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Pass The Shears, Please

Does Harvard need more pansies?

By Sahil K. Mahtani

Now that we have a female president, must we also have flowers in Harvard Yard? The association between gender and botany isn’t so eccentric as it first appears—Radcliffe has always had a greener thumb. Visitors from Oxford and Cambridge have often noted the lack of flower-beds in the yard, and so have those from Princeton and Yale. But why the austerity? Like any lusty mistress of knowledge, I consult the oracular geniuses. In this case, Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, who after a learned cadenza through Harvard History said unto me, “Let’s put it this way: It’s a seventeenth-century guy thing.”

Large vases of white chrysanthemums once adorned the porch of Tercentenary Theater sometime in the late 1960s. There was a line of them on each corner. “I don’t think anybody liked them,” Gomes said. “It seemed unnatural.” There were also some flowery shrubs—rhododendrons—the bulbs of which were placed in a bed outside Massachusetts Hall at some point. “We waited, they grew, and still most people didn’t like it.”

The connection between flowers and the feminine is not unusual. What may be unusual is the extent to which Harvard’s founders labored so carefully to distance the university from it.

“It’s a guy thing period,” said Michael van Valkenburgh, the distinguished American landscape architect, when I told him over the telephone what Gomes had said. “Even if it’s a guy thing, I hope you don’t think it’s a bad thing.” I said I didn’t mind them.

Van Valkenburgh is the man who saved Harvard Yard. In the early 90s, when the Yard’s canopy was slowly thinning due to Dutch elm disease, the task for replanting had become urgent. The University then convened a replanting committee, which van Valkenburgh led, one that is largely responsible for the way Harvard Yard looks today. 

He showed me some before-after pictures of the Yard. (These had just been presented to Drew Faust some weeks back.) The most striking transformation is of Tercentenary theatre, in particular the courtyard of Sever Hall. The earlier pictures are barren and ghostly, and emphasize Sever’s gothicisms. It is the Caspar Friedrich David the Fogg never had. A decade later, there is a transformation. The honey locusts are robust, dappled light all streaming to the ground, ready for a cluster of students for an admissions catalogue.

The Yard, he said, was landscaped “based on an extension of what we were able to see in historic photographs….My sense is that there have never been flowers in the Yard historically.” Since van Valkenburgh had done a lot of work in Princeton and some in Yale, I asked him about the other Ivies. “There are of course other schools in the Ivies that have a tradition of more flowers…. I’m not a campus historian, but there seems to be a very different idea of a campus at Princeton than at Harvard…Harvard has a more interior orientation, a monastic quality, whereas there seems to be an interlocking fluidity about Princeton.”

This, of course, is in keeping with the original 17th century idea of the “wall and the garden,” the philosophy the yard was built on, one which maintained an enclosed community within and kept the wilderness out.

But more than any of this, what struck me was van Valkenburgh’s explanation of architecture’s effect on the soul, which he later wrote me in an email.

“If one looks at Wellesley College, one sees great intentionality to lay out a campus with a form and spatial structure that is distinct from the austerity of the Yard.” Harvard’s mission, he noted, was not just about educating men. It was a mission to transform the individual into the image of the collective, to make everyone who went there a Harvard Man.

“For me, there is certainly an element of Harvard being about men and Wellesley being about women, but it is even more about a landscape of conformity at Harvard versus a landscape of individuality at Wellesley.”

It is an interesting thought, and one that the Class of 1967 may seize upon. In an open letter last week to Faust, 13 members of that class expressed their disappointment at “the apparently docile political behavior of the undergraduate student body.”

If flowers be the fruit of independence, then down with the Harvard Man, I say.

President Faust, please pass the shears.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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