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Tucked away in an inconspicuous corner of the Yard stands the University's traditional maid-of-all-work, Holden Chapel. This small, rectangular structure of pure Georgian architecture has been the scene, during its 200-odd years of existence, of the birth of the Medical School, the near-death of Harvard's greatest President, and midnight raids by students seeking decorations for their rooms among the specimens in the anatomical museum.
Completed in 1744, it cost about 400 pounds, which were donated by the widow of one Samuel Holden, a Director of the Bank of England. It boasted a massive, dignified door, facing what is now the Square, a beautifully carved and decorated interior, and rows of hard oak benches rising in tiers from a center aisle to the side walls.
For but twenty years it was used as a chapel, and when the Continental troops took over "the colledge" it was utilized as a court room for court martials. Later it housed 160 of these rough-and-ready soldiers who so ruined it that it was fit only for a combination lumber room, College carpenter shop, and fire house.
In 1783, another bright page was written in its useful history when a Dr. Joseph Warren, looking for a home for his proposed Medical School, selected the University's catch-all as the place most suited to an operating amphitheater. So those once holy walls looked down on the carving of cadavers for twenty years, until the general-utility hall was cut up into six rooms, with two floors, and a staircase on the outside of the building. For a time, these rooms were used for undergraduate recitations, but the building was soon deserted again because several of the rooms were so damp that when a coat of varnish was put on them it refused to dry. But on the top floor were stored the specimens used in Dr. Warren's class in anatomy, and various other biological exhibits in the form of a museum. Few student rooms around the Yard were not decorated by skulls or bones from this graveyard.
On the first floor, the large room was used for elementary chemistry courses, and it was during an experiment in one of these that a student named Charles William Eliot, Harvard's future President, was nearly killed. The professor put some explosive material in an iron pot, stood behind a closet door, and touched it off with a torch fastened on the end of a long pole. The result drove a large piece of the pot past Eliot's arm, and into the back of the wooden bench on which he was sitting.
Even now, the Chapel is fulfilling its age-old use as the College catch-all, for Professor Packard holds his public speaking classes here.
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