Large universities are always interesting places to visit, but many campuses have sites of historical importance, buildings of distinction or museums of interest. Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, has all three, and can easily be reached from Boston, which is about 3 miles (4.8 km) to the southeast, by highways along the Charles River, city streets and buses or the Red Line subway of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Boston’s famous “T”.
In 1636 the General Court, the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay colony, established a college in New Towne, across the Charles River from Boston. The institution was called New College or the College at New Towne, and the first printing press in America was brought there from London in 1638. In the following year, clergyman John Harvard, an alumnus of the University of Cambridge in England, left the new college ₤779 and his library of 400 books; the college was named for him and the town rechristened as Cambridge. A statue of John Harvard stands today at the center of Harvard Yard, but the figure is a generic one in Puritan garb, as there were no likenesses of the real John Harvard.
The college was never affiliated with a particular religious denomination, but combined a classical education with the Puritan philosophy. Many of its early graduates became clergymen in the Congregational churches that predominated in Massachusetts, and the first mission statement of the college in 1643 expressed its desire “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches”. Its early presidents were prominent clergymen, most notably Increase Mather, who served from 1685 to 1701 and was also prominently involved in the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692.
The first lay president of the college was John Leverett, who began the gradual disengagement of the college from the Puritan ministry. Although originally established to train clergy in the Puritan tradition, Harvard gradually came to be dominated by the philosophies of the Enlightenment during the 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, the theological and philosophical ideas of classical liberalism were predominant. These ideas had an important influence on the founders of the United States, many of whom were Harvard graduates, and on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Natural science became increasingly important during the 19th century, and Louis Agassiz became one of the most eminent naturalists in the world as well as an important figure in philosophy. Harvard established a Divinity School independent of any particular religion in 1815, and this became the home of transcendentalism, the school of philosophy that is associated with Emerson and Thoreau. The importance of religion was lessened and that of student self-direction increased, which was an importance change in American higher education, during the presidency of Charles W. Eliot between 1869 and 1909. There had been a medical school in Boston since 1782, but during the 1800s Harvard became a university with the establishment of several graduate schools, particularly those of law and business.
The university’s wealth and reputation grew during the 20th century, chiefly during the presidencies of A. Lawrence Lowell and James Bryant Conant. An “annex for women” had been founded in 1879 and became Radcliffe College. The men’s and women’s colleges grew closer over the next 120 years and finally merged in 1999. After 1945 the administrations of James B. Conant and Nathan M. Pusey made a concerted attempt to recruit students from a wide range of geographical areas and social and economic backgrounds; the concept of a wide-ranging general education in areas beyond the students’ eventual vocations, introduced in 1945, became important throughout American education. Expansion of the sciences resulted in 150
Nobel laureates eventually serving on the Harvard faculty. Intensive fundraising and professional management of the university’s finances resulted in the largest endowment in the world. The aggressive acquisition of property in Cambridge and adjacent communities also made Harvard the largest property owner in Massachusetts.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Harvard had an endowment of almost 40 billion dollars and was the second most selective institution in the country, admitting approximately 5 per cent of applicants in 2015 The undergraduate college and all of its schools, numbering 13 after the establishment of the Engineering School in 2007, have invariably appeared in the top 5 of any ranking of educational institutions. The first Jewish president was elected in 1991 and the first woman president in 2006.
The university is centered around Harvard Yard, where the original buildings were built and the administrative offices, many academic buildings and the main libraries and freshman dormitories are located. This area is widely known from film and television depictions, and adjoins Harvard Square, a triangular plaza where Massachusetts Avenue intersects Brattle and John F. Kennedy Street. This is the transportation hub for the campus, historically the terminus of the Red Line from Boston, although since 1984 trains have continued on to outer suburbs; a tunnel under the square was originally built for streetcars but has been used since 1958 for bus and trolley bus connections to adjacent suburbs. On average, Harvard Square is about 12 minutes from the Park Street station under Boston Common, and the current MBTA fare is $2.10.
Harvard Yard and the 12 residential houses along the river are surrounded by a densely-populated industrial city, and Cambridge, Massachusetts is not as picturesque as Cambridge, England. Massachusetts Hall in Harvard Yard, however, is worth a visit as it dates from 1718 and is the oldest surviving Harvard building and the second oldest academic structure in America; Harvard students from John Adams to Alan Jay Lerner have lived there, and the offices of the president and vice president now occupy the first three floors and students have the fourth.
