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This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996).   Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.  

Harvard on the Charles

For the first nearly 300 years of its history, Harvard University was largely confined to the area in and around the Harvard Yard near Harvard Square. Harvard was then a rather small school. As late as 1869, it had an enrollment of barely 1100 students, and a faculty of a meager twenty-four. Harvard spread to the banks of the Charles River only at the turn-of-the-century as its enrollment and educational mission expanded.

So successful was the turn-of-the-century enlargement of the campus from a stylistic standpoint---the predominant architectural medium being the neo-classical style---that today’s casual observer probably assumes that the university buildings on the river date from the 18th rather than the early 20th century.

This successful integration of the old and new portions of the Harvard campus was a truly great achievement, testimony both to the vision and energetic leadership of two great Harvard Presidents, Charles W. Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell, as well as to the great talent of the architects the university commissioned to carry out this singular expansion program.

Prior to 1900, the Charles River shoreline east of Boylston Street (now John F. Kennedy Street)---a district then known as Riverside---was one of the least attractive areas on the margin of the Charles. Prior to 1906, when a dam was built at the river’s mouth to permanently exclude the tides, the contracting and receding shoreline made the river’s edge unsuitable for anything other than commercial and industrial uses. Riverside had accordingly developed into a district clogged with unattractive commercial structures---an assortment of wharves, coal yards, storehouses, even a power plant.

This was also true to a lesser extent of the less developed Allston-Brighton side of the river, where a coal company stood adjacent to the North Harvard Street Bridge, the wooden bridge that then spanned the river on the site of the present Larz Anderson Bridge.

The first proposal for the development of Charles River shoreline by Harvard was advanced in 1894 by the great landscape architect Charles Eliot, son of Harvard’s President Charles W. Eliot. It was young Eliot’s suggestion that Harvard immediately proceed to develop the more than one hundred acres it owned on the Allston-Brighton side of the river.

This land had come to Harvard as a result of two late 19th century gifts. One of the parcels, the Brighton Meadows, had been donated to the college in the early 1870s by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and several of his Brattle Street neighbors. Learning that a group of Brighton butchers (Brighton was then the regional headquarters of cattle and slaughtering trades) were proposing to build a giant slaughterhouse, or abattoir, on the site that would have spoiled their view of the southside meadows, these concerned property owners purchased the acreage and presented it to Harvard. The second gift, Soldier’s Field, was deeded to the university in the 1890s by the banker-philanthropist Henry Lee Higginson (founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in memory of six Harvard classmates who had been killed in the Civil War.

The first Harvard buildings constructed on the river’s edge went up on the Allston-Brighton shore in the 1897 to 1903 period and were athletic facilities. They included Carey Cage, dating from 1897 (a structure only recently demolished). Adjacent playing fields and wooden spectator’s stands were also built. Then, in 1900, the handsome Newell Boat House was constructed just west of the North Harvard Street Bridge, a work of Peabody & Stearns, notable for its use of slate as a facade covering.

The next major Harvard edifice constructed on the south bank, dating from 1903, was the massive Harvard Stadium, designed by the renowned architects McKim, Mead, & White. This stadium, which seats more than 50,000 spectators, enjoys the distinction of being the world’s first massive structure of reinforced concrete, as well as the nation’s first large arena for college athletics.

The oldest extant Harvard structure on the north side of the river is the Weld Boat House, which lies just east of the foot of the Larz Anderson Bridge, and dates from 1907. Rowing is Harvard’s oldest organized athletic activity, going back to 1852. This handsome masonry structure replaced a modest wooden boat house that boating enthusiast George Walker Weld built for Harvard in 1890.

Harvard’s adoption about 1910 of a new policy, requiring lower classmen to live in university housing, provided the major impetus for the acquisition and development of the Riverside acreage. It was hoped that this “House System” would foster intellectual communication between students and junior faculty, who would also occupy these handsome new dormitories. A. Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard from 1909 to 1933, carefully supervised every aspect of the large-scale construction project to which the new housing policy gave rise.

As the Cambridge Historical Commission noted of these new structures on the Charles, their architecture reflected “a conscious effort by the administration to extend the atmosphere of the old Harvard Yard to a new South Yard and thus to symbolize the continuity of the Harvard ‘Collegiate Way of Life.’”

The first of the four Houses to be built facing Memorial Drive between Boylston and Flagg Streets, Winthrop House, consists of two edifices, Standish and Gore Halls, both built in 1913. The latter structure is notable for its garden facade, recalling Hampton Court in England. Winthrop Hall was designed by the architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, & Coolidge.

Next came McClintock Hall, built in 1925 and enlarged in 1930, a structure which has since been absorbed into the modern Leverett House complex.

Then, between 1929 and 1930, two additional Houses were built on the river, anchoring the eastern and western ends of this handsome. First came Dunster House, at the eastern end, then Eliot House at the corner of Memorial Drive and Boylston Street, opposite the Weld Boat House. Both were designed by Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch, & Abbott.

The Harvard School of Business Administration, founded in 1908, had in the meantime built a magnificent new complex on the Allston shore east of the Larz Anderson Bridge on a parcel of land that had once been the farm of Emery Willard. Dating from the 1925 to 1927 period, this handsome grid of ivy-covered Georgian Revival style buildings, with the neo-classical George F. Baker Library as its focal point, faced the river. The Business School complex, like neighboring Harvard Stadium, was designed by McKim, Mead, & White.

Prior to 1913 the only bridge across the Charles in the vicinity of Harvard had been the old wooden drawbridge at North Harvard Street, on the site of Great Bridge, the first bridge on the basin, built in 1662. The old Harvard Street Bridge was replaced in 1913 by a handsome neo-classical brick and concrete span designed to blend with the architecture of nearby Harvard buildings. Larz Anderson, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium and an 1888 Harvard graduate, furnished the money for the structure, which was named in memory of his father, Nicholas Longworth Anderson of the Harvard class of 1858.

The other Harvard area bridge, the Weeks Foot Bridge, was built in 1926 while the Business School was under construction with the object of linking together the two halves of the campus, which the Charles River now so conspicuously divided. It was named for U. S. Secretary of War John W. Weeks, a former U. S. Senator and Mayor of Newton. The money for this handsome structure, also neo-classical in style, was donated by thirteen friends and business associates of Weeks. It too was designed by McKim, Mead & White.

Thus in the 1897 to 1931 period Harvard University completely altered the appearance of both sides of the Charles River near Harvard Square, thereby transforming one of the ugliest stretches of the Charles River into what most modern observers would agree is one of its greatest attractions.

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