Building Harvard University: A History
Harvard University. It’s an educational institution that immediately demands respect, admiration and recognition. As the oldest higher education institution in the United States and considered one of the most prestigious universities in the entire world, you can argue that it deserves this recognition.
Building Harvard has happened in bits and pieces, representing the transitions of the US as a country and of the educational advancements over the past 300 years. With more than 209 acres of campus and over 660 buildings, this is one impressive school. This is the history of Harvard.
Founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1636, Harvard College wasn’t named until 1639.
The name Harvard comes from John Harvard, an alumnus from the University of Cambridge in England who donated 400+ books and about 779 British Pounds to the university to get it started.
Harvard wasn’t started as an educational institution in the same sense that we know it today. In the early to mid 1600s tens of thousands of Puritans emigrated from England over to the New World to establish new cities and areas. Puritans is a form of Christianity that focused on pulling away from Roman Catholic practices and becoming more protestant.
The Puritans wanted to spread their religion around the new world, especially with many Europeans settling and Native American peoples who they wanted to convert. This area of Massachusetts was hoped to become “a church in the wilderness”. The college of Harvard was founded as a new training and educational center for clergymen in the new North American Commonwealth.
A Center of Education
One of the big reasons that Harvard became recognized as an educational center in America was technology. The very first printing press to be found in North America arrived at Harvard College in 1638, establishing it as a center for learning, news, literature, publishing and storytelling.
The Buildings of Harvard
The very first Harvard Hall was built in 1674 and took three years. It was built from red brick - a staple construction material of the time - and replaced an old wooden building that had been used since the school opened forty years earlier.
This Harvard Hall was destroyed in a fire, however, in 1764.
Harvard’s oldest building would have been this original Harvard Hall but with it being destroyed in the 1760s this title falls to Massachusetts Hall.
Massachusetts Hall - or Mass Hall as it is sometimes called - was built to provide housing for the growing number of students at the school. About 3,500 British pounds were fundraised for the construction of the Hall. Construction took place in the summer of 1720 and today it is the oldest standing building in Harvard.
The classic Early Georgian red brick and white trim windows is an icon in the Harvard landscape. It was built to house 64 students, featuring 32 rooms and private study spaces for each individual. This building is often what people picture when they envision Harvard. Additions to the hall included a clock which was added in 1725 and labs and lecture halls that were incorporated during an interior renovation in 1870.
This hall also has an interesting part in American history outside of Harvard. Continental Army troops used the hall as a barracks in 1775 and imprisoned British officers were held at the hall during the American Revolutionary War. It was during this time period that many wooden fixtures and brass door handles were removed and stolen. The apparent cost of the stolen items was 417 pounds 88 pence.
Fire damage in the 1920s and disrepair that occurred during the Great Depression also weathered Mass Hall. In an article from Harvard Magazine, this building is recognized as a symbol of “the University’s enduring passage through internal change and external storm: anchored in tradition, restless in intellectual ambition, adaptable to an uncertain world.”
Other Buildings of Harvard College
Mass Hall may be one of the most iconic and historically significant buildings on campus. However, other buildings such as Sever Hall and Harkness Commons offer insights into other time periods and advancements throughout the history of this school.
Charles W. Elliot was the president of Harvard from 1869 - 1909. During his time, he removed Christianity from the general curriculum at the school. This sent a president for the secularization of higher education across the country and around the world. While the school’s history is very much related to the Church, since the beginning of the 1900’s the school has been independent with a focus purely on education.
Noteworthy People who Attended Harvard
There are a number of noteworthy people who attended this school. John F. Kennedy graduated cum laude in 1940 with a Bachelor of Arts in Government with a focus on international affairs. John Adams, the second U.S. President attended Harvard in 1758.
Other attendees of the school include poet E.E. Cummings, Nobel Prize winner T.S. Eliot, Al Gore, and even Neil deGrasse Tyson. Many actors and actresses attended the school as well, including B.J. Novak, Ashley Judd, Rashida Jones, Conan O’Brien and Matt Damon.
The Cost of Attending the School
In 1930 it would cost about $300 USD to pay for a year's tuition at Harvard. In the 40s this cost went up to $400. By 1953 tuition prices jumped to $800. In 2000 the average cost of tuition at Havard would cost about $47,700 per year. In 2019 - 2020 the average Harvard student paid $47,730.
With inflation, the $300 cost in the 1930s equates to about $3,700 USD in 2021.
Where did the Harvard Crimson Come From?
The school is well known for its color of deep crimson red. You may think it comes from the bricks of the old, original halls. Maybe it had something to do with the British background of the founders. In fact, the crimson color associated with the school happened quite on a fluke.
In 1875 a group of Harvard men was competing in a regatta rowing race. Charles Eliot and Benjamin Crowninshield were two students on the team. They stopped on a whim and purchased six handkerchiefs for the rowers to wear on their heads to differentiate them from their opponents. As they sweated, the red turned into a deep crimson.
The team wearing these scarves became news around campus and sparked a debate if this deep red should become synonymous with the school. It wasn’t until 1910 that the crimson color became official.
In 2021, Harvard University ranked as the 2nd best national university. About 6,770 undergraduate students were enrolled for the year. According to an Admissions website, the school received over 10,000 early applications with only 7.41% of applicants being accepted into the class of 2025.
It’s clear that Harvard is still regarded as one of - if not the best - institutions of higher learning that an academic student could wish to attend. With over 50 fields of study for undergrads, 58 PhD and master programs and more than 3,700 courses, there are programs for everyone at the school.
This school has been around longer than the country of the United States. Today, it is the best because it continues to attract top scholars with numerous accolades and focuses on many high profile programs such as law, medicine, sociology and astronomy.
This school is cloaked in history as much as prize winners, presidents, inventors, scholars and researchers are born from its halls. While it started as a religious institution, it has transformed into a school that balances tradition with innovation like no other.