If you’re in Boston, Massachusetts, don’t forget to visit the city on the other bank of the Charles River – Cambridge, MA.
And while you’re in Cambridge, you might as well visit Harvard University, the oldest university in the United States.
I’d suggest you put aside a whole day just for Harvard, since in addition to the one-hour Guided Historical tour of the university, Harvard museums – Harvard Art Museums and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture – are worth a visit as well.
If you don’t have that much time, at least do the tour of the university, either with Guided Historical Tours of Harvard or on your own.
The great thing about the Guided Historical Tours of Harvard is that they are FREE.
The bad thing is that they only run during weekdays, and only when the school is in session (though that includes the Harvard Summer School), because they are led by current Harvard students, so (once the pandemic is over) do check out the tour calendar to make sure there are tours on the day you want to visit!
(edit in April 2021 – there are no tours scheduled right now, check back again in the fall, or take a virtual tour)
I’ve taken this tour a couple of times, plus I have read quite a bit while writing this post, so what you see below is a narrative not only from what I heard during the tour, but also information I gathered from other sources.
The post below is just about Harvard’s Old Yard, by the way. The Official Tour also walks past the Science Center, the Memorial Hall, and leads through the green area called the Tercentenary Theatre, flanked by the Memorial Church and the Widener Library, but all of those deserve a separate post of their own.
Enjoy! And please do let me know if you used this post for a self-guided tour and found it helpful.
Also, while I tried to be very thorough in my research, and believe the post to be accurate, if you find any factual errors, please do let me know as well.
Map of Harvard
If you’re visiting Harvard between 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday, you can buy at the Harvard Information Center (see below for more info) “A Self-guided walking tour of Harvard Yard and surrounding areas” ($2). In addition to information about various buildings, the guide includes a map of the yard and surrounding streets.
If you have a smartphone, you can use the mobile Harvard University campus map to guide you.
Or, you can print ahead of time the pdf file showing the complete map of Harvard University. (Yep, all the highlighted buildings are owned by the university. It’s like a town within a town, really. The place employs over 16,000 people, more than 20,000 if you count post-docs and all the affiliates over in the Medical School area in Boston.)
Harvard University was established in 1636 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or more specifically by the order of the “Great and General Court of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.”
But it wasn’t called Harvard College yet back then, nor was its location determined at that time. All that the first order did was to set aside a sum of £400 for creating the college. (That’s about £56,710, or $85,923 US in today’s money according to meausirngworth.com.)
It wasn’t until a year later, in November 1637, that the General Court rejected Salem and Marblehead as possible locations for the college (because they were too remote), and decided that the prospective college be established in Newtowne, which was renamed Cambridge the following year, in 1638.
The next order of business for the college was to purchase a house and an acre of land from Goodman Peyntree. The house was located on the southern edge of “Cow-yard Row” and became the “College Yard,” nowadays known as the Old Yard. You can see the Cow-Yard Row in the pre-Harvard map of Cambridge above.
In 1638, the young college received through a bequest from a clergyman who died of consumption (tuberculosis) an imposing library of 400 books and half of his estate which came down to around £800. The other half of his property went to his widow, Ann Sadler.
That clergyman, who moved from England to a nearby Charlestown barely a year before, in 1637, was named John Harvard, and in 1639, in recognition of his’s bequest, the Great and General Court ordered “that the colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge.”
The first headmaster of the college, Nathaniel Eaton, who assumed his post in 1638, lasted less than a year. We was forced to leave Cambridge after a scandal broke out about how he treated his students and his servants. You can read more about Nathaniel Eaton in “Tombstone in the Tar” by Harry K. Schwatz, published in The Harvard Crimson in 1954.
Eaton was succeeded by a reverend by the name of Henry Dunster, who was subsequently named the first president of Harvard College in 1640, the post he kept for 14 years. Even though Dunster was pressured to resign for his religious convictions, he made several important changes to the way Harvard is run that are still in force till today.
