Memorial Hall (Harvard University)

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Memorial Hall, Harvard University
A ground-level exterior view of a large, highly ornate 19th-century building. Its main body is longer than it is high, with a single very tall story of red-orange brick with tall stained-glass windows. The steep and tall slate roof is patterned in pale shades of blue, light brown, and red-orange, arranged in broad horizontal stripes of widely varying heights. A tower rises to the right of the building's center.
View from southwest showing Annenberg Hall (foreground) and Memorial Transept (right). Sanders Theatre is out of view beyond Memorial Transept.
LocationCambridge, Massachusetts
Coordinates42°22′33.2″N 71°6′53.7″W / 42.375889°N 71.114917°W / 42.375889; -71.114917Coordinates: 42°22′33.2″N 71°6′53.7″W / 42.375889°N 71.114917°W / 42.375889; -71.114917
ArchitectWilliam Robert Ware,
Henry Van Brunt
Architectural styleNeo-Gothic
NRHP reference No.70000685[1]

Memorial Hall, immediately north of Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an imposing[2][3][4] High Victorian Gothic building honoring Harvard men's sacrifices in defense of the Union during the American Civil War‍—‌"a symbol of Boston's commitment to the Unionist cause and the abolitionist movement in America."[5]

Built on a former playing field known as the Delta, it was described by Henry James as consisting of

three main divisions: one of them a theater, for academic ceremonies; another a vast refectory, covered with a timbered roof, hung about with portraits and lighted by stained windows, like the halls of the colleges of Oxford; and the third, the most interesting, a chamber high, dim and severe, consecrated to the sons of the university who fell in the long Civil War.[6]

James's "three divisions" are known today as (respectively) Sanders Theatre; Annenberg Hall (formerly Alumni Hall or the Great Hall); and Memorial Transept. Beneath Annenberg Hall, Loker Commons offers a number of student facilities.

Conception and construction[edit]

Memorial Hall is, in the opinion of the President and Fellows, the most valuable gift the Uni­ver­si­ty has ever received, with respect alike to cost, daily usefulness, and moral significance.

President's Report for 1877–78[7]

This happy commemorative creation of the Union ... the great bristling brick Valhalla of the early "seventies," that house of honor and of hos­pi­tal­ity which [dispenses] laurels to the dead and dinners to the living.

— Henry James (1905) [8]

A huge Victorian Gothic barn.

Life (1941) [9]

Between 1865 and 1868 an alumni "Committee of Fifty" raised $370,000 (equal to one-twelfth of Harvard's entire endowment at the time) toward a new building in memory of Harvard men who had fought for the Union in the American Civil War,[10] particularly the 136 dead[11]‍—‌a "Hall of Alumni in which students and graduates might be inspired by the pictured and sculpted presence of her founders, benefactors, faculty, presidents, and most distinguished sons." When, about the same time,[10] a $40,000 bequest was received from Charles Sanders (class of 1802) for "a hall or theatre to be used on [any] public occasion connected with the College, whether literary or festive", a vision was formed of a single building containing a large theater as well as a large open hall, and thus meeting both goals.[10]

A site was found on the "Delta", the triangle bounded by Cambridge, Kirkland, and Quincy Streets.[A] The project was formally named Memorial Hall in September 1870, and on October 6 the cornerstone was laid,[12] Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. composing a hymn for the occasion.[B]

In May 1878 the Committee of Fifty notified the President and Fellows that the project was complete and the premises ready for formal transfer to the university. On July 8 the President and Fellows unanimously voted to "accept with profound gratitude this splendid and precious gift."[7]

Architecture and facilities[edit]

Plan (1874, north at top) showing Alumni Hall (left and center), Memorial Transept (center-right), and Sanders Theatre (right)

The building's High Victorian Gothic design, by alumni William Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt, was selected in a blind competition. A 1907 publication gives dimensions of 305 by 113 feet, with a height of 190 feet at the tower;[12] a 2012 source gave a height of 195 feet, making it the ninth-tallest building in Cambridge at that time.[15] Its 1970 National Historic Landmark designation recognized it one of the nation's most dramatic examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture.[16]

A general restoration was carried out between 1987 and 1996.[17][18]

Annenberg Hall[edit]

What was originally known as Alumni Hall[citation needed]‍—‌nine thousand square feet shaped by massive wooden trusses, walnut paneling, and a blue, stenciled ceiling‍—‌was dedicated in 1874.

