This grand gray edifice, designed by the famed architect Charles Bulfinch, Harvard Class of 1781, serves as the backdrop for the statue commemorating benefactor John Harvard (often referred to as Harvard’s ‘Statue of Three Lies’).
Occupying a central position along an edge of Harvard’s Old Yard, this long five-level structure is aligned with the incoming view of many freshmen, faculty, parents and visitors entering the Yard from Johnston Gate. Along with the flanking structures of Thayer Hall and Weld Hall, the building establishes a long bounding wall of architecture along Old Yard’s eastern boundary.
University Hall contains a full basement and three identical floors, with an additional partial fourth floor encased within its hipped roof, studded with chimneys and balustrade. Its design is classically simple and symmetrical, with its taut stone skin punctuated by rhythmic and similarly sized multi-pane windows. It is believed that the Chelmsford granite used in its shell was likely cut to size in Charlestown Prison. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts covered about 80% of the structure’s initial cost of $65,000.
In addition to this National Landmark, Charles Bulfinch also designed the Harvard campus’ Stoughton Hall, as well as the Massachusetts State House atop Boston’s Beacon Hill, and the dome of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
Erected by 1816 upon the former grazing area of the cattle of Harvard’s first Hollis Professor of Divinity, Edward Wigglesworth, the building was initially created to house the University chapel, a dining hall (or College Commons), a library, scientific apparatus, and the offices of the University President. By 1849, after many years of student food fights, the dining facilities were relocated out of University Hall. Nine years later, the University chapel took up new quarters in the recently completed Appleton Chapel. The John Harvard Statue sculpted by Daniel Chester French was placed before University Hall’s western façade in 1884. By 1945, the University President’s offices were moved to their current home of Massachusetts Hall, immediately adjacent to Johnston Gate. Today, University Hall houses the offices of the Dean of the College, and those of the various deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and other top administrators.
In 1969, University Hall became the site of Harvard’s student protests against the Vietnam War, with occupation by a number of adherents of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), among others. Massachusetts State Police eventually forcibly removed the students, arresting over 110. A smaller occupation by students in the 1990s called for Harvard divesting its investments in apartheid-era South Africa.