Holden Chapel


(Ed. Note--The Crimson does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in printed communications. No attention will be paid to anonymous letters and only under special conditions, at the request of the writer, will names be withheld.)

To the Editor of the CRIMSON:

May I offer both protest and commendation for your article of the 23rd regarding Holden Chapel; commendation, that at least something has been printed about this most unusual building, and protest against such a trivlai and inaccurate handling of the subject.

The money for Holden Chapel was not given by Mr. Holden in his will, as you stated in your article, but by his widow and daughters, through the exertions of Thomas Hutchinson, H. C. '27, later governor of Massachusetts. The money, 400 pounds sterling, as Mrs. Holden had remarked to Hutchinson at the time of the gift, was not sufficient to complete the Chapel, and so, after the foundations, walls, roofing and plastering had used up the funds, a year elapsed before sufficient money could be raised to finish the interior woodwork, pews etc. Whether Mrs. Holden gave the extra funds or not, is not known.

At any rate, the Chapel was opened in March 1745, as can be seen in an old bill in the Harvard Archives.


"To cash pd. Mrs. Manning Sweeping the Chapel, some time in March before first meeting in it."

Holden was used for morning and evening prayers until 1766 when the chapel in Harvard Hall was ready for "Devotions, lectures, and exhibitions, ornamented with two handsome brass chandeliers."

In June 1769, Gov. Bernard transferred the General Court to Cambridge, despite great protest from the members, and lodged them in the "Philosophy chamber" of Harvard Hall, which he designed, and put the House in Holden Chapel. After a few days, at their request, the Legislators were removed to the chapel at Harvard, and Holden was again used for devotions as first intended.

From then on, also, Holden was the scene of numerous court martials, made necessary by the lack of discipline in Washington's army. A little later, the building was used as a barracks for 150 men, though how such a large number of men could be crowded into such a small place, to say nothing of living in it, is unthinkable.

During the period of occupancy of the Harvard buildings as barracks, considerable damage was done to them and so, after the removal of the troops from Cambridge, it is not surprising to find Holden used by the college carpenter, Abraham Hasey, as a workshop.

In 1779, Old Stoughton Hall was considered unsafe for further use, and the carpenter was directed to remove all usable timbers and boards, and "to store them in Holden Chapel."

In 1783, the Harvard Medical School was started by Dr. John Warren '71, and the raised pews of the Chapel made an almost perfect amphitheatre for him for nineteen years. In 1802 the chapel was divided into two stories with a staircase well added on the East or Yard side to reach the second floor. At the same time, the curious brick porch with a crenellated top seen in old engravings, was put up at the West end. The first floor was composed of two damp, ill-lighted rooms for chemical lectures and laboratory work, while the upper floor was used for anatomical lectures.

In 1810, the Medical School was removed to Boston, and Holden was used for Science lectures, and Dr. Warren's anatomy course held each Spring. Four years later, the old windows were cut down as we now see them, to give more light to the lower floor, and the present incorrect and unpleasant sash added.

In 1825 the Chapel was deserted except for special courses like that of Dr. Warren. In 1850, after a period of uneventful years, the "restoration," so-called, was effected by a Mr. Bryant, architect.

While one cannot blame an architect of 1850 for a so-called "restoration," when such things were unheard, of as applied to architecture in this country, yet it is unfortunate to continue the idea so many people have today--that Holden Chapel has been restored, and is, on the exterior at least, as it was in 1745. As a matter of fact, the building bears very little resemblance to the Chapel of 1745. In the first place, the doorway to the building, as seen in the Paul Revere engraving of Harvard, was on the West end and extended almost up to the entablature, and was reached by a fight of stone stops, as seen by various existing bills of 1744. The arched windows, shown in many drawings and paintings of the Chapel, were much shorter, with a recessed brick panel beneath them, and had smaller panes of glass, five panes wide, and larger muntins in the sash--as was typical of the period. The rear of East end was without the duplicated Holden Arms, added only recently.

The interior, according to bills and contemporary writers was quite handsome, with carved oak pews or stalls running along the sides of the building in the English Collegiate manner. At the East end was the President's seat with desk or pulpit. On this, placed on a rich piece of "China Carpet," was the folio bible given by Andrew Oliver, class of 1724 and later Lt. Governor of Massachusetts. Records show that the Overseers had two pews at the back designed especially for their use. Over the "Great Door" at the West end was perhaps an organ gallery, evidences of which could be brought to light by careful search. The lighting was of course by candlelight, and in 1745 we find bills for "1 Doz. Tin Candlesticks" and "2 Wooden Screws for standing part of said Candlesticks."

One might go on thus for pages, describing the old Chapel, but the above brief description may show in a small way that this building was not "Just another old building" with an interesting and very checkered career. Architecturally, it was a masterpiece of Georgian design, and to my mind, one of the best proportioned, and one of the most interesting buildings of the Colonial Period now standing in this country.

It is unfortunate, almost disgraceful, that a University as rich as Harvard should so neglect such buildings as Holden, Harvard, and Massachusetts. It is high time that a committee of competent and interested men be formed for the preservation and restoration of these old buildings, priceless historically and architecturally, before they are completely denatured. It must not be said of Harvard that she encourages Mayan and Romanesque restorations, and so shamefully neglects the treasures in her own Yard! John P. Brown.   President, The Georgian Society of America.