The first class to receive degrees from Harvard, the class of 1642, included nine men: Benjamin Woodbridge, George Downing, who was knighted in 1660 and was later an ambassador to the Netherlands, John Bulkley, William Hubbard, Samuel Bellingham, John Wilson, Henry Saltonstall, Tobias Barnard, and Nathaniel Brewster.
If you’re interested in reading more about John Harvard, the early history of the university, and first Harvard graduates, I’ve included several links at the end of this post.
Your tour guide will probably also talk about Radcliffe College and the Harvard-Radcliffe connection, but Radcliffe deserves a separate post, and a separate tour.
Harvard Information Center (the Meeting Place for the Official Harvard Tour)
The Official Harvard tours depart from the Harvard Information Center, in the Smith Campus Center.
The Smith Center, which used to be known as the Holyoke Center, is located at 1350 Massachusetts Avenue, and is the tallest building in Harvard Square, very close to the Harvard Square Red Line MBTA subway station (or, as the locals call it – the T), so it’s easy to find it.
If you’re driving, you can try to park in the garage at the Smith Center, but it’s a small garage and they fill up fast. You might have better luck finding a spot at the Harvard Square parking garage located a few blocks away. You can see locations of other garages and lots on the Harvard Square Parking site.
Wadsworth House – Second Oldest Building
Once the tour starts, you’ll be heading across Massachusetts Avenue into “The Yard” though the Wadsworth Gate, right by the Wadsworth House, the second-oldest still standing Harvard building.
Wadsworth House was built for the eighth president of Harvard, Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth, and you may see both 1726 and 1727 mentioned as the year it was built. That’s because the construction of the house began in 1726, but since Harvard was asking the Massachusetts Great and General Court to fund it, the residence wasn’t finished till 1727. You can read more about the beginnings of the Wadsworth House, and its history in a 1955 Harvard Crimson article “Wadsworth House,” by Samurl B. Potter.
In 1775 the Wadsworth House served as the first headquarters of George Washington, when he arrived to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take charge of the Massachusetts Army, later known as the Continental Army.
In the 1850s, after Harvard’s President Jared Sparks decided to live in his own house, rather than the Wadsworth House, the building was turned for a while into a student dormitory. Recently it’s been housing various administrative offices, and I believe is closed to the public.
The Old Yard
Once you walk past the Wadsworth House, you’ll be in the Old Yard, dating back to the beginnings of Harvard College. This is the area where the Old College Hall (or Harvard Hall I) was built between 1638 and 1642. The building, which lacked an official name during its lifetime, was later called a variety of names – The College, Harvard College, First Harvard College, and Old College. It was a U-shaped, large, two-story, multipurpose wooden structure costing over an astounding one thousand pounds to build, only to be demolished in 1680.
Don’t miss the gray slate plaque near the corner of Matthews House, the neo-Gothic building ahead of you, announcing that
Near this spot from 1655 to 1698 stood the Indian College. Here American Indian and English students lived and studied in accordance with the 1650 charter of Harvard College calling for the education of the English and Indian youth of this country.
This is where the university’s first brick building, called Indian College, was built in 1655 with funds raised and donated by the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (SPGNE) to train young Native Americans as ministers and missionaries free of charge.
For ten years students from New England tribes lived in the Indian College. Two Indian College students from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe graduated in 1665. Three more graduated in later years.
The building also housed the the first printing press in North America, and it is believed that the first Bible in the British North American Colonies printed in the local Algonquian language in 1663 was set on the press located in the Indian College.
The Indian College was torn down in the 1690s, after the strained relations between the Puritans and the Native Americans led to the demise of the program.
In October 2007, students enrolled in “Anthropology 1130: The Archaeology of Harvard Yard” began digging in the Old Yard in the presumed location of the Indian College, looking for artifacts.
Since then, the course has been offered every other year, and has been taught by: William L. Fash, Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology; Patricia Capone, Museum Curator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University; Christina Jayne Hodge, Academic Curator & Collections Manager of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections and a Museum Associate at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology; and Diana Loren, Director of Academic Partnerships and Museum Curatorat the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University.
