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Over the years, the Freshman Union has been the scene of goldfish swallowings, food fights and ghosts. But, the Union's original benefactor, Major Henry Lee Higginson (class of 1855), never intended it to host any of these somewhat lowly activities. Nor, as a matter of fact, did he intend the Union to be a dining area or for it to be exclusively for freshmen.
Instead, he hoped his $150,000 donation in 1899 would provide a place where "all Harvard men will stand equal." In a speech that year, Higginson chastised the final clubs, saying "Through the old clubs, with their small membership and high expenses, have crept in habits of exclusiveness and luxury which hurt our democratic university." Higginson's Union was to be a social center for all Harvard students, as opposed to the elitism which pervaded the social clubs.
Always a thrifty man, Higginson was determined to get the most for his money. The Union was to serve the dual purpose of a social center for students and a war memorial to the seven Harvard men who died in the Spanish Civil War of 1898. All seven are listed above the entrance to the main dining area, and seventh man on the list, Sherman Hoar (class of 1887), is thought to be the model for the bust of John Harvard that adorns the Union's mantlepiece.
Over the years, the dark and foreboding building has assumed various other uses, but Higginson's social center has rarely been one of them. Perhaps this is what the old Major had in mind when he exhorted Harvard students to "change it, develop it, do with it what you will, just so as you keep its character."
In order to establish some of the character that Higginson wanted preserved, he wrote to Teddy Roosevelt (class of 1880) asking for a contribution. Roosevelt responded with two elk antler chandeliers, that still hang today, and more than 30 animal heads. Roosevelt wrote, "I hope that this small token will inspire the lads to the life of adventure to which I have become so attached."
Higginson's student center lasted just over a year. The Harvard Union was dedicated on October 15, 1901, and by September of 1902 dining facilities were added to the living room. By 1910, dining had taken over the living room completely, transforming it into today's dining hall.
With the introduction of the housing system in 1930, the Harvard Union became the Freshmen Union--a haunt for still wet-behind-the-ears Yardlings. The Union was to be for the freshmen what each of the houses are for the Upperclassmen--a place to eat, socialize, and kick back.
Over the years, freshmen were not content to use the union simply for its culinary offerings. Several of the outrageous antics that Harvard became known for started in the union.
Legend has it that the famous "live goldfish swallowing," so popular among college students of the late '40s, began at the Freshman Union. Reportedly, two Harvard freshmen swallowed two live goldfish in full view of the class of '47, and from there, the fad swept the nation.
In 1961, the gun from the Spanish Civil War battleship "Harvard" that currently sits next to the phone booths downstairs fell prey to a prank. Black Professor of Economics C. Peter Timmer '63, then a sophomore, and several friends decided to give the gun a new home in the main dining hall, Timmer said. "We were quite proud of ourselves," Timmer said. "The thing must have weighed over half a ton." Timmer discourages other freshmen from attempting the same stunt, suggesting that, "there must be better pranks."
H. William Gannon, who has been head porter at the union since 1949, remembers the incident well. "I locked up the building at 10:30 p.m. that night, and figured everything was secure," he said, "but the next morning I came in to find the barrel staring me in the face. I made a few discrete inquiries and found out who did it, but when Harvard Police questioned me, I refused to divulge the name."
The pats of butter lining the 50-foot ceiling are another example of freshmen antics. But only a few freshmen today claim to know how the unused condiments got up there. Theories range from snapping serviettes to simply flinging the card-board squares skyward. Rob D. Smith '90 even suggests artificial levitants. "My guess is that helium balloons were used. You balance a pat of butter on the top of a balloon, and let it go. I don't think there's any other way," he said.
Katie Reify '90 adds that the butter adds "a summer camp atmosphere" to the Union. "[It's] so ridiculous and immature," she said.
The Spirit of Freshmen Past
Gannon also reports that the Union is home to a ghost. "He's a very benign apparition, and decidedly nocturnal. It's my guess that it's a wayward freshman from long ago," he said.
Although he's never seen the ghost, Gannon said that he has "felt his presence." and claims that the spectre first made himself known in the late 1950s.
"It was late one night after a Jubilee Ball [a freshman fete]. By the time all the furniture was put back, it was 3 a.m. and since I had to be back into work by 6 a.m., there was little point in going home, so I stayed the night on the second floor. About 4 a.m. I heard the piano making a peculiar noise--the strings were twanging without reason. I thought at first it might be due to a changing of temperature, but that just doesn't pass muster," Gannon said.
The Union's poltergeist hardly merits calling in the Ghostbusters, though. Gannon said the innocuous phantom makes himself known about a dozen times a year in harmless ways. "There are a few unexplainable noises, and doors opening and closing for no apparent reason, but other than that, he's harmless."
From Riches to Rags
During the 38 years that Gannon has worked in the Union, he has also seen it deteriorate. In the middle fifties, Gannon reports, the slide really began. It was then that the animal heads that Roosevelt had donated had to be taken down.
"Freshmen would be eating their cream of broccoli soup, and a wildebeast's ear would drop in. It was an unpleasant situation," Gannon said.
"In the old days, the Union was the epitome of opulence. Today it is drab and dreary....She is a once proud lady that has definitely lost her lustre."
Gannon says that the Union is overextended. "Freshmen have no place to enjoy what limited free time they have. The solution is either to cut down on class size or to expand the facilities. But we are low man on the totem pole, so it's hard to get things done. The Union is definitely not what it used to be, nor what it should be," he said.