Originally intended for formal occasions such as alumni dinners, it was almost immediately converted to a dining commons, and was for fifty years the college's main dining hall (charging, in 1884, $3.97 for a month's meals).[19] In 1893 the Harvard Graduates Magazine described "the throngs of men who, at one o'clock, are to be seen racing across the yard from Harvard, Boylston, and Sever [Halls], striving to reach [Memorial] Hall ahead of slower competitors for vacant seats at the overtaxed tables".[20] But "as the center of University life moved south toward the Charles, [the dining commons] became less popular and closed in 1925" [21] (see Harvard College § House system) after which Alumni Hall saw mostly light use, typically as a venue for dances, banquets, examinations, and the like. In 1934 The New York Times reported that Harvard officials had "at last found a use for Memorial Hall" by siting a rifle range in the basement.[22]

During World War II the Crimson reported[21] that "the Great Hall" was being used "in winter-time for the 6 o'clock in the morning calisthenics of the [military] Chaplain's School" (though without explaining why Harvard Divinity students had been singled out for this treatment) and intimated that Stevens Laboratory, in the basement, "is doing secret work in acoustics."

After extensive renovations, in 1996 the space was renamed Annenberg Hall and supplanted, as the freshmen dining hall, the Harvard Union, which had performed that function during most of the intervening time.[18]

Alumni (now Annenberg) Hall in 1878‍—‌"in which students and grad­u­ates might be inspired by the pictured and sculpted presence of [Har­vard's] founders, benefactors, faculty, presidents, and most dis­tin­guished sons."[10] A 1916 guide described it as "very im­pres­sive; in spite of the mistake of ill-placed rows of hat-racks ..."[23]
Drawing by F.G. Attwood for the Harvard Lampoon (1877), "Manners And Customs Of Ye Harvard Studente". Donald Harnish Fleming wrote, "If you are stuck with a friend or relative who wants to see the sights of Cambridge ... treat him to a view of the animals feeding in Mem. Hall",[24] but another observer claimed, "In the great Memorial Hall ... the best of deportment is always to be seen".[25]

Memorial Transept[edit]

One of twenty-eight marble tablets honor­ing Harvard's Union dead. This one lists Robert Gould Shaw, Class of 1860.
Memorial Transept seen from the north door

The Memorial Transept [2,600 square feet (240 m2)] consists of a 60-foot-high (18 m) gothic vault above a marble floor, with black walnut paneling and stenciled walls, a large stained glass window over each of two exterior doors, and‍—‌commemorating the 136 Harvard men who died fighting for the Union‍—‌twenty-eight white tablets,

tablets to one after another of the many who thus died‍—‌a thrilling list. One sees such old New England names as Peabody, Wadsworth, and Bowditch; one sees the name of Fletcher Webster; one sees that an Edward Revere died at Antietam and a Paul Revere at Gettysburg.[23]

Confederate deaths are not represented.

Memorial Transept serves as a vestibule for Sanders Theatre.

Sanders Theatre[edit]

Sanders Theatre, c. 1876

Sanders Theatre (substantially completed in 1875, but first used for Harvard's 1876 commencement)[10] was inspired by Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre. Renowned for its acoustics, and one of Harvard's largest classrooms,[clarification needed] Sanders Theatre (capacity 1000) is in great demand for lectures, concerts, ceremonies and conferences. Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mikhail Gorbachev have spoken there.

Sanders features John La Farge's stained-glass window Athena Tying a Mourning Fillet; statues of James Otis (by Thomas Crawford) and Josiah Quincy III (by William Wetmore Story) flank the stage. The exterior gables display busts of great orators: Demosthenes, Cicero, John Chrysostom, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, Edmund Burke, and Daniel Webster.[26]

Sanders Theatre contributed in an unusual way to the early work of Wallace Sabine, considered the founder of architectural acoustics. In 1895, tasked with improving the dismal acoustical performance of the Fogg Museum's lecture hall, Sabine carried out a series of nocturnal experiments there, using hundreds of seat cushions borrowed from nearby Sanders as sound-absorbent material; his work each night was limited by the requirement that the cushions be returned to Sanders in time for morning lectures there. The scientific unit of sound absorption, the sabin, is very close to the absorption provided by one Sanders Theatre cushion.[27]

Loker Commons[edit]

Rose window above south entrance to Memorial Transept

Beneath Annenberg Hall, Loker Commons offers a student pub, music practice spaces, and other facilities.


