15 Years Later, They're Still Fighting Over What to Build on Shady Hill

Some fifteen years ago, the words "Shady Hill" must have rung as unpleasantly in President Pusey's cars as "On Strike" did last spring.

One of Pusey's first major projects after coming to Harvard in 1953 was planning a Faculty housing project on the Shady Hill site-a six-acre tract of land near the Divinity School. Though Pusey felt the project would be a boon to the University and the community, residents of the upperincome Shady Hill neighborhood-which includes some of the most distinguished Harvard faculty-felt otherwise. Alarmed by what they deemed an undesirable intrusion into the area, they opposed the project and, in a humiliating defeat for Pusey, forced the University to drop its plans.

Now, Harvard has revived plans for housing on Shady Hill (also known as the Sachs Estate or Nortons Woods) and, once again, neighbors of the site are rumbling opposition to the University's plans. This time, however, the debate over Shady Hill has taken on larger overtones, raising questions about what Harvard should do to aid a City now struggling with severe housing shortages, and illustrating some very real difficulties involved in transferring housing plans from paper to bricks and mortar.

To understand the Shady Hill situation, you have to look at the history of the area. And that history goes back a long way. In 1785, John Phillips, Mayor of Boston, claimed possession of a large tract of land, including both the present six-acre Shady Hill site and much of the surrounding neighborhood. Throughout the 19th century, this land passed through a series of distinguished hands-such as those of Henry Ware, Hollis Professor of Divinity of Harvard. In 1823, President Eliot's grandfather bought it.

The area began to take on its present character in the late 1880's when Professor Channing Eliot Norton, then owner of the Shady Hill estate, subdivided much of the land surrounding it into 10,000 acre lots and sold them to Harvard professors, who then settled down and built the stately homes that now line Francis Ave. and other streets near the site. The six acres now known as Shady Hill remained in private hands until 1948, when Harvard purchased them.


Thus, when Pusey came to Harvard in 1953, Harvard owned a large tract of vacant land right on the University's back doorstep, in the middle of a sedate residential neighborhood deemed to be among the finest in Cambridge. Even then, such land was hard to find, and the University began thinking about what to do with the parcel.

At the same time, something was disturbing Harvard's new President: the University no longer seemed to be the tight, cohesive community of scholars he had known as an undergraduate in the 1920's. The members of the University-especially the Faculty-were scattering. Many were moving to the ourlying suburbs-Arlington, Belmont, Newton, etc.-and they came into Cambridge only for lectures and their individual research projects. As Pusey said at the time, "When I first arrived here, I was distressed to find so few Faculty members, especially the young instructors, actually lived in Cambridge. I think we lose a great deal when our Faculty gets spread out over a wide area."

Shady Hill appeared to provide a neat answer: build housing there for the younger Faculty, so that they could have relatively inexpensive homes close to the University. Planning for 120 units of junior Faculty housing at a cost of $1.5 million went ahead. By May 1955, Pusey was ready to unveil the plans to a gathering of the neighbors around Shady Hill.

What happened next is perhaps best described in the words of an observer of the meeting. "It was a disaster. No one had done any advance work in the neighborhood. They did not know how the neighbors felt. The President came in prepared for a tea party but he didn't get it."

Instead, Pusey found himself dodging a barrage of criticism from angry neighbors. The criticism ran along two main lines:

One group, led by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. '38, professor of History, argued that the rents in the project-estimated at about $115 per month for an average apartment-would be too expensive for junior Faculty members.

Other neighbors raised blunter objections: the project would, they said in effect, spoil the neighborhood by bringing in more people, more traffic, and large modern buildings, and perhaps at a later date, even commercial developments.

The opposition forced Pusey to shelve the plans for Shady Hill; during the next ten years the land remained vacant, fenced off, while Cambridge began to experience a steep rise in demand for housing.

By the mid-1960's the Cambridge housing situation was getting to the critical stage. Harvard revived its plans for Shady Hill, both to aid younger Faculty hard-pressed to pay local rents, and as a way to take at least a little demand off the local housing market. The plans were of the same order of magnitude as those of 1955-approximately 150 units of housing.

By this time, the Shady Hill neighborhood appeared to be willing to accept the idea of having this much housing on the site; at any rate, little opposition was voiced when word leaked about Harvard's plans and when, in 1967, the Dunlop Committee on Recruitment and Retention of the Faculty endorsed the idea.