By Heather M. Forbes

Harvard Yard, Uncovered

Within the confines of Harvard Yard, past and present continuously interact in unexpected ways, calling into question what gets told and how it gets told, what gets lost and why it gets lost.
By C. Ramsey Fahs and Emma K. Talkoff

Former Hollis Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox invited an unconventional guest of honor to his 2009 retirement party in Harvard Yard: a large dun cow named Faith.

Curiously nosing the cameras of news office and Harvard Magazine reporters, wet black nostrils coming within inches of expensive lenses, Faith garnered attention from tourists and students alike.

In 2009, Harvey G. Cox Jr. celebrates his retirement by exercising his right as the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity to graze his cows in Harvard Yard.
In 2009, Harvey G. Cox Jr. celebrates his retirement by exercising his right as the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity to graze his cows in Harvard Yard. By Sara Joe Wolansky

Faith’s invite was a conscious and educated attempt to call attention to a previous version of the Yard whose traces, Cox believes, still run below the campus today.

“We don’t call it a campus, we call it a yard, because it had that function as a place to shelter domestic animals from wild beasts,” Cox says. “I think that’s a part of the lore which is interesting, and makes it a more enjoyable place to be.”

According to Cox, as of 2009, whomever holds the Hollis Professorship of Divinity—endowed in 1721—is still contractually allowed to graze their livestock in the grassy spaces of the Yard, a vestigial policy dating from a time when the Yard was literally that—a barnyard or grazing ground for the livestock of the Harvard community.

Cox hoped the unconventional party would inspire reflection on traditions of the University, “so that we’re constantly made aware of the history and traditions of lore surrounding Harvard Yard.”

“I wanted to keep it alive and keep it in people’s minds,” he says.

Cox’s anachronistic retirement soiree brought a long-forgotten part of the Yard’s past into close contact with its present. Tourists, undergrads, and a small army of Harvard press swarmed around Faith and Cox. Cameras and cow formed a juxtaposition that spoke as much to the modern-day Yard as it did to the Yard of old.

While in many ways the Yard today is a result of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of small decisions and alterations made over the University’s 379-year existence, in the past 20 or so years, the management of the Yard has centralized to an unprecedented extent.

At the same time, a multitude of Harvard tours (all claiming an authoritative take on the history of this venerated space), protesters crusading to reclaim and politicize the campus, and students who make the space their own simply by living in it, all have claims on the Yard.

And yet, there are also stories lost, stories of the enslaved and excluded, silenced in the space under the elms. Many of the most important stories are still underground, literally and figuratively.

Within the confines of the Yard, past and present continuously interact in unexpected ways, calling into question what gets told and how it gets told, what gets lost and why it gets lost.

Also, what’s the deal with the chairs?

Grazing Grounds to Common Spaces

“In a sense, the landscape of Harvard Yard is timeless; it ... reflects the accrual of interventions which have shared a common set of spatial and aesthetic intentions through time.”

— Master Plan for the Harvard Yard Landscape, 1993

While the modern Yard may seem like it’s been around since the College’s founding, the current layout reflects nearly four centuries of careful decision making and shifting purpose.

The first piece of land owned by Harvard in the space that now constitutes the Yard was a few acres in the northwestern corner where Harvard Hall, Stoughton, and Hollis now stand. Harvard’s first buildings stood on a few acres of land that now hold Lehman Hall, Grays, and Matthews. Harvard added land piecemeal; the University did not own the entirety of what we now consider the Yard until a land acquisition in 1835 on the far eastern side of the Yard, where Lamont, Sever, and Robinson now stand.

From its founding until around 1901, when construction began on the famous fence surrounding the Yard, there was no clear boundary between the Yard and Cambridge. The completion of the fence in the 1930s created the clearly delineated Yard we know today.

Trees and foliage, a crucial part of the Yard’s bucolic vistas, were planted in a mostly ad hoc fashion for the vast majority of Harvard’s existence, according to botanist and Graduate School of Design Professor Peter Del Tredici. The wineglass-shaped American Elm predominated, becoming a hallmark of the Yard’s aesthetic.