Twenty-two stained-glass windows, installed between 1879 and 1902, include several by John La Farge, Louis Comfort Tiffany Studios, Donald MacDonald, Sarah Wyman Whitman,[28] and Charles Mills.[29]

Tower and clock[edit]

Early design (not built), view from southwest
Tower as originally built, 1876–77
View from northeast showing Sanders Theatre at left, doors and windows of Memorial Transept at center. Four-faced clock was added 1897, and destroyed by fire 1956.

The central tower was nearly complete by 1876, but criticism convinced Van Brunt and Ware to revise it in 1877. In 1897[30] was added what a 1905 guidebook described as "an enormous [four-faced clock which] detonates the hours in a manner which is by no means conducive to the sleep of the just and the rest of the weary",[31] and which Kenneth John Conant termed "railroad Gothic".[32]

In 1932 the clock's driving works, and the associated 155-pound (70 kg) bell-clapper, were somehow lowered 115 feet (35 m) to the ground without attracting attention; visiting Yale students were suspected[33][34] but the clapper was never found. Three years later the disappearance of the replacement clapper, under similar circumstances, was rumored to be Yale's revenge for the theft of its mascot, Handsome Dan.[35][36][37]

The 1897 tower was destroyed by fire in 1956 and rebuilt, to its 1877–1897 appearance, in 1996.[30]

Memorial Hall in 1976; much of the tower had been destroyed in a 1956 fire. The Colonial Revival building at right is a City of Cambridge fire station.
After 1996 restoration of tower to 1877–1897 appearance

Original backdrop to John Harvard statue[edit]

The John Harvard statue stood before the west façade from 1884 to 1924.

The John Harvard statue was originally (1884) installed before Memorial Hall's west façade, but in 1924 it was moved to its current location on the west side of University Hall.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "During the nineteenth century, Kirkland street went by the name of 'Professors' Row' ... On the south side of the street was the college playground, the 'Delta,' so called from its shape being that of the Greek letter, bounded by Kirkland, Cambridge and Quincy streets. Here the football games took place."[12] To take over the Delta's prior role, Jarvis Field was purchased‍—‌about five acres, or 2 ha, bounded by Massachusetts Avenue, Oxford Street, Everett Street, and now-defunct Jarvis Street;[13] it is now the site of Harvard Law School.[10] In 1874, Harvard played McGill there in the first rugby-style football game played in the United States.[14]

    In the 1960s Kirkland Street was truncated in conjunction with construction of the Science Center, so that the Delta no longer exists as an isolated city block.[citation needed]

  2. ^ Holmes' hymn:

    Not with the anguish of hearts that are breaking / Come we as mourners to weep for our dead;
    Grief in our breasts has grown weary with aching, / Green is the turf where our tears we have shed.
    While o'er their marbles the mosses are creeping / Stealing each name and its record away.
    Give their proud story to memory's keeping, / Shrined in the temple we hallow today.

    Hushed are their battlefields, ended their marches. / Deaf are their ears to the drumbeat of mourn--
    Rise from the sod ye far columns and arches! / Tell their bright deeds to the ages unborn.

