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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Architectural Harvard

By Russell B. Roberts

ONE of Harvard's finest collections, its most often seen but most frequently overlooked, is the body of artifacts in which the University lives -- its museum of architecture. Le Corbusier should be pleased that his newest construction is also the latest entry in a fairly distinguished lot of buildings.

Extant Harvard structures cover a time of 243 years and include at least one piece from virtually every important period of American architecture. In this respect the University is very fortunate: there are remarkably few communities in the United States with architectural quality and diversity matching Harvard's.

The best and most nearly complete set in the Harvard architecture collection is the earliest, that of the colonial period. The University owns eight 18th century structures, half of them built especially for academic duties and half of them acquired after long service as private Cambridge residences.

Of these earliest buildings, the real masterpieces are Massachusetts Hall, Holden Chapel, and Apthorp House. Massachusetts Hall, one of Harvard's truly prize possessions, is the oldest College building, constructed in 1720. Few University buildings of equal merit have been erected since. The classic simplicity of its Georgian lines, the excellence of its brickwork, and its immaculate proportions are impossible to better. Holden Chapel, designed by an unknown Englishman, is a very beautiful little building, which manages to look modest and aristocratic at the same time. Its symetrical simplicity is much like that of Massachusetts Hall, the only flourish being its ornately carved pediments which bear the arms of Samuel Holden, a London merchant and donor of the chapel. The interior of the building has undergone several thorough remodelings and lacks the elegance of the original plan but the Georgian proportions of the Chapel are still noticeable and still attractive.

The first bit of marked domestic affluence to appear in colonial Cambridge was Apthorp House, a grand scale dwelling of 1760. It was built as a home for East Apthorp, an Anglican missionary, and its haughty grandeur infuriated the Congregationalists who then populated most of Cambridge and all of Harvard. They had worried for some time about the prospects of an Anglican bishopric being established in their midst and concluded that Apthorp's mansion was to be the "Bishop's Palace" and Apthorp the first bishop.

The house was easily imposing enough to induce such speculation. It stood at the top of a crest overlooking the Charles River with a large expanse of ground stretching before it and somehow had a way of appearing inordinately pompous whenever a Congregationalist should happen by. The neat rows of Ionic pilasters and windows, the classical doorway and the stately scale of the house, contributed to its attractiveness. Now the Master's Residence at Adams House, the building has lost its view of the river and most of its ground but its handsome interior and facade remain intact.

The design of Apthorp House was probably the work of Charles Ward Apthorp, the minister's brother and a relatively competent gentleman builders. Like most educated men of his time. Apthorp considered a knowledge of the orders of architecture an essential part of learning and had mastered the subject well. He was part of the tradition of gentleman architects, who provided Harvard with the schemes for all its earliest buildings.

Elmwood, a majestic wooden house which is now the official home of the Dean of the Faculty, is an achievement of another good but unknown 18th century amateur and it is almost as find a place as Apthorp House. Harvard Hall was built in 1766 after plan sketched by Sir Francis Bernard, the colonial governor of Massachusetts which fancied himself a most proper builder. He was rather successful with his Harvard construction which, until it was badly altered in the 19th century, had been a pleasantly attractive edifice; it could be attractive again, and ought to be restored.

Wadsworth House and Hicks House, the other two colonial domestic structures belonging to the University, are typical works of gentlemen designers and are very representative of the 18th century. Only one Harvard building of this period, Hollis Hall, has been attributed to a professional builder and even that is uncertain. Hollis was designed with polish and excellently constructed but still might be the handiwork of a well-versed amateur.

Charles Bulfinch, eventually to become one of America's most honored architects, was a gentleman builder before he was a professional. He came from a respectable Boston family which had cultivated in him an interest in all the proper disciplines and especially in architecture. He attended to this interest as an undergraduate at Harvard, Class of 1781, and on a trip to Europe after leaving college. His eminence as an architect came surprisingly early in his career, due mostly to the greatness of his design for the Massachusetts State House, one of his first commissions.

Bulfinch's work for Harvard included the original plan for arrangement of buildings in the Yard, Stoughton Hall which he designed as a mate for Hollis, and University Hall, one of Bulfinch's best and one of Harvard's best. This is a building which commands the Yard with authority and flair, is dignified and also very handsome.

When University Hall was first erected, a large and ungainly portico was constructed across the front, apparently Harvard's addition to Bulfinch's original plan, but this was later removed and the exterior elevations seem to be now as the architect intended. Gone also is "University Minor," a row of out houses which stood behind the main structure for many years.

The inside of the Chelmsford granite building has been drastically rebuilt on several occasions and only a small part of the original finish remains. The dining rooms and two kitchens included at the start are gone, leaving only the circular ports through which food was once passed from room to room. The one place in the building which still retains a solid Bulfinch flavor is the old second floor chapel, probably Harvard's most impressive room, now the setting for meetings of the Faculty and the Board of Overseers.