Harvard also offers a follow-up course “Anthropology 1131: Archaeology of Harvard Yard II: Laboratory Methods and Analysis.”
Over the last seven years students enrolled in the course found several 17th- through 19th-century artifacts including 17th-century printing type from the first printing press in the nation and the foundation trench of the Harvard Indian College.
Once you pass the Matthews House, you’ll see on your left two brick buildings flanking a massive iron gate.
The three-story structure to the left of the gate is the Massachusetts Hall, built around 1720.
Massachusetts Hall is the oldest still surviving building at Harvard University, and the second oldest academic building in the U.S. (the first one is the Christopher Wren building at William and Mary in Virginia).
The building was designed to be a dormitory, and even though the plaque to the right of the front entrance says “used for students’ rooms until 1870-71,” the top floor still houses student rooms.
Over the years Massachusetts Hall also housed lecture rooms, laboratories, and other academic space, then went back to being a residential hall in 1924, and finally in 1939 the lower two floors were turned into administrative offices.
Nowadays the lower floors are occupied by the Office of the President.
During the Revolutionary War, Harvard was forced to turn the Massachusetts Hall and several other buildings over to colonial troops, which supposedly took down all the doorknobs from the building and melted them into bullets.
The university petitioned the Continental Congress to cover damages caused by the troops and actually received compensation. Reimbursements included the cost of replacing 27 brass doorknobs and 62 rolls of paper.
The Johnston Gate, built in 1889, was Harvard Yard’s first gate to be built, and is considered the main, official gate of Harvard Yard.
Depending on when you visit you may or may not see it open, but even if the gate is open, rumor has it that Harvard students will choose to go through one of the two entrances on the side to enter the Yard. It’s considered bad luck to go through the open gate, except on two occasions – when moving into Harvard and upon graduation.
The Harvard Hall you see today is the second Harvard Hall built in that location.
The first Harvard Hall, sometimes called the New College, was built between 1672 and 1677, and according to Bryant F. Tolles, Jr., author of Architecture and Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860, it was a “provocative architectural composition” because of its eclectic blend of Medieval Jacobean and Renaissance features.
While the first Harvard Hall was lost due to a tragic fire in 1764, you can see what it looked like in an early 1700s engraving “A Prospect of the Colledges in Cambridge in New England.” The Massachusetts Historical Society claims to have the only extant colored version of the image, painted by William Burgis in 1726.
1764 fire that destroyed the first Harvard Hall
The 1764 fire was said to have destroyed most of the books in the Harvard library, and all but one book originally bequeathed by John Harvard. According to Harvard lore, the fourth edition of The Christian Warfare Against the Devil World and Flesh, by John Downame, published in 1634, was in the possession of Ephraim Briggs on the night of the fire. He had checked it out in October 1763, and since the library books were checked out for three weeks in those days, the book was seriously overdue.
I had heard on one of the tours that after the fire Ephraim Briggs returned the book to the university, but was still expelled for “stealing” it, or not returning it on time, but that’s not really true. This myth is refuted both in the 2001 Harvard Magazine‘s piece “Naughty Deed Goes Unpunished (Evidently)” and in the “Tale of John Harvard’s surviving book” by Jennifer Tomase, published in 2007 in the Harvard Gazette.
Second Harvard Hall
After the fire, the second Harvard Hall (or as Bryant Franklin Tolles refers to it, Harvard Hall III), was built in the same place in 1766.
Just as the Massachusetts Hall, Harvard Hall as well was “occupied” by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and used as barracks for Continental soldiers. During that time the roof of the building was melted into bullets.
Harvard Hall was the first Harvard building designed to serve only as an academic building, with no residential space. It originally housed a chapel and commons on the first floor, and on the second floor were the new library, a cabinet for scientific instruments, and the Hebrew School and the Mathematical School.
Originally the front of Harvard Hall was flat, as you can see in Paul Revere’s engraving “A Westerly View of the Colledges in Cambridge New England.”