Today’s lush scenery, lovingly adorning Admissions brochures and postcards, is perhaps its signature. Though the trees today seem ancient and permanent, in the 1990s they were in danger of dying out.

The old and shady American elms in the Yard had been dying off since the mid-century arrival of Dutch Elm Disease, a beetle-spread fungal blight which Del Tredici went so far as to call a “crisis.”

Today, few American elms remain, and those that do are “very pampered,” according to former interim College dean and fungi enthusiast Donald H. Pfister.

When the trees are in full bloom, they serve as a canopy over the Yard. As autumn progresses, tourists enjoys the leaves changing colors.
When the trees are in full bloom, they serve as a canopy over the Yard. As autumn progresses, tourists enjoys the leaves changing colors. By Xenia O. Viragh

According to Del Tredici, the Facilities office had tentatively been addressing the problem since the ’70s and ’80s, doing some work that included stopgap replantings, but there was a vacuum in decision-making about long-term landscape planning. A clear vision seemed necessary.

Enter Michael Van Valkenburgh. A well-known landscape architect, Van Valkenburgh convinced then-University president Neil L. Rudenstine to secure funding for a committee in the early ’90s, according to Del Tredici. The committee—comprised of landscape experts and Harvard facilities maintenance staff —was tasked with developing a “Master Plan for the Harvard Yard Landscape.”

The plan—an overstuffed binder leaking architectural drawings and bulleted lists of proposed Yard-modifications—is exhaustive.

While mostly utilitarian, the plan’s language occasionally skews poetic, describing the Yard as a “majestic landscape” admirable for its “frugal elegance.” But within this beauty lie nodes of danger. “The shrubs at the base of Emerson Hall have become large and create an unsafe area due to the potential of people hiding unseen within the masses of foliage,” the plan warns. Luckily, the remedy for shrub lurkers is simple: Remove the bushes and “plant a single Silverbell (Halesia carolina) east of the Emerson Hall doorway.”

Van Valkenburg is the mastermind behind the modern Yard, a character looming larger than life in our interviews, savior and visionary of Dutch descent pitted inexorably against the spread of Dutch elm disease.

The most recent, and indeed controversial, addition to the Yard is also a Van Valkenburg design: a conspicuously colorful set of chairs spread out across the Old Yard when the weather is warm enough. One of the first acts of Drew G. Faust’s presidency, the Common Spaces Committee set out in 2008 to revitalize the campus and convert it into a more student-friendly space.

Their immediate impact idea? Chairs. In the Yard. Lots of them.

The brightly colored metal chairs, which History Professor Jill Lepore describes as “upscale Ikea items,” can now be found scattered across the Yard in warmer months, an invitation for all to sit and talk. For the first time in a long time, an intervention disrupts the otherwise grandiose historic aesthetic of the place, but that’s very intentional.

“We’re saying, ‘You know what? This is 2009, and here’s what we’ve done in the 21st century on the campus responding to what we think are the desires and needs of the community who make up Harvard Yard today,’” says Lizabeth Cohen, a Common Spaces Committee member and Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

The 1993 Master Plan is pretty unequivocal about this. While the plan laments the “few benches to be found in the Yard,” it cautions that adding any other benches “is not recommended.”

The chairs are not a hit with everybody.

“I just walk in[to the Yard] thinking what the statue of John Harvard thinks with all those parti-colored chairs, it’s all I can do,” says Visual and Environmental Studies professor John R. Stilgoe. “If we were going to have chairs we could have had wrought iron, if we were going to have metal. I hate those chairs.”

Lepore likes the chairs, but understands the controversy. “The campus had assumed this iconic status that no one wanted to interfere with,” Lepore says. “Basically it had become a postcard, and if the picture on the postcard didn’t match what people saw when they came, they would be disappointed.”

A stream of tourists passes John Harvard Statue, a famous tourist destination of the campus and Boston itself. The statue is the third most photographed in the US behind the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.
A stream of tourists passes John Harvard Statue, a famous tourist destination of the campus and Boston itself. The statue is the third most photographed in the US behind the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial. By Xenia O. Viragh

Picture Perfect

“Say John Harvard on three! One... two... John Harvard!”