It is possible that the University owns a third and "lost" Bulfinch, one of the large number of buildings which were designed by the architect but never credited to him. Fay House at Radcliffe, built during the time when Bulfinch was particularly interested in houses, possesses the characteristics of Bulfinch's style but unfortunately has lost the credentials of its origin.

After Bulfinch, Harvard erected no important buildings until the late 19th century, a time of professional architects and gaudy edifices. Among the most prominent extravaganzas of this time were Matthews, Weld, and Grays in the Yard and Claverly and Randolph on the Gold Coast. The excesses of these combinations of Gothic and Jacobean design, if unpleasant to see, are reminiscent of the age.

Only Memorial Hall surpasses the standard garishness of Victorian taste. Guides on one of the sight-seeing tours now conducted through Cambridge claim that Harvard wanted so much to erect a great and lasting tribute to its Civil War dead that University officials asked every leading architect in America to contribute one detail to such a monument, put them all together and erected Memorial Hall.

But there was one great architect of this period who designed for Harvard a building which can justly be considered among the most important in the United States.

Henry Hobson Richardson's Sever Hall, finished in 1880, was a great influence on the changing styles of the time and eventually became a major step toward the 20th century and modern architecture. This was the building in which Richardson reached the ultimate maturity of his art, in general design, in construction, and in the minute details of ornamentation. Preserving the massive boldness which was characteristic of Richardson and his Romanesque school, Sever achieved a new simplicity which was to be widely copied. The deep Syrian archway of the front side gave the building a remarkable sense of security; the brick carving in the cornices, the chimneys, and the friezes, is some of the best ever done in this contry; and the inclination of the building to harmonize with the older works in the Yard without sacrificing a distinct style of its own, is something few architects of the late 19th century ever understood.

Richardson also designed Austin Hall, a building more characteristic of his work but neither as important nor as good as Sever.

In the 19th century, Harvard builders had followed contemporary trends on some occasions and completely reshaped them on others. In the first major period of construction in the 20th century, both of these practices were abandoned in favor of an outright return to classical forms. This apparently was done chiefly to suit the wishes of President A. Lawrence Lowell, a man of reactionary tastes, who selected a Georgian style for the buildings of his House System in the 1930's. In making such a choice, Lowell was following the theories of gentleman architect, Thomas Jefferson, who had advocated the use of classic styles for the official buildings of the new American republic, to give the government a look of stability and purpose, a transfer of aged nobility to the institutions of a young nation. Lowell wanted that same established look for his new Houses and it was natural that he and the University's architects selected a sturdy New England design.

The pseudo-Georgian look, however, was not restricted to the Houses. Virtually everything built in the Lowell years, including the Indoor Athletic Building, surely the world's largest Georgian cube, was designed in this style. Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, and Abbott, then the regular University architects, pandered to their ancestors more than to art; but if not creative, at least their buildings are comfortable and outwardly attractive.

The 20th century is leaving the University another legacy which is neither comfortable nor attractive. Leverett Towers, the still growing Holyoke Center, and the projected married students housing complex are part of this legacy; they may be personally hideous but in the future they will be an important part of Harvard's architectural museum. They represent the New Victoriana, a school based on bald gimmickry, loud primary colors, starkness and bigness, which is responsible for a good measure of contemporary American building.

Fortunately, Harvard also has some highly original pieces of sensible modern design. Walter Gropius' Harkness Commons (1950) is regarded as one of his best works. In it his design gained a more fluid appearance than ever before and it became a great influence on the building of its decade. The new Geology Laboratory, designed by Gropius' firm, the Architects Collaborative, is another splendid, original building and Hugh Stubbins' Loeb Drama Center is a third.

The Visual Arts Center, a good work by a great artist, brings to Harvard and to the United States the results of some of the best experimentation in the history of architecture. A living dramatization of the creative arts, for all its functional flaws, it is a good and suitable home for the study of vision and creation. There are quirks of design which are nervous and unappealing, of course, and there are people who don't like it -- for example, the classics professor who compared it to two grand pianos copulating. But there is no bolder building at Harvard; no other can grab a man's attention and hold it for so long a time as the Arts Center does. It serves its special purpose as few other buildings can: it excites a new interest in the creative arts.

Sometimes the University builders have been more concerned with the accumulation of indoor space than with the creation of beauty and too often economics or tastelessness have blotched the landscape with ugly piles; but the University has been generally fortunate in its assemblage of edifices. A path extended in an easterly direction from Johnston Gate, passes Massachusetts Hall, University Hall, Sever Hall, and the Visual Arts Center, Harvard's best buildings representing the most interesting periods in American architecture. Such a path wanders through the middle of a huge and amusing collection of buildings.

Besides architectural quality and diversity, those buildings have places in history and personalities of their own. The people who lived in them and the character the buildings managed to develop for themselves add a great deal to Harvard architecture. The community of buildings at Harvard have always meant more to the community of men than mere roofs and walls.

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