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100 Years of Solitude

John Harvard Finishes His First Century

By Richard L. Callan

Published April 28, 1984

The John Harvard statue has been painted green and blue, snowed on and sat on, covered with banners and regularly coated with chemicals. Yet it looks as good as it did 100 years ago.

Sculpted by Daniel Chester French--an MIT dropout who received an honorary Harvard degree in 1917--the statue was brought to Harvard and dedicated in October, 1884.

French called it "the greatest statue in the country," although he apparently had difficulty finishing it. He was not used to working in bronze; he is better renowned for sculpting the marble Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

According to Richard M. Hunt, the University Marshal. Harvard has no current plans to celebrate the 100th birthday of its most recognizable landmark. Yet Hunt says that the statue is one of the most photographed in the world.

Three Lies

The "three lies" of the statue are well known: it does not resemble a likeness of John Harvard, since no one knows what he really looked like (Sherman Hoar, Class of 1882, served as a model for the head, although French claimed it was an idealized image): John Harvard was not actually the "founder" of the College, but rather willed "his library and half of his estate" (about 400 books and about 800 pounds) to the two-year-old school at what was then called Newtowne in 1638, and the date referring to Harvard's Founding, 1638, is late by two years.

There's even a fourth discrepancy a book on the Harvard seal at the base of the statue is reversed perhaps due to the difficulties of casting a letter over an open book.


French first began to model the statue in clay in September 1883. He created the costume for the state from the dress of Puritan clergymen of the time. He wrote in December, 1883 that Hoar had sat for the head.

On April 20, 1884, French wrote to his brother that the clay model for the statue was finished, although he said. "I am sometimes scared by the importance of this work. It is a subject that one might not have in a life-time and a failure would be inexcusable. He made the legs thin, since Harvard is known to have died of tuberculosis.

The statue model was cast in plaster and the design completed by that May. Its casting took three and one half months, done in New York by the Henry-Bonnard Bronze Company. It was set on its pedestal, designed by C. Howard Walker, a Boston architect, on October 10, 1884.

Statue Unveiling

A large crowd assembled in Sanders Theatre for the debut of the statue on October 15, 1884. Austin and Sever Halls, designed by H. H. Richardson (Class of 1859), had just been completed and Jefferson was still under construction.

At the unveiling, Rev. George E. Ellis, Class of 1833, remarked that "as far as man's high gifts can supply the want of a true model, the sculptor has so far moulded the bronze figure of John Harvard. He rests his hand on the open tome between his knees, and gazes for a moment into the future, so dim, so uncertain, yet so full of promise, of promise which has been more than realized."

The gathering included President Eliot, the sculptor French, and Samuel J. Bridge, donor of the statue, who had received an honorary degree in 1880. The statue reportedly cost over $20,000.

Ellis ended his address, with an admonition that "the ideal can never transcend the real." He added that if a portrait of John Harvard were to come to light, despite Harvard's "chronic poverty" the statue would be melted down and recast. The crowd then watched the unveiling and, according to accounts in The Crimson, "gave three cheers apiece for John Harvard, Mr. Bridge and Mr. French."

Few students today may observe that the statue has a small mustache which French probably added since Hoar, the model, also had one.

The statue originally rested in the "Delta" in front of Memorial hall, but French did not like the location and requested that it be moved to its present location, which was carried out 60 years ago in April, 1924. The current issue of Harvard Magazine shows a picture of the move in progress.

The Delta used to be the site of "turkey shooting"--a rather arcane pastime involving actual shooting of the fowl--and other popular games.


No sooner was the statue in place than vandalism began. On November 15, 1884, just a month later. The Crimson reported that "some one disfigured the Chapel and the statue by painting in large letters on them the class name of '87." The account continues, "We know that it is a human failing to encourage anything, however silly, that is done in defiance of authority; but Harvard men have hitherto been free from this failing in its extreme form. This last performance, however, equals the best feats of silliness on record."