The class of '90 seems to concur. Few freshmen see the Union as more than a place to eat. And, there is little to entice freshmen to the Union, save the food--which by all accounts isn't that enticing.
The dining area, where students spend an average of two and a half hours a day, receives mixed reveiws. Mark W. Frattarola '90 describes the hall as "dreary and brown." Rophie concurred with Frattarola, but added, "Of course the Union's not nice--that's the whole point. You escape Harvard pretention."
In line with Higginson's original intentions, the Union is more than Broccoli & Cheese Pasta and Tuna Noodle casserole. The basement game room, operated by Harvard Student Agencies (HSA), has three pool tables and a dozen video games, and is frequented by a core of addicts. But even they are not keen on the place.
"I'd describe the games room as an unfinished basement," says Charles A. Colligan '90. C. Blake Williams '90 says he doesn't find the area too pleasant either. "It's not aesthically charming--in fact, it's ugly," he says.
There is no doubt that the Union is no longer the student's center Higginson intended. Many students want to see either a return to those days, or something completely new.
Jon D. Kastin '90 argues that there is definitely a need for a student center, "and the Union isn't it. The University should provide facilities for forms of entertainment other than video games and ping-pong. We pale by comparison with other schools. Surely Harvard can do better than this," he said.
Frattarola also says he sees the need for a social gathering place for freshmen. "We have nowhere to go with friends during the day. We need a student center for the same reasons the upperclassmen need JCR's. We're so disjointed, there's no unity among the class," he says.
Liz A. Koreman '90 also criticizes the lack of freshman unity. "We need more of a student's center. Every other school has a place where students can meet and pass the time; there's no place like that here. I don't know people who are three entries over. That's really bad." The one change Korman said she would like to see would be the addition of a late-night grill.
In Need of a Facelift
However much freshmen may criticize the Union, Burriss Young, associate dean of freshmen, says that it is a lot better now than it used to be. In the late 1970s the vestibule was completely redone, and some "really raunchy linoleum was taken up, and the nice stone floor uncovered." Young says that he would like to do more. "The Union is all the freshmen have for formal social space and we'd always like to have more money."
Young adds that he would like to make the Union a lot bigger and add more sound-proof practice rooms, more free space to accommodate the changing interests of freshmen, more quiet space and more eating space. But, lacking a magic wand and the necessary funds, Young does not see a way to accomplish these changes.
Responding to many calls for a grill, Young suggests that a Union snack bar would be fraught with difficulties. The Union would have to stay open later, and major renovation to the Union's plumbing would be necessary.
Robert W. Lyng, manager of Facilities Maintenance, says he thinks the Union deserves more money. "The operating budget last year was $225,000. This covered basic maintenance, utilities and cleaning. That's not a lot of money for a building that size, and is not nearly the kind of money that probably ought to be spent on it," he says.
According to Lyng, the Union is the second most heavily used building the University owns, the Science Center being first. With more that 6000 people a day passing through its doors, more money could easily be justified, he says.
The Union's game room and candy store are run by students through the Harvard Union Services Agency (HUSA), a division of HSA. According to HUSA manager Kathy E. Miller '89, neither of the ventures are particularly profitable. Miller says that any money HSA makes on the Union enterprises is re-invested in the Union.
"We recently re-covered the pool tables, and bought a new T.V. for downstairs," she says, referring to the T.V. room where HSA shows movies for free each Saturday night.
"But we're not happy with the Union the way it is," she continues. "We want to change it, make it a place that people will go out of their way to go to. HSA just doesn't have the money to do what is necessary."
Miller says she intends to make concrete proposals to the Freshman Dean's Office (FDO) in April, but realizes she will have to be conservative. "The FDO is constrained by the University's budgetary priorities, and the Houses are the University's priority [over the Union]," she said.
"Our plans will probably include air conditioners, carpets and new furniture for the T.V. room," Miller adds. "Our proposals might add up to two or three thousand dollars at best. We're not after the three million the University is using to clean the windows in Memorial Hall."
From Rags...to Rags?
The Union has had a colorful past, but its future does not look bright. Students are generally dissatisfied with it, and neither the FDO nor HSA seems capable of doing anything about it.
"What's needed is a more responsive administration," argues Kastin. Others see less hope for improvement because most benefactors prefer to donate to the house system than to the freshmen class. Additionally, there has been little response to various groups' calls for a student center so far.
But, regardless of its past or present, most campus observers seem to agree that the Union's main mission of feeding endless hordes of freshmen will stay with it far into the future.
Andrew R. Jassy '90 seems content with viewing the Union in these terms. "I go to the Union when I'm hungry," he says.
From Magnificence to Mediocrity
Sept. 1899 Higginson announces donation of $150,000
Sept. 1901 Construction of Union Complete
Oct. 15, 1901 Higginson dedicates Union; slams finals clubs "Let this house stand consecrated to the spirit of true patriotism, democracy and friendship."
1910 Dining takes over Union living room
1930 Harvard Union becomes Freshman Union
1930 Waitresses no longer serve meals
1943 Goldfish swallowing inaugerated
1950-55 Roosevelt's animal heads phased out as they begin to fall onto unsuspecting freshman's plates
1961 Battleship's gun victim of 'shmen prank
1969 Jacket and ties no longer required for dinner
1979 Third floor renovations for Expos office complete
1979 HSA Candy Store and Games Room opens
1984-85 Renovations to From Vestibule
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