On the outskirts of Harvard Yard lies an incongruous yellow house. Casually sandwiched between the Barker Center and the Faculty Club, the building is easy to dismiss. Lacking the domineering sophistication of the Faculty Club and the Barker Center’s frenetic influx of students, the yellow farmhouse is comparatively modest, with nothing but a small placard on the door to inform you that you are inside Warren House.
The first thing we notice about Warren House is the creaking. Every step—every inclination of a step—is met with a loud, whining protest from the floorboards. The house announces our arrival to its inhabitants before we even get a chance.
Built in 1833, Warren House is currently home to both Harvard’s Folklore and Mythology and Celtic Language and Literatures departments; it’s an appropriate arrangement given the house’s strange and mysterious history.
Warren House was bequeathed to the University by its namesake, Henry Clarke Warren, Class of 1879, following his death in 1899. But the home was originally owned by Charles Beck, a German immigrant and prominent Harvard academic, known for his support of the abolitionist movement in Boston.
Rumor has it that Beck concealed former slaves at his residence in Warren House. We find the tidbit dubious, perhaps far-fetched, until we see the trapdoor.
Like something out of a Victorian crime novel, the trap door on the second floor of Warren House is barely noticeable if you’re not looking for it. A slight gash in one of the floorboards is the only indication that something might be amiss.
Whilst creaking around Warren House, we marvel at everything—from the wooden spiral staircase to the hallways that seem to arbitrarily rise and fall—but this quirk is truly something out of a horror film. The trap door leads to a secret crawl space that used to contain a ladder leading to the basement (which has since been boarded up).
Lore has it that Warren House was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and its hidden passage used to facilitate the movement of runaway slaves. Unfortunately, the basement ladder was boarded up in the mid-20th century after freshmen taking English classes in the house made a habit of horsing around in the crawl space and sneaking into the basement during class time. We must credit them for their agility—it takes multiple awkward motions and an unreasonable amount of arm strength for us to vault out of the room, leaving us dusty and slightly winded.
Warren, the house’s final tenant, was himself a fascinating individual. Launched from a carriage at a young age, Warren suffered severe spinal damage which both left him crippled and in perpetual pain. Nonetheless, he went on to become an extremely successful academic, notable for his work in the fields of Sanskrit and Pali studies.
Warren’s influence upon the house is reflected in the rooms that he altered to accommodate his disability. His former office contains an alcove raised two feet off the floor, sectioned off from the rest of the room by a sliding wooden partition. Now lined with a fraying oriental rug and mismatched throw pillows, the nook once doubled as Warren’s bedroom.
From the moment we set foot in Warren House, our intuition told us that it might be haunted: The endless creaking, pointlessly winding corridors, enormous black marble bathtub, row of bedrooms that locked from the outside. That was before we find out that Warren actually died in the house. That’s right—Warren was found dead in the winter of 1899, seated in the corner of an upstairs room. Cause of death: Ec10 problem set. (Just kidding—that wouldn’t become a serious affliction until the early 21st century.)
Before you can say “Happy Halloween!” we’re skipping down the spiral staircase two and three steps at a time, desperately trying to avoid an encounter with Mr. Warren’s ghost. His academic and peculiar spirit may live on in the house, but that doesn’t mean we’re interested in meeting it at the moment.