Touring Harvard: a world contained in just a Yard

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When in Boston this year, you may want to consider heading across the river to get a Harvard education. Thousands of visitors to Harvard each year learn about art, history, archaeology, zoology, botany, and other subjects without even applying for admission or paying a cent of tuition. They do so by touring the university's impressive gamut of museums, libraries, and buildings that span three centuries of history and architecture.

When I wanted to get an overview of what can be seen at Harvard, I joined a group of prospective freshmen, their parents, and other onlookers in one of the student-conducted tours that leave from Byerly Hall on Garden Street. After trooping out the back door, we found ourselves in Radcliffe Yard, a quiet, green oasis ringed all around by gracious 19th-century red-brick buildings that were once used exclusively by young women who commuted to classes taught by Harvard professors.

Here our guide explained that Radcliffe women attended separate classes until after World War II when they began to share them with Harvard students. "Then in 1975 the two institutions merged," she said. "Some of us who entered Radcliffe before then have mixed feelings about it -- we feel we lost some of our own identity!"

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From there we headed across Cambridge common and a hectic, traffic-filled street to Harvard Yard, the oldest part of the campus. While Harvard dates from 1636 when the Pilgrim government voted tax money "towards a schoale or colledge, " the oldest surviving building is Massachusetts Hall, a red brick structure dating from 1720. During all of its 260 years it has been used for student housing except during the Revolution when George Washington took it over for the use of his troops.

"The Yard" is a mixture of Colonial, Federal, Victorian, and neoclassic buildings connected by shaded walkways through green lawn. The granite Federal-style University Hall, built in 1815 by Charles Bulfinch, was the first to break the brick tradition, a development that brought much criticism. (There are still those who would agree -- Harvard's current president, Derek Bok, has decreed that all future buildings be of red brick).

In front of University Hall sits Daniel Chester French's famous 19th-century statue of John Harvard, the young Puritan minister who left his books and half his estate to the fledgling college. Because no likeness of John Harvard exists , French used an undergraduate as the model for his idealized version. On holidays or during special events students have traditionally adorned the statue with their own embellishments -- recently a brown paper bag was placed over his head with the message: "This, too, shall pass."

Crosing into the newer section of the Yard, we came to Widener Library, which houses more than 8 million volumes behind its neo-classical facade. Our guide related the library's poignant beginning: After Harry Elkins Widener went down on the Titantic just five years after his graduation from Harvard, his mother presented the building as a memorial to him. Inside are dioramas of how the campus looked in 1667, 1775, and 1936. But perhaps the most impressive part of this most impressive interior is the Harry Elkins Widener memorial room -- a richly paneled sanctuary containing its namesake's books behind tall glass cases and his handsome portrait over the black marble mantel.

Next to Widener is another library worth visiting, the Houghton Library of Rare Books with an exhibit area currently featuring Trotsky's letters. And adjacent to it is Emerson Hall, which made its movie debut as Barrett Hall in "Love Story." "The movie plays about once a year around here, and students go to see how the campus looks on film," our guide told us.

Because campus tours are ususally limited to Harvard and Radcliffe Yards, museum exploration must be done on your own. The excellent Fogg Art Museum is on Quincy Street, which runs just behind Harvard Yard. Its permanent holdings include an excellent collection of Chinese sculpture, bronzes, and jades; classical art; English silver; French 19th-century painting; and old master drawings.

Just a couple of blocks north of the Fogg is the rococo Busch-Reisinger Museum, the only institution outside of Germany exclusively devoted to the development of German and related northern European art. That art ranges from a fine assortment of medieval, baroque, and Renaissance objects to a comprehensive collection of 20th-century works by Beckmann, Klee, and Kandinsky, among many others.

Around the corner from the Busch-Reisinger is the University Museum, which is actually four separate museums under one roof. In the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology it is possible to trace the civilizations of many prehistoric and historic cultures, particularly those of North American Indians.Some highlights are the wonderfully garish mask collection, a giant Apache basket that took two years to make, and a mannequin of a Sioux woman in elaborate formal dress whose pierced ears dangle magnificent abalone shell earrings as long as her braids.

The University Museum also includes the Mineralogical Museum, with its tantalizing array of gems and agates, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which has fossils of prehistoric beasts, the largest turtle shell ever found, and the world's oldest reptile egg. But the single attraction that draws the most crowds is in the Botanical Museum -- the Glass Flower collection. These intricate models of over 700 different plant species made during the late 19th century are as amazingly lifelike as they are beautiful.

But before touring the glass flowers or any of Harvard's other attractions it is wise to first stop at the Information Center on Massachusetts Avenue between Holyoke and Dunster Streets which has maps, booklets, and bulletins of coming special events.

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