Essential Architecture- New England

Memorial Hall, Harvard University


Ware & Van Brunt


Cambridge, MA


1870-78 (S:1871-78)


Ruskinian Gothic




Public Hall
  a: view from southwest, from an old postcard (J. Howe).
  b: old view, postcard, [UPsl src?]
  c: tinted photo, c. 1900, Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress.
  d: southwest view and plan, Archtl. Sketch Book (Boston, 1874), 2: pl.1.
  e: plan, Archtl. Sketch Book (Boston, 1874), 2: pl.1.
  f: southeast view, Archtl. Sketch Book (Boston, 1874), 2: pl.2.
  h: southeast view, photo 1982, M. Brack.
  i: detail of towers, photo 1982, P. Scott.
  j: early design, Lantern Slide Coll., GSD, Harvard U. [Images of America, Library of Congress]: (#X431/b2).
   k: dining hall, early photo, Lantern Slide Coll., GSD, Harvard U. [Images of America, Library of Congress]: (#X431/d).
Memorial Hall is an imposing brick building in High Victorian Gothic style, located on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

Memorial Hall was erected in honor of Harvard graduates who fought for the Union in the American Civil War. From 1865 to 1868, a fund-raising committee gathered $370,000, then equal to one-twelfth of Harvard's total endowment, which was augmented by an additional $40,000 bequest from Charles Sanders, class of 1802 and college steward 1827-1831, for "a hall or theatre to be used on Commencement days, Class days, Exhibition days, days of the meetings of the society of Alumni, or any other public occasion connected with the College, whether literary or festive."

An architectural competition began in December 1865, with the winning designs submitted by William Robert Ware, class of 1852, and Henry Van Brunt, class of 1854. (These initial designs were altered as plans proceeded.) In 1870 the building was named Memorial Hall and its cornerstone laid; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., composed a hymn for the occasion. The hall was dedicated for use in 1874, with Sanders Theatre substantially complete in 1875, and the tower completed in 1877. The tower was subsequently destroyed in a 1956 fire but rebuilt in 1999.

In The Bostonians, Henry James described it thus: "The Memorial Hall of Harvard consists 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." Principal interior features of Memorial Hall are as follows:

Sanders Theatre is a handsome lecture and concert hall of 1,166 seats, wood-paneled with statues of James Otis (by Thomas Crawford) and Josiah Quincy (by William Wetmore Story), and inspired by Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, England. It contains John La Farge's stained glass window Athena Tying a Mourning Fillet.
The hall's great room (9,000 square feet), now known as Annenberg Hall, is a lofty and impressive space shaped by massive wooden trusses, walnut paneling, and a blue, stenciled ceiling. It was converted to a student commons soon after construction, and served as the college's main dining hall until 1926. From 1926 until 1994, it was only lightly used but after extensive renovation reopened in 1996 as the Freshman Student Center.
The Memorial Transept (2,600 square foot) consists of a 60-foot high gothic vault above a marble floor, black walnut paneling and stenciled walls, two stained glass windows, and 28 white marble tablets commemorating 136 Civil War casualties.
Twenty-two stained glass windows throughout the building, installed between 1879 and 1902, include works by John La Farge (4 windows), Louis Comfort Tiffany Studios (3 windows), and Sarah Wyman Whitman (2 windows).

Society of Architectural Historians

Special thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians
for some of the images on this page (copyright SAH).