— Dan Fayen, Crimson Campus Tours

Trademark Tour guide Eli J. Kresta ’16 has about 10 people on his tour. Sporting his straw “Harvard” hat, he leads his group around the Yard practically bursting with fun facts.

He does a good job. He’s conversational, funny, accessible, everything you might want from a student tour guide. One string of Widener-related Titanic puns (“So Harvard told Mrs. Widener, ‘Whatever floats your boat’... I’m gonna let that one sink in…”; “So I guess you could say the aboveground part of Widener Library is really the tip of the iceberg”; “Harry [Widener’s] heart can go on and on and on”) is a particular hit.

After the tour, a couple from Cambridge, England, say they chose Trademark because they “wanted to see [Harvard] properly, we wanted to know the history,” citing Harvard’s prestigious reputation as their reason for visiting.

When Van Valkenburgh penned the Master Plan in 1993, Harvard had not yet become the tourism Mecca that it is today. The Harvard Information Center, which today oversees Crimson Key tours as well as their own, didn’t even run tours until the late 90s. In 2014, the Information Center gave tours to 45,000 visitors, a number they’re expected to surpass this year and that does not include Admissions Office tours and the myriad other private ones running through the Yard.

These hundreds of thousands of feet pounding their way through the Yard have changed it just as surely as the Master Plan has. As so often is the case, the botanists are particularly appalled by the changes.

For Del Tredici, all those tourists don’t mean revenue for Cantabrigian small businesses or the strengthening of Harvard’s worldwide brand. Rather, they mean pernicious amounts of soil compaction.

Increased pedestrian traffic has tamped down the soil of the Yard, damaging the grass and foliage by starving the soil of nutrients. Furthermore, because asphalt and compacted soil can’t absorb as much water, more of it needs to flow into drains of a constant diameter, creating a pooling effect that Stilgoe, in turn, blames for the increased prevalence of knee-high rubber boots amongst undergraduate women.

Since the Yard’s natural conditions are not conducive to drainage, puddles remain days after initial rainfall.
Since the Yard’s natural conditions are not conducive to drainage, puddles remain days after initial rainfall. By Xenia O. Viragh

But the impact goes both ways. The Yard and the tourists each leave their stamp on the other. To an extent these guided visits to the Yard compress Harvard history flat enough to fit on a postcard.

Lepore takes issue with the quickfire, fun-fact themed tours, likening each anecdote and joke (“That night Harvard Hall burned down, and the entirety of John Harvard’s library was lost—save that one book”) to a bead on a necklace. You could add more beads, but that isn’t the point. “Historians don’t think that way. So, any kind of a place that is a collection of facts is going to have a kind of lifelessness to it,” Lepore says. In being distilled into a series of snapshots, the Yard loses something.

Stilgoe is similarly dissatisfied with tours that compact Harvard’s history into humorous, bite-sized pieces. While he dubs the Crimson Key tours “classy,” he’s less enthusiastic about the privately run Trademark Tours, which he calls “offensive,” wondering aloud why the University would allow a for-profit company to operate “on its own soil.”

It’s not an absurd question. Why would an image-conscious university like Harvard allow others to explain its history to the outside world?

While Info Center Customer Service Coordinator Kendyl Maher-Trumble declined to comment on Stilgoe’s remark, Daniel Andrew ’07, who founded Trademark Tours in 2006, gives a relatively simple answer.

“We’re great for Harvard’s brand,” Andrew says. According to Andrew, Harvard wouldn’t be able to satisfy the vast demand for tours alone, despite the Information Center having recently increased their number of daily tour offerings from four to seven.

“We’ve been an amazing partner to the University,” Andrew says. “I think most people at the University who do think about that stuff are actually really happy with Trademark Tours.”

Although student tour guides like Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18 tout the benefits of the tours in providing a view of Harvard that isn’t “a huge PR campaign,” the Information Center’s tours operate under the purview of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, the arm of the Harvard bureaucracy that shapes press releases, runs Harvard’s news organ, the Gazette, and serves as a watchful liaison between reporters and Harvard administrators.

Like the carefully curated sequence of trees and triangles of grass outlined in Van Valkenburgh’s masterpiece, tours of the Yard are a way for Harvard to shape the image that ends up on the postcard, the frontlines of the University’s interaction with the outside world. Management of the physical space is obvious in every inch of the Yard, but there is also an inadvertent editing of stories at work.

