Like much of what can be termed “Imperial Harvard,” the River Houses were designed and conceived in the waning years of the Gilded Age, and embody its exclusivity and excess. (After all, Gore Hall was modeled on Hampton Court, which in turn was a mini-Versailles). It wasn’t long before a new generation of postwar Harvard architects, including Water A. G. Gropius and Josep L. Sert, began to agree with my classmates, and swung the pendulum dramatically away from the neo-Georgian style in an attempt to create a more modern physical environment. The results, however—Peabody Terrace, Mather House, the Carpenter Center, the Science Center—were either brutalist concrete masses that feel like transplants from the outskirts of Kharkov or structures so complicated as to defy functionality. The Carpenter Center managed to be both. More recently, Harvard has moved away from brutalism to deliver unremarkable structures in the style of the suburban office park, buildings like Tata Hall and Esteves Hall.
Where does this leave us? The result of the postwar dialectic is that neither Harvard’s neo-Georgian excess nor the Modernist reaction to it produced good results. This is because both are out of touch with Harvard’s roots in an earlier—and in some ways much more open and inclusive—phase of its architectural history, long before this university became wealthy.
It’s surprisingly little-known, but for roughly its first two centuries, Harvard was essentially what we would today call a public university. It received regular—though voluntary— funding from the Massachusetts legislature and, after independence, was written into the state constitution. Not only was eighteenth-century Harvard public, it was relatively poor and unprestigious. It stood on a tiny lot surrounded by outdoor latrines, pig pens, and cowyards. The University presidents themselves lived in a series of glorified farmhouses, and patrolled the Yard with a lantern nightly to ensure curfew.
Because of its penury, Harvard’s early Georgian architecture was relatively simple and unostentatious (compare, for instance, Holden Chapel to King’s College Chapel, Cambridge). It was also remarkably open. As an expression of its connection to the people of the commonwealth—or perhaps reflecting a lack of money—Harvard chose not to build the typical high walls which cloistered European colleges like those of Oxford and Cambridge. Instead, it built a series of freestanding buildings open to a town common. As a result, Harvard created a radical, new, and more public-facing model for the layout of a university.
Ironically, modern Harvard has turned its once open Georgian core inward and inverted itself. The erection of the nine-foot high spiked and gated fence which surrounds the Yard circa 1900, along with the construction of outer buildings in the 1920s, accomplished this effect. But an 1808 drawing preserves an idea of how accessible Harvard’s original Georgian arrangement once was. Changes to Holden Chapel, built in 1744, provide evidence of this extreme volte-face. The original chapel featured its famous white and blue decorated tympanum on one side only (the front, that is, the side facing Cambridge Common). After the University turned inward and the front of the chapel effectively became the back, a duplicate tympanum (the one most people now see from the Yard) was fabricated and added on in the 1920s.
Of course, despite this open plan, Harvard as a whole in the 1700s was not what we would consider a very inclusive place. Massachusetts, along with every other state in the north, practiced slavery. At least two of Harvard’s presidents bought slaves to work on campus. No female or Jewish students were admitted. Puritanism inspired religious intolerance. But Puritanism also contained elements of radical egalitarianism, like its insistence on literacy for all and personal interpretation of scripture. And the Georgian period saw the Enlightenment gaining steam, smashing Puritan religious orthodoxy, along with many other old doctrines, at Harvard. Under the influence of new ideas, then, this public institution was creating a built environment that was remarkably accessible compared to its fellow universities in Europe.
Perhaps that is why the most frequented part of today’s University is not the palatial environs of the River Houses, but the Georgian Old Yard, where we find a vibrant commons filled with students, locals, and out-of-town visitors, where you are as likely to meet someone from Medford as Kathmandu. University President Drew G. Faust’s decision to place chairs in the Yard as part of the Common Spaces Initiative, as well as the decision to keep the Yard open to the public, continues an earlier tradition of openness and connection to the wider community, despite the fact that that Yard has been fenced and turned inward. In a way, the Yard’s low-slung Georgian architecture now provides a kind of sanctuary or oasis from the towering, cemented world beyond the walls.
As it prepares to undertake major building projects in Allston, Harvard shouldn’t engage in more neo-Georgian excess. Nor should it create more Modernist sameness. It should take a cue from the best parts of a forgotten past and construct open, creative, and humble spaces. Though a bit vertical and imposing, the newly-completed portions of the Kennedy School, designed by Robert A. M. Stern, provide some good cues as to what can be accomplished. Rejecting the Late Modern fanaticism of the school’s bewildering original building and Forum, which can make one feel trapped inside an M.C. Escher print, the additions present linear and airy interior spaces. They feature red brick and wood as tributes to the building materials of Harvard’s original Georgian architecture, and create a welcoming, unfenced courtyard open to the public. They show that Harvard can both honor its heritage and build an inclusive future. To do so, it just can’t forget where it came from.
Matthew B. McDole earned a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School in 2018.