The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


Yeomans on Lowell and the Harvard Houses

Although Harvard University is an old institution, its system of residential colleges dates only from the 1930s. This extract from Henry Aaron Yeomans’ Abbott Lawrence Lowell: 1856–1943 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948) tells the story of the establishment of Harvard’s House system and of the philanthropy of Edward Harkness that brought the system into being. This extract constitutes chapter 13 of Yeomans’ volume in its entirety, and all the ellipses in the text are Yeomans’. The extract begins on page 180 and my own editorial insertions are enclosed in {braces}. For additional publications on residential colleges please visit the Collegiate Way’s page of recommended readings, and for general information about the collegiate model please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

While the freshman halls were still a vision, the class graduating in 1911 had initiated a residential system of its own. Lowell referred to it briefly in the Report for 1909–10:

At the other end of college life the same question of bringing the students together has been solved more successfully than for many years. For some time the Seniors have been given a preference for rooms in Hollis, Stoughton, and Holworthy. In the spring of 1910 the Juniors determined to take advantage of this privilege more fully than ever before, and asked also for priority in two entries in Thayer, in which improvements in plumbing and steam heating were made. The result has been that of the 382 resident members of the Class of 1911, at least 195 have rooms in these four buildings at the north end of the Yard. With improvements in other dormitories the traditional popularity of the Yard could probably be in large measure restored, to the distinct advantage of the social conditions of college life.

As Lowell suggested, there had been earlier efforts, not unsuccessful, to bring seniors into the Yard. These efforts had resulted in the preference given members of the class in the assignment of rooms in the old dormitories near the center of college history and tradition. The earlier movement had been against the current, when class spirit was waning because of increasing numbers, widely diversified courses of study, and contrasts in living conditions sharpened by the growth of the “Gold Coast.” Now the tide was turning. The Corporation gave full encouragement, and next year Lowell could report a further advance: {page 181}

The efforts of the students, encouraged in every possible way by the College authorities, to promote solidarity among themselves,… have had a notable growth. One of the most palpable signs of this … is the practice on the part of the Seniors of getting together for their final year in the College Yard. This was mentioned in the report of last year, and it has been continued to an even larger extent, the Seniors filling substantially all the rooms in Hollis, Stoughton, Holworthy, and Thayer. For this purpose the steam heat and new plumbing were extended to the south entry of Thayer, and during the summer just passed Holworthy has been wholly refitted with new plumbing; so that all the dormitories at the north end of the Yard are now provided with shower baths, and all except part of Holworthy with steam heat.

Lowell’s sympathy with the seniors of 1911 was not merely official; it was also personal and reminiscent. He had always regretted the schism in his own class; and when, at the end of his first year as President, the seniors of 1910 followed the unhappy example of 1877, his anxiety about social conditions in the College grew even more acute. Happily, a group of leaders in the class of 1911 shared his views and determined to act on them unofficially. If they could bring half the senior class together in the Yard, they would create a democratic center there. Any exaggerated social importance which the clubs might have assumed would be reduced, and any prestige attached to the Gold Coast seriously weakened. This resort to the Yard and the opening of the Freshman Halls struck the Gold Coast a hard blow. Before many years had passed, the Corporation was quietly buying the private dormitories along Mount Auburn Street.

For at least a year before graduation a large group of older students were now thinking and living with some regard to democratic solidarity. But the change was inadequate; the spirit shown by the seniors became effective too late. Too many artificial and unprofitable associations had already been formed. Something should be done for the {page 182} student at the other end of his course. It was to meet this need that the Freshman Halls were opened. They were, however, only part of a plan that had long been in Lowell’s mind. They were good in themselves; and a year of life there was also an essential preparation for a further development in the solution of a grave social problem confronting the large endowed universities of the country. On April 19, 1907 in an address—oddly enough in view of subsequent events—at Yale University, Lowell stated this problem as he saw it, and suggested what seemed to him the most promising way to meet it:

