Exploring House Disunity

The widespread belief is that the Houses should stand for more than just the bricks and mortar that they are made from.

The hollow tunnels beneath Adams House are weary with disrepair—pipes are exposed and the paint chipped—and are surprisingly unbecoming of the Harvard pictured in brochures and admissions pamphlets. Recently, talks of House renewal have stirred in University Hall, that well-kept marble building in the center of the Yard. But in the Houses, leaky pipes, cockroaches, issues with temperature control, and outdated rooming floor plans are some of the physical realities that make the Houses’ ages apparent.

But when the haphazard paintings and sketches lining the walls of the Adams tunnels come into focus, the work of graduating classes long gone, a different kind of impression emerges—there’s a heritage here. Less apparent than the uncomfortable walk-throughs is the endangered social function of the Houses. From their conception in the late 1920s, the Houses were intended to be central aspects of students’ social lives. In 2008, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds wrote that this vision of the Houses “still resonates with students.”

The House formals, tutors, faculty advisors, and nightly brain breaks, as well as the House Masters, are all presented as metonymies of this mission. We are told that Adam’s Winter Dinner is House spirit. That Lowell’s weekly House Master Teas are House spirit. And we are reminded to attend Leverett’s winter formal year after year, in the name of House spirit.

But it is unclear whether the original vision in fact still resonates with students, or whether the Houses are actually failing to cultivate social organization within their physical dorms.

The widespread belief is that the Houses should stand for more than just the bricks and mortar that they are made from. The history of Harvard’s houses tells the history of the College’s changing landscape, both physical and social. But the question emerges: how has the function of the Houses changed, and do students still feel as connected to their House as they used to?

It seems, in actuality, that while the Houses do serve certain functional capacities (as dining hubs, as open study spaces, as living spaces), the social aspects of the Houses may be lacking.

Rounding off their first year in Cabot House, a group of sophomore blockmates sits casually, sweatshirt-clad, at their own table in the dining hall. They say they are happy in their House, making jokes about Quad solidarity. The girls laugh when asked if they socialize much within the House outside of their blocking group. “We’re a very close blocking group,” says Andrea A. Henricks ’13, suggesting that the answer is no.

But, “I would kinda like to see more happening in the House,” admits Lillian C. Alexander ’13.

“But I mean, we love Cabot,” adds Kathleen E. Goodwin ’13.


Returning to Cambridge for a Winthrop House Class of ’78 reunion, Robert S. Rubin ’78-’79 reminisces about his days at Harvard. “My friends and I had a really great time,” he says, looking around the empty Winthrop Junior Common Room (JCR) with a hardy smile, remembering the happy hours that he and his friends used to host in the room some 30 years ago. “Every Friday night, this room would fill up. A great deal of people from across campus would come,” he explains.

“Winthrop in my day had a lot more cohesiveness than it seems today,” says Rob. “It’s my impression that the spontaneity has been removed.”

One thing that stands out to visiting alums is this lack of social cohesion. “The alums don’t believe it when I tell them,” says Rob. “The rooming experience was a very strong social activity. It seems people used to spend a lot of time in rooms and in the House.”

He adds, “When you consider that dorm life at Harvard was founded in that concept [the House system], I think the quality of House life is not near what it could be today and certainly not close to what it was when we were here.”

His son, Ari L. Rubin ’13, also a Winthrop resident, can’t help but compare his own experience in the House to what he’s heard about his father’s. “I grew up hearing stories not about Harvard, but about Winthrop House. I heard stories about moving the tables in the dining hall and throwing dance parties in there, and throwing keggers in the courtyard. And I got here and that doesn’t happen anymore,” he says.

A possible instigator of the shift in House tone is the drinking age, now set at 21, instead of 18 when Rob was here. “I am sympathetic and empathetic to the administration’s position with the drinking age, but many other schools deal with it differently,” Rob says.

And being able to throw parties in the House, whether with alcohol or without, seems to be one of the largest complaints about House life by students. Ari says, “We have ‘Stein Club,’ but it’s just not the same. It seems that House life used to be a dominant social structure and that’s just not the case anymore.”

This is not to say that socializing necessitates alcohol. Jonathan H. Alter ’79, (who is a former Crimson editor, and whose daughter currently lives in Winthrop), shares the sentiment regarding lack of social space, explaining that he feels access to social space has decreased since his days at the College. Alter says, “We used to have a lot more theatrical productions in the common rooms. Just spontaneously, unplanned.” He laments, “You just get the feeling now that there’s less of this. For whatever reason the common rooms are not used as much. They’re empty a lot of the time. They were used more [before] for concerts, plays and other kinds of things.”

But with regard to throwing social events in the dorms, to Ari, “It’s as simple as the fact that we need a party form. And even then parties get shut down all the time.”