In later years, the building was expanded, first in 1842, when the two-story central pavilion was added, and then in 1870, when one-story additions on both sides of the entrance were built.
Currently Harvard Hall houses lecture halls, so while you can go inside the building (the bathrooms are in the basement, by the way), don’t peek into the classrooms if the school is in session.
To the right of Harvard Hall stands Hollis Hall, which was designed to be and is still used as a student dormitory.
Hollis Hall was built in 1763, a time of growth and prosperity for the university, and together with the Holden Chapel was called one of the finest examples of early Colonial architecture in Massachusetts (according to the the 1930s Historical American Buildings Survey Commission).
The building was named for the Hollis family which had made generous contributions to the university over the years and funded endowments for the library, professorship, and student scholarships.
By the way, the doors oriented toward the Yard are original to the building, but originally the main entrances were on the other side, facing west.
That is why the “fake doorway” in the middle of the building facing the yard is plain as you can see in the photo above, but its equivalent on the other side is a bit more adorned, as you can see in the photo below.
In 1959, when Hollis Hall was renovated, five gray musket balls were found between the floorboards. The musket balls supposedly date back to the Revolutionary War, when Hollis Hall was used as barracks for the Continental army, and are now in possession of the Harvard University Archives.
Among other archival holdings is also a late 1790s drawing of the view from a study in the north entry of Hollis Hall, which I can’t include here because it’s the copyright of President and Fellows of Harvard College, so please click on the link to see it.
Well-known occupants of Hollis Hall have included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Townsend Copeland, and John Updike.
Depending on your guide, you may or may not see the Holden Chapel, which is somewhat “hidden” among the tall dormitories surrounding it. If you want to see this small but important building, turn left after walking past Hollis Hall.
Holden Chapel was built in the 1740s (I’ve seen both 1742 and 1744 mentioned as the date it was built), to hold Harvard’s daily prayer services.
In 1999, while gutting the building for renovation, workers came across a collection of human bones, some sawed in half. Holden was used as a medical laboratory between 1782 and 1850 and it seems that when the building was renovated in 1850, the bones, together with pottery fragments and other “trash,” were stuffed into a brick cistern.
Phillips Brooks House
To the north of the Holden Chapel stands the Phillips Brooks House, built in the memory of the Reverend Phillips Brooks, a preacher at Trinity Church and a Harvard graduate.
The building houses the Phillips Brooks House Association, “a student-run, community-based, nonprofit public service organization.”
As you go back in to the Old Yard, stop by the College Pump, a replica of one of three pumps that once provided drinking, cooking, and washing water for the surrounding buildings. The pump was destroyed in 1901 in a prank, but restored and reactivated in 1936, for the university’s “tercentennial.” The current pump was built in 1987 by William S. Brouwer, a craftsman who studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
From this point the tours generally head outside the Yard toward the Science Center and the Memorial Hall, but since this post is just about the Old Yard, it’s time to talk about the University Hall and the Statue of Three Lies.
The University Hall was designed by the famous architect Charles Bulfinch, one of the “architects of the Capitol,” and was built between 1813 and 1815.
The building stands out from among the other buildings in the Old Yard, because it was built not of brick, but of Chelmsford, MA granite.
It was originally dining, classroom, and chapel space, but right now it’s just office space and houses the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Dean of Harvard College, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, among others, plus the Faculty Room, which I’ve heard has gorgeous portraits on the walls as well as a working fireplace. You can get a glimpse of the room in photos included with the article “Bulfinch Magic,” published in Harvard Magazine in 2001.
John Harvard’s Statue aka the Statue of Three Lies
The front of the pedestal of John Harvard’s statue in front of the University Hall reads
The statue was cast by Daniel Chester French in 1884 for the University’s quarter-millennial celebration in 1886.
However, as no portraits or descriptions of John Harvard survived, nobody really knows what he looked like, so French used a Harvard student, Sherman Hoar, class of 1882 as a model.
And that’s the lie #1 – that’s not really John Harvard that you see sitting in the chair.
Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, the university was founded by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, not by John Harvard, so that’s the lie #2.
