Widener Library, Cambridge, Mass

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1914-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The library in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, Harvard’s first purpose-built library was Gore Hall, which opened here on this site in 1841. Although architecturally-impressive, this Gothic Revival building proved too small for the school’s growing collections of books. It was expanded several different times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was ultimately demolished in 1913 to build the Widener Library, which is shown here in these two photos.

The construction of the Widener Library actually came as a result of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Among the ship’s passengers were wealthy businessman George Dunton Widener, his wife Eleanor, and their son Harry, who had graduated from Harvard five years earlier. Both George and Harry died in the sinking, but Eleanor survived and soon began planning an appropriate memorial for her late son.

In his will, Harry had asked that his rare book collection be donated to the school. However, his mother went far beyond that, and instead of simply giving his books to the existing library, she built an entirely new library for all of the school’s books. Eleanor Widener was closely involved with the details of the building, including choosing its architect, Horace Trumbauer, and she likely spent around $3.5 million on its construction.

Work on the new library began after the demolition of Gore Hall in 1913, and it was completed two years later with a dedication ceremony on June 24, 1915. The first photo was apparently taken before this, probably in 1914 or 1915. The exterior of the building was essentially complete by this point, but the interior was likely still under construction, as indicated by the pile of debris on the right side, and the “Geo. F. Payne & Co. Builders” sign on the far left.

When it opened, the library had more than 50 miles of shelves, and a total capacity of over 3 million books. Even this would not be enough for the school’s ever-growing collection. By mid century its holdings were doubling approximately every 17 years, leading to the opening of new libraries around campus that specialized in particular fields. Then, in the 1980s the school constructed the Harvard Depository in Southborough, allowing for off-campus storage of library materials.

Throughout this time, the exterior of the Widener Library has remained essentially unchanged in more than a century since the first photo was taken, and it remains the central library at Harvard. Perhaps its single most famous work here is one of only 23 known complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be printed on a printing press. Like the library building itself, this Bible was a gift of the Widener family, who donated it to Harvard in 1944. However, it is only one of around 3.5 million books that are housed here in the Widener, making it one of the largest libraries in the world, and the largest university library.

Gore Hall, Cambridge, Mass

Gore Hall at Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2019:

Gore Hall was constructed between 1838 and 1841 as the first purpose-built library building on the Harvard campus. The Gothic Revival-style exterior was constructed of Quincy granite, and it was designed by noted architect Richard Bond, who drew inspiration from King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University. The building was named for Christopher Gore, a 1776 Harvard graduate who went on to serve as a U. S. senator and governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1827 and left a substantial amount of money to the school, some of which was used to build this library.

Upon completion, the new library housed about 41,000 books, and the size of the building seemed adequate for future growth of its collections. However, within about 50 years the library had outgrown this space. A new addition was constructed on the east side of the original structure in 1877, and it is visible in the distance on the right side of the first photo. This expanded the building’s capacity by about 250,000 books, but even this was not enough, and in 1895 the ornate interior was largely gutted to add space for another quarter million books.

The first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century, not long after this renovation took place. The library would be expanded one more time in 1907, but by this point its days were numbered. The building’s demise was ultimately hastened by, of all things, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Among the passengers lost in the disaster was businessman George Dunton Widener and his son, 27-year-old Harvard graduate Harry Elkins Widener. Harry’s mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived the sinking, an she subsequently donated money to Harvard in order to construct a new library in memory of her son.

Gore Hall was ultimately demolished in 1913, in order to make room for the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, which was completed in 1915. This building is still standing here today, where it serves as the main library of Harvard University. In this scene, there are no visible remnants from the first photo, although some parts of Gore Hall were repurposed or preserved. The granite blocks of the old building were used for the foundations of the Widener steps, and several of the ornate pinnacles still survive, including two here at Harvard.

