Locked Away: A Tour of Harvard Yard’s Neglected Gates

The first day of classes this year, I became confused when I tried to exit Canaday through the large semi-circular gates behind the dorm. The gates were locked. How odd.

The first day of classes this year, I became confused when I tried to exit Canaday through the large semi-circular gates behind the dorm. The gates were locked. How odd.

Blair Kamin—Nieman Foundation Fellow ’13 and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—also finds Harvard’s locked gates peculiar.

“Drew Faust talks about ‘common spaces’ to bring communities together,” Kamin says. “And this ‘common space’ is locked.”

It’s now Sunday, September 29th—the last day in a weekend celebrating the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary. Kamin has returned to give a tour of these under-appreciated entrances to the Yard.

Kamin’s Pulitzer Prize was awarded to him in recognition of his architectural series “Reinventing the Lakefront,” in which he discusses how architectural changes in Chicago could have far reaching social impacts.

“I’m an activist critic,” he explains. “You are not just looking at the aesthetics or the history. You are looking at things you should change.”

Kamin wears a blue blazer with gold buttons, and his round, tortoise-shell glasses clearly mark him as an academic. As we wait, he is excited to show off his Wintersession course’s e-book about the gates. He brings out his iPad, and swipes through its pages and pictures of 360-degree views of the gates.

Kamin is adamant that we wait until 12:07 p.m. to begin our tour, revealing his familiarity with the University standard. He taught a course on the history, aesthetics, and value of Harvard’s gates last Wintersession. Once a good group of Nieman Fellows gather for the tour, we set off to the Yard.

“Some of the gates are being treated with neglect,” he says as we walk towards the Johnston Gate.

He begins the tour by explaining that the gate marks a turning point in Harvard’s architectural history. Before the gate’s construction in 1885, the school’s architecture could best be described as a “crazy quilt” of mismatched styles, as Kamin puts it.

His face saddens as he tells us of the next gate, located behind the Holden Chapel, which was donated by the class of 1870.

“It’s small. It’s delicate,” he explains. “Almost like a delicate eyebrow which frames the blue and white gable of Holden Chapel.”

Hidden behind the closed gate is a quaint grassy area, with a proud sundial in the middle of the enclosure. It reads: “On this moment, hangs eternity.”

“There’s a dual identity in [the gate’s] intention. This gate is a beautiful little threshold… it has this great feel to it. And it’s locked,” Kamin says. Only those already inside the Yard have access to the courtyard it guards.

As we continue from gate to gate, Kamin continues to remark how many gates remain perpetually locked, to his own confusion. Both the Class of 1886 gate behind Lionel and Mower and the 1881 gate behind the Phillips-Brooks House Association building are locked.

The gates require significant repair and maintenance, which, according to Kamin, Harvard is not providing. The 1870 gate’s iron is breaking off in places, the McKean gate’s Veritas shield is crumbling, and the 1887 and 1888 gate (the large one behind Canaday) is in even worse shape, according to Kamin.

The ornate class medallions are falling apart, a granite lion fountain is filled with still, green water littered with leaves—Kamin says he found bottles of vodka tossed in the fountain last year—and there is a plastic bag hanging on the iron gate. We don’t bother to pick it up.

Kamin asks us to crowd around his iPad to see an old black and white photo of the gate from his e-book. Two majestic elm trees stand in front of a pristine gate. He says the image should break our hearts. There are no more majestic elms, and to say that the gate is “pristine” would be more than generous. He points to a sapling leaning against the backside of the gate. Kamin tells us that if the sapling is left unattended, it will damage the limestone of the gate. Already, weeds and dirt line the gate’s top.

“Harvard has every reason to be proud of these gates. Some of them are victims of neglect,” Kamin tells us at the conclusion of his tour. “As the University puts emphasis on ‘common spaces,’ it needs to look at the gates that form these portals to common spaces.”

“Some universities would kill for one of these gates.” Harvard has 25. Kamin asks, “What are they thinking?”

Kamin seems hopeful for the gates which he considers so dear to the Harvard community, and that change can be effected. In Kamin’s book, published in August, Harvard’s gates appear covered with rust. He notes, however, that they have since been refurbished.

“It’s not millions of dollars,” he tells me as we walk along Mass. Ave., referring to the cost of refurbishing Harvard’s gates. “This should be on the agenda. This is a great legacy and it’s being mistreated.”