House Wars Fail To Ignite

House war descends on Harvard, but fails to start a revolution

Hunter A. Maats ’04 was a neutral first-year when war last broke out among the Houses at Harvard.

This year, as Mather’s “secretary of war,” Maats instigated a five-week battle pitting at least five river Houses and one Quad House against each other.

The effects of the war were felt across campus—from the missing gong in the Adams House dining hall, to a naked war rally held after Primal Scream, to the stench of dead fish permeating Kirkland House entryways.

But Maats, who led the war efforts along with fellow Matherites Zachary A. Corker ’04, Paul H. Hersh ’04 and Darren S. Morris ’05, defended his mission.

“The war was not some sort of personal ego trip as some people have suggested,” Maats said. “Our concern was making the campus an enjoyable place to live.”

In addition to serving as “czar” of the Mather House Committee (HoCo) with Corker, Maats is also an actor with the Hasty Pudding Theatricals and a member of the cheerleading squad.

Corker, a history concentrator who served as the war’s “minister of propaganda,” said he conducted extensive research prior to the declaration of war to evaluate what was missing from House life.

“I learned a lot about the Harvard House system and came to realize that we have lost a lot of things, such as House pride and youthful energy,” Corker said. “Harvard kids have the tendency to take everything very seriously and that’s fine in the classroom. But outside of that, lighten up, you know?”

While only a small elite attended the council’s strategy sessions, Maats and Corker said they encouraged all of Mather House to join the war effort.

“It was a war to be won in the minds and hearts of the public,” Maats said.

A LIGHTNING WAR

The war began at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 20 and ended at dawn on Feb. 26—lasting a total of one month, 5 days and 22 hours, raging in the Yard, in the House dining halls and over House-open lists and causing the death of 250 goldfish.

At Primal Scream, four Matherites led a “war rally” to initiate the hostilities. Calling their homeland “Mathergrad—the Kremlin of the Charles,” they painted themselves in the colors of the Soviet flag, yellow and red, and blasted the Soviet national anthem on loudspeakers.

Mathergrad then declared war on Kirkland House, demanding that it cede strategic territory along DeWolfe Street and return the Adams House gong, which had gone missing on Jan. 18.

Days passed and Kirkland residents did not answer the ultimatum. In retaliation, Mathergrad dropped over 250 goldfish in the door boxes of Kirkland residents on Feb. 10.

In response to the fish fiasco, Cabot House formed its own Department of War and allied with Mathergrad. Dunster House entered the fray by stealing the Eliot House banner, though it was turned over to the Harvard University Police Department subsequently.

On Feb. 25, the Adams House gong was discovered on a flagpole outside Kirkland House. Kirkland resident Diego Prats ’04 said he dislodged the gong and presented it to Adams House dining hall workers at 6 a.m. The next day, Adams residents celebrated the return of the gong with a champagne toast.

A CAGED BATTLE

While the war led to no physical wounds among its participants, it was replete with personal attacks executed by e-mail.

Maats said he made a conscious effort to avoid “expensive and destructive” actions, but to keep the war “lighthearted and fun.”

“When you imagine most college pranks, they’re actually very violent,” said Maats, citing the example of students at another school who filled a dean’s car with water, turning it into a portable aquarium. “But on some level we would have loved to do these kind of pranks.”

Instead, Maats said the council had to devise a more realistic plan of action.

“Since we were operating under constraints, we knew that there would be few House symbols to strike at,” he said. “Therefore the House banners and Adams gong became important.”

Corker said the idea to steal the gong came from the 1999 House war between Pfoho and Adams, when Pfoho residents famously stole the Adams House gong.

Corker, Maats, Morris and Hersh all say this year’s war was caused by an e-mail that former Mather House resident Daniel E. Kafie ’05 sent to the Mather open-list last May. Reminiscent of the cause of the Trojan War—the defection of Helen to Troy—Kafie and his blockmates moved from Mather to Kirkland House last fall.

In that May e-mail, Kafie, responding to an earlier e-mail from Morris about the upcoming transfer, described poor living conditions and House social life as his reasons for transferring.

As Mather HoCo co-chair, Maats said he was “appalled” by the “tasteless” e-mail.

But Kafie said he was an easy scapegoat for the war, since after his blocking group transferred to Kirkland in fall 2003, many others followed suit.

“It got to the point where there are only two or three senior blocking groups in Mather,” Kafie said. “I definitely think that Hunter wanted to give Mather attention to stop hordes of people from leaving and to put Mather back on the map in a lot of ways...and he needed someone to blame for it.”

UNSUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN

Despite the Mather council’s dedication to total war, they failed to inflame interhouse tension across campus.

Kirkland House HoCo Co-Chair Adam Kalamchi ’05 said Kirkland was already a “pretty tight House” and did not have anything to prove to Mather.

“The war really annoyed us,” he said. “By the time we had thought about retaliating, the war was so one-sided that it wasn’t worth getting involved.”

Kalamchi said Kirkland students expressed outrage after Maats and his friends distributed flyers outside Annenberg, informing them that the dining hall was closed and that they had to eat in Kirkland House. The fish incident further irritated students, he said.

Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05—a Kirkland resident and Kalamchi’s roommate—said the Matherites blamed him for the disappearance of the gong.

Denying any involvement in the theft, Mahan said the Mather Department of War was a “goofy crew” with “too much spare time on their hands,” but he commended their efforts “to make Harvard a more ideal conception of college.”

After another war-related incident—when Kafie said he caught Maats beating and destroying a shrub in the Kirkland courtyard—many thought that the war had lost direction.

In Adams House, residents said they did not devise a strategy to retrieve the gong because they did not know who had taken it.

“You can’t have a war if it’s not clear who your enemy is,” said Christopher A. Lamie ’04, former co-chair of the Adams House HoCo. “The House war in this sense was a total failure.”

Maats said he received a range of “bitter and angry” e-mails from students, even after Matherites returned the gong.

Yet Co-Master of Mather House Sandra Naddaff wrote in an e-mail that she looked on to the war in “bemusement.”

“The initiative is a wonderful feature of this year’s senior class, which gave something new to the House,” Naddaff wrote.

THE LEGACY OF WAR

Citing the example of several House games of assassin, many students felt that friendly competition between the Houses, which began to emerge during the war, should be a staple of undergraduate life.

“I feel like the House war would be a great thing if done right,” Lamie said. “It could be a lot of fun if each House knew what they were fighting against and could unite.”

Since the housing lottery was randomized in 1995, many have voiced the need for new traditions to reinforce each House’s unique identity.

“The war efforts show that we do need to find ways to revitalize House spirit,” Mahan said, adding that he is planning a competitive campus-wide event, “Harvard Olympics,” to be linked with Fallfest.

“Any sense of belonging to the larger community starts with spirit in the House,” Mahan said. “When you look back on your four Harvard years, you’ll remember most of all the fun you had. And inevitably a lot of that will be wound up in the place you lived.”

—Staff writer Elena P. Sorokin can be reached at sorokin@fas.harvard.edu.