Campus & Community

Vertical Harvard

5 min read

For two centuries, the University hugged the ground; then, its buildings began to soar

Over its first 200 years, Harvard soared academically, but its architecture stayed low. In keeping with the modesty of Puritan traditions, Harvard Yard remained a huddle of low-roofed structures until the 19th century.

Historians speculate that Peyntree House, the College’s first home in 1638, was just 2½ stories high. Inside there was just one set of stairs. Outside was a steep roof more suited to thatch than to shingle. The building’s sole eminence, a central chimney, was utilitarian.

And for centuries Harvard stayed horizontal. The first Harvard Hall (1682) was three wooden stories topped by a squat cupola and a weathervane. Massachusetts Hall (1720) was four stories of stout brick. The second Harvard Hall (1766) was a bookend of the same height. Hollis Hall (1761) was Puritan plain, an “honest old frame,” said one 19th-century commentator. Stoughton Hall (1804) too was a blunt brick box.

Then up, up went Gore Hall in 1838: a Gothic wedding cake of sky-poking spires modeled after a 15th-century chapel at Cambridge University. In 1856, Appleton Chapel shot into the air too, with a steeple as pointed as a dagger. Then Puritan modesty reasserted itself. Boylston Hall (1857) was built short and square, two stories of granite later capped with a mansard roof. Grays Hall (1863) was taller, but modest, with rounded rooflines that seemed to defy verticality. It had a bunkered appearance, befitting a building that went up quietly during the Civil War.

But during the joy and hubris of the post-war years in America, architectural Harvard took another vacation from modesty. Matthews Hall opened in 1873: five stories layered with Gothic ornamentation and topped with a roofline of gabled windows. Then came the most immodest building of all, the one that definitively began modern vertical Harvard. Memorial Hall (1875-1878) was an extravaganza of high-Victorian Gothic style. It had a 210-foot tower, 5,000 square feet of stained glass, intricate slate roofing, and copper-sheathed gargoyles. Novelist Henry James called it “a great, bristling, brick Valhalla.”

Harvard never went horizontal again. After 1878, the University awoke to its verticality, gaining a sense of itself as important to the nation and to the world. By the 1930s, the new river Houses added towers to Harvard’s now iconic waterfront skyline. Their towers were outward signs of both the University’s transformed aesthetics and its accelerating aspirations.

“Towers are largely about beauty,” Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, a 2013 Nieman Fellow, wrote in an email. “They’re also about advertisement, whether for a corporation or a college or a country.” Harvard’s era of building towers, he added, was about “projecting an identity.”

By 1932, Appleton Chapel had been razed to make room for Memorial Church, whose gleaming spire still points to the heavens. For both secular and sacred architecture, wrote Kamin, “Towers lift us above the profane (the ground) and toward the sacred (the sky). It’s hard to imagine Harvard without its towers.”

Surrounded by angular modernity, the tower on Adolphus Busch Hall (1917) seems quaint and round.
The tower at Eliot House (1931) appears in many Hollywood movies, including “Legally Blonde.”
The most prominent eminences of vertical Harvard tell a story of the siren of war. Memorial Church and Memorial Hall, right to left, commemorate Harvard’s war dead. Far left is William James Hall, named after a scholar who declined service in the Civil War.
The modest cupola at Harvard Hall (1764-1765), which in the 19th century marked the Yard’s highest elevation.
The tower at Adams House (1932), the closest house to Harvard Yard.
Lowell House (1930), one of the first of Harvard’s Depression-era houses, is famous for its Russian bells.
Lowell House’s small tower, a hidden Harvard treasure.
The tower of Pforzheimer House, where parts of the interconnected halls date to 1901. In Moors Hall, a fourth-floor “Belltower Suite” connects to the tower.
The tower at Cabot House (1923).
The tower on the Edward Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory (1929) on Oxford Street is reflected in the windows of the Gordon McKay Laboratory of Applied Sciences.
The central tower at Dunster House (1930) is reflected on the two 1960 12-story towers of Leverett House, part of which dates to 1925.
The tower at Baker Library (1927) at Harvard Business School.
The tower at Dillon Field House (1965), with Harvard Stadium in the foreground.
The central tower of Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall (1911) includes faces of the early Christian evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The backlit tower of the Knafel Center, which until recently was called the Radcliffe Gymnasium (1898), Radcliffe Yard’s first building.
The tower of the Harvard Lampoon Building (1909) is topped with a 4-foot copper ibis.
A twilight view of the tower of Adolphus Busch Hall, a building that now houses Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.
Another view of the rounded cupola at Harvard Hall.
The tower of Memorial Hall ― the grandest expression of vertical Harvard ― was altered in 1897 to install a bell and four clock faces, Destroyed by fire in 1956, it was restored in 1999 to its original 1878 appearance.
An eccentric evening view of the tower at Lowell House.