While some students first venturing onto Harvard’s famed campus for the start of their Freshman Year may understandably suffer a bit of an identity crisis, they’ve got nothing on this modest but magnificent structure set amongst the freshman dormitories. For, throughout its nearly 270-year history, Holden Chapel has served variously as a clubhouse, dissection theater, chapel, rehearsal hall, morgue, lecture hall, museum, medical school, clubhouse, gallery, military barracks, storeroom, laboratory, fire engine house, and — for a brief tenure — seat of the Province House of Representatives.
Tucked neatly within the quadrangle formed by the Halls of Harvard, Hollis, Stoughton, Phillips, Brocks, Mower, and Lionel at the northwesterly corner of Old Yard, Holden Chapel in fact predates just about all of those structures. The third-oldest of all of Harvard’s standing structures, Holden Chapel was erected in 1744, a generation before The Revolutionary War.
The Chapel’s namesake, Samuel Holden, was a wealthy British businessman with a fondness for religious causes. In London, he had befriended Thomas Hutchinson (Harvard Class of 1727), who was traveling in pursuit of sponsorship for a chapel, as one did not yet exist on the university campus. Upon Holden’s death in 1740, his will directed that a portion of his sizable estate be used to pursue religious interests. Several years later, his widow devoted 400 pounds sterling to the construction of the Chapel on Harvard Yard.
Though unassuming in size, Holden Chapel presents a splendid example of Georgian architecture, especially as framed by the massing of Stoughton and Hollis Halls in views from the greensward of Old Yard. The Chapel’s architect is unknown, though, considering the building’s benefactor, quite probably British. A simple rectangle in plan, the building’s brick mass is articulated by fine surface detailing, framed entries, and large windows overlooking adjacent courtyards. A substantial white cornice supports a single gabled roof. Providing a serendipitous spot of color and design within the Yard, the roof’s eastern pediment is emblazoned with the richly detailed Holden family crest set against a distinctive and pure bright blue field.
Today this multi-tasking Chapel rings to the sounds of human voice, as it serves as the choral recital hall for several of the university’s groups, among them The Radcliffe Choral Society, The Collegium Musicum and The Harvard Glee Club.