A student’s first experiences of Harvard University are surely shaped by the broad, grassy and tree-studded quadrangles of Harvard Yard, for it is about this historic and pastoral setting that thirteen of the college’s seventeen freshman dormitories are clustered. Those dormitories — ranging in age from Massachusetts Hall, erected in 1720, to Canaday Hall, completed in 1974 — house a majority of Harvard’s incoming class (which by 2011 had neared 2000 students).
The first kernel of Harvard Yard was a land purchase by the overseers of Harvard College of one acre of land in Newetowne (now known as Cambridge), Massachusetts. The acquisition was made in 1637, just one year after the founding of the college itself. Originally christened ‘College Yard’, that central green has grown over the past four centuries to encompass about 25 acres of interconnected green space woven among the oldest central structures of the university.
Today, Harvard Yard is generally considered to consist of two major portions. Old Yard is the designation justifiably given to the oldest section of the yard, a large rectangular green space aligned roughly north-south, lying immediately east of Peabody Street, and ringed by nearly a dozen freshman dormitory buildings, classroom and office structures. Entrance to Old Yard is achieved via the renowned Johnston Gate on Peabody Street (portal of entry for each year’s Freshman Move-In Day), as well as by way of a second gate adjacent to Wigglesworth Hall on Massachusetts Avenue. Within Old Yard lie Harvard’s oldest structure, Massachusetts Hall, and the noted statue of John Harvard, the college’s first major benefactor.
The second major segment of Harvard Yard is Tercentenary Theatre. Dedicated as such upon the 300th Anniversary of the college’s founding, Tercentenary Theatre has since served as the site of all Harvard commencement ceremonies. It is a nearly square green, just to the east of Old Yard, and is bracketed by the imposing façades of Memorial Church on its north and Widener Library on its south.
Harvard Yard can rightly be considered the beating heart of Harvard, for in addition to its thirteen freshman dormitories, the Yard is populated by the university’s central administrative offices, historic Holden Chapel, five buildings of departmental offices and classrooms, as well as four libraries (part of the world’s largest university library system).
Harvard Yard is but a short walk northeast of Harvard Square, the bustling traffic and commercial center of old Cambridge. The Yard is also just a pleasant stroll from Cambridge Common, the large town green of Cambridge, upon which General George Washington first mustered the troops of the American Revolutionary war in July of 1775.