Memorial Hall, Cambridge, Mass

Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

Harvard’s Memorial Hall was built between 1870 and 1878, in honor of the Harvard students and graduates who had fought for the Union cause during the Civil War. Its construction was primarily funded by an alumni committee that raised $370,000 in contributions, in addition to a separate bequest of $40,000 from 1802 graduate Charles Sanders for the construction of a theater. As a result, the building featured three distinct parts: a large dining hall on one side, the Sanders Theatre on the other side, and the Memorial Transept between them.

The building was designed by Harvard graduates William Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt, and it is generally regarded as an architectural masterpiece and one of the country’s finest examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture. This style reached its peak of popularity in the late 1860s and early 1870s, when it was nearly ubiquitous for schools, churches, government buildings, and other public buildings. Memorial Hall incorporates many of the typical features of this style, including tall windows with pointed arches, steep roofs with multi-colored tiles, a tall tower, and a red brick exterior with contrasting light-colored stone trim.

Construction began in 1870, and it was marked by the laying of the cornerstone on October 6. Many dignitaries attended the event, including Governor William Claflin, Senators Charles Sumner and Henry Wilson, and General George Meade, who had led the Union victory at Gettysburg seven years earlier. U. S. Attorney General Ebenezer Hoar, a Massachusetts native and Harvard alumnus, gave the dedication address, and the ceremony also included the singing of a hymn written for the occasion by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

The various parts of the building were completed in different stages, and both the dining hall and the Memorial Transept were finished in 1874. The dining hall occupies the majority of the building, including everything to the left of the tower from this scene. It measured 164 feet in length, 60 feet in width, and 80 feet from the floor to the top of the roof. The hall had room for over a thousand people to sit at the tables, although the actual number of Harvard students who ate here in the late 19th century was generally much lower, with around 450 to 650 students in any given year.

The Memorial Transept is located just to the right of the dining hall, inside the main entrance on the right side of this scene. It spans the entire width of Memorial Hall, separating the dining hall from the theater, and it has a similar entrance on the other side of the building. Inside, the transept measures 112 feet in length in 30 feet in width, and it features marble tablets on the walls, which contain the names of 136 Harvard students and alumni who died in the war. Only Union soldiers are recognized here; many Harvard graduates also died fighting for the Confederacy, but their names are not included in the transept.

On the other side of the transept, and barely visible from this angle, is the Sanders Theatre, which was completed in 1875. Originally it could seat 1,500 people, and it was used as a venue for commencement exercises, along with a number of other events, including concerts and lectures. The theater continued to be used for commencements until 1922, and during this time perhaps the most famous graduate here was Theodore Roosevelt, of the class of 1880. Many years later, he would return here as a guest speaker in the same theater, and over the years other notable speakers have included Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.

From the exterior, the most distinctive feature of Memorial Hall is its 200-foot tower. However, this has been altered and rebuilt several times, beginning in 1877 when the original architects made some changes to its original appearance. Then, in 1897 a clock was added to the top of the tower, with one face on each of the four sides. The first photo was taken soon after this, and the building retained this appearance until 1956, when the upper portion of the tower was destroyed in a fire.

In the meantime, the use of Memorial Hall also changed in the 20th century. The dining hall closed in 1926, and for the next 70 years this space was used for a wide variety of events, ranging from banquets to blood drives. Then, in the 1990s this space underwent an extensive renovation, and it was restored to its original use as a dining hall. It was renamed Annenberg Hall in 1996, and since then it has been used as the primary dining hall for Harvard freshmen.

Along with the interior work, the exterior of the building was also restored in the 1990s, most notably with the reconstruction of the top of the tower. The top had been missing ever since the 1956 fire, but it was rebuilt in 1999, using the designs from the 1877 work on the tower. As a result, the exterior of Memorial Hall probably more closely resembles its 19th century appearance today than it did when the first photo was taken in the early 1900s.

Other than the changes to the tower, the only significant difference between these two photos is Cambridge Street in the foreground. In the first photo it was an unpaved street with several trolley tracks running down the middle, but in the 1960s it was lowered to build a long underpass, with a pedestrian mall atop it. This allowed direct access from Harvard Yard to the sections of the campus north of Cambridge Street, although it also had the consequence of significantly changing the streetscape here in front of Memorial Hall.

