Walking and Gawking

Tourists Flock to Cambridge for Trivia, History, and the Science Center Fountain

They're not Harvard students. And they don't look like them.

Each hour, after students scurry across the Yard and disappear into classes, the air falls quiet except for the sound of a lone voice. A group of people gathered in front of Massachusetts Hall hear that "it is the oldest building on campus, built in 1720, and it has always been a student dorm, but now it also houses the President of the University's office ..."

The people are tourists, and they stop at Harvard University for the same reason they visit any other tourist attraction in the Boston area. One Texan says, quite simply, that "it is the thing to do."

The guide to Harvard Hall and explains that it used to house almost all student activities until it burned down. "The fire destroyed all of John Harvard's library, or at least that's what people thought. But then one student who had taken out a book for the night, which was forbidden, realizing the value of the book, returned the book to the President, who thanked the student and then promptly expelled him."

These tours operate out of the Holoyoke Center Information Center, whose manager, Barbra Drake, says they originated with an idea of former President James B. Conant '12. Conant "felt that because of the image of the University throughout the United States as an austere place, the President wanted to make some place where people could feel welcome," she explains.


Drake says the tours have changed little since Conant's tenure (1936-52) except for the occasional addition of new landmarks. "There is great interest in that fountain," she says of the recently-installed rock fountain outside the Science Center.

Most tourists visit Harvard between May and October, and the peak season occurs in the middle of August, when up to 1000 people tour Harvard in a week. By contrast, the U.S.S. Constitution, one of Boston's top attractions, welcomes around 5000 tourists a day during their peak season, which occurs at the same time as Harvard's.

"The tours are a lot more anecdotal, a lot more historical" than admissions tours, explains Carey M. York '85, co-president of the Crimson Key Society the group which provides student tour guides. The society also publishes a book, updated every five years, of Harvard lore and trivia, which guides sprinkle into their talks, York says.

Guides often tell the story of how Daniel Chester French, the same person who created the Lincoln Memorial, actually used a student model when sculpting the statue of John Harvard 100 years ago. No pictures of the University's benefactor have survived.

Memorial plaques are also featured. Guides point out famous names engraved in the stone of Memorial Church, such as Lionel Dejersey Harvard '15, the only John Harvard descendant to attend the College.

Guides also identify sdorms which housed famous people. For example, John F. Kennedy '40 lived in Weld, and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in Hollis.

Tourists learn that the cracks in the outside steps of Hollis Hall supposedly were created by students who dropped cannonballs from their windows after the winter. The students kept them in fireplaces over the winter to radiate heat, tour guide James A. Sanks '86 explains.

Another story tourists hear is that no structural changes, even removing a brick, man be made on Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, because of a stipulation in the donation. But they do not hear the time-honored--but untrue--story that Widener's mother, who donated the building, insisted that all students take a swim test before graduation because her so drowned aboard the Titanic. Sanks contend that the swim test was introduced with the building of the river Houses.

Besides the anecdote, tourists are extremely interested in the various movies filmed in Harvard Yard, Sanks says. The Bostontans, filmed at Harvard two summers ago, is the most recent example. Sanks says that once while telling a group of tourists about the filming, he added that he had been an extra in the cast. This compelled a Japanese visitor to ask for his autograph.

As a result of the film. "During summer tours actors were pumping on the pump in Harvard Yard," which Sanks said piqued tourist interest. He added that the pump outside Hollis Hall, is a replica of a real pump which students blew up, as a practical joke, sometime in the 1920s or 30s.

Recommended Articles