So, what bits of Harvard’s centuries-long history don’t make it onto the script?

Every day, tourists rub the foot of the John Harvard statue for good luck and pose for photos, oblivious to what Harvard students do to the statue late at night.
Every day, tourists rub the foot of the John Harvard statue for good luck and pose for photos, oblivious to what Harvard students do to the statue late at night. By Alana M Steinberg

Harvard by Night

“So we say, ‘If you touch the foot for luck, wash your hands for even better luck.’”

— Daniel E. Hughes ’18, Trademark Tour Guide

For all of the playful, somewhat irreverent jokes in Trademark’s arsenal, one piece of Yard lore is notably absent. Trademark tour guides tend to dance around the issue, employing a variety of vague stock phrases to gently discourage the practice.

Still, few tourists hesitate to give John Harvard’s foot, good luck charm by day and urinal by night, a rub.

As the sun sets on the Yard and tour groups cease their constant trickle through Harvard’s gates, the Yard is home to a different kind of foot traffic.

Between the hours of 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 7, the statue saw its usual weekend visitors.

12:45 a.m.: Six students surround the statue. A solitary soul ascends the pedestal, straddles Harvard’s leg, and relieves himself onto the statue’s left boot. He returns to his cheering comrades and sees us lurking nearby. “Touch it!” they yell. We do not. The foot glistens.

Over the next hour and a half, three more students, one man and two women, repeat the feat. For women, the process is a little harder, requiring an awkward squatted tangle with the statue’s limbs.

The last woman’s attempt is interrupted twice by the appearance of Securitas guards, driving toward the statue languidly enough to allow her to hop down and walk away, a chase in slow motion. Finally, on her third attempt, she completes the task.

While it’s easy to write off these undergraduate hijinks as symptomatic of the immaturity of modern college students, there’s nothing new about Harvard students acting like idiots. The misconception likely arises from history’s understandable failure to document the seamy underbelly of undergraduate nightlife. But a second historical record exists underground.

“Whatever you don’t want to see the light of day is going in the trash; it’s not exactly what you’re going to feature in your written history,” says Patricia Capone, a curator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Indeed, deep below Harvard Yard a plethora of hastily discarded items tell a shadow story of vices and extravagances indulged in violation of Harvard student guidelines throughout history. Discarded wine bottles and tobacco pipes (both smoking and drinking were heavily restricted by seventeenth century College laws), along with diminutive medical flasks, paint a picture of widespread revelry.

All this and more—shards of crockery, hunks of animal bones, and huge mounds of trash—shows up in biennial archaeological digs of the Yard, conducted for the undergraduate class “The Archaeology of Harvard Yard.” According to Diana Loren, another Peabody curator, who along with Capone has taught the course in the past, the vast majority of the Yard that lies unexcavated could hold still more revelations.

If the contents of these hidden wastes seem surprising, they actually dovetail quite well with the illicit tomfoolery of student pranksters of the past—for instance, it’s not difficult to imagine alcohol and heady tobacco smoked out of elegant pipes fueling the acts of the “Med Fac” society. Founded in 1818, the society terrorized Harvard for a whopping 87 years, painting red penises on the John Harvard statue, blowing up the water pump outside Hollis (the current pump is a reproduction), and even setting off explosions in Sanders Theatre.

In a similar vein, a food fight between freshmen and sophomores at University Hall in 1818 and its subsequent disciplinary action led to a protest at the Rebellion Tree, a long since deceased elm in front of Hollis (perhaps another victim of the infamous Dutch Elm disease). The protest in turn prompted the writing of the “Rebelliad,” an epic poem about the incident (composed by the founder of Med Fac): “When Nathan threw a piece of bread,/ and hit Abijah on the head./ The wrathful freshman in a trice/ sent back another bigger slice/ which being buttered pretty well,/ made greasy work we’er it fell...” and so on.

Still, besides occasional mentions of the 1818 food fight, these incidents are far from well-known, seldom appearing in tours. The image of a buttoned-up past pervades the lay perception of Harvard.

