Early each Cambridge spring, visiting families and tour groups crop up like crocuses in Harvard Yard. As the weather warms, their numbers mount. Year by year they are more numerous, more polyglot, more like dutiful pilgrims to a shrine. Their guides take them to old familiar places:
To Daniel Chester French's statue of John Harvard, gazing down from his pedestal in front of Charles Bulfinch's University Hall. There they are fed threadworn factoids: that the statue bears no likeness to its subject (no picture of John Harvard exists), that the scant details provided on the pedestal are wrong (he was not the University's founder; the College began not in 1638, but 1636).
Next, to a circuit of the surrounding serene Old Yard: a cyclorama of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American architecture, starting with prerevolutionary Massachusetts, Harvard, and Hollis Halls and Holden Chapel, proceeding past Federal-era Stoughton, Holworthy, and University Halls, and ending with the ever more assertedly Victorian Thayer, Weld, Boylston, Grays, and Matthews.
Then on to the neighboring New Yard, dominated by the massive Roman front of Widener Library, there to be told the well-worn tale of young Harry Widener 07, precocious collector of incunabula, lost with the Titanic and commemorated for eternity by this building, the gift of his grieving mother. Facing Widener is capacious Memorial Church, built to remember Harvard's fallen in World War I, a squat base dominated by ample hollow wooden columns, topped by a classic Congregational spire: “all Emily Dickinson up above, all Mae West down below.” Then on to the famous glass flowers housed in the Museum of Comparative Zoology….
What are they looking for? What do they see? The Old Yard is one of America's architectural treasures. Indeed,