History Fills Harvard Stadium

Arena Has Seen Concerts, Festivals and Football Games

With renovation, replacement, and the passage of time, fewer Harvard buildings than ever are still graced with the ivy that evokes such powerful associations.

It is entirely appropriate that Harvard Stadium, the first permanent college sports arena, is one of them.

The Ivy League itself takes its name from the sports league that was formed by its eight members. Harvard Stadium has played a major part in the university's history, sports-related and otherwise.

Before the stadium was built, spectators had to sit on old wooden bleachers where there was a constant danger of fire and collapse. Firefighters were present during all events.

Harvard Stadium was the gift of the Class of 1879, which raised $100,000 for its 25th reunion gift. The gift, combined with the $75,000 from the College's athletic receipts, was enough to begin construction on a new arena.


Ira Nelson Hollis, professor of mechanical engineering and chairman of the university athletic committee, lobbied for the stadium, convincing President Eliot that interest in football would not die out.

The original design was begun by a Harvard civil engineering professor, L.J. Johnson. The stadium's horseshoe shape was adopted because track meets were to be held there, necessitating a 220-yard straightaway.

Harvard Stadium was dedicated on November 14, 1903. The first spectators were apparently dubious of the structure's integrity; the construction superintendent walked around under the stands to reassure the crowds. The inaugural football game was an 11-0 loss to Dartmouth.

During the late 1920s, steel stands were constructed at the open end of the horseshoe to accommodate increased attendance. The stands allowed a maximum capacity of 57,166.

The possibility of permanently completing the oval with concrete was discussed but eventually dropped. Current capacity is 37,000.

The construction of the stadium was the first use of reinforced concrete on a large scale, and the decision to build it symbolized the acceptance of presence of athletics in college life.

The stadium also decisively changed the history of football.

In 1905, football, only a college sport at the time, was in danger of being banned because of concerns about brutality. A college rules committee modified the rules in order to minimize injury, and also considered widening the field by 40 feet.

Harvard had just built the stadium and this change would have required substantial renovations, so the committee legalized the forward pass instead.

The stadium's historical importance has been recognized by the National Park Service, which placed it on the registry of National Historical Landmarks for its significance in the history of concrete construction as well as in football and recreation.

"You just think of all the different players that have been through there; football started there," Crimson football captain Sean Riley said. "When we come out of the tunnel, the stadium represents Harvard to me."

Harvard Stadium has served the community in numerous capacities, playing host to concerts by B.B. King, Tina Turner, and Barry Manilow.

During the 1970 season of nationwide campus riots, anti-war activists gave speeches in the stadium. In 1986, festivities for Harvard University's 350th anniversary were held there.

Aside from all of its mystique and storied past, the stadium is still true to its original purpose.

"From what I've been told, Harvard Stadium was the first stadium ever built and in the 93 years since, there's been none better," Harvard Sports Information Director John Veneziano said. "When I first watched games from the press box, I was amazed at the quality of the sight lines and the closeness of the crowd to the action. They call it an engineering marvel; well, it really is."

Recommended Articles