Harvard’s Free University

Free schools were cropping up across the country, promising the kind of free-access, progressive education conventional institutions seemed to lack.

The building decayed on the edge of campus. The basement dirt floor was muddy; weeds crept in and threatened the foundation. Lawrence Hall was once the kind of building pictured in a mid-19th century etching of Harvard, petticoated gentlewomen striding across the foreground. First built as a laboratory, it was later adopted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 1970, it was slated for demolition to make way for the beige sprawl of the new Science Center.

As Lawrence Hall fell to the rodents and overgrowth, Harvard’s campus was in turmoil amidst a decade of revolution and political anxiety. 1969 had been a year of tumult: the University Hall anti-war occupation and the subsequent violence lingered in the air. Students had occupied University Hall for 18 hours, until Massachusetts State Police prompted their forced removal. Like other campuses across the country, protests, sit-ins, teach-ins, and rallies at Harvard were ubiquitous. In the spring of 1970, Lawrence Hall entered this fray when a group of socialist-leaning graduate students took the building over and instated the Free University.

At its inception, Free University hoped to provide an alternative education to all Cambridge residents through a series of talks, workshops, and teach-ins. Their mission was “to provide people with something better to do than to go to classes,” Walter Jaros, a graduate student organizer, said in an interview at the time. But it was not the first of its kind: Free schools were cropping up across the country, promising the kind of free-access, progressive education conventional institutions seemed to lack.

The occupation began with David Holmstrom’s office assignment. “For some reason they kept giving me offices in buildings that were going to be torn down,” recalls Holmstrom, a Social Studies and Government tutor at the time. That spring, Holmstrom was the sole occupant of Lawrence Hall. He had the only key. “No building had been occupied before without, like, eight demands,” Holmstrom said, referencing the demands of University Hall protestors. In contrast, Free University proponents “just wanted the building,” Holstrom said. “So [Harvard] really didn’t know what to do about it.”

Free University Archives
A poster created by the Free University organizers to promote their event — the first dance publicly intended for all sexualities in the Boston area.

"This building condemned under Article 2, People's Code: all buildings used for oppression are to be returned to their rightful owners, the people,” read the posters that papered Lawrence Hall. The new proprietors — “the people” — swept up the dust that had accumulated over decades and duct-taped exposed wires. They hauled silk screening equipment, tools for playground construction, and the optimism of a new decade on their backs. The occupants hadn’t received permission from the administration — but they hadn’t been denied it, either.

First on the Free University’s agenda: a teach-in and film screening from the Boston Black Panthers. Other sections of the university’s schedule read like a liberal arts college syllabus: “a poster workshop, and discussion groups on ecology, radical arts and skills, Cuba, women's liberation, Asia, political economy, and radical alternatives to traditional careers.”

Organizers distributed a flier featuring a sketch of a person with feathered hair and an alluring gaze. The text reads: “A dance for humanity: gay, straight — we are all One.” The Gay Liberation dance, held at Lawrence Hall, was the first dance publicly intended for people of all sexualities in the Boston area. It was packed, and the din of sixties rock filled the century-old building. The promise of the Free University — liberation, freedom to be yourself — was fulfilled.

But there was one issue: apathy. Harvard students certainly knew about Free University — Holmstrom describes it as “notorious” — but few seemed to care. As one Crimson editorialist put it: “No one on the Administration seemed to give a shit when [Lawrence Hall] was taken. The big problem has been that so far very few students have given a shit either.” But Free University, unlike the University Hall demonstration, didn’t have the opportunity to live out its potential and achieve its loftier educational aspirations.

The Free University Commune, a collective of Cambridge homeless people, had also made Lawrence Hall their home.

Then, on May 8, in the blue hour of 4 a.m., a fire broke out on Lawrence Hall’s third floor. In the span of 15 minutes, the building was aflame. Its 30 former inhabitants were now without a home, and the month-long, fiery project of Free University was extinguished.

—Magazine writer Olivia G. Oldham can be reached olivia.oldham@thecrimson.com.