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Samuel Eliot Morison on the Harvard Houses

Although Harvard University is an old institution, its residential colleges, which are called Houses, are in no way ancient like many of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Great Britain. The Harvard House system was established in the 1930s by the university’s president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, with a gift from Edward Harkness, an alumnus of Yale University, Harvard’s traditional rival. The irony of a Yale graduate making a large contribution to Harvard was lost on no one at the time, and it has been the source of many an inside joke over the years. Soon after his gift to Harvard, Harkness did in fact make a major contribution to his own alma mater to establish a residential college system at Yale University as well. Although his name is little known outside those two institutions, it can be truly said that the entire residential college movement in the United States owes its existence to the generosity of Edward Harkness.

When Harvard celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1936, it commissioned a series of comprehensive volumes on the university’s history from the noted American historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The extract below on the origin of the Harvard House system is taken from Morison’s lighter and more personal abridgement of those volumes, Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636-1936 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936). As a semi-official history, Three Centuries naturally presented its subject in a positive light, but Morison was a distinguished scholar and didn’t evade the controversies of the time, although he described them gracefully. In reading this account, keep in mind that Morison was writing only six years after the first of the houses had opened and so his perspective was limited. But it is worth noting that even in that short period of time Morison saw the houses develop active social lives and identities. It is also worth noting that the Harvard University of Lowell’s day, in which these houses were established, had an undergraduate population (“the College”) of about 3500. Lowell considered that much too large to be socially cohesive and thought it engendered a destructive form of self-segregation that needed to be countered. Lowell wanted to recreate the kind of social opportunities that had been available to all students when the College had been smaller and most undergraduates lived together in the Yard, the original central section of the campus.

This extract from Three Centuries begins on page 476, and my own editorial insertions in the transcript are enclosed in {braces}:

The last of Mr. Lowell’s reforms was the House Plan. Although the freshmen had their own halls, and seniors generally roomed in the Yard (which in 1923–25 began to be ‘cloistered’ by the erection of Mower, Lionel, Straus, and Lehman Halls), there was a gap of two years in which students roomed anywhere; and only the clubmen had decent dining places after freshman year. By 1926, when practically all divisions of the Faculty had a corps of tutors, the time seemed ripe to decentralize Harvard College, house the upper three classes with their tutors in residential units, each with its dining hall and common-room, and see if some of the old social values of a college education could not be restored. An able report of a committee of the Student Council, written by E.C. Aswell ’26, recommended that this be done; but an application to the General Education Board for the wherewithal to build one experimental house for honors students was turned down. It looked as if Mr. Lowell would have to end his administration without realizing his dearest ambition for the College, when, one day in the fall of 1928, Mr. Edward S. Harkness (A.B. Yale 1897) walked into the President’s office and offered him three million dollars to build and endow an ‘Honor College’ {page 477} with resident tutors and a master, the members to be picked from the three upper classes. Mr. Harkness had already proposed this plan, or something similar, to his alma mater, but had been discouraged by arguments and delays. It took Mr. Lowell about ten seconds to accept; and the fait accompli was announced to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on November 6, 1928. The Governing Boards took up the plan with such alacrity and enthusiasm that Mr. Harkness in a few weeks increased his offer to ten millions for equipping no less than seven houses to be built from the ground up, and the others to be created out of existing halls, with suitable additions and alterations. Thus a Yale man became the greatest benefactor to Harvard in our entire history, making a noble return for the part that Harvard men had taken in the founding of his alma mater.

This stupendous plan aroused much enthusiasm, and almost as much opposition. It seemed more revolutionary at first than it really was. The Faculty did not like the way it was ‘railroaded through’ without consulting them, and thought that an experiment should be made of two or three houses, so that the inevitable mistakes could be put to profit in designing the rest. The students, on the whole, were hostile. The Crimson {Harvard’s student newspaper} denounced it; clubmen {members of social fraternities} did not like the idea of being herded with the majority, who in turn preferred the traditional social flexibility of Harvard, the liberty to sink or swim, and dreaded boarding-school discipline or Oxford ‘gating.’ As it turned out, Mr. Lowell did well to accept the complete plan and push it through, for if time had been taken for experimenting, the depression might have postponed completion to the Greek Kalends.

The first two houses, appropriately named Dunster after the first President, and Lowell after the dynasty, were ready for occupancy in the fall of 1930, and {page 478} promptly filled. The one was built on the river just east of the furthest freshman hall; the other, with two quadrangles, in the space formerly covered by old dwellings and gardens south of Holyoke Place. Professor C.N. Greenough and C.H. Harding have been the successive masters of Dunster, and Professor Julian L. Coolidge, Master of Lowell House. The other five were ready the next year: Eliot House, under Professor Roger B. Merriman as master, was built on the site of the old power house in the angle between Boylston Street and Memorial Drive. Winthrop House included Gore and Standish Halls, with additions, and was placed under Professor Ronald M. Ferry (A.B. 1912) as master. Kirkland House was made out of Smith Halls, with the old Hicks house for the library; the successive masters have been Professors E.A. Whitney (A.B. 1917) and W.E. Clark. Leverett House was formed out of McKinlock Hall, with a new dining hall, and a new quadrangle (Mather Hall) across Mill Street, and Professor Kenneth B. Murdock as Master. Adams House is a combination of Randolph, Westmorly, and a new residential and dining hall on the site of Russell, with Apthorp House for the Master, Professor James Phinney Baxter 3rd (Ph.D. 1926). Each House has single, double, and quadruple suites for students; suites for residential and non-residential tutors; a dining hall, common-rooms for students and tutors, and a house library—a feature insisted upon by the masters, which has proved one of the most useful in the plan. Adams has a swimming pool, and several have their own squash courts; but the land available was not sufficient to provide the greens and gardens of English colleges. The freshmen have been installed in the Yard, the cloistering of which has been completed by Wigglesworth Hall along the southern edge; and the Union fitted up for their meals, library, and game rooms.

There has been no compulsion on the upperclassmen {page 479} to live in the Houses; but most of them do, and a certain number of graduate students fill the vacancies. In order to prevent social segregation and certain houses becoming more fashionable than others, students have been allotted to Houses by the ‘cross-section’ plan, which has prevented any one house from maintaining a distinct character for more than a year or two.

Interhouse athletics were promptly organized; last year there were championship contests in fifteen different sports, and the winning outfit plays the champion of the Harkness Colleges at Yale. All sorts of House activities have grown up, and a new social pattern is gradually being evolved. It cannot be said that they have furthered democracy, any more than the Harvard Union and the Freshman Halls. The Gold Coast {a collection of elegant private dormitories that were favored by wealthy students} is no more, but the old social chasm between the clubbed and the unclubbed still exists, as in the nineties of the last century. For the great majority in the College the Houses mean a vast improvement in living conditions and social opportunities; for the tutors, fellowship with each other and with their pupils. Indeed, the advantages have been so great that only last year, on the demand of the ‘commuters,’ a dining hall and common-room were provided for them in Dudley Hall. If the members of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who have had the Union taken from them and nothing substituted, could be given a House, the system would be complete, for the Business school is well provided for, and the Law School apparently does not want one.… {page 480}

Mr. Lowell, becoming President in the shadow of the {page 481} greatest holder of that office, proved an educational statesman of the first rank. His defense of academic freedom maintained the great liberal tradition of the University; his wisdom and energy invigorated its many departments; his devotion restored to Harvard College the ancient ‘collegiate way of living.’

{A detail from Morison’s map of the Harvard campus in 1936 showing the first group of Houses established under the Harkness gift.}

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014