And finally, 1638 is the year when John Harvard left his books and half his property to the young Massachusetts college, not the year when the college was founded, which was in 1636, so that’s the lie #3.
You may notice that statue’s left shoe is more shiny and polished than the other. That’s because supposedly rubbing the shoe brings good luck, especially on exams, so over the course of the day you can see dozens and dozens of tourists reaching out their hand to touch the shoe, while posing for a photo with a big smile.
I’ve heard that John Harvard’s statue is among the top five of the most photographed statues in the U.S. I don’t know if that’s true, but you can see for yourself how many people posed for “a photo with John Harvard” in the span of four minutes in this time lapse video I took in October 2014.
By the way, the statue didn’t always stand in front of the University Hall.
“John Harvard” originally sat outside the Harvard Yard, on the lawn by the Memorial Hall, as you can see in this photo downloaded from wikimedia commons.
The statue was moved to its current location in 1924.
Other buildings in Harvard’s Old Yard
The other buildings that you can see in Harvard’s Old Yard are dormitories for Harvard’s freshmen. All first-year students at Harvard College live within Harvard Yard, then move to one of the Houses in their sophomore year.
If you’re interested in reading more about Harvard’s dormitories, both those in the Harvard Yard, Radcliffe Yard, and the Houses, read “Dorm Decor,” by Weston M. Hill, published in 2002 in the Harvard Magazine (but don’t click on the link to crimsondormlife site at the end because there’s something wrong with that site.)
* * *
And this concludes the tour of Harvard’s Old Yard.
I hope you enjoyed it.
Where to Stay in Cambridge
Cambridge is right across the river from Boston, so when you visit, you can stay either directly in Cambridge, or you can find a place to stay right in Boston. There are plenty of choices!
Flying to Boston?
Check Momondo for the cheapest flights to BOS Logan Airport from where you are. (affiliate link)
SOURCES for this post where you can find more information:
History of Harvard University
History of Harvard University in the “Harvard at a Glance” section of Harvard’s website
Historical Facts in the “Harvard at a Glance” section of Harvard’s website
Online exhibit “Digging Veritas” on the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University website
First Light: The Formation of Harvard College in 1636 and Evolution of a Republic of Letters in Cambridge, by George H. Williams, first volume in the series Divinings: Religion at Harvard: From its Origins in New England Ecclesiaastical History to the 175th Anniversary of The Harvard Divinity School, 1636-1992, general editor, Rodney L. Petersen jointly published with Vanderhoek & Ruprecht, Göttingen, Germany | ISBN 978-3-525-55056-4 | ISBN 978-3-647-55056-5
The Founding of Harvard College, with a new foreword by Hugh Hawkins, by Samuel Eliot Morison, published by Harvard University Press
Architecture and Academe: College Buildings in New England Before 1860, by Bryant F. Tolles, Jr., published by University Press of New England.
“The Architectural Harvard,” by Russell B. Roberts, published in The Harvard Crimson in 1963.
Harvard A to Z, by John T. Bethell, Richard M. Hunt, and Robert Shenton, published in 2004 by Harvard University Press.
Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century, by Samuel Eliot Morrison, published in 1936 by Harvard University Press.
Some biographical information about John Harvard on the Harvard University Archives website.
“John Harvard: Brief life of a Puritan philanthropist: 1607-1638,” by Conrad Edick Wright published in 2000, in Harvard Magazine
First graduates of Harvard University
Harvard University. Quinquennial catalogue of the officers and graduates 1636-1930. Cambridge: The University, 1930, on the Harvard University Library Page Delivery service website.
Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Volume 1, the Classes of 1642-1658, by John Langdon Sibley, published in 1873.
First President of Harvard, Henry Dunster, Dunster House, and subsequent Presidents of Harvard
Information about Henry Dunster in the “History of the Presidency” part of the university’s “About Harvard” section
HenryDunster.org, a site of the Henry Dunster Association, founded in 2008 to honor the memory and legacy of Henry Dunster.