Indeed, in the absence of access to alcohol in the Houses, students are increasingly looking outside of the Houses for social outlets: final clubs, off-campus housing, and other spaces open to students where parties can be thrown. Complaints about this transition has already been lodged by organizations across campus, including the Anti-Final Club Campaign and the Undergraduate Council.

“Well, I don’t want to generalize,” begins Rob, “but final clubs weren’t that big [when I was here]—many of my friends were in final clubs but it wasn’t huge. Final clubs were a primary social outlet for a very small group of people.”

Rob adds amid laughter, “When my friends from then hear how big final clubs are now from things like ‘The Social Network,’ they just say ‘What planet is this?’”

For this reason, Rob was surprised when Ari expressed interest in joining one of the clubs.  “When I told my dad I was joining he was like ‘Why would you want to do that? Why don’t you just throw a party in Winthrop?’” Ari laughs, “I was just like, ‘You can’t do that anymore, dad!’”

Alter has made similar observations. “The final clubs weren’t nearly as big a thing as they are today. But that’s because the 70s were still operating in the spirit of the 60s. The final clubs were mostly dominated by prep-school students.”

But he adds, “I’m not suggesting it was a kumbaya social environment, but there was more a sense that it should be connected to merit, not social capital. The final clubs were just an aspect of campus life, not a dominant aspect.”

Likewise, Alter adds, “It wasn’t like everyone’s social life involved around the Houses—people’s social lives evolved around other activities and sports as well. But yes, sometimes Houses.”


Context is key.

A hundred years ago, undergraduates lived in dorms only loosely affiliated with the College, largely partitioned among socio-economic lines distinguishing the rich from the richer. A House system like the one in existence today would not be created for another 30 years. Then, Harvard students (that is, Harvard men) were still required to wear a jacket and tie to dinner, dining together in the still-new House system consisting of the neo-Georgian river Houses.

But the distinctions between that Harvard and this Harvard are easy enough to see. What is surprising is that just 20 or 30 years ago the intra-House cohesion in fact resulted in divisions across the College between the different Houses. Many of the Houses, originally intended to be microcosms of the College, in fact developed very strong identities independently of each other. Today, memories of these “House characters” persist in the student body, but mostly in the form of myths and fictions.

The real story, Alter says, is that “The Houses had a certain character to them. It didn’t mean everyone in the House was representative of the stereotype of the House, but there definitely were such stereotypes.”

Back in the day, Adams House was notorious for its sizable queer and arts community; Kirkland House was home to a large contingent of athletes. And for the politically active—and extremely liberal—Dunster was known as home.

In this way, the Houses formed a sort of harmonized community of like-minded students that many are lacking today. But sometimes this manifested negatively. One controversial survey of the College’s demographics in 1982 found that many minority students gravitated to the same few Houses and remained largely separated from the rest of the College. In 1982, if you were a black student at Harvard you were probably living in either Currier or Mather House.

“I think there was a sense in which African-Americans often gravitated toward Mather House [while I was there],” Alter says, though he also notes that, “It wasn’t like everyone in there fell into these categories, but these were their reputations.”

These divisions existed along socio-economic lines as well, with Eliot and Lowell Houses acting as homes to some of Harvard’s wealthiest students. Often exhibiting the snobbery of “Old Harvard,” these Houses tended to have a stuffier, more judgmental character.

“What would happen is that the character would sort of pass down, sometimes generationally,” says Alter.

The selection process used by the College to organize the House system before the current randomized model had a large hand in creating these communal disparities, and in fact the selection process itself says something about Harvard’s values and mission at the time.

Indeed, students in the 1970s had to apply for a spot in the House of their choosing, schmoozing with House Masters and throwing legacy weight around to obtain their top pick. This of course has all changed now under the new sorting system for housing, where students pick a blocking group and together submit their names into the lottery.

Alter notes the differences, and thinks the current process is fairer to students: “I think it’s better—one of the realities of life at Harvard is you compete a lot to get in and you get there and then you have to compete all over again. To eliminate the Houses as something you have to compete for is a good thing.”


As a byproduct of the randomization system, students have to be sold on their new House, whether they are unexpectedly thrown to the Quad, or “win the lottery” by being placed in one of the River Houses. No longer do students show up at Quincy House knowing that many of their friends already reside there. Increasingly, it seems like Houses are becoming less and less the social institutions they used to be.

In 2008, the College commissioned a survey to gauge student satisfaction with House facilities as a part of the larger Report on Harvard House Renewal. The survey found that 83 percent of students study in their bedrooms, 59 percent study in campus libraries, and 55 percent in House dining halls.

These findings are hard to disentangle from the fact, however, that the Houses with the most active response rate were Currier, Quincy, and Leverett—all Houses typically associated with high levels of House spirit and all with typically good housing available for upperclassmen, defined by space distribution and privacy (that is, availability of singles or spacious doubles). These Houses also have modern construction, and thereby more available social space than their neo-Georgian counterparts.

