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Commercial & Civic Architecture: Restoration & Renovation

Contractor: SHAWMUT DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION, Boston, Mass.


Originally completed in 1874, the tower spire was updated in 1878 with the addition of four narrow dormers and eight finials. In 1897 four large clock faces and a booming bell were added, and the slate was replaced with standing seam copper roofing. (Photos courtesy of Harvard University Archives)

Designed by architects Henry Van Brunt and William Robert Ware, Harvard University’s Memorial Hall was built as a tribute to the Union Harvard men who died in the Civil War and as a locus for alumni gatherings and literary events. The design was awarded to Van Brunt and Ware in 1865, and the cornerstone was laid in 1870. Although the building was not finished until 1878, when the third portion, Sanders Theater, was completed, it had been dedicated in 1874 with the completion of Alumni Hall (now Annenberg Hall) and the Memorial Transept. Said to be one of the greatest examples of Ruskinian Gothic architecture outside of England, the 310-ft. building includes the 9,000-sq.ft. Annenberg Hall, the 2,600-sq.ft. Memorial transept, and the 1,166-seat Sanders Theater.

Over the years, the building and the historic spire which crowns the tower over the Memorial Transept have seen tremendous changes as well as periods of neglect. Recently, however, the interior and exterior of the building have been renovated, and the spire has been rebuilt. The four-sided mansard tower’s spire has seen more change than other parts of the building. When completed in 1874, it was covered with polychromatic red, green, and black slate roofing, with a copper balustrade and weathervanes on top. The first revision occurred almost immediately. Van Brunt and Ware determined that their design for the original spire was too plain and were allowed to embellish it with four narrow copper dormers, more elaborate cresting, and pinnacles.

The tower spire was changed again in 1897 when the graduating class of 1872 presented a 25-year reunion gift to the University. Harvard’s president at the time, Charles Eliot Norton, suggested that the donation be used to turn Memorial Tower into a clock tower. Van Brunt redesigned the spire again, and the university had large clock faces placed in each of the spire’s four sides. At this time, the slate tiles were replaced with standing-seam copper sheeting, and a booming bell was added.

By the 1940s, a lack of maintenance had taken its toll, and the eroded copper cresting, pinnacles, and sheathing were removed and replaced with black asphalt. Only the clock remained. In 1956, during an attempt to restore the copper work, the tower spire caught fire and was destroyed. For over 40 years Memorial Hall Tower was without its spire. Although the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it had suffered bitterly from neglect.

For over 40 years, from 1956 until 2000, Memorial Hall had no tower spire because it had burned during repairs to the copper. Charles Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission has described it as “looking sawed off, squatty, meaningless.” (Photo by Steve Rosenthal Photography)

A major renovation of the building’s interior and exterior began in 1987-88, but the tower was not part of that effort. Donations, spearheaded by a generous gift from Katherine B. Loker, launched the tower-spire restoration project in 1994. Construction costs of the tower spire amounted to $3.4 million, but other repairs and fees brought the total to $4 million.

The client, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Department of Physical Resources, brought in historic consultant Margaret Henderson Floyd to compile a comprehensive historic-structures report, and the architectural firm of CBT/Childs, Bertram, Tseckares of Boston, Mass., to handle the project. They both recommended re-creating the second design of the spire with its dormers and ornamentation, noting that it is the most historically correct and most sympathetic with the rest of the building. “The first part of the project was to determine the intent of Van Brunt and Ware,” said Jim McBain, A.I.A., project director for CBT. “We realized that the second tower was the one. The first one was too plain, and the third one was a product of its time.” Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstin and Jeremy R. Knowles, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, made the final decision to reproduce the second spire, saying it most accurately reflected Ware and Van Brunt’s original intent.

Harvard required that the tower be completed in time for the arrival of the millennium, and that the spire be built using historic materials and methods. It also required that the frame be lifted onto the tower during a very short time frame, the week between the summer and fall terms.

Right: The new tower spire marks the entrance to Memorial Hall, designed by two Harvard graduates, Henry Van Brunt and William Robert Ware. It was built to honor those Harvard Union men who lost their lives in the Civil War and is considered to be one of the greatest examples of Ruskinian Gothic architecture outside of England. (Photo by Steve Rosenthal Photography)

Left: Painstakingly re-created to conform to the 1878 design, the new tower spire now has a non-flammable frame to comply with today’s building codes; the slate, copper, and stone details, however, comply with 19th-century construction methods. (Photo by Peter Vanderwarker)

“The construction of the Memorial Hall Tower spire was completed by the end of the year,” Randall said, “in time to celebrate the millennium, although there were a few final details to finish in January. The response has been terrific,” she added. “It has really gripped people. Most people agree that we chose the right version of the tower.” With the restoration of the new tower spire, a major piece of architectural history has been returned to the Harvard campus. 

See details about the restoration in the May/June 2002 issue of Traditional Building Magazine.

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