Tourists gather around Wadsworth House as military veteran Specialist J. Holden Gibbons begins a historical military tour of the Harvard campus.
Tourists gather around Wadsworth House as military veteran Specialist J. Holden Gibbons begins a historical military tour of the Harvard campus. By Xenia O. Viragh

The Yard Untold

“While watching locals, students, and visitors line up for the bus outside of Wadsworth House on Massachusetts Avenue, we can also imagine the lives of Titus, Venus and the other slaves who worked for members of the university and knew its students.”

— “Harvard and Slavery: A Forgotten History”

There’s often a darker bent to what gets left out of the tours.

The fact that two Harvard Presidents (Wadsworth and Mather) owned slaves; that the University’s growth in the 19th century was partially due to large slave trading benefactors, and that Harvard was home to Louis Agassiz; one of the fathers of scientific racism, is little-known and rarely announced to visiting tourists.

“There’s a marker outside Wadsworth House that says, like, ‘Home of the Harvard presidents, also George Washington was here for a little while,’” says Caitlin G. Hopkins, a History and Literature lecturer. “All right, those are the things that we want to remember about Wadsworth. But there were slaves at Harvard in the 1630s. You know, they’re here for a very, very long time, and that’s not something that is obvious from commemoration and the history of the Yard.”

Hopkins points to two modest gravestones in a secluded corner of Cambridge’s Old Burial Ground, the only physical commemoration to the many slaves who lived and worked in the Yard during the 17th and 18th centuries.

For Hopkins, who worked on the 2011 Harvard and Slavery project spearheaded by History professor Sven Beckert, the headstones and Harvard’s traditionally abolitionist reputation sit uncomfortably with the University’s past. The problem, says Hopkins, lies partially in the story Harvard tends to tell about itself.

“I think that Harvard is still not very good about talking to the outside world about slavery at Harvard, about Harvard’s not-really abolitionist legacy,” she says.

The headstones in the burial ground belong to two young women: Cicely, a slave to the school’s minister, and Jane, who served the college’s steward. Invisible in many histories of the Yard, Jane and Cicely would have served undergraduates, lived and worked in the Yard alongside them. And, as Hopkins points out, the Burial Ground likely holds the bodies of more slaves, unmarked and lost in the history of the Yard.

While Cecily and Jane are among the more tangible examples, indirect connections to slavery also abound. The project uncovered evidence that Harvard invested in a slave ship as well as revealed that many Harvard men bought slaves after graduating.

The Yard’s complicated racial past doesn’t end with the introduction of black students. On a drizzling February night in 1952, two freshmen sent shockwaves through the College by igniting two crosses in front of Stoughton Hall, which was at the time home of 11 black students. While the student body and administrators condemned the KKK symbol, the perpetrators were not expelled, claiming the cross-burning was nothing more than a prank.

Nothing in the neo-Georgian architecture of the Yard would indicate Harvard’s checkered racial past. The Slavery Project’s report claims that “part of the difficulty of remembering slavery on Harvard’s campus is that Cambridge’s historic buildings provide few public clues to their complete history.”

For example, the stories of women, long excluded from the Yard, are likewise often lost in the greater Harvard history.

1943 marked the beginning of fully coeducational classes at Harvard, but women were prevented from entering Lamont Library until as late as 1966, and weren’t allowed to actually live in the Yard until 1972. The stories of Harvard Yard, then, are necessarily often ones which take place on a male-dominated stage.

In 1911, even the most seemingly progressive of Harvard men were in favor of limiting women’s access to the Yard. That year, the Harvard Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, a redundantly named league of students formed “for the purpose of bringing speakers on the Suffrage question before the students,” invited radical British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to speak in Sanders Theatre.

In appealing against the Harvard Corporation’s strict rules against female speakers on campus, the Men’s League wasn’t opposed to the Corporation’s rules on women speakers per se—generously acknowledging that “whereas the most eminent lecturers on almost every topic—political, philosophical, artistic, scientific, or historical are men”—they took issue with the ways the policy targeted their group specifically: While “no other organization would be handicapped by the rule, the leaders of the Woman Suffrage movement and of the opposition to it, that is to say, all those best qualified to speak on the subject, are women.” Unfortunately, said the Men’s League, women would have to be consulted.