It would appear, however, that bringing young Americans together for a common education from every section of the country is at this present day pre-eminently the problem of the endowed universities, and especially of the larger ones.… They are best adapted for the great function of helping to form a national type of manhood, because they have a better chance of drawing students in large numbers from every part of the land. But if size gives opportunities it also involves difficulties. In a small college the individual is in less danger of being lost; the young man without aggressive personality is less likely to be ignored or submerged. Character and self-reliance are more developed by being a man of mark in Ravenna than by belonging to the mob in Rome; and, what is more to our purpose, a body that is too large for general personal acquaintance tends to break up into groups whose members see little of one another. The citizen of a good-sized town has usually a wider acquaintance than the dweller in a big city …

The obvious solution is to break the undergraduate body into groups like the English colleges, large enough to give each man a chance to associate closely with a considerable number of his fellows, and not so large as to cause a division into exclusive cliques. It must be understood, of course, that this applies only to the social life, not to the instruction, which should remain a university matter as heretofore …

What we need is a system of grouping that will bring into each group men from different parts of the country, men with different experience, and as far as possible social condition. In short, what we want is a group of colleges each of which will be national and democratic, a microcosm of the whole university. {page 183} This may not be an easy feat to accomplish, but I believe it can be done.

Lowell never claimed any originality for his plan. Indeed, he never seemed interested in any idea because it was new or because it was old. Like Eliot, he always insisted that Harvard’s most persistent tradition was the tradition of change. On the whole, he was convinced that this tendency had been of decided value; but he did not insist that it had always proved advantageous. Yale, he used to say, had made fewer experiments and fewer mistakes. His only interest in any plan was whether it was sound. His mind, it is true, did not open quickly to suggestions from without. It was always so full of unexecuted projects that it was hard to push anything more in. There was no question of the pride of opinion. Once convinced that a plan was sound, he did not care who originated it. If a man wanted to do something, he always said, he had better not think about who would get the credit. His Report for 1927–28 reflected this view, and also announced that at last, what he had hoped for and worked toward, Harvard would shortly acquire. The vision was to be a fact.

A feeling has long been prevalent that the increase in numbers of the larger American colleges brings with it disadvantages. The personal contact of teacher and student becomes more difficult. Large communities tend to cliques based on similarity of origin and upon wealth, a tendency that produced at Harvard the Gold Coast, as the private dormitories on Mt. Auburn Street were called until they were bought by the University. Great masses of unorganized young men, not yet engaged in definite careers, are prone to superficial currents of thought and interest, to the detriment of the personal intellectual progress that ought to dominate mature men seeking higher education … If this is less true of Harvard to-day than in the past, it is because of endeavors to make the intellectual life of the students more serious and more interesting. But the very fact that we have made some progress is a reason why we should be in a position to make a further advance in the same direction … {page 184}

Meanwhile, the question of dividing the College into residential groups was not left out of sight. In 1906 the late Charles Francis Adams discussed it in a ΦΒΚ oration at Columbia, afterward published in this “Three ΦΒΚ Addresses.” He considered that such groups, or colleges as he called them, should be based largely on the subjects to be studied and also on the amount of the fees to be paid, suggesting an endowed or free college, and others for scholarship holders, for men of moderate means and for millionaires. Surely this would be an unwise method of distribution. About the same time Woodrow Wilson strove to introduce at Princeton a subdivision into what he termed “Quads”: but his plan involved the abolition of the clubs, which seemed to us needless and undesirable. The question of the distribution of students among the groups has always been one of the difficulties of the problem and was discussed by men here at the time.

The conception of an ultimate formation of residential groups has been kept in mind, the construction of new dormitories having been so planned that they might be useful in that connection: and therefore we are to some extent, prepared for such an evolution. It has seemed clear, however, that the change could not be made at a stroke; that the College could not be subdivided for purposes of residence by a sudden cleavage, but that it must be done by successive steps. The first approach was thought to be an honor group of men who had the capacity for intellectual achievement and could be stimulated to desire it. With this was appropriately combined a plan for a society of research fellows of the kind that has proved highly profitable at Trinity College, Cambridge, England. A project of this nature was submitted two years ago to the General Education Board, but did not meet with their approval: and we were hoping that some far-sighted giver might be found to make the plan possible.

