For Sale by Owner: Historic Colonial

FAS sells Massachusetts Hall to central administration for planned office expansion

Massachusetts Hall, the conveniently located, four-story Colonial at the entrance to Harvard Yard, has been sold by the University—to the University.

In a bureaucratic quirk that makes sense only at Harvard, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will transfer ownership of the building this year to the University’s central administration, according to two people familiar with the sale.

The Faculty has long rented the first two floors of Mass. Hall and parts of the third to the central administration for office space. But in a deal arranged last year, the two sources said, the central administration has agreed to pay a lump sum to the Faculty for control of the entire building, including the upper floors where 22 freshmen are housed each school year.

University President Lawrence H. Summers is said to be planning to physically expand the offices of the central administration, which has grown in size and power under his tenure. That will entail eliminating some, if not all, of the 11 dorm rooms in Mass. Hall, according to the two sources, who requested anonymity because the arrangement has not been publicly announced. They said they did not know if a schedule for the expansion has been set.

[On Tuesday, a day after this article was published, John Longbrake, a spokesman for Summers, issued the following statement: "FAS and the central administration continue to have discussions regarding the future uses of Massachusetts Hall. There has not been a sale of Massachusetts Hall as reported in the Crimson. Discussions on this topic will continue to focus on what the College thinks is in the best interests of the students as well as administrative considerations."]

In an e-mail last night, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 wrote, “We have been looking at the viability of Massachusetts Hall as a freshman dormitory, and exploring the possibility of moving students to better space next year.” But he added that “nothing has been decided yet.”

The sale of Mass. Hall, while largely an administrative shuffle, has aroused concern among some Faculty members for both its emblematic and practical implications.

Informed of the plans this weekend, McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis ’68, former dean of the College, wrote in an e-mail, “I suppose different people may see different symbols in that—students losing their places to administrative bureaucrats, the College being swallowed up by the University, or maybe the FAS selling an heirloom to pay the bills.”

The Faculty is running an annual deficit that is expected to rise above $100 million by 2010. But the two people briefed on the sale of Mass. Hall said that the move was prompted by the central administration’s desire to expand its offices, not the Faculty’s budget woes. Mass. Hall currently houses the offices of Summers, Provost Steven E. Hyman, his seven vice presidents, and other senior staff.

The two sources said that Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby was given little choice in approving the sale or the sale price, which they both said was in “the low seven-digits.” Three members of the Faculty Resources Committee declined to comment or did not return an e-mail over the weekend.

The anomaly of one part of the University selling a building to another part of the same university might seem curious to outside observers. But it makes some, if not perfect, sense amid Harvard’s decentralized financial structure, in which each school maintains its own endowment and sets its own budget.

A spokesman for the president, John Longbrake, referred questions yesterday to the Faculty. Bob Mitchell, a spokesman for the Faculty, would not comment on the sale.

Brian T. Buce ’09, a resident of Mass. Hall, said he was not bothered by the loss of student dorm rooms in the building.

“If the central administration needs more offices, then it makes sense to put them in Mass. Hall rather than move them to Thayer or something,” he said.

Built in 1720 as a dormitory for 64 students, Mass. Hall is the oldest surviving building on Harvard’s campus and the second oldest academic building in the country. (The Wren Building at William & Mary is the oldest.) Mass. Hall housed hundreds of Revolutionary soldiers during the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776.

—Anton S. Troianovski contributed reporting for this story.
—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.