“There’s a lot of stuff I don’t talk about on the tour,” Hughes says of the history of women in the Yard.

Instead, what people know about the history of the Yard is created by the stories told on tours and the pictures printed in brochures.

“The Yard can feel pretty bland pretty quickly without the stories,” Andrew says. “They’re pretty, all the buildings, but they don’t really have any meaning without stories.”

Yet tours often gloss over or ignore contentious parts of Harvard’s history. In some ways, it’s hard to blame them. Visitors, especially the huge volume of international tourists who visit the Yard each year, are probably not coming to Cambridge expecting or hoping to hear a sober recounting of a cross-burning in the Old Yard. There’s a reason the humor-heavy straw hat tours have been so successful and garnered such positive reviews.

Jim Henle, a contributor to the Harvard and Slavery project and a staff member at Northwest Labs, can understand why darker elements of Harvard’s past might not make it into tours and physical commemorations in the Yard.

“Everybody wants Harvard to be the shining star of American History, right? I mean, it can make some claims,” says Henle. “But slavery and the oppression of black people is part of that history, and it has to be included to have a real picture.”

During the Black Lives Matter protests in early 2015, Harvard protesters lied down for 4.5 minutes in front of the John Harvard statue to honor Michael Brown.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in early 2015, Harvard protesters lied down for 4.5 minutes in front of the John Harvard statue to honor Michael Brown. By Zorigoo Tugsbayar

Perpetual Protest

“Harvard was founded by dissenters...Heresy has long been in the air.”

—James Bryant Conant, 1936

If the Yard’s history can’t be addressed in its architecture and isn’t being addressed through its tours, Henle believes it can and has been addressed through protest.

Last year, in the wake of the controversial decisions not to indict police involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the Yard saw “die-ins” in front of Memorial Church and the John Harvard statue as well as protesters clad in surgical masks with the words “I Can’t Breathe” written on them. While these sorts of protests were seen nationwide, Henle argues that their presence in the Yard implicated Harvard’s past in particular.

“The Black Lives Matter thing—a lot of it is a sense of outrage and the need to inject reality into the mythologies that are around us,” says Henle. “Things are not OK. People are being killed; it’s a continual event. Myths are great and everything, but you also want reality. I think to include Harvard’s role in all this is important.”

Harvard Yard, especially in the last year, has been the site of major protests. Though Black Lives Matter, along with the College’s other high profile protest movement, Divest Harvard, has been tied to much larger national movements, organizers including Robert Rush ’18 maintain that it means something different to protest in the Yard. When we speak to him, he’s sporting a black hat and black sweatshirt—which he explains are a show of support for the student protests at Mizzou and Yale.

“To protest in the Yard is very different than to protest in Boston, because in Harvard we are very much a bubble,” Rush says. “When you protest in the Yard and you bring it on’re disrupting people’s natural routine.”

Rush says protest in the Yard implicates more than just students, pointing to the tourists witnessing the protesters. He imagines them asking, “Is this really the place that’s on the brochures, or is there more to the picture?”

Indeed, during the 2011 Occupy Harvard protests when the Yard was closed to people without Harvard ID cards, Trademark tours adjusted their tour route and material, incorporating the history of protest and progressive movements at Harvard as well as explanations of the protest.

Organizers of Divest Harvard, a student group devoted to lobbying administrators to withdraw investment of the University’s endowment in fossil fuels, speak of the Yard with similar gravity.

Benjamin Franta, a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and involved with organizing the protests, says that demonstrating in the Yard is important because it allows for “control of the space.”

“Control of space is one way to control a narrative, one way to control messaging,” Franta says.

Divest and Black Lives Matter are far from the first activist groups to recognize the power to be found in the Yard as an icon, and the potency of shattering that iconic status. In their six-day blockade of Massachusetts Hall last April, dubbed “Heat Week,” activists drew on the tradition of protests from the 1999 Living Wage occupation of Massachusetts Hall to the 1986 Apartheid Divestment demonstrations.

