Campuses Past


A brief recitation of the history and development of the American college campus.

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With the conclusion of another summer, scores of fresh-faced new freshmen and grizzled veteran upperclassmen are now streaming through the variegated buildings, green spaces, and common areas of Harvard’s various educational domains. The basic portrait of these spaces, as conceived by students and the public alike, is one that seems almost archetypal: ivy-bedecked brick-and-marble Colonial and neo-Classical shrines to learning, with the occasional Richardsonian gem or concrete modernist edifice thrown into the mix. Amidst the hustle and bustle of choosing courses and extracurriculars (COMP INDY ARTS!), however, it is easy to forget that such an archetype did not merely spring up overnight to greet each incoming class. Rather, Harvard’s collegiate campus, and indeed the American undergraduate campus as an architectural and social construct, has come to be only through much arduous evolution, expansion, and adaptation — a journey some 378 years in the making.

Certainly Harvard in the late 1630s was a different place than it is now: aside from not actually being called Harvard (it was founded as “New College”) and catering primarily to Puritan ministers, the campus’s real estate holdings consisted of a house and one acre of land purchased in 1637 or 1638. Sitting on what was then called “Cow-yard Row”, this area metamorphosed into Harvard Yard, a process no doubt helped along by John Harvard’s generous donation of his library and half his estate to the fledgling college. A farm endowed to the university in 1649, along with the rapid growth of Massachusetts into a political and economic center of the American colonies, saw Harvard grow in stature as well. With this emergence as a university (Massachusetts made it official in 1780), more buildings came to the Yard in the 18th century; those that remain include Massachusetts Hall, Hollis Hall, and the Holden Chapel. These all followed in the same Georgian Colonial (named for King George V, not the state) mold that characterized many other undergraduate constructions around the country, from Yale’s Old Brick Row (of which only one building remains) to Princeton’s still-imposing Nassau Hall.

With the growth and emergence of the American nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, the idea of the modern college campus began to eclipse mere cow-yards, individual halls, and endowed farms. Indeed, centrally-planned campuses soon became all the rage in an up-and-coming America: New York’s Union College got the first planned campus in the United States with an 1813 design by neoclassical French architect Joseph-Jacques Ramée. It took no less an American than founding father Thomas Jefferson, however, to help shape an idiom of campus design the United States could call its own. Unlike many political figures, Jefferson certainly did not serve as a mere sinecure in regards to this project: he had proven his architectural chops in the design of his estate Monticello and devoted both his considerable talents and the last years of his life to the design of the University of Virginia, founded in 1819. His ideas for a unified campus built very heavily on those of Benjamin Latrobe, national-capital architect extraordinaire, who proposed open spaces ringed by academic buildings and student quarters — in short, the modern college campus.

Such an educational paradigm, however, was more evolutionary than revolutionary for the American undergraduate campus. Indeed, open-plan shared spaces were characteristic of the early American colleges as well: Harvard Yard was and is still accessible to scores of visitors from both the immediate city and the whole world, and indeed the very architecture — still functional, surrounding a green common — stands in stark contrast to the cloisters of Harvard’s European forebears Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, as the 19th century and American revenues bubbled forth into the Gilded Age, Harvard expanded into a more archetypical collegiate form, albeit with its own uniquely moneyed flavor. The Yard-based constructions of the early 19th century — stalwart colonial buildings such as Holworthy and Stoughton Halls — gave way to the richly-ornamented Gothic of edifices such as Weld (with its imposing skylights) and the towering Annenberg Hall. In many ways, however, the Yard still held resolutely to its colonial ways, what with its lack of running water or central heating during these years. Enterprising and wealthy students rectified the situation by fleeing to specially-constructed River housing that soon became known as “the Gold Coast”, housing that eventually metamorphosed into Adams House in the 1930s.

This uniquely-gentrified take on campus expansion stands in contrast to the rapid land-hungry development of many other universities during the second half of the 19th century. Certainly there was more than enough land for universities: indeed, the United States government (in the midst of the Civil War, no less) signed into law the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, a sweeping gift of some 30,000 acres per state dedicated to the founding of a university. The list of institutions the Morrill Land Grant College Act generated is as eclectic as it is long, ranging from small technical colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to public behemoths such as Penn State University. These disparate campuses, however, were united in one attribute: their espousing of the new American landscape architecture in the design of their campuses. Indeed, the garden architecture of these many land-grant institutions was the populist product of years of American landscape thinking, a process that had started with Latrobe and Jefferson and culminated with the work of the great Frederick Law Olmstead.
Olmstead’s considerable hinterland in designing public spaces such as Central Park factored heavily into his and his firm’s considerable college campus design practice. And indeed Olmstead’s reach was quite considerable: he and (eventually) his architectural firm designed some 350 college campuses from 1857 to 1950, including the complete groundwork of land-grant institution Cornell University and a comprehensive redesign of Yale’s campus from 1874-1881. His campus design style was the open plan writ large, with expansive quads surrounded by individual dormitories in a manner designed to reflect both the educational purpose of an institution and its natural aesthetic beauty. The scenic vistas of many of these campuses — the rolling hills of Penn State’s Happy Valley are one outstanding example — contributed greatly to these new academic garden centers, which, often done up in elaborate Gothic and stern Romanesque, although Colonial stylings, were still preserved in settings such as Johns Hopkins. Nor was Harvard immune to Olmstead’s pervasive architectural reach: Olmstead’s architectural firm was based in Brookline, Massachusetts, and indeed the firm was commissioned in 1925 to design Harvard’s very own business school.

The Business School, however, was but one of many expansions Harvard undertook in the beginning of the 20th century: University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell undertook to expand Harvard’s housing in a big way by inaugurating the beginnings of the current House system. Seeking to eliminate the stratification of social classes that came with the Gold-Coast era (and privately funded) constructions along the river, Lowell initiated the construction of Adams and Dunster Houses in the 1930s. These first two houses, along with five more donated by oil-speculator Edward Harkness, eventually came to form the basis for the modern upperclassmen House system as we know it. Later constructions, however, were not quite so benevolent: as the turbulent 60s’ rolled along, modernist architecture was seen as an excellent way to prevent students from congregating, a key factor in the design of freshman dormitory Canaday. But this modernism was simply a sign of the times: constructions such as Mather were seen by architects Shepley, Bullfinch, Richardson, and Abbott (the designers of all of the previous River houses) as the new future of the American campus.

With this evolution, involving not a single big expansionist bang but a continual piling-on of buildings and ideas and architectural styles, Harvard emerges into the 21st century confronted by new challenges to endowment and campus alike. The modernism of Mather, Canaday, and the Science Center stands discredited, spurned by students and replaced instead by efforts to renovate the now-historic upperclassmen houses. New land acquisitions by Harvard in Allston compete with online courses and virtual campuses for attention as the very nature of what constitutes a college education in the United States comes into question. And as we mill about those assorted common spaces and academic halls of our own storied campus, we would do well to consider just how these edifices to learning got here — and what their future might be.

Andrew Lin ’17 (andrewlin@college) is himself a resident of the inimitable Mather House, and indeed he rather enjoys the long walk through Cambridge to get to class that stems from Harvard’s open-plan development.

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