Such was the situation when the anonymous benefactor, who had independently formed the opinion that a subdivision of large colleges into residential groups was of vital importance, came to Cambridge. He believed, as we did, that the division should not be based upon differences in the subjects studied or the careers the members intended to enter; that, on the contrary, men interested in various fields of thought should be thrown together with a view of promoting a broad and humane culture. We explained our method of approach through an honor group or House, which we estimated would cost three million dollars, and he most generously agreed to give it. In a later conversa-{page 185}tion, having been informed of the attitude of the Corporation and the Faculty on the matter, he indicated that if the University would commit itself to the whole project, to be carried out in such time and ways as seemed to it wise, he would give the larger amount that we had deemed necessary; careful estimates to be, of course, prepared before a definite pledge is made. Thereupon the Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed unanimously the following vote: “The Faculty welcomes the idea of dividing the undergraduate body into social units of appropriate size and rejoices that means have been found to carry out this plan.” The estimates are now being prepared.

Certain misconceptions are sure to arise. One is that Harvard College is to be superseded or rivalled. This has no foundation. Save so far as tutors may reside, or have their conference room in a House instead of in a lecture hall or administrative building, there will be no change whatever in the methods of teaching, which will remain wholly under the direction of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The plan is expected to give an additional stimulus to scholarship and intellectual interest, but otherwise it is not an educational but a social one. The discipline of the Dean’s office and the Administrative Board for deficient scholarship will remain unimpaired.

To a few men the plan may not offer any benefits that they do not now enjoy; but it is hard to see how, if rightly understood and intelligently carried out, it can be a detriment to anyone. To far the greater number of undergraduates it should bring serious advantages, part of which would accrue to all large colleges, and part apply to special conditions here.

The plan makes possible more personal attention to the individual. This is an end for which all colleges are striving, and which is attained here when the student comes to the Dean’s office; but that means in most cases after he is in some trouble. For the young man who is liable to fall behind, or who is not developing his own natural gifts and qualities, foresight is better than cure. In that way the benefits of the small college may be combined with the rich offerings of a great university.

Then such a residential House, where members of the three upper classes live together, gives an opportunity for contact in cultured surroundings of younger with older undergraduates, and both with instructors. This happens here now only to a limited extent: yet it is an extremely valuable factor in a true education. Strangers sometimes refer to the conversation about intellectual things among our college students, and so far as it exists it supplements and enhances formal instruction; but a {page 186} House of this kind could not fail to promote it with all men not destitute of mental appetite.

One residential building of the kind Lowell had in mind was already in service, but it was not for undergraduates and it was not in Cambridge. It was at the Medical School in Boston. Thirty years after President Eliot advocated the University’s providing inexpensive rooms and food for poor medical students Lowell could say in his Report for 1926–27:

The new Fogg Art Museum, on Quincy Street, was formally opened last spring, and both in appearance and in arrangement is proving admirably adapted to its purpose. The baseball cage, named in honor of Dean Briggs, is also in use: and so is the Medical School dormitory on the corner of Pasteur Avenue opposite the School. Seven hundred thousand dollars of the cost of this hall were given by Mr. Harold S. Vanderbilt, the rest being provided by alumni and friends of the School and by an advance from its funds. The building of this hall marks a change of attitude towards student life. Twenty years ago such a building would hardly have been considered seriously. The work of the School was regarded as limited to instruction in lecture rooms and laboratories, the life of the students being none of its affair … To throw students together in a community life is now regarded as valuable from an educational as well as a social standpoint; and within the last score of years colleges and universities all over the country have been building dormitories. It is interesting that this policy has extended to a professional school.

