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The Top Five Most Beautiful Buildings at Harvard

With over three centuries of history under its belt, Harvard has been through various architectural eras. The first installment of this two-part Crimson series looked at the ugliest buildings on Harvard’s campus. While Harvard does have many less-than-stellar buildings, it is also home to some iconic architecture. This article will look at the most beautiful buildings at Harvard and what makes them so great.

5. Gordon Hall by Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge

Year Opened: 1906

Style: Classical Revival

Location: Longwood Campus, Boston

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Fifth on this list is a building that could be confused with the White House: Gordon Hall. Designed by the protégés of Henry H. Richardson, the mind behind Trinity Church, Gordon Hall is the architectural anchor of Harvard Medical School and the Longwood Medical Area. Its symmetrical Classical Revival design is timeless, with Ionic columns and a marble exterior that uses different shades of gray to create the illusion of texture. While the building is more on the minimalist side, this choice can be seen as a metaphor for the research at Harvard Medical School since the building expands on the research of the past to advance us into the future.

4. Widener Library by Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele

Year Opened: 1915

Style: Beaux-Arts

Location: Cambridge Campus

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Fourth on this list is one of the most famous university libraries in the world: Widener Library. The building was designed by Julian Abele, one of the first prominent Black architects in the United States, and is named after Harry E. Widener, who died on the Titanic. Its grand steps rise from Harvard Yard to the library’s Corinthian columns, enticing tourists and students alike to take their selfies and group photos. On the inside, the building adopts a combination of styles, including Beaux-Arts, Georgian, and Hellenistic influences. The large reading room, for instance, has vast and intricately decorated ceilings. The building is also flanked with sculptures and artwork by iconic Bostonian painter John Singer Sargent. Be careful climbing the Widener steps, as you will definitely appear in a tourist photo of this Harvard Yard monument.

3. Science and Engineering Complex by Behnisch Architekten

Year Opened: 2020

Style: Contemporary Sustainable

Location: Allston Campus, Boston

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The third building on this list is also one of the newest: the Science and Engineering Complex, also known as the SEC. Opened in 2020, the building is home to some of Harvard's most innovative science and technology research.

By using green roofs on the lower level floors, the complex is built up from the ground level to higher-floor classrooms, allowing it to fit into the athletic fields around it. In addition, the SEC features a chainmail-like covering to improve energy efficiency. The building is sleek, with floor to ceiling windows and a grand atrium that keeps students connected to one another and creates the feeling of a futuristic, open space. The SEC is not only a hallmark of sustainability, but also proves that modern architecture can be beautiful.

2. Dunster House by Coolidge

Year Opened: 1930

Style: Colonial Revival

Location: Cambridge Campus

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One of the most famous symbols of Harvard, Dunster House is second on this list. Featuring a Colonial Revival style, Dunster — which is next to Mather — has a red brick exterior that blends into the older structures at Harvard like Hollis Hall. This is also evident in the multiple brick chimneys. While its style blends in with much of the campus architecture, Dunster House also stands out through its stunning cupola. Featuring a red clock and a white tower with arched openings, this cupola can be seen from around Cambridge and Boston, and is a key feature of the Harvard skyline. Coupled with the cherry-on-top red ornamentation crowning the tower, Dunster remains a key part of Harvard architectural history.

1. Memorial Hall by Ware and Brunt

Year Opened: 1870

Style: Neo-Gothic

Location: Cambridge Campus

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Called the “most valuable gift” ever received by Harvard by the President and Fellows of Harvard in 1877, Memorial Hall comes first on this list. One of the largest and most visible buildings on campus, Memorial Hall proves that beauty and functionally can co-exist. The Neo-Gothic design features a wide range of colors and patterns that blur the line between architecture and artwork. The roof has green, red, gray, and blue accents that provide depth and texture, while intricate carvings and stained glass windows provide a sense of wonder. Memorial Hall also houses Annenberg, a first-year dining hall comparable to Hogwarts. With its large roof, chandeliers, and wood detailing, it’s no wonder so many tourists are desperate to get an inside look, even without Harvard IDs.

Beyond aesthetics, Memorial Hall has deeper symbolism. Built at the end of the Civil War, the building represents Boston’s role in the abolitionist movement and the Reconstruction era. It is a testament to progress and the ability to create something beautiful after a period of hardship. Recognized as a National Historic Landmark, Memorial Hall will continue to keep students and tourists in awe for decades to come.

Spanning the past and the present, Harvard’s positive contributions to architecture can’t be missed, and there are many more beautiful buildings that couldn’t be mentioned such as Harvard Stadium or Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. As architecture, technology, and learning needs continue to evolve, one is left to wonder what is in store for the future of architecture on campus, and how traditional or older styles might be revived once again.

—Staff writer Roberto C. Quesada can be reached at roberto.quesada@thecrimson.com.

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