The stately symmetrical solidity of Massachusetts Hall anchors the western edge of Old Harvard Yard, just inside the Johnston Gate from teeming Peabody Street and the leafy green calm of Cambridge Common farther west. Constructed between 1718 and 1720, Massachusetts Hall is the oldest surviving structure on the University campus, and the second oldest academic building in the nation, behind only the College of William and Mary’s Wren Building.
Originally intended as a dormitory structure to house 64 students within 32 chambers (with 64 adjoining small individual studies), the Hall was designed by two successive Presidents of the University, John Leverett and Benjamin Wadsworth. Construction funding for Massachusetts Hall was provided by its namesake Province of Massachusetts.
At the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, occupancy of the Hall increased tenfold during the Siege of Boston, as hundreds of American soldiers billeted there. It is believed that the building’s doorknobs, metal roofing, and various other metalwork and hardware were sacrificed by the militiamen, to be melted down as bullets. Upon the College’s return to the Cambridge campus in 1776, it thus found Massachusetts Hall in sore need of repair and renovation. The College therefore elected to petition the Continental Congress, standing in Philadelphia, for redress. Harvard thereupon became the first entity ever to sue the fledgling American national government, as well as the first to win such a suit. As part of the Hall’s renovation, its original College Clock, situated high in its western façade, was restored to its initial glory.
By 1870, all of the small individual studies were removed to make way for floor plans that accommodated offices, reading rooms and lecture halls. One of the building’s lower halls served in the early 1900s as a proving ground for plays written in a resident English course. For a time, the building also housed an observatory, complete with quadrant and telescope.
Throughout its history, Massachusetts Hall has housed many famous Harvard students, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Eliot Richardson. Members of families whose names are borne by many other of Harvard’s houses — such as Weld, Eliot, Lowell, Thayer and Wigglesworth — also resided in the Hall during their time in attendance. Today, University freshman may still be assigned dormitory rooms on the fourth floor of Massachusetts Hall, while the remainder of the building serves as home to the offices of the University President and other high administration officials.