Have You Noticed Harvard Yard’s Portals?
A total of 25 gates frame Cambridge’s beloved Harvard Yard.
These gates, the first of which was designed and built almost 130 years ago, aren’t just passageways made of brick, wrought iron, and stone. According to renowned architecture critic Blair Kamin, the “portals” hold the key to unlocking the history of Harvard’s famous courtyard.
Kamin’s interest was piqued by the gates while he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during 2012 and 2013. In his upcoming book, Gates of Harvard Yard, he chronicles the tale of the 25 gates, providing a complete backstory to the overlooked portals that grant entrance to the center of one of the country’s most prestigious universities. From their architectural makeup to the range of people who funded their construction, Kamin and his co-authors work to convey the gates’ historic beauty, which goes beyond their entrance, exit, and prohibitive purposes.
Take Johnston Gate, pictured below. It was built in 1889 and designed by Charles McKim with the firm McKim, Mead & White (the same firm that built the BPL and Symphony Hall). Co-author Ola Topczewska describes Harvard’s “oldest and grandest” gate, a brick structure with a center web of wrought iron.
In its design, McKim requested that some of its bricks be treated with excessive heat to turn them varying shades of green, tan, and black. He then asked masons to assemble them in a specific pattern—the pattern worked so well that it came to be known as “Harvard brick.”
McKim also designed a gate gifted by the class of 1870 that Lily Sugrue describes as guarding a sort of secret garden. Sandwiched between Mower and Lionel Halls, the gate frames Holden Chapel.
“The effect is like an exquisite trim of wrought-iron lace, perfectly highlighting the chapel’s ornate, sky blue pediment,” writes Sugrue.
The 23 other gates surrounding the yard boast colorful stories and and even more intricate designs. For the complete architectural collection, the Gates of Harvard Yard from Princeton Architectural Press is out May 3. And for eager readers, Kamin is scheduled to give a lecture about the legacy of the gates at Boston Architectural College on April 28.