Campus & Community

Hidden Spaces: Where time stands still

5 min read

Light-filled Gordon Hall reflects how medical students once were taught

“The grandeur of the space in Gordon Hall and its placement as the focal point of the Harvard Medical School quad was a clear statement in 1906 as to its importance as an anatomy and pathology classroom and laboratory.” ― Dominic Hall, curator, Warren Anatomical Museum

Once a bustling space, Gordon Hall’s upper floors, formerly the Warren Anatomical Museum, are mostly quiet now. The open, sun-filled area was part classroom, part museum for Harvard Medical School students in the first half of the last century. They learned at long tables surrounded by more than 11,000 medical specimens housed in tall glass cases. An enormous skylight runs the length of the room, with windows in the flat part of the ceiling and along the walls. Glass floors on the second story filtered light to the marble-floored level below.

As outlined in the museum’s catalog, students studied healthy and morbid anatomy, including organs, crania, bones, and more. During World War II, the windows and skylight were covered for fear of attack. Eventually, offices were constructed around the periphery, taking up floor space and blocking light. The busts of the founders and notables that circled the room and the glass cases filled with anatomical and medical instruments were removed. (Many artifacts are now housed in a mini-museum on the fifth floor of Countway Library near the Harvard Medical Library, another former Gordon tenant.) Better class space was constructed elsewhere on the campus, so the students left, too.

What remains in Gordon from those early days are the classic cast-iron pillars and railings and leaded-glass windows, the highest ones decorated with geometric patterns. Framed photographs and historical text on the lower walls remind us of the history of this great space. As Hall said, “The Gordon Hall gallery served as a tangible testament to the historical legacy of Harvard’s physicians and scientists, a mission which the Warren Museum continues to live as part of the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine.”

Known as the “crown” of the Harvard Medical School (HMS), the Warren Anatomical Museum was a 34-foot-high space at the top of the administration building, now Gordon Hall.
In 1888, John Shaw Billings, founding director of the National Library of Medicine, called Warren “the best museum connected with a medical school in this country.”
Twenty two-story cast-iron columns encircle the room.
More than 11, 000 medical instruments and anatomy and pathology specimens were collected throughout the first half of the 20th century. One was the famed “crowbar skull.” An accidental explosion fired a 13-pound tamping iron through the head of New Hampshire construction foreman Phineas Gage. Gage lost one eye, but lived for 13 years afterward. The 3-foot rod and Gage’s skull are now housed with other specimens on the top floor of the Countway Library at the Medical School.
John C. Warren (pictured) of Beacon Hill was one of five generations of John Warrens at the Medical School, all surgeons or anatomists. He taught anatomy at Harvard and bequeathed his family’s collection of books and pamphlets on medical and scientific subjects.
An elder John Warren’s ultimate contribution was his “bones (that they be) carefully preserved, whitened, articulated and placed in the medical college near my bust; affording, I hope, a lesson useful, at the same time, to morality and science …”
Shadows from the geometric-patterned windows are elongated on the wooden floor by a stairwell.
“Gordon Hall’s windows,” says architectural historian Amy Finstein, “are an important part of the building’s classical aesthetic, with geometric patterns and symmetry that reinforce the architectural style of the entire HMS design.”
Framed by a decorative upper baluster, a student studies on the lower level.
A large, vaulted east-to-west skylight ceiling runs the entire width of the building.
Before mid-century changes, additional windows were housed in the flat ceiling on either side of the skylight. These, along with windows in the alcoves on the sides of the room, allowed a flood of natural light, “transforming the interior of the entire upper half of the building into a translucent, almost otherworldly space,” according to author of “A Legacy So Enduring” Nora Nercessian.
Etched in the building directly behind Gordon is Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, now part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals.
The floor of the lower level, Grand Hall, was set in marble, while much of the second-floor gallery was set in steel and glass, allowing light from above to filter to the lower gallery.
In the mid 1940s, the vaulted skylight was covered for fear of an attack by the Germans. Not until 2001, when the building was renamed Gordon Hall, was the skylight finally uncovered.
In the spirit of Greece, the Campus Beautiful movement of the early 1900s, a subset of the City Beautiful movement, influenced the architecture of the Harvard Medical School.
If an HMS faculty member dies, the American flag on the roof of Gordon Hall is lowered to half-staff. Security shift supervisor Ray Young said they occasionally fly an important visitor’s country flag; otherwise, the flag rarely comes down.