Friday, January 2, 2009

the river houses and the Great Depression

2 January

The view of Harvard from Allston is above all a view of the river houses. These elegantly detailed Georgian-revival piles, with their pleasing rhythm of courtyards and gates, proclaim all that is collegiate in Harvard's identity, while their names--Eliot and Winthrop, Leverett, Lowell, Quincy, Dunster, Mather--read like an honor roll of Harvard's Anglo-American forbears. 

The river houses are lavishly praised  by historian Douglas Shand-Tucci as the "masterwork" of the famous Harvard architect Charles Coolidge. Among other virtues Tucci notes their orientation, "river facing," a quality we on the other side of the river would find especially pleasing, if only it were true. That is, the architect may well have intended the hospitable message of the open-sided courtyard fronting on the river, but in my memory the gates have always been resolutely locked. To the river-walker the river houses pose a formidable barrier, and their spear-tipped gates say 'Private property--no entrance.'

It is interesting to recall that these houses were built in the first years of the Great Depression, 1930-31. Funding came from a single donor, whose gift of $11.5 million paid for the construction. That's million, not billion--just a few weeks' worth of compensation for Harvard's high-flying fund managers in recent years as they embroiled the university's endowment in hedge funds and credit default swaps. Now, with losses accumulating and 'only' $28 billion or so left in its endowment the university has started to voice doubts whether it has the funds to carry on with its Allston projects. Such was not the thinking of President Lowell in the bottomed-out market days of 1930: he was determined to move ahead with the collegiate vision embodied in the houses, and he turned the available cash donation into brick-and-mortar (and construction jobs) in just a few years. Most would agree that Harvard became a more distinguished institution as a result. 

So as I see it the river houses suggest two great challenges for Harvard in the present time. Can the university, with its still-vast resources, go forward with its 21st-century vision, despite the unfavorable market conditions that may be with us for some time? Does Harvard still have that much courage of its convictions? And can it understand its presence and mission in such as way that this time it really will open its courtyards to the public sphere? Will the hospitable possibilities of the river houses be realized in the new Allston campus?

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