Exploring House Disunity

The Changing Social Landscape of Harvard’s Houses

Emma R. Carron

The hollow tunnels beneath Adams House are weary with disrepair—pipes are exposed and the paint chipped—and are surprisingly unbecoming of the Harvard pictured in brochures and admissions pamphlets. Recently, talks of House renewal have stirred in University Hall, that well-kept marble building in the center of the Yard. But in the Houses, leaky pipes, cockroaches, issues with temperature control, and outdated rooming floor plans are some of the physical realities that make the Houses’ ages apparent.

But when the haphazard paintings and sketches lining the walls of the Adams tunnels come into focus, the work of graduating classes long gone, a different kind of impression emerges—there’s a heritage here. Less apparent than the uncomfortable walk-throughs is the endangered social function of the Houses. From their conception in the late 1920s, the Houses were intended to be central aspects of students’ social lives. In 2008, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds wrote that this vision of the Houses “still resonates with students.”

The House formals, tutors, faculty advisors, and nightly brain breaks, as well as the House Masters, are all presented as metonymies of this mission. We are told that Adam’s Winter Dinner is House spirit. That Lowell’s weekly House Master Teas are House spirit. And we are reminded to attend Leverett’s winter formal year after year, in the name of House spirit.

But it is unclear whether the original vision in fact still resonates with students, or whether the Houses are actually failing to cultivate social organization within their physical dorms.

The widespread belief is that the Houses should stand for more than just the bricks and mortar that they are made from. The history of Harvard’s houses tells the history of the College’s changing landscape, both physical and social. But the question emerges: how has the function of the Houses changed, and do students still feel as connected to their House as they used to?

It seems, in actuality, that while the Houses do serve certain functional capacities (as dining hubs, as open study spaces, as living spaces), the social aspects of the Houses may be lacking.

Rounding off their first year in Cabot House, a group of sophomore blockmates sits casually, sweatshirt-clad, at their own table in the dining hall. They say they are happy in their House, making jokes about Quad solidarity. The girls laugh when asked if they socialize much within the House outside of their blocking group. “We’re a very close blocking group,” says Andrea A. Henricks ’13, suggesting that the answer is no.

But, “I would kinda like to see more happening in the House,” admits Lillian C. Alexander ’13.

“But I mean, we love Cabot,” adds Kathleen E. Goodwin ’13.


Returning to Cambridge for a Winthrop House Class of ’78 reunion, Robert S. Rubin ’78-’79 reminisces about his days at Harvard. “My friends and I had a really great time,” he says, looking around the empty Winthrop Junior Common Room (JCR) with a hardy smile, remembering the happy hours that he and his friends used to host in the room some 30 years ago. “Every Friday night, this room would fill up. A great deal of people from across campus would come,” he explains.

“Winthrop in my day had a lot more cohesiveness than it seems today,” says Rob. “It’s my impression that the spontaneity has been removed.”

One thing that stands out to visiting alums is this lack of social cohesion. “The alums don’t believe it when I tell them,” says Rob. “The rooming experience was a very strong social activity. It seems people used to spend a lot of time in rooms and in the House.”

He adds, “When you consider that dorm life at Harvard was founded in that concept [the House system], I think the quality of House life is not near what it could be today and certainly not close to what it was when we were here.”

His son, Ari L. Rubin ’13, also a Winthrop resident, can’t help but compare his own experience in the House to what he’s heard about his father’s. “I grew up hearing stories not about Harvard, but about Winthrop House. I heard stories about moving the tables in the dining hall and throwing dance parties in there, and throwing keggers in the courtyard. And I got here and that doesn’t happen anymore,” he says.