Featured Item: Hollis Hall

A prospect of Hollis Hall in Cambridge [graphic], ca. 1800. HUV 2200.5, Harvard University Archives

"...for the convenient reception of the students..."

The construction of Hollis Hall, the fourth-oldest building in Harvard Yard, was completed 250 years ago, in December 1763. The Massachusetts Bay General Court, persuaded by the Harvard Corporation of the need to provide additional on-campus housing where undergraduates could be better supervised, had appropriated funds in 1762 “to erect a new building for the convenient reception of the students of the College” (Corporation Records, II:156).

Hollis Hall, the work of master-builder Thomas Dawes, was named in honor of the family who had endowed Harvard’s first professorships (Divinity in 1721 and Mathematics and Experimental Philosophy in 1727) and who continued generous support of the College with books, scientific equipment and funds for student scholarships.

During the 1775-1776 siege of Boston, while Harvard College students were evacuated to Concord, Hollis Hall served as a barracks for Continental soldiers.  A major renovation of Hollis in 1959 revealed five Revolutionary-era musket balls between the floorboards. 

Previous renovations took place in 1876 following a fire that destroyed the roof and in 1898 when bathrooms with hot and cold running water were installed.

Well-known occupants of Hollis Hall have included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Townsend Copeland, John Updike and William Weld. Hollis Hall currently serves as a freshman dormitory.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, assessments of the condition of College buildings on a room by room basis were recorded on forms known as district reports. The report reproduced below shows an 1819 survey of Room 15 in Hollis Hall, occupied at the time by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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State of the chambers in Hollis Hall, October 1819. District report. UAIII.15.22.30, Harvard University Archives.