Other noteworthy buildings include Memorial Church, built as a World War I memorial where university houses of worship had stood since 1744, and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, which houses 4 million books and a Gutenberg bible, constructed to honor a 1907 graduate and prodigious book collector who drowned in the sinking of the Titanic. There is a university legend to this day that Harvard’s requirement until about 1980 that all entering students know how to swim was a condition attached by Mrs. Widener to endowing the world’s largest university library in her son’s memory.
Other buildings worth a visit include Langdell Hall at the Law School, just north of Harvard Yard, and the Quadrangle of the Medical School facing Longwood Avenue in Boston, among the best examples of the Imperial Roman form of classical architecture in the United States. Harvard Stadium, across the river, was the first permanent reinforced concrete stadium built in the United States, and is the ancestor of sports facilities around the country; the forward pass was introduced into American football here in 1906 because the thunderous collisions of opposing teams frequently produced serious injuries but the first idea to reduce these, widening the playing field, would not work because the stadium had already been built.
Harvard teams are called “the Crimson”, and the association with red school dates from the 1858 idea of rowing coach Charles W. Eliot, later to be Harvard’s longest-serving president, to put red scarves on the Harvard crew so that spectators could more easily see them. More modern buildings of note include the Graduate Center between the Yard and the Law School, designed in 1948 by Walter Gropius, and the 1972 Gund Hall on Quincy Street, which houses the Graduate School of Design.
Most visitors come to see the 80 libraries and museums, of which the Widener is the most famous. The Lamont library, fronted by Henry Moore’s Large Four-piece Reclining Figure, is the most commonly used by undergraduates, and the Cabot Science Library adjoining the engineering school and science facilities has one of the world’s largest collections of geological maps, landscape photography and material related to mathematics. Another large collection of maps and atlases is located in the Pusey Library in Harvard Yard, while the Yenching Institute and Library near the divinity school and science facilities houses the largest collection of Chinese, Japanese and Buddhist texts outside of East Asia. The Houghton Library, which adjoins the Widener Library, has since 1938 preserved and displayed rare manuscripts.
In addition to the libraries, the Harvard Art Museums have several large collections with over 250,000 objects. The original Fogg Museum was established in 1895 in an Italian Renaissance building that was soon outgrown, and moved in 1925 to a Georgian Revival structure that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Busch-Reisinger Museum opened in 1903 in nearby Kirkland Hall, and was dedicated by psychologist, philosopher and Harvard professor William James; endowed by St. Louis brewer Adolphus Busch, the museum was the first in North America devoted to the arts of the German-speaking countries, and houses two pipe organs made famous in weekly radio broadcasts in the 1950s and 1960s by E. Power Biggs.
A third museum, containing the eclectic collections of pharmaceutical giant Arthur M. Sackler, opened in a noted modernist building in 1985 that also housed the offices of art faculty. Between 2008 and 2014, the Fogg building on Quincy Street was reconstructed by architect Renzo Piano to house the bulk of these museums’ collections, and the new Harvard Art Museums were opened in 2014. Kirkland Hall still houses some of the Busch-Reisinger collections as well as organ concerts, and future uses for the Sackler Museum are being evaluated. The museums charge admission ($15, $13 for seniors and $10 for non-Harvard students), but Harvard students and employees and residents of Cambridge are admitted free every day and Massachusetts residents on Saturdays. The museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on university holidays.
There are also scientific and natural museums, chiefly the Museum of Natural History on Oxford Street. Created in 1998, the museum combines three famous research collections, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum, as well as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The “MCZ” was founded in 1859 by naturalist Louis Agassiz and the Herbaria started in 1842 by botanist Asa Gray. The Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard, as it was originally called, houses over 100,000 specimens. The Peabody Museum opened in 1866, and is the oldest and largest facility devoted to the anthropology of the Americas. The nearby Harvard Semitic Museum, preserving and displaying near eastern artifacts since 1889, and the Harvard Collection of Scientific Instruments, started in 1672, organized as a museum in 1948 and now housed in the Science Center, were combined with the Natural History Museums in 2012 to form the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Hours are generally 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission to all museums is $12 ($10 for seniors and students, $8 for children and free for members and Harvard ID holders).
There is still more to see farther afield from the Harvard campuses. The university owns and operates the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain; it is located at the end of the MBTA Orange Line, and admission is free. The Fisher Museum in the Harvard Forest in Petersham, 62 miles (100 km) to the northwest, is open to the public on weekends. The Estabrook Woods north of Concord, New Hampshire, was used by the Minutemen in the Revolutionary War and was later the inspiration for Thoreau’s writings. It currently costs about $60,000 a year for a student to attend Harvard, but visitors can have the Harvard experience for much less than that.