Interim Currier House Master James L. Cavallaro ’84 believes that the physical layout of a House can have an important effect on social life. “Currier House, which is the house I know best, has a lot of community spaces which is great for the development of a community in a house. I’ve only been here for this year [as interim House Master], but it is a House that I think has significant community,” he says. He continues, “It’s certainly a House whose physical layout facilitates community.”

Indeed, it does appear that there is a certain amount of “Quad spirit” that manifests itself in residents of Cabot, Currier, and Pforzheimer. “One thing I do have to say,” shares Alexander, who lives in Cabot, “I don’t really have Cabot spirit, but I have Quad spirit. The Quad itself is something of a unified social institution. I don’t know that that’s true for some of the River Houses.”

“There is a tight-knit community—in part because the Quad is one center with three Houses,” says Cavallaro. “There’s a greater sense of community, and that gets passed on [to future classes].”


Sitting in the Winthrop Junior Common Room, it’s impossible to disregard how spacious and regal the interior looks, equipped with lush rugs, couches, and a TV. But such ornate decorations only emphasize how lonely the space is. Looking around the empty room, Ari notes, “It’s so frustrating. I look around and this room is a really cool room, and a room that I know has so much legacy and importance. Not just for speakers—Mass. Representative Barney Frank ’62 spoke here yesterday—but also for the social aspect of it.” He continues, “And it’s frustrating that most people have zero appreciation for that because it’s just not the case anymore.”

Reconciling the emptiness and disuse of the JCRs with the student outcry for more social space is difficult. But it’s important to consider that students feel disconnected with their respective Houses. This is especially true when compared to past generations of Harvard undergrads. “From what I can tell,” Rob says, “the atmosphere on campus overall seems very different compared to when we were here. I’m not completely happy at the vibe I get compared to how it was.”

These days more students watch movies on their laptops than in TV rooms. Indeed, when it comes down to it, many spend their time away from the Houses, crowding around tables at Lamont during the week and rushing to the Spee or the Advocate on weekends.

While this may not be the case for all undergraduates, past and present, complaints about House life are hardly contained to a quiet minority. The crucial lack of cohesion that has come to define the Houses is most notable in the empty JCRs and the under-attended Stein Clubs.

While the 2008 survey in the Report on House Renewal found that the Houses meet students’ expectations, the survey does not define what those expectations should be. The survey results state that “Overall, on a scale of 1-5, students found the House to meet their expectations ‘well/very well’ for most functions.” But the question is not whether the dorms function as living spaces—with beds and dining halls, they do. The real question is whether they function as social spaces.


It is clear that the practice of House life has fundamentally shifted from the guiding vision of House life. But even without the active JCRs on Friday nights, the traditions and heritage of the College and of the Houses remain intact and provide something tangible for students to rally around. The House Masters are often responsible for this institutional memory.

“I don’t think that any of the Houses have House character in the way that they used to, by definition, because they were defined by the students that were admitted to the House, who wanted to come, combined with what the Master wanted to do,” says Adams House Master John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67. But this self-selecting aspect “was a problem,” he adds.

The House Masters’ task of maintaining House traditions and fostering student unity, however, can be difficult when students are randomly sorted into a House in which they have no personal stake.

“I think that creating a House spirit has to be a partnership between the House committee, the students, and the administration. I think it can be done, but I also know it’s harder than it would have been in 1975. The challenge is that you have to put out there what is great and unique about the house that you’re in,” Lowell House Administrator Elizabeth G. Terry says.

Communicating a House’s unique and special traditions is a difficult task, however, especially because students in the Yard are so separated from the House system as it is. Terry thinks the best way to accomplish this is to be fully invested in the House you’re in. “It sounds cheesy, but one has to believe. I think the Masters have to really believe in what they’re doing and in the tradition,” she says. “I love Lowell House, I really do,” she adds warmly.

“Probably part of the reason that we were asked [to be the Adams House Masters], or chosen to be here, was that we treasured the history of Adams House and also treasured the diversity,” adds Palfrey.

While House character might be somewhat sacrificed, House spirit does not have to be.  Despite the shifting social role of Houses, students can still learn to rally around  their House and buy into their House traditions.

“When I saw ‘Housing Day’ in 2008, when my daughter was applying to Harvard, I told a couple of my classmates about it—it would have been unheard of in our day,” Alter says of the new excitement surrounding Housing Day. “There just wasn’t that kind of school or House spirit [when I was here]. There just wasn’t.”

Palfrey agrees on this point, stressing the importance of House identity at Harvard. “You will forever identify with your house. People come back and one of the first questions is, “Oh yeah we graduated in 1973.  What House were you in?’ That is an important part of this. And we want to maintain that.”