The next year he could add:

Around the ceiling of the vestibule of Vanderbilt Hall is a quotation from Pasteur, Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés—a principle of very general application. The dormitory has proved to be another step on the road we have been following, of making the students strive actively toward a conscious goal, that is the comprehension of medicine as the application of a complex biological science whose elements form one organic whole. The general examination, the loosening of the curriculum, the bringing together in the dormitory have had a cumulative effect in promoting the result. {page 187}

Soon it became known that the princely benefactor mentioned in the Report of 1927–28 was Edward Stephen Harkness, an alumnus of Yale University. He had previously offered a similar gift to his own alma mater, but the authorities there had been unable to reach a decision within the time set.

From the Supreme Court in Washington the Chief Justice wrote on February 16, 1929:

I write to congratulate you on the gift that you have had from Mr. Harkness. (I remember being with you a number of times at Cambridge when we went over the new freshmen buildings, and how intense was your interest in the development of Harvard along that line.) I am delighted that Mr. Harkness should manifest in this gift a proper spirit in helping along more Universities than one, and I am also delighted that in his generosity he should select Harvard as that one.

Lowell replied to Taft:

Life has not so many bright flashes as when I used to meet with you more often. It is always a real pleasure to receive a letter from you of this kind. You are so large and generous in your thoughts, and what you say about Mr. Harkness is perfectly true. His idea is not to help Harvard, but to help a movement which he considers of value for all the great colleges of the country. He will help Yale to carry it through whenever she is ready to do so, and that will happen before many years have passed.

The prediction in the last sentence was accurate. Announcement of the gift to Yale was made on January 13, 1930.

Lowell wrote in 1940 after Harkness died:

One of the most difficult tasks in the world is giving money wisely, and philanthropic multi-millionaires usually, and quite correctly, avoid it by forming a board or committee to do the work for them. Not so Mr. Harkness, or at least not mainly so. He did, indeed, endow the Commonwealth Fund here and the Pilgrim Fund in England with trustees to administer them, but for the most part he kept the charitable use of the vast property he inherited in his own hands. {page 188}

Through a confidential secretary requests for aid were sifted before they came to him, but those allowed to pass he considered himself. Still more important, he had his own views of the educational defects he had observed, and how they should be corrected. This was especially true of secondary schools and colleges, and he rightly believed that the way to improve such institutions was not to give small sums to many of them, but enough to one or two to complete the object he had in mind …

Here my personal contact with Mr. Harkness began. The idea of segregation into smaller residential bodies was not new. Early in the century when Woodrow Wilson attempted to introduce it at Princeton, and failed, it had been widely discussed, some men thinking much about the conditions essential to success. But it was Harkness who combined faith in his vision with the munificence to put it through. I knew that he had offered such a plan to Yale,—which through a misunderstanding they had failed to accept,—and that it was rumored he had said he would make the offer elsewhere. So, when in the autumn of 1928 a letter came from him asking to see me about something that interested him and he hoped would interest me I knew what he meant, and was ready to accept a plan whereof Harvard had for years been laying the foundation.

Having ascertained that the ideas held by the Deans of the Faculty, of the College and by me agreed with his own, he offered no advice on details, which showed both his wisdom and his modesty: his wisdom, because seeing that his plan was fully understood, he left execution of it to the experts; his modesty, because he never desired credit for his philanthropies, or the thought that he had put into them. One day while the first two houses were being built we walked down to see them, when he took me by the arm and said he wanted to ask me a favor, probably the only one he would ever ask, that I would allow one of the Houses to be named after me. Quickly I answered “Certainly, if you will allow another to be named after you.” He dropped my arm and moved away almost as if I had suggested a crime.

Shrewd and sane he pondered earnestly how his wealth could be distributed to do the most good, rather shunning the beaten paths, and thinking more of imponderable influences than of visible effects. He did not seem to consider it any credit to him to devise or carry out benefactions. He had been born with those responsibilities, and he devoted his whole life to their performance, regarding himself as an unprofitable servant who {page 189} had only done what it was his duty to do. With many importunities that must be turned down, with the inevitable disappointments in some of the results of his gifts, with the failure of some people to appreciate what he was trying to do, did he find joy in his labors? No one could have known but him, and perhaps he could hardly strike the balance.

