to enliven the undergraduate experience: The Houses themselves served beer readily at House parties and Christmas dinners.

Houses were selective, with first-year students interviewing at their top choices to see which House would take them. The Houses in turn unified behind advertising campaigns in attempts to win popularity among undergraduates, which inevitably emphasized the differences between them. "The Houses ought not to try for distinctive reputations," argued Winthrop Master Ronald M. Ferry, "but they'll naturally come by them."

Despite the fundamental similarities in the way students lived their lives, the Houses did acquire their own idiosyncrasies. Adams House attracted would-be gourmets with its superior cuisine and was generally more artistically inclined than its neighbors. It sponsored, for example, its own glee club, arts society and exhibitions of drawings by the University president, all while fielding the worst House athletic teams at Harvard. Football players flocked to Winthrop House, where House spirit was less strong than elsewhere, perhaps because most of those who might ordinarily join the House football team were already on the College team. Lowell attracted studious, tradition-minded students who were impressed by formal dinners at the House's High Table. And Eliot appealed to "humanities-steeped club men," as the starting place for a majority of the University's Rhodes Scholars and Phi Beta Kappas, all "awash in Canadian Club." The student government urged the Houses to be understood in terms of

personalities," rather than "stereotypes." There was no single model for a Lowellite or Adamsian, and the profiles of the Houses were too quirky to be so limited. "The labels that are hung on each of the Houses are, everyone knows, more poetry than truth," according to the yearbook. Any student, its authors wrote, could be equally happy in any House.

In fact, the greatest disparity between the Houses seems to have been between the kinds of leadership in its most important position, the House master. Eliot Professor of Greek Literature John H. Finley Jr. 25 provided the most notable model over the course of his 26-years at the helm of Eliot House. In a given year, Finley attended every Eliot football game, ate at least one meal in the House dining hall every day, played a part in the Eliot Christmas play, chatted with students every week at tea served in his home and memorized the name of every incoming Eliot sophomore by the end of September.

The House system was not without its problems. From the start, Lowell's tutorial program seemed to founder, prompting a Student Council report in 1959 that lamented a lack of interaction between students and faculty. Lowell's vision of the House as an academic locus gave way to his notion of the House as the center of social interaction. As all the students of the College settled in to live and play football together, it was entirely the social dimension that cut away at the elitism of class Lowell deplored. More memorably, in the eyes of Harvard students at least, the Houses through the 1950s and 1960s served as a place that counteracted against the anonymity of life at a large research university, providing a place that was, often, familiar, youthful and comfortable.

Decline and Fall

The success of the House in the post-War decades did not come to an end because of randomization. Its erosion had been taking place for years, the result of social changes at the College that were in many ways incompatible with the way the Houses had functioned.

Lowell's move to restrict Jewish admissions was based on the idea that it is harder to build a tightly-knit community from a body of students with widely varying backgrounds and interests. Some difference was good, but equally important was common culture.

Diversity, however, was knocking at Harvard's door. More and more, the College admitted students it previously would have turned away, and the elite day schools and prep schools that had supplied the College with students became a smaller and smaller source for admissions candidates. No longer did large groups of students who had known each other all the way through high school have the opportunity to live together.

At the same time, the introspective nature of House life came under sharp attack during the student unrest of the late 1960s and 1970s. House football came to seem somehow unimportant compared to, say, the Vietnam War. To some extent, the Houses helped to cool student passions, but even in those Houses like Dunster that were home to many of the leading radicals on campus, a tension existed between the tenor of House life and the struggles taking place outside the confines of the undergraduate world. "People might go out and parade and counter-parade and then come back and talk in the dining hall," Cabot Professor of English Literature and Eliot House Master Alan Heimert '49 opined years later.

Two years after students evicted the Harvard administration and took over University Hall, the Houses went coed, folding in students from Radcliffe College and adding three Radcliffe Houses--Currier, North and South--to the undergraduate mix. Gone was the Mr. Chips-style paternalism that had been the model for a House master.

Even as the Houses stopped interviewing potential residents, the Houses took on more distinct personalities. Diversity of Houses was one thing; diversity in the Houses was quite another. "I do not believe that a community must have two of everything, like Noah's Ark," said former Adams House Master Robert J. Kiely in the days before random House assignments. Currier House became the choice of many of the College's minority students, who comprised about one-third of its population during the early 1990s, and the Houses moved more and more in their own directions. The Houses had less in common with one another, and the differences between them in many ways became too great for the benign rivalries of the earlier decades.

Student interest also became more fractured, in a way that undercut the usefulness of the House. In the 1950s, the College was home to about 60 student groups. Today that figure is in the neighborhood of 300. And as students had less time for their Houses, so did masters. Leading scholars found it more and more difficult to set aside professional advancement in order to attend House plays, although some notable exceptions occurred.

The College continued to grow in size, and the construction of Quincy House and Leverett Towers in 1958 and Mather House in 1971, has still not reduced House size to what Dean of the College Wilbur J. Bender 27 in 1950 deemed the appropriate cap: 300 residents. In larger Houses, students struggle to learn one another's names as a sea of housemates overwhelms them. And, of course, randomization hasn't helped. Though Lowell saw homogeneity as crucial for the success of his houses, Lewis' project of randomization is very much in the spirit of using undergraduate residences to engineer the social, and in some sense political, experiences of Harvard students.

In its 1959 report, the Student Council condemned Yale's "IBM system" of random housing assignments as inimical to true community. Ironically, it didn't take the administration's IBM system to challenge communal college life. The House system took its strongest blow from students themselves, pushing for diverse interests and bored with the prospects of beer parties, holiday plays and football matches. Lowell's House system may well have been meant for another age, one in which students enjoyed the same basic pastimes and believed the same basic ideas.

Today's system falls somewhere in between the Harvard culture of unmitigated individualism forged by Charles W. Eliot and the social prescriptives of A. Lawrence Lowell, providing little of Lowell's community and less of Eliot's freedom. But in the end, that change came from students.