Before moving to the next stop, Gilchrist offers some Harvard trivia, including when it was founded (1636), by whom (Massachusetts Bay Colony), and for whom it was named (John Harvard, the School’s first benefactor).
“In 1638, after John Harvard’s death, he bequeathed half his estate and all of his library and the institution was renamed after him, and that started a long-lasting trend of buildings being renamed after donors,” Gilchrist says with a grin.
Winking, she asks her group to pay attention to these pieces of information because “there will be a quiz at the end …”
The group moves to the heart of Harvard Yard. Gilchrist points to two old red-brick buildings and shares that those were the first-year dorms of Malia Obama ’21 and Matt Damon, drawing smiles and nods. She then notes where Harvard Indian College once stood. Founded in the mid-17th century, its mission was to educate Native American youth.
In front of Mass Hall, the oldest building in the Yard, Gilchrist recounts the history of the red-brick early Georgian structure, built between 1718 and 1720. Washington occupied the building with 640 soldiers in the late 1700s. It now serves as the offices for Harvard’s president, and the top floors are dorms where 12 lucky first-years live.
A few feet away sits Harvard Hall, Gilchrist’s favorite stop because of its rich history. First built in 1644, it rotted to the ground about a quarter of a century later. The second building was put up in 1677, but it was destined to be only be the second of three.
It contained most of the College’s books, including those donated by Harvard, besides a collection of scientific instruments. “Until a cold and stormy night on Jan. 24, 1764,” says Gilchrist. “Students couldn’t check out the books; they had to be read in the library, but a student by the name of Ephraim Briggs had taken out a book, ‘The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World and Flesh’ …
“And thank goodness he did,” she says, pausing for effect, “because the building burned down that night. He returned the book, which was the only surviving book of John Harvard’s collection. The president of Harvard thanked Briggs and then expelled him … No good deed goes unpunished.”
Science Center Plaza
A senior concentrating in astrophysics, Gilchrist has a soft spot for anything related to science. At Science Center Plaza, a major crossroad between Harvard Yard and the Science Center, she revels in describing the telescopes on the roof and the center’s significance for students.
The Science Center is the hub of first-year academics, Gilchrist says. “Almost every single freshman takes at least one class in this building. There are five large lecture halls where a lot of introductory classes are taught, and they don’t necessarily have to do with science.”
Over the course of the tour it becomes apparent why having students lead the tours is a major draw. Interest is high in what classes and campus life are like, and the tours give people a chance to chat with students about it, said Robin Parker, associate director of the visitor center.
“Who better to represent Harvard University than a Harvard student?” asked Parker.
When people ask Gilchrist how she feels about being a Harvard student, she is not shy about it. “I love it here,” she says. “But I also feel a strong obligation to make my Harvard degree count by using it to help others.”