He came to the first High-Table dinner at Lowell House, and turning to Dean Clifford Moore he said: “It is less than two years since I proposed the building of these Houses at Harvard, and here I am dining in one of them.” Now that he has died it is a consolation to think that his gift to us was not only a great benefit to our students, but also a source of happiness to him.

In the letter written to Lowell when he resigned, Harkness had said:

How fortunate for me that you were there when I appeared one bright November day and found that you had set the stage so completely for my project.

The Houses were mentioned briefly in the Report for 1928–29:

The House Plan is a great experiment, in some respects the greatest tried since the College was founded; but it is the consummation of the changes that have been going on for many years. It follows upon that of the general examination, the tutors, and the reading periods, and without them might not be wise.… The problem of the college is a moral one, deepening the desire to develop one’s own mind, body, and character; and this is much promoted by living in surroundings and an atmosphere congenial to that object. The Seniors are now a highly serious body, with a strong sense of personal and corporate responsibility; and much can be done by placing the younger classmen in close contact with the older ones. The Houses are a social device for a moral purpose.

Two years later Lowell could say:

Less than three years from the day Mr. Harkness first suggested his gift for the Houses all seven of them were in full operation. For such a result we are indebted to the skill, the devotion and the tireless energy of the architects and the officers of the University who have taken part in the work. Save for the {page 190} old Russell Hall—a part of Adams House, which Mr. Harkness proposed should be torn down and rebuilt at his expense—the Houses were completed and occupied at the opening of the term this autumn. Residence in them has been voluntary, yet rooms for only fifty-one students, out of seventeen hundred and thirteen, are now vacant; and these include the unfilled places of men who have withdrawn because of the depression or other causes, and of freshmen who, after being assigned rooms, have failed to win promotion and cannot occupy them. Of the undergraduates who do not live at home, nine seniors, thirty-five juniors and thirty-three sophomores have preferred to hire private houses in which they can live in small groups by themselves. To permit them to do so has been though wiser than to attach to the Houses a sense of compulsion or make residence therein other than a privilege. That a resistless current will before long draw all such men into the vast majority of their fellow students there is no reason to doubt; and in the meanwhile the loss is theirs.

As yet it is too early to predict the effect of the Houses, or to know how far they will fulfil the hopes of those who sponsored them; for they are a new experiment, and some years must pass before they acquire permanent traits and traditions. But they have started well.

The printed record tells only part of the story. Opposition to the Houses was strong; much of it due to uncertainty about what the project involved, much of it to dread of any radical change. The clubmen, graduate and undergraduate, feared its effects on the clubs. Many of the other undergraduates thought they were getting on well enough, and the Lampoon, whose humor is sometimes a little immature, issued an anti-House number in taste so questionable that a lesser man than Harkness might have taken offense. In the Faculty there was still a group, not without influence, who held to the principle of laissez faire.

Fortunately Lowell could play a trump card in the game with the undergraduates. In 1926 the Student Council had published a strong report in favor of the House Plan. This report proved so valuable to the President that some opponents charged him with having used the students as a mouthpiece. Six years later, when Lowell was resigning, {page 191} Mr. Edward C. Aswell, chairman of the committee of the Student Council, exploded this fiction in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin:

In the spring of 1926, the Student Council published a report of its Committee on Education which recommended, among other things, that Harvard College be divided for social and residential purposes, into several smaller units. This was the first time that the educational experiment which has since become known as the House Plan was publicly advanced for serious consideration by any group or body officially connected with the university. Some two years later Mr. Edward S. Harkness made a generous initial offer to Harvard for the erection of the first unit. It was promptly accepted, and the House Plan was launched. Subsequent gifts by Mr. Harkness, even more munificent than the first led to the complete transformation of the college within a surprisingly brief period, so that, by the autumn of 1931, six Houses and all but one building of the seventh were ready to receive the upperclassmen at the opening of the new term.

