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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Harvard's  Memorial Hall, whose recently reconstructed hat perfectly matches the one taken down by a fire in 1956. It didn't have a hat when I went there for the Freshman Mixer and final exams. At the time of its construction (1874), Mem Hall was the largest meeting room in America, a Hodgefact which amazes me. It's a ridiculously cool and imposing building, and it makes my heart sing that the University managed to rebuild its imposing chapeau.

One of the pleasures of returning to Cambridge is wandering through Harvard yard, mulling on all the things I first experienced there as a freshman. Alas, it was closed to me and anyone without an active Harvard ID for the duration of my visit and who knows how long? The Yard was being Occupied, and Harvard police understandably wanted the occupiers limited to Harvard students/faculty/staff. So the students had a bunch of tents they'd gotten from the Harvard Outing Club and they were all tented up in there in the mild fall weather and nobody among the general rabble could go in or out. Caterers arrived regularly to feed them. Food looked great. I was hungry. As Hodge's Harvard freshman son dryly observed, "It's not much of a stretch to occupy a gated community." Occupiers would have it otherwise, as this PostHarvard article observes. Still, how can the University allow everyone access to the Yard when students are sleeping in tents out in the open? Much as I didn't like walking around the Yard, I got it. And wondered what impending winter weather would do to the protestor's resolve.

 I was sad to be locked out. I wanted to linger under the elms and think. I wanted to peer into my single in Weld Hall, the one right by the back door which was fab except that I woke up every time somebody came in at 2 AM. I wanted to walk by John Harvard's statue and remember standing there and watching when the Yard's resident barred owl (ca. 1976) flew down and snatched a grey wool hat off a very surprised bicycling student. I saw that. It was excellent. She almost fell over but regained her composure and looked up as only a student whose hat has been snatched by an owl can look up. I am sure the owl thought a squirrel was hitching a ride on her head. I am sure he was disappointed to bear it back to his elm, tear into it and find not warm meat but only more fuzz.

Even then I was noticing what there was to notice in nature,  in the heart of a bustling city. Sometimes I wonder how I made it through. I was meant to live in the woods. I knew that, even then.

 Memorial Chapel looked mighty spooky with the full moon rising.

 Outside, the streets were bustly with people. Maybe it was because nobody could cut through the Yard, but I don't remember Cambridge being quite so congested. Eep. Lines and packs everywhere. I've lost many of my adaptations to the crowded life. A bicyclist was coming at me on the sidewalk in the dark. Dazzled by his light, I moved to my right and he moved to his left and he cursed me for getting in his way and making him almost topple over. Well, I'm sorry. Where I come from people don't ride right at you on bikes with blinding lights on the sidewalk. I knew then just how a deer feels when a car comes at it on a road at 3 AM.

Where I come from it is hard to find a nice crabcake, too. So Hodge took me to Henrietta's Kitchen where an affable barkeep served us crabcakes.

This is Hodge, trying to biggen hers. It works on the iPad...

We laughed. We had fruity drinks. We yakked. I miss her. But I'll be coming back to Massachusetts in the spring, when the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, and the time of the singing birds is come.

I'll have a new book to talk about! (see banner ad at right).

By then, I hope Harvard Yard's iron gates will be open again. They'd better be.


There is such a wonderful calmness to your writing. I feel like I have visited Harvard with you, just floating beside your shoulder. Whenever I feel tired or stressed, I return to your many beautiful posts to recharge. Thank you for allowing us into your world.

I grew up seeing that building and being told stories by my parents about the fire that truncated the tower. I always liked the symbolism of the unfinished tower after the fire, as a Memorial to the Civil War. Significant and enduring destruction and yet in the context of larger whole worth saving. I thought of the missing part of the tower as the true memorial to the war dead -- those removed by the War from a beautiful and worthy Union. The restored original design is beautiful, but I mourn the poignant meaning that the building had for me once.

Posted by Dirk Coburn December 1, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Love that third photo! Very Ichabod Craneish!!

Huzzah! Finally information on your new book! Dare I ask...are you willing to sign copies again or have things gotten too crazy for that? (As you can tell, I'm already planning my Christmas 2012 list.)

Love my word verification: mothron

Ah, this takes me back. Spent a fair amount of time in those there parts while at Wellesley in the late 60s. Like, virtually every weekend! Meanwhile, my son and daughter-in-law were visiting Boston/Cambridge the weekend of Nov 19 and they tell me they went into the Yard, not realizing until later that they weren't allowed to! I guess they looked studenty enough that no one asked.

JZ, can I possibly have forgotten to tell you that I got to climb the scaffolding, high up on the tower-in-progress, back when Memorial Hall's party hat was being rebuilt? It was a complete blast, to be up where the red tails hang out, looking down on a miniaturized version of my neighborhood. And ever since, I can't help but be a little bit delighted to know that, once upon a time, I was waaaay up there.

The thing that's really hard to fathom nowadays is how under-appreciated Memorial Hall had become in the 1950-60's. It was a big white elephant, not terribly useful, completely out of step with the modern architecture sprouting up around it. Rumor has it that when President Pusey was told about the fire, his first comment was,"Too bad it's burning from the top down, and not from the bottom up."

And now the tour guides proclaim Mem Hall to be the most beautiful building at Harvard. What a difference a half a century makes.


Posted by KHMacomber December 1, 2011 at 6:34 PM

I work on Brattle Street and take the 86 bus to Harvard Square everyday and walk by the buildings you took such lovely photos of. It's wonderful to read your thoughts and experience the sentimentality that lingers in my mind, though most days it is merely a backdrop.

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