July 09, 1998
University Gazette


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Harvard's Hard-to-Find Monuments

By Cassie Ferguson

Gazette Staff

Set in curbs, stairs, on top of parking garages, and with a particular affinity for retaining walls, Harvard's smallest monuments seem to be everywhere. Yet despite their accessibility, the diminutive brass objects, tucked into all corners of the campus, don't attract much attention.

Perhaps this is because the people who installed the 15 monuments didn't intend to make any statements with their work other than, "This is the place." Or, more accurately, "This is precisely the place, to the millionth degree of longitude and latitude."

In 1992 Harvard Planning & Real Estate planted the series of brass plugs, officially known as "geodetic monuments," to mark exact locations, says Eric D'Souza, director of Mapping Information Systems. The monuments served as reference points in a project to map Harvard property.

The monuments consist of a brass disk two inches in diameter, stamped on the top with an identifying code name, a triangle pointing north, and "Harvard University Geodetic Monument GPS 1992."

Real estate planning is just one use for the monuments, says Carolyn Didonato of the United States Geological Survey. Researchers also use them to track the shifting of Earth's crust.

In locations other than Harvard, scientists use a satellite to check up on monuments placed on volcanoes and alongside earthquake faults.

"The purpose of the monuments is to measure the distances between the monuments to see if they're getting closer or moving apart," she says.

While Cambridge doesn't provide the geological excitement of the San Andreas fault, and lacks the vertical shift of a volcano, an impromptu walking tour of the Harvard monuments still turns up some interesting data. See if you can locate a few selected monuments:

Harvard Square T-Stop - HOTS07

Latitude 422223.99576 N

Longitude 710707.40743 W

Elevation 23.74 ft.

The denizens of the concrete steps near the T entrance don't seem to notice the nearby monument set in a granite curb. The drivers waiting at the taxi stand display a similar lack of concern. The brass disk is the shiniest of the 15 monuments, buffed by the soles of people heading from the T toward Holyoke Center.

Kennedy School - HSKS06

Latitude 422217.22490 N

Longitude 710720.43877 W

Elevation 5.82 ft.

A former trolley support structure to one side of a swath of lawn serves as a pedestal for the Kennedy School monument. The three-foot high concrete block bears the inscription "Boston Elevated Railway Company" and the brass circle sits on top of one end, partially obscured by a stripe of white paint.

Vents Near Weeks Footbridge - RHWB05

Latitude 422209.84745 N

Longitude 710702.52446 W

Elevation 14.19 ft.

Across the street from Weeks Footbridge, two tall mushroom-shaped vents attract little attention from the drivers on Memorial Drive. They do slow down, children in the backseat excitedly pointing out the window, when a reporter climbs on top of the westernmost mushroom to survey a small monument which has aged from shiny brass to dull brown.

Science Center - HYSC09

Latitude 422232.84594 N

Longitude 710658.46405 W

Elevation 28.30 ft.

On the overpass between the Science Center and the Yard, and about 500 feet from the fire station, sits a planter filled with shrubs and a monument. The corners of a triangle inscribed in the center of the brass disk point to a maple tree, the Cabot Science Library, and Meyer Gate.

Observatory - OHOB15

Latitude 422254.13476 N

Longitude 710743.42933 W

Elevation 67.27 ft.

Three simple granite steps lead up to the original Harvard Observatory in a parking lot behind Phillips Auditorium in the Observatory complex on Garden Street. The center of the bottom step leading to the historic facility serves as a setting for the highest and northernmost of the Harvard monuments.

Radcliffe Quad - OHRQ14

Latitude 422253.93414 N

Longitude 710729.03693 W

Elevation 22.27 ft.

Harvard Planning & Real Estate planted the monument in a concrete cap on top of a brick wall in front of Moors Hall at the northwest corner of the Radcliffe Quadrangle. The monument's inscription has developed a light patina, setting the letters off from the rest of the dulled brass disk.

Complete maps and directions to the 15 monuments can be found at www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/geo.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College