Today, it is common knowledge that the House Plan had been taking form in President Lowell’s mind since the beginning of his administration, and that he had long cherished it as the final step in his program of educational reforms.


As late as 1926, however, there were probably not many, even among the officers of the university, to whom President Lowell had confided the full scope of his program; not many who realized that the climax was yet to come, and that the moment for it was at hand. And if his hopes for the House Plan were little known within the university, they were not so much as dreamed of outside. Consequently, when the Student Council report appeared, we undergraduates who had written it were extravagantly praised in private by prominent alumni and in public by editorial writers for the newspapers, as bright young men who had dared to come forward with an original and revolutionary idea …

Perhaps it was the very extravagance of the first reactions to our report which later induced sombre second thoughts. When it became known that President Lowell had long been pondering the House Plan, and when, with the swift acceptance of Mr. Harkness’s gifts, it seemed evident that he had merely been awaiting the right moment to set it going, the word began to be {page 192} whispered about that our Student Council report had been cleverly incubated and hatched for the occasion. The thing had happened too opportunely, some thought, to permit the belief that chance had produced it. Did not the extraordinary sequence of events betray the working out of a careful design?


Several times I have heard the report spoken of as evidence of Machiavellian methods. More than one Harvard graduate, not unsympathetic toward the House Plan itself but suspicious of the rapidity with which it was being rushed into execution, had asked me whether members of the faculty or the administration did not suggest to the student committee the ideas which we offered as our own. The newspapers have gone even further, publishing this conjecture as an established fact. The New York Herald Tribune was, I believe, the first to offer this bald interpretation, in a signed article printed about two years ago, and it has since been freely echoed. As recently as Nov. 22, 1932—the day when President Lowell’s resignation was announced—the Boston Herald sketched the origin of the House Plan in these words:

“The plan which had been in Dr. Lowell’s mind since 1909 came into being, as far as students and public were concerned, with a beginning in 1926, when a committee of ten undergraduates ‘in co-operation with the faculty’ recommended it to the Student Council.

“Those familiar with the policies of Harvard administration never for a moment doubted that the House Plan was carefully implanted into the undergraduate committee minds by the administration. The university authorities forthwith proceeded to ‘consider the recommendation of the undergraduate body.’

“The method of having the plan come forth as an undergraduate proposal in the face of certain opposition from some Harvard men with the stubborn defense that the old order needed no changing was shown when a referendum conducted by the Crimson showed the undergraduate body favoring rejection of the plan by a sizeable majority, although the faculty voted, 186 to 132 in favor.”

Like all pretty theories, this one does two things: it fits the known facts, and it lends to them a new meaning—in this instance, a rather sinister meaning. There is only one thing wrong with it: it is not true.


The idea of conducting a study of the Harvard system from the point of view of students—the beneficiaries of its virtues, {page 193} the victims of its defects—was born in the sanctum of the Crimson. There was nothing uncanny about that. Anyone who cares to look up the issues of the Crimson during the years immediately preceding the formation of our committee will find upon the editorial page daily evidence that all of us who were editors of the paper at the time were tremendously interested in Harvard’s educational problems. And why not? It was a striking characteristic of the college at that period, when the tutorial system was still on trial and was only beginning to show measurable benefits, that the students were enthusiastic about it and eager to have it succeed—more eager, I am sure, than were some members of the faculty—and this in spite of the fact that they had to work harder under the new dispensation than under the old. I believe most students felt about it very much as did the Crimson editors: that they were participating in an epoch-making experiment, and that it was in part their responsibility to see that it did not fail.

Early in the college year 1925–26, the president and the editorial chairman of the Crimson (William I. Nichols and I) were appointed to the Student Council.