Another, larger defacement occurred after Harvard won a cricket match against Yale and claimed the Mott Haven cup. Red paint, in what' was termed "deplorable vandalism," was daubed all over monuments in the Yard.

The Crimson stated, "that outrages such as these could have been committed by any responsible Harvard man we think extremely unlikely...." and an editorial called for, "first of all, the culprits should be hunted up and be made to leave college. Harvard has no place for such vandals as they."

More recently, the 1960s featured decoration with protest banners, with paint becoming a leading instrument of destruction. A recent observer reported decoration with banana peels.

"Some years ago some students painted it red and our cops caught them red-handed," said Deputy Chief of Police Jack W. Morse. "I've been waiting a long time to use that," he added.

Physically, the statue has seen some hard times. It has been painted blue by Yalies, green by Dartmouth students and has been through a hundred chilling frosts and searing summers.

Acid Rain

To protect the bronze from the dissolving effects of acid rain and to make cleaning easy, the statue receives regular coats of brown beeswax, according to Facilities Maintenance supervisor James F. Caruso.

The granite base is also coated with wax and needs little maintenance, according to Arthur Beale, Fogg Museum director of conservation Beale says that unlike marble, granite is resistant to acid rain and the elements.

Beale says that the statue is in unusually good condition for a 100-year-old sculpture, a "happy byproduct" of the attempts to keep a step ahead of vandals.

"Acid rain is terribly destructive to bronze sculpture. It reduces metallic bronze to blue green copper sulfate and black copper sulfite," explains Marjorie B. Cohn, a Fogg conservator.

"Without the wax coating, the Harvard statue would look like a piece of soap." Beale adds.

Beale says that he considers the Harvard statue a "National icon."

"I see it all the time. It's got to rank up there with the Mona Lisa, the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln statue in Washington which, by the way, is also by French," he adds.

Admirers have composed poetry about the statue David McCord '21 wrote.

"Is that you, John Harvard"

I said to his statue

Aye that's me, said John

And after you're gone"

The Lampoon, a social club which occasionally publishes parodies, also printed "The Lament of John H in 1924 a verse of which reads.

Great men arise

Before my eyes

From yonder pile I founded

While I must sit

Quite out of it

My jealousy unbounded

While the statue was cheered with a torchlight parade for the 250th anniversary of the College, and the College's Memorial Society used to place a wreath at its base every November '26 the occasion of its 100th birthday may pass with little notice.

The Lampoon may take note of the anniversary however.

"We don't plan to throw a birthday party, said President Conan C. O'Brien '85, "but we'll probably stuff it with cottage cheese, maybe also with some chives Or else we may just spray it with some obscenity. It would be a good prank.

The Lampoon reportedly once also covered the statue with tar.

John Harvard himself attended Emmanuel College at Cambridge University before emigrating to America in 1637. He inherited wealth from relatives, and died of tuberculosis at age 30 about a year after arriving.

A granite monument was later erected to his memory in the Phipps cemetery in Charlestown, which is not, however, his burial place, but the bronze plaque on it has been stolen and missing since 1979, according to Mary O Shannon of the Boston environment department.

Ironically, the monument does not stand at the site of his burial (which was somewhere on "Burial Hill"), the site of his house is uncertain, since it was burned during the Battle of Bunker Hill, and only two copies of his signature exist. No portrait of him has ever come to light, and it is unlikely his father being an illiterate butcher, that a family portrait was ever done.

Yet while the details of Harvard's life are not completely known, the institution he donated to (in a verbal will to his wife) lives on.

As graduating seniors walk by the statue in the traditional "tipping of the hat" this June, they should think of President Eliot's words at the 1884 unveiling of the statue. "He will teach that one disinterested deed of hope and faith may crown a brief and broken life with deathless fame. He will teach that the good which men do lives after them, fruitful and multiplied beyond all power of measurement or computation."

Excerpts from French's correspondence used with permission of Michael Richman, a researcher at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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