    Emblem and legend may fade from the portal, / Keystone may crumble and portal may fall;
    They were the builders whose work is immortal, / Crowned with the dome that is over us all.[10]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
  2. ^ King, M. (1884). Harvard and Its Surroundings. Moses King. p. 41. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  3. ^ American Architect and Architecture. Vol. 25. American Architect. 1889. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  4. ^ The Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Political Journal. Vol. 92. W. Curry, jun., and Company. 1878. p. 503. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  5. ^ Shand-Tucci, D.; Cheek, R. (2001). Harvard University: An Architectural Tour. Princeton Architectural Press. p. 158. ISBN 9781568982809. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  6. ^ Henry James. The Bostonians.
  7. ^ a b "Appendix II: Transfer of Memorial Hall", President's Report for 1877–78, Harvard University, pp. 145–147
  8. ^ Henry James; "New England: An Autumn Impression. – III", North American Review, vol. 180, no. 6; June, 1905; p. 808
  9. ^ "Harvard: America's Great University Now Leads the World", Life, vol. 10, no. 18; May 5, 1941; cover, and pp. 22, 95
  10. ^ a b c d e f g "History of Memorial Hall". Retrieved March 30, 2015.
  11. ^ Harvard University (1949). "Memorial Hall". Education, bricks and mortar: Harvard buildings and their contribution to the advancement of learning. p. 81. ISBN 9780674238855.
  12. ^ a b c Hannah Winthrop Chapter, D.A.R. (1907). Historic Guide to Cambridge (Second ed.). p. 163.
  13. ^ Thomas Coffin Amory (1871). Old Cambridge and New. James R. Osgood & Company. p. 16.
  14. ^ "No Christian End!" (PDF). The Journey to Camp: The Origins of American Football to 1889. Professional Football Researchers Association. Retrieved January 26, 2010.
  15. ^ "Cambridge's tallest buildings - Top 20". Archived from the original on February 21, 2014. Retrieved November 14, 2012.
  16. ^ "NHL nomination for Memorial Hall, Harvard University". National Park Service. Retrieved February 27, 2015.
  17. ^ "December 2011 meeting notes | Boston Society of Architects". March 9, 2011. Retrieved November 5, 2012.
  18. ^ a b Office for the Arts at Harvard: Annenberg Hall; Aug. 15, 2011
  19. ^ "Fact and Rumor", Harvard Crimson, November 15, 1884.
  20. ^ "The University. The Progress of the Year", Harvard Graduates Magazine, vol. I, no. 3, p. 419, April 1893
  21. ^ a b Services Use Mem Hall for Cal, Drill, Classes, Movies: 70 Year Old Building Was College Center Harvard Crimson. August 24, 1943. Retrieved 2012-11-10.
  22. ^ "Harvard Memorial Hall Will House a Rifle Range". New York Times. February 19, 1934. p. 34.
  23. ^ a b Shackleton, Robert. The Book of Boston (1916), p. 235.
  24. ^ Fleming, Donald Harnish (1986). "Harvard's Golden Age?". Glimpses of the Harvard Past. Harvard University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-674-35443-2. There is a gallery looking down into the dining space, and everybody agrees that if you are stuck with a friend or relative who wants to see the sights of Cambridge – that eternal and probably intractable problem, given the limited amount of time that can be devoted to glass flowers – the only thing to do is to treat him to a view of the animals feeding in Mem. Hall.
  25. ^ Seward, Josiah Lafayette (March 1884). "Early Harvard". The Bay State Monthly. Vol. 1, no. 3. J. W. Boott.
  26. ^ "Description of Exterior of Sanders Theatre from the Office for the Arts at Harvard". Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  27. ^ Smith, D.L. (2011). Environmental Issues for Architecture. Wiley. ISBN 9780470644355. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  28. ^ Christopher Reed, War and Peace: A stained-glass window in Harvard's Memorial Hall Harvard Magazine, January–February 2010.
  29. ^ "Dedham Historical Society Hosts an Exhibition of Paintings by Charles Mills". The Dedham Times. Vol. 25, no. 28. July 14, 2017. p. 17.
  30. ^ a b "John Harvard's Journal. Restored". Harvard Magazine. March–April 1999.
  31. ^ Stearns, Frank Preston (1905). Cambridge Sketches. J. B. Lippincott. p. 39.
  32. ^ "The College Pump". Harvard Magazine. Vol. 98, no. 5. May–June 1996.
  33. ^ "Apted's Work in Codfish Tangle Brings Promotion". The Harvard Crimson. May 1, 1933. open access
  34. ^ "Harvard Bell Tongue Stolen From Tower; Some Blame Yale Men for 'Mem Hall' Theft". The New York Times. April 13, 1932. p. 40.
  35. ^ "Harvard Bell Silenced: Clapper Disappears While Yale Men Are at Cambridge". The New York Times. March 14, 1935. p. 21.
  36. ^ "Presenting the Wide World in Pictures. A Mystery in the Harvard Yard" (PDF). Rome Daily Sentinel. Rome, New York. open access
  37. ^ Teslik, Lee Hudson (March–April 2004). "The Undergraduate. The Prankster's Secret". The Harvard Magazine. open access

External links[edit]