Building on a Feeling

Renovations aim to preserve elements of antiquity while updating architecture to meet the needs of modernity

The “old Harvard feel” is difficult to define. Perhaps it’s the unmistakable wrought-iron gate at the entrance of Adams House or the majestic bell towers portrayed in films as the quintessential Harvard architectural feature. Maybe it’s the distinct brick archways or the dorm rooms characterized by window seats, brick walls, and now-defunct fireplaces. Perhaps it is not conceptualized in the architecture and physical campus atmosphere at all, but often these aspects are the only tangibility that can be given to such an abstract phrase.

Harvard’s architectural tradition dates back as far as 1718, when Massachusetts Hall, now a freshman dorm, was constructed. However, the oldest upperclassman House dates back a mere century, with current Adams House student residences opening as dormitories in 1902. As Houses undergo or prepare to undergo renewal and renovation, a dilemma emerges: How much of the traditional history and architecture should be preserved at the expense of making room for new and necessary modifications to improve House life?


Quincy House Co-Master Deborah J. Gehrke has been saving extra keys to students’ rooms ever since she became a House master years ago. When Quincy’s Stone Hall was undergoing renovations in 2013, the architects mentioned the idea of instituting something architecturally unique to Quincy House and Gehrke decided the keys would come in handy. Today, keys from each former room are built into the designs above relic mantelpieces that are now located in the hallways of Stone Hall. For Gehrke and Stone Hall residents, the keys are a way of building alumni tradition. “These are the alumni fingerprints here,” Gehrke says. “You can come back if you lived in Stone Hall and say, ‘That was my key.’”


As Houses undergo renewal—first Stone Hall in Quincy, then McKinlock in Leverett, and most recently the entirety of Dunster House—maintaining tradition while enhancing and modernizing living spaces has been integral to the House renovation process. In anticipation of her House’s renewal, Winthrop Co-Master Stephanie Robinson has expressed a desire for new students to be able to experience the same Harvard feel that residents enjoyed years before. “There is something unmistakable about Harvard,” Robinson says. “When you talk to an alum of the College, you can see them going back in their mind's eye as they recall how they experienced Harvard.” Robinson recognizes the important connection of what Harvard Houses means to alumni, and how critical it is to keep that feeling in years to come. She hopes, for example, that residents will be able to walk into the Winthrop Junior Common Room or the Winthrop Library and sense they are at Harvard.

This is not a small concern shared by Robinson alone. Other House masters have been cognizant of the ramifications of the renewal process as feedback from the Quincy, Leverett, and Dunster projects has been collected. “We are all very sensitive and very mindful of updating it and making sure that we are keeping what was done—that we are looking to make sure that we are tech savvy and that we create spaces that generations to come sit and talk and connect, doing all that in the spirit of what Harvard is,” Gehrke says.

In the case of Adams House, which is expected to undergo renewal sometime in the next several years, House Master John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 expresses a mix of concern and optimism about maintaining the architectural values of Adams. “I think that there really is a true architectural and social distinction of Adams House, more than any other House, because of its woodwork, its Gold Room, the FDR Suite, the Coolidge Room, the Pool Theater,” Palfrey says. “These are important things to the history and tradition and archaeological and architectural spirit and interest of Harvard and Adams.” But while Palfrey plans to maintain the spirit of Adams House with renovations, he also has a few new ideas up his sleeve: For example, he wants to create a second floor to the dining hall in order to eliminate interhouse dining restrictions at Adams, as well as a tunnel system to connect Adams’s buildings.

Even with all of these potential additions, stakeholders believe that renewals will strike a delicate balance between preservation and innovation. “I think they’re really going to try to keep that rich Harvard feel,” Winthrop House committee co-chair Marlee A. Ehrlich ’16 says. “They’re really going to try to keep that traditional Georgian architecture.” Winthrop East, for example, will be built with more modern limestone. While it may appear contemporary, the material will connect nicely with the limestone façade on Winthrop’s Gore Hall, according to Ehrlich, in order to balance the traditional Harvard feel with an up-to-date physical appearance.

“The approach to renewal of the River Houses is based first and foremost on the goal of preserving and renewing these historic structures for future generations,” Stephen Kieran of KieranTimberlake, the architectural firm that renovated Quincy’s Stone Hall, writes in an email. “In addition to Harvard’s own standards for its historic structures, the Cambridge Historical Society has review authority as the River Houses are in a historic district,” emphasizing that in general the highest priorities go to exterior architectural elements and major interior rooms—such as the dining hall and library.

Pieces of the past do still remain, even when major modifications have been made. In Quincy, according to Gehrke, granite on the walls were cut and modernized from the building’s old showers, while 75 percent of the hardwood floors in Stone Hall are taken from the original building’s wood. “Bricks and mortar and physicalities don’t encompass 100 percent of the experience, but it’s a huge part of the experience of people who came before and will continue to be a part of the incredible legacy of Harvard,” Robinson says. “There is an importance in having that grand tradition.”


With three Houses already renovated, future Houses that will undergo renovations in the future can benefit from the past and build off potential challenges and successes. “Students here at Winthrop know how students in Leverett and Dunster are reacting to their new spaces, and the message is overall pretty positive,” says Kip C. Richardson, a Winthrop tutor. “It’s different, and yet everybody sort of knows there is something nicer about the renewed spaces, and I anticipate that will be the same here.”

Richardson himself was able to realize that there was in fact something nicer about the renovated spaces. Over the summer, one of the windows in his tutor suite was updated and replaced as the building was prepared for renovation. He noticed that the new window looked exactly the same as the old window, except it sealed better, opened and closed more smoothly, and kept out temperatures better than the old one did.

Enhanced social spaces were a success in Quincy, according to Gehrke, and are thus an important aspect of renovation that residents of Winthrop are considering and looking forward to, according to Ehrlich. The basements in Stone Hall previously housed student summer storage, but the renovation transformed them into common spaces. (This change made Quincy the first House not to offer free, on-campus storage to students, a decision that was met with concern over the financial burdens of seeking third-party storage). According to Ehrlich, Winthrop’s administration is contemplating the addition of a grille and has discussed how to create inclusive social spaces that also offer maximum functionality.


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