At the meeting of the council that evening, the proposal to set up a committee on education was put in the form of a motion, was carried, and I was named the chairman, with authority to appoint nine other students to serve with me. Those appointed were William I. Nichols, Henry M. Hart (another Crimson editor), Walter D. Edmonds, Charles F. Darlington, Chester T. Lane, Stanley deJ. Osborne, James Laurence Carroll, George W. Cottrell, all of the class of 1926, and Cecil I. Wylde of the class of 1927. The committee met frequently during the next five months, discussing in detail every subject covered in the report.

I do not recall when the idea of the House Plan was first introduced, nor which of us introduced it … The question was in the air, and had been for a long time. That we eventually gave the matter more serious thought, and finally urged the adoption of the House Plan, was the result of a casual contact with a Harvard graduate who is now an overseer but who at that time had no connection with the university … Mr. Frederick Winsor, Headmaster of the Middlesex School …

Mr. Winsor thought that Harvard College had grown too large and unwieldy, and that it was imperative to split it up, by vertical division, into parts small enough to foster greater social unity and more gracious living.


{page 194}While we were engaged in drafting the report, we wondered what the university authorities would think of the suggestion to subdivide the college. We did not have a single clue to indicate what their reaction would be, but we assumed somehow, that they would oppose the plan. By this time our enthusiasm for it was so great that we resolved to leave nothing undone that might aid us in presenting an effective case. If we could learn upon what grounds the administration would rest its objections, we should be forewarned and turn the force of our argument in that direction. We decided, therefore, to sound out the administration in advance, and after the drafting of the report was completed, we asked President Lowell if he would meet the committee and discuss its findings before they were published. This he gladly consented to do.

The ten undergraduates were received by President Lowell in the faculty room of University Hall. There, seated about one of the long tables, we read him the entire report from the typed manuscript. When we came to the section which dealt with the House Plan, President Lowell arose from his chair and began pacing the floor, his hands behind him, his head bent forward in thought. Back and forth he paced as the reading continued and the air was electric with high tension. When the topic had been covered, President Lowell paused, looked up with a merry twinkle in his eye, and said, “You know, that is exactly what we have been working toward ever since we made the first beginning with the tutorial system.”

For some minutes he talked of the House Plan and of the hopes he had for it. The main outlines of our proposal were identical with his but there were differences in detail. For example, we had suggested that the freshmen be taken directly into the Houses; he thought this a mistake, and gave his reasons, which are now well known. We were convinced that he was right on this point, and revised our draft accordingly. For the rest, the committee concluded to let its recommendations stand just as they were, and in that slightly amended form the report was published shortly afterwards …

Lowell’s comment on Mr. Aswell’s statement followed shortly in a letter:

To the Editor of the Crimson:

I have read Mr. Aswell’s letter about the framing of the House Plan by the committee of which he was chairman in 1926, and my recollection agrees entirely with his so far as my {page 195} knowledge extends, for I knew nothing of the internal working of the committee. Nor did I influence its opinions, except as to the freshmen, at the conference he refers to in the Faculty Room. This remarkable and wholly independent report was a great encouragement and helped very much to bring the plan before the students and alumni from a point of view beyond the reach of the administration. For it I have always been deeply grateful.

In the Faculty Lowell pushed hard, so hard that some members felt the plan had been “railroaded” through. The President certainly feared delay, but he always thought he had given the faculty a fair chance to register disapproval. To his critics he replied that the question of accepting the Harkness gift was debated at two of the largest meetings ever held and that after the second debate the motion to adopt the plan was carried without a dissenting voice.

In later years when the Houses were overcrowded, Lowell was asked why he had not suggested to Harkness that an eighth unit would be advisable in order to meet a possibly increased demand for rooms. He answered that the opposition had been so strong that he feared any considerable number of vacancies might be exploited enough to wreck the plan. Only the men closest to him at the time knew the feeling of uncertainty beneath his apparent confidence.