Austin Hall, Cambridge, Mass

Austin Hall at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, around 1890-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

Austin Hall was completed in 1884 as the home of the Harvard Law School, and it was built thanks to a gift from Edward Austin, a Boston businessman who donated $135,000 in memory of his late brother Samuel. The building was designed by Henry H. Richardson, one of the most influential American architects in history, and it features his distinctive Romanesque Revival style. Richardson had previously designed Sever Hall on the Harvard campus, and his other commissions in the area included Boston’s Trinity Church.

As was typical for Richardson’s works, it has a polychromatic exterior, with the dark Longmeadow brownstone contrasting with the lighter-colored Ohio sandstone. The main entrance is marked by three rounded arches, and to the right of them is a short turret with an interior staircase. Just below the roofline is an inscription from Exodus 18:20, which reads “And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk and the work that they must do.”

Upon completion, the interior of the building consisted of two smaller lecture rooms on the first floor, with one in each of the two wings to the left and right, along with a large lecture room in the rear of the building. The rest of the first floor consisted of a central hall, several offices for professors, and a room that was designated as the students’ room. Most of the second floor was occupied by the library, but there was also a dean’s room and a professors’ room.

The first photo was taken about a decade or two after the building opened, and not much has changed in its exterior appearance since then, although the foreground is very different, with a parking lot in place of the trees and dirt walkways. Harvard Law School has since expanded far beyond just this one building, but Austin Hall remains in use by the school today. On the interior, it has been renovated over the years, and it now houses classrooms, offices, and the Ames Courtroom, where law students hold moot courts. This courtroom is on the second floor, where the library reading room was originally located. Overall, though, the building retains much of its historic appearance, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Wadsworth House, Cambridge, Mass

The Wadsworth House on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The house in 2016:

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The Wadsworth House is the second-oldest building at Harvard, after the nearby Massachusetts Hall. It was built in 1726 for college president Benjamin Wadsworth, who lived here until his death in 1737. For over a century, eight additional Harvard presidents lived here, with the last being Edward Everett, who was president here from 1846 to 1849, in the midst of a lengthy political career that included serving as a Congressman, Governor of Massachusetts, Ambassador to the United Kingdom, US Senator, and US Secretary of State.

However, the most prominent resident of this house was George Washington. It served as his first headquarters when he arrived in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army in July 1775, and he stayed here for two weeks before moving into the John Vassall House on Brattle Street.

Although no longer the home of the Harvard president, the Wadsworth House is still part of the campus and is used for offices. Over the years there have been some additions to the side and back, but overall the nearly 300 year old building remains an excellent example of early 18th century Georgian architecture.

Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass

Looking west toward Harvard Square on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Harvard Square in 2016:

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The first photo was taken only a few years before the Red Line opened. At the time, people traveling from Cambridge to Boston had to use the streetcars, as shown here. In the distance on the left side of the photo, passengers are boarding a trolley whose destination is “Subway Park Street,” and the trolley to the right of it is presumably heading outbound from Park Street, on the way to its destination at Mount Auburn. This route was replaced in 1912 by the much faster Red Line subway, which originally ran from Park Street to here at Harvard Square, and a station entrance was built in the middle of the square. The station also included a streetcar tunnel that allowed passengers to easily transfer between the subway and the trolleys; this tunnel was later modified for buses and is still in use as the Harvard Bus Tunnel.

As for the buildings at Harvard Square, very little is left from the turn of the century. None of the buildings in the first photo have survived, with most being demolished in the early 20th century to build the current Colonial Revival buildings. Most of the businesses themselves are long gone, except for the Harvard Cooperative Society. Originally located in the Greek Revival-style building in the center of the photo, this bookstore was founded in 1882 as a cooperative for Harvard students. Now commonly known as The Coop, the bookstore is still in operation in a different building on the same spot, and serves students at both Harvard and MIT. Otherwise, the only landmark remaining from the first photo is the gate on the far right side, which connects the square to Harvard Yard.