The Gates of Harvard Yard: The Complete Story, in Words and Pictures, of a Great University's Iconic Portals

By Kamin, Blair | Planning for Higher Education, October-December 2014 | Go to article overview

The Gates of Harvard Yard: The Complete Story, in Words and Pictures, of a Great University's Iconic Portals


Kamin, Blair, Planning for Higher Education


NINE HARVARD UNIVERSITY STUDENTS took a 2013 January term course offered by three Nieman Foundation for Journalism fellows that investigated the 25 gates within the 3,828 feet of fencing enclosing the 22.4-acre Harvard Yard and its 377-year history. The product of that endeavor is an elegant e-book called The Gates of Harvard Yard.

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Blair Kamin led the effort to produce this book. Kamin is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, a position he has held since 1992. While a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University in 2012-13, Kamin co-taught the aforementioned January term course titled Rate the Gates with two other Nieman fellows, Finbarr O'Reilly and Jeneen Interlandi. Essays by Kamin, Interlandi, and the students form the content of the book. Following an introduction by Kamin, the various authors take us on a clockwise tour around the Harvard Yard enclosure starting with the Johnston Gate to the northwest and ending with the Class of 1875 Gate to the southwest. The distinctive writing style of each author comes through as does the emotional connection he or she developed toward the gates. As we move around the periphery of Harvard Yard, the authors make a clear case that this neglected edge is a central component of the yard and the history of Harvard.

It is fitting that a book about gates leading to multiple destinations both within and without Harvard Yard should also have multiple intended purposes. The idea for this project emerged upon Kamin's arrival to Harvard: while the gates caught his attention, he noticed that they did not catch the attention of most people passing through them. It was clear too by the state of some of the gates that they could use more attention from the Harvard facilities department. And so when asked to teach the January term journalism course, Kamin decided that these forgotten--yet ever-present--gates were a perfect subject to show how the power of journalism can highlight that which is overlooked yet significant in everyday life. This book demonstrates how unleashing journalists on campus can lead to insights as well as to actionable items for campus architects and planners.

Once it was decided that the gates would be the subject of this journalism course, the authors then set their sights on developing as complete a story of the gates as possible. While they found two earlier articles to be informative--"The Harvard Memorial Gates" by Walter Dana Swan, published in The Architectural Review in 1901, and "The Enclosure of the Harvard Yard" by Mason Hammond, published in the Harvard Library Bulletin in 1983--there clearly was still more work to be done. And these earlier articles of course could not speak to the current condition of the gates. Building upon these two texts, the authors poured over Harvard Library archives and also used their own observations to paint a well-rounded picture of the gates; having all of this information in one place is invaluable both as a planning tool and a documentation of Harvard's history.

In addition to using their investigative journalism skills to uncover all that they could about the gates, the authors set out to use their skills to advocate for the gates. The authors are explicit in their call for a renewed appreciation of the gates and respect for their legacy. Some authors call for very specific repair and restoration measures for the gates. Others call for new landscape designs that frame and better utilize the historic gates. The concern of one author that a cracked ornamental wrought iron leaf should be repaired becomes the reader's concern; this rusted bit of wrought iron does matter when placed in the context of the gate's history. And another author's frustration that a gate has been locked for years becomes the reader's frustration too; what does it mean that the Class of 1881 Gate has been locked since the 1960s yet the inscription on the gate says "Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free"? …

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