The President, needless to say, was keenly interested in the building and fitting of the Houses. Never was he in graver need of some absorbing task. Mrs. Lowell was ill and not improving. Only hard work could take Lowell’s mind, even briefly, from the lonely future. Whenever his other duties permitted he watched the progress along the Charles, meeting Coolidge almost every day, and endlessly tramping floor upon floor with his red cocker, Phantom. The little dog seemed able to climb anything but a ladder, and no girder was too high or too narrow for him, if he could reach it. At Eliot House one late afternoon the watchman refused to let Lowell enter the building. When the Presi-{page 196}dent insisted on his right, with a courteous explanation of who he was, the watchman apologized: “I didn’t see the little dog. That throwed me off.”

Two units, Dunster and Lowell, were opened at the beginning of 1930–31. They were wholly new buildings, as was Eliot House, one of the five opened the next year. The other four made use of existing dormitories, the Freshman Halls, and dormitories on the Gold Coast which the University had purchased. To carry out the project Mr. Harkness gave more than thirteen million dollars. With the Business School, across the Charles, the Houses moved the physical center of the University nearer the River; and anyone who wishes to forget the incongruity—to say nothing more disparaging—of some of the earlier buildings, should stand on the Western Avenue Bridge and look upstream. Individual variations of American Georgian obviated monotony. For example, Dunster is to be viewed from the river front; Lowell, from the courts within. Some critics, who could not deny the beauty of dining halls and common rooms, thought that the students would be taught to live beyond their means, and that money would be better spent for salaries or teaching equipment. They either forgot or ignored the fact that Mr. Harkness had given his money for a specific purpose.

The naming of the seven units was an interesting, if somewhat puzzling, task. It had been decided not to call them “Colleges” because of conflict with terms already employed in the University. The legal name of the University is The President and Fellows of Harvard College; and “College” has long been used to describe the undergraduate department, as distinguished from the graduate and professional schools. “Houses,” named for men, individually or in families, was the designation finally chosen. Four commemorated Presidents of the University: Dunster, the first of the line; Leverett, who had defended the struggling school against {page 197} the control of the Mathers; Kirkland, who had begun the transformation from College to University; and Eliot. Two were named after families, Adams and Lowell. At least, Lowell insisted that his name was used to signify all the Lowells who have served the University, from the first to become a fellow down to his brother-in-law, Francis Cabot Lowell, and himself. The seventh was called “John Winthrop House.” To most people, to whom the name means anything, it signifies the Governor of the Bay Colony. Even in the College many never heard of the astronomer-mathematician of the same name, who was the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, 1738–1779.

The project gained favor as it developed. In April 1929, officers of fifteen Harvard Clubs, out of seventeen, were unqualifiedly favorable, one had no definite opinion, and one, who approved, thought the older graduates might be more strongly in favor than the younger. The undergraduates did their part. A committee was at once appointed by the Student Council to work with the two Masters first appointed, Professor J.L. Coolidge and Professor Chester Greenough whose resignation as Dean of Harvard College had been reluctantly accepted not long before. At first the Masters passed upon the applications for rooms and made the assignments; later the President, the Dean of Harvard College, and the Dean of Freshmen. The task, of course, was to make the occupants of every House, three hundred more or less, a cross section of the College, and to encourage groups of neighbors who would be congenial but not exclusive. To discourage the prevailing habit of “eating around” in restaurants and drug stores, reductions in cost were made for students who took most of their meals in their House. Libraries of ten thousand volumes or more were installed. Members of the various faculties and of the Governing Boards were made “Associates,” and urged to frequent their Houses and mingle with tutors and students. {page 198} There was something English about the new communities as there was about their creator; but Lowell was fundamentally a “Yankee,” and the Houses he built were closer to the early American college than to Balliol or Trinity.

What Lowell had dreamed at least as early as 1887, he had now brought to pass in the College; but the joy of accomplishment was gone. Mrs. Lowell was dead. Of course he would not falter. One more vision had long been in his mind, a project to further mature, creative scholarship. With that aim he would found a Society of Fellows; and he would make that gift in Mrs. Lowell’s name.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021