“History” of the Dunster House on the Dunster House website
The Harvard Indian College section on the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University website
Harvard Yard Archaeology Project section of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University website
PDF of the 2014 brochure for 2014 Anthropology 1130: The Archaeology of Harvard Yard
“American Indians bless search for Harvard roots,” by Alvin Powell, published in the Harvard Gazette on October 4, 2007
“Digging in the rain,” by Alvin Powell, published in the Harvard Gazette on September 9, 2011
“More Remnants of Indian College in Yard Emerge,” by Andrew M. Duehren, published in The Harvard Crimson on November 7, 2014
Benjamin Wardsworth and Wardsworth House
Information about Benjamin Wadsworth in the university’s “About Harvard” section of Harvard’s website
Information about Wardsworth House on the university Marshal’s Office website
Wadsworth House drawing from 1870 in the collection of the Historical New England
“Mysterious Bones Found in Holden Chapel,” by Ken Gewertz, Harvard Gazette, July 15, 1999
Shout Out to #WeekendWanderlust and #TheWeeklyPostcard
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14 thoughts on “Self-Guided Tour of Harvard University’s Old Yard”
Thank you for linking up to #TheWeeklyPostcard. Very interesting tour of Harvard University. I didn’t know you could visit this place if you are an outsider, but next time I’m in Boston I’ll surely try to see it.
Anda recently posted…Top 7 Attractions on the Monterey Peninsula
Thank you for reading, Anda! I’m surprised to say you didn’t know you can visit this place because at times the university is “crawling” with tourists. 🙂 There are many buildings, in addition to the dormitories, that you can’t go into, but the grounds are open to everyone. In fact, in the warmer months there are colorful chairs all around the lawn for people to sit on and relax. I do hope you’ll get to visit. At least the museums (that’s a completely different post) are worth a trip across the river to Cambridge.
Such a well researched post! Harvard is such an iconic building, I had no idea that it was so old! Someday I’ll make it to America, when I do I’ll make sure that I visit Harvard (and buy a hoodie if possible).
Stephanie recently posted…First impressions of Thailand
Thank you for reading, Stephanie! Yes, you can certainly buy hoodies, T-shirts, sweatpants, and other stuff with the Harvard logo. Let me know if you do make it to Massachusetts. I’d love to show you around.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I don’t think i’ll be a student at Harvard any day but it would still be good to go and have a peek! And the history of the place is fascinating!
Thank you for reading, Sophie. Harvard is famous, but it’s worth visiting because of its history. But you don’t have to regret not being a student at Harvard. I think you’re doing just fine getting a world-wide education that’s much more invaluable. 🙂
I really enjoyed your post. My husband went to Harvard and it brought back many memories seeing the beautiful campus with all of its historical buildings and homes. Thanks for sharing and linking up to #WeekendWanderlust this week!
Carmen | Carmen’s Luxury Travel recently posted…The “ARK”- JFK Airport New Luxury Animal Terminal
Thank you for reading, Carmen! Yes, Harvard is quite charming as far as U.S. universities go, and especially if you have nice memories associated with it. I hope when you’re in the area next time you’ll go to see the new Art Museums. They’re definitely worth seeing.
The universities of N. America are only a backdrop to a lot of Hollywood films for me! I never actually considered stepping into one of them! Lovely post, thanks for sharing!
Revati recently posted…Comment on Old Tailem Town: The Town Australia Forgot by Els
Thank you for reading, Revati! Harvard actually rarely allows filming on campus. It is usually other universities that “stand in” for Harvard. It is worth visiting, though, as it is the oldest university in the U.S. after all.
Lots of great info here! That’s so cool that you can take a guided tour around. I’d love to wander around the campus!
Lauren recently posted…Very Inspiring Blogger Award Nomination
Thank you for reading, Lauren! Let me know if you’re ever in the area and I’ll give you a personal tour (and bring you with me to Harvard museums as a guest). 🙂
Great post!! When I was in Boston, i did the guided historical tour and I loved it!!
Shere recently posted…The best place to see sea turtles in costa Rica without spending a fortune