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Harvard History: Location, location, location

Any real estate agent will tell you that it’s all about location, and Harvard’s founders knew this in 1732. With some 30 acres of prime real estate in the geographical center, they needed to choose the best places to set the important pieces that would build their new town. It was, understandably, a daunting task, and history tells us that, had our precursors made other choices along the way, the Harvard Common would look very different today.

The first building to situate was the all-important meetinghouse. A committee proposed putting it at the bottom of the slope in the town center. Another group thought the burying ground and pound for loose livestock should go in that spot, and the meetinghouse farther north. The men couldn’t decide and, committed to their town meeting form of government, put it to a vote. The outcome was to site the meetinghouse at the top of the rise and the burying ground at the foot, with the militia training ground in between. It seems fair to say that the burying ground is better where it is rather than at the head of the Common. And people must have been glad not to have noises from penned up cows and pigs coming from the top of the hill.

Controversy surrounded the siting of the 1872 Town Hall. (Photo courtesy of Harvard Historical Society)

Forty years later, the town had outgrown the meetinghouse and voted to build a larger one. But where to put it? A proposal was made to put it as close as possible to the first one, at the top of the Common, but there was opposition to this choice. Months passed before a vote was taken to reconsider the site. One suspects it might have been the men who lost the vote to have the original meetinghouse at the foot of the Common who wanted to have it their way this time. But a vote resulted in a narrow victory for those who wanted to locate the second meetinghouse in the spot initially proposed.

In the 1820s, after the separation of church and state, the town had to approve a land grant to a religious group for a building site, but the town itself was not in charge of choosing the location. For more than 120 years, congregations of the Unitarian Church seem to have managed without discord to site three churches in the same spot. And there is no record of debate about building the first town hall for civic matters at 14 Ayer Road, where it stands today as a private residence.

But when a proposal was made to build a larger town hall, fractiousness again broke out, and debate over the location of the new town hall outdid earlier disagreements. First was the vote whether to construct a new building at all. Both sides brought out their contingents, and the final vote to build a new town hall won by a margin of only seven.

It is hard to imagine Town Hall in any more perfect location, and in fact, the committee recommended that approximate site. But when members brought the proposal to the town, citizens disagreed and called for further study. For nearly a year they “studied,” suggesting a number of sites that make us wonder what they were thinking. Remove the house at 1 Elm Street? Remove the schoolhouse at the foot of the Common and dig up a few graves as well? Finally they agreed on the location first proposed, but meanwhile the Ayer newspaper had a field day satirizing the “filibuster” happening in Harvard over building its town hall.

The longest debate over location was that involving the need, in 1889, to close the old burying ground and create a new cemetery—a process that took four years. For a while the town refused to concede that the center cemetery could not be expanded. Finally, several new sites were proposed, and a town meeting voted for the one on Brookside Road (now Depot Road, at the site of the highway department). Things were well underway there when an alternative location was put forth, and, probably with some embarrassment, the town took the one interred body and the stone archway and moved them to a new location on Still River Road.

Considering the different choices that could have been made, we are fortunate things ended up in the locations we know today.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles based on Carlene Phillips’ forthcoming book, “A Common History: The Story of Harvard’s Identity.”

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