American Landscape and Architectural Design 1850-1920

Harvard University Buildings


Harvard University comprises a unique and diverse collection of historic buildings representing three hundred years of architectural styles. Additionally, the University often employed prominent American architects, including Ware & Van Brunt, Henry Hobson Richardson, Richard Morris Hunt and McKim Mead & White. As members of Harvard, the students at the Graduate School of Design had the benefit of the campus buildings for study and inspiration. For these reasons, the environment of Harvard comprises a large portion of the teaching collection of the GSD. Through the lantern slide medium, we can view the architectural history of the University as well as the past environment of the students and faculty who lived and worked there.

Harvard Yard

. . . They presently reached the irregular group of heterogeneous buildings — chapels, dormitories, libraries, halls — which, scattered among the slender trees, over a space reserved by means of a low rustic fence, rather than enclosed (for Harvard knows nothing either of jealousy or the dignity of high walls and guarded gateways), constitutes the great university of Massachusetts. The yard, or college-precinct is traversed by a number of straight little paths over which at certain hours of the day, a thousand undergraduates with books under their arm and youth in their step, flit from one school to another.

-Henry James,The Bostonians, 1886 (1. James, p.229)

Harvard Yard
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Harvard Yard

In 1636, The Great and General Court of Massachusetts passed legislation establishing the first university in the North American colonies. Within the next two years, the overseers of the college bought a house and nine acres of land from among the cow yards of Cambridge (then called Newetowne). Although Harvard University continued to grow throughout the next two hundred years, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, most of this land originally purchased by the college still remained unused. The entire area east of University Hall only contained a brew house, a wood yard and outhouses. John Thorton Kirkland, president of the University from 1810-1828, was dismayed by the state of the yard. He initiated a program to improve the area, planting lawns, laying out paths, and adding elms and a pine grove. Despite these improvements, by the late nineteenth century, the yard had lost favor as a place to live. Freshmen were still required to live on campus but upperclassmen moved to private dormitories, mainly on Mt. Auburn Street. The College Yard remained unpopular until a movement to improve the student housing in the early part of the twentieth century. At about this time, the college also began closing itself off from Harvard Square and the Cambridge Common. The cloistering of the Yard began with the construction of buildings all along the perimeter of the college precinct. The segregation became most profound in 1902 when the architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White, designed the Memorial fence to connect entrance gates to the college and enclose the campus. (2. Morrison)