On April 15, 1986, upset by Harvard’s hedging over the question of full divestment from Apartheid South Africa, the South African Solidarity Committee, or SASC, erected a number of “shanties” in front of University Hall. Seeing no need for subtlety, they added a 15-foot tall “ivory tower” to the shanties, making clear the University’s involvement.

The shanties, though not approved by the University, were tolerated by it, and some supportive faculty members went so far as to teach classes class in the structures. They became part of the University landscape until planning for the 1986 Commencement exercises rolled around. Despite a request from the dean, SASC refused to remove the shanties. The ceremonial processions of the 1986 Commencement Exercise snaked by University Hall shantytowns, a combination of 17th century ritual and 20th century protest.

Though seizing headlines and “control[ing]” the narrative are, of course, goals of any sort of protest, few places evoke the iconography and historic weight of Harvard Yard. For though the Yard is a symbol of establishment heft and elitism, it’s also home to a near-constant tradition of dissent.

While these modern demonstrations loom largest in recent memory, protest has been part of the Yard for centuries, though often in a more inwardly-focused way. For example, in the Great Butter Rebellion of 1766, irate students protested the serving of dangerously rancid butter at the College.

As Harvard has globalized, so have its protests. Student uprisings about spoiled butter and tyrannous tutors have given way to demonstrations about worldwide social ills.

Tourists and students cause a stir of action in front of the steps of Widener.
Tourists and students cause a stir of action in front of the steps of Widener. By Xenia O. Viragh

Who Owns the Yard?

Protests that have inserted themselves into the functioning of the College and disrupted the Yard’s carefully manicured image beg the question: Who owns Harvard Yard?

The answer is, however, a difficult one, and varies depending on who you ask.

For Stilgoe, a self-described holdout of “Old Harvard,” there is a good reason for staunch defense of tradition in the Yard: It belongs to “the statue, and the dead,” especially at night.

Prof. John Stilgoe sits in his office on the top floor of Sever Hall. Stilgoe has taught in the Visual and Environmental Studies department since 1977.
Prof. John Stilgoe sits in his office on the top floor of Sever Hall. Stilgoe has taught in the Visual and Environmental Studies department since 1977. By Alana M Steinberg

Franta says that the Yard is a contested space, a shifting ownership, but he’d like to see it claimed by “the people who want to use it to help the world.”

Andrew has yet another answer: “I think the Yard is owned by the Harvard community,” he says, including the businesses of Harvard Square in that definition.

While representatives of HPAC initially declined to comment on the question of who owns the Yard, they later sent us an email statement asserting that Harvard “strive[s] to maintain a sense of openness and accessibility, and we continuously review how we can best balance the needs of our faculty, staff and students with those of our visitors.”

But for Rush, these assertions may ring hollow. When asked who owns the Yard, Rush is somber. He adjusts his hat, repeats the question to himself, and looks away.

“I think you can find your answer in the structure of the buildings, and in the way that the campus is set up,” says Rush. For him, the fact that centers of “inclusivity” like the Women’s Center, ECHO, and the BGLTQ office are set up in the basement of buildings speaks for itself.

Amanda R. Jowell '17 puts posters for ECHO on a kiosk in the yard. A common publicizing strategy, brightly colored posters are ubiquitous in the yard.
Amanda R. Jowell '17 puts posters for ECHO on a kiosk in the yard. A common publicizing strategy, brightly colored posters are ubiquitous in the yard. By Katherine L Borrazzo

His is an inverse definition: “Inclusivity doesn’t own the Yard.”

Ultimately, the Yard, when you get down to it, is just a collection of mostly-brick buildings and a cluster of fungi-ridden trees.

Onto this patch of ground are projected a conglomeration of separate Yards that don’t lend themselves easily to a single interpretation.

But Pfister says if you stand on the steps of Memorial Church before winter strips the trees bare and look quietly for a bit, you begin to notice something.

“Stand there and look out, especially if you’re there mid-day or so. There’s so much traffic, people moving around, and because of this canopy and so forth, you see it all,” he says.

“If you kind of squint a little bit, when you’re up there on the steps, you know, you have the trees, and you think those are kind of the pillars holding up the roof, and the roof is this canopy of green. It’s kind of cool to think about. We call it Tercentenary Theater, and there it is, suddenly it’s this huge room.”

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