A Celebration of Divinity Hall

September 15, 2000
A Celebration of Divinity Hall

Divinity Hall was rededicated, 174 years after its original dedication, with a celebration that took place in front of one of Harvard Divinity School's oldest buildings.

Amidst the anxieties, toils, pleasures, dissipations, and competitions of life, in the stir and bustle of society, and in an age when luxury wars with spirituality . . . we would devote these walls to the training of warm . . . generous spirits. 

—William Ellery Channing, in his address "The Christian Ministry," delivered at the dedication of Divinity Hall on August 29, 1826 

On September 22, 2000, in an age uncannily consonant with these words spoken by William Ellery Channing 174 years earlier, Divinity Hall was rededicated with a celebration that took place in the quadrangle outside its new front doors. The building, site of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous Divinity School Address and residence over the years of such budding intellectual luminaries as Emerson, Theodore Parker, and George Santayana, was reopened last February after an extensive renovation. The speakers this time around were the Rev. Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church; Elaine Pagels, Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University; and the Rev. John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

Divinity Hall was the first Harvard University building constructed outside the Yard. According to George Huntston Williams's 1954 history of the Divinity School, the thinking was that theological students needed to be separated and isolated, lest they imbibe "more of the spirit of the University then of the spirit of their profession." In Francis Greenwood Peabody's 1915 address on the "Spiritual History of Divinity Hall," he noted that that the building's erection "was the curious consequence of a movement organized, not to maintain a University School of Theology but, on the contrary, to remove the troublesome subject of theology from among the responsibilities of the University." 

Although the original intention may have been to separate and contain theology students and theological studies from Harvard proper, the construction of Divinity Hall ended up having the opposite effect. The rustic brick edifice, designed by Solomon Willard and Thomas Sumner, proved to be a significant event in the life of the fledgling Divinity School and became the focal point of some of Harvard's most important site planning. 

This new version of Divinity Hall, designed by Gail Woodhouse of the Boston firm Amsler Woodhouse MacLean, again makes the building a linchpin for the Divinity School's practical and programmatic future. "We were essentially landlocked, but the Divinity Hall project has created flexibility and wiggle-room that are key to doing a whole series of projects at the Divinity School, including the current library renovation," said Timothy Cross, Associate Dean for Finance and Administration.

J. Bryan Hehir, head of the Divinity School as Chair of its Executive Committee, said, "After becoming a progressively less functional dormitory, Divinity Hall is now repositioned as a central, vital facility and will allow for the growth in staff and academic programs which are part of the Divinity School today."

From its beginning in 1826, Divinity Hall has served many purposes. At first, it essentially contained the entire school, including residential, academic, administrative, worship, and dining facilities. Its rooms housed—in addition to Emerson and Parker—two Henry Wares, two Horatio Algers, and numerous other people who would become prominent nineteenth- and twentieth-century ministers and teachers. When the Lücke Library, the theological collection of a noted professor at Göttingen, was given to the School in 1855, its 4,000 volumes were placed in a special room in Divinity Hall. But the Corporation and the Divinity Faculty were constantly in fear that the library would be burned up, given "Divinity Hall's furnaces and 30 or 40 open fires and stoves." This fear was an impetus for the 1887 construction of a fireproof library north of Divinity Hall. 

Without a doubt, the Divinity Hall Chapel, on what is now the third floor, was the center of the school's life, the site of historic addresses such as Channing's dedication and Emerson's 1838 Divinity School Address, but also of weekly exercises in declamation and extempore speaking. As John White Chadwick of the Class of 1864 wrote of the Chapel, "There, also, the first sermons were preached to audiences less fit than few; and at one of these trial trips one of the students, made of sterner stuff, shocked the professorial critic by beseeching, in conclusion, '…the blessing of God upon these miserable gymnastics!' " 

Various refurbishings are mentioned in the official Dean's Reports of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In 1892-93, "steam heat was introduced into the hallways and excellent bathrooms have been added on the two lower floors." In 1898-99, a "modern" bathroom "with four slate-lined shower baths," tennis courts at the rear, and "common rooms" were added. In 1904, the Chapel was completely redone by the architect A.W. Longfellow, Jr., a nephew of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. All of these changes apparently transformed Divinity Hall from being, in the words of one Dean, a building "in disfavor among many students" to being "one of the most popular dormitories, occupied by a select and congenial colony." In 1916, steam heat made its way into students' rooms and electric lights were installed.  

When Andover Hall was constructed in 1910 and most of the School's administrative offices were moved there, Divinity Hall became primarily a dormitory. As a dorm, it saw only relatively minor repairs and changes throughout the rest of the century, although a kitchen and laundry room were installed in the basement (now the first floor) during the 1960s and there was a substantial upgrading of the electrical and plumbing systems in the 1980s. 

Krister Stendahl, Mellon Professor of Divinity Emeritus and Dean of the Divinity School in the 1970s, lived in Divinity Hall in the 1940s, and he recalls that the School had fallen on such bad times then that the dorm could not be filled by Divinity students. Rooms were used by students from other schools, especially the Law School; one of these students was William French Smith, a future Attorney General. "When new faculty including Paul Tillich started in 1955 and the number of new students increased, Divinity Hall again became a dorm for the Divinity School," Stendahl said. 

With the cultural revolution of the 1960s, women students began to attend the Divinity School, and some were housed in Divinity Hall, which didn't have bathrooms that were segregated by sex. "One story was told of a Canadian nun who had been cloistered for many years before attending the Divinity School and ended up living in one of the halls without separate bathrooms," Stendahl said. "She never complained. Eventually, it came out that she thought this was the way the world had always lived." 

Another mid-twentieth-century resident of Divinity Hall was Peter Gomes. "In my day, each room had a plaque listing who had lived there through the First World War," said Gomes, who lived in Divinity Hall for three years in the 1960s, two of them as a proctor. Emerson lived in Room 14, Horatio Alger in Room 26, and the abolitionist, minister, and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson in Room 13. 

Today, there are state-of-the art classrooms, with greater technological capacities, and faculty and administrative offices on all four floors; all are connected by a new central staircase that has for the first time filled the building with natural light. The uncovered first floor, once a basement used for coal storage and mechanical equipment and later the kitchen and laundry room, now is home to the Divinity School Bookstore and the first school-wide student lounge that HDS has ever had. The Chapel has been carefully preserved, and its organ has been rebuilt and reinstalled. Because the building is no longer a dormitory, the Chapel will now be accessible to the public to visit and even to rent for weddings or other services. And the School's ministerial staff will use the Chapel for preaching classes and some services.  

As is often the case, this renovation ended up being more complicated and expensive than the architects, administrators and site planners anticipated, but it also has been more successful than they expected. "This building is listed on the national register, so the renovation had to conform to extensive rules for historic buildings," explained Gail Woodhouse. "We were able to make the building accessible to everyone, increase the amount of usable square footage, and connect it to the rest of the Divinity School while respecting the historic nature of the building. For instance, we did not even touch the historic brick façade." 

Tim Cross, the School's Dean of Administration, described particular problems. "When the foundation wall on the basement was exposed, it was discovered that there was a graded pile of stone rubble that needed to be torn up, meaning that the entire side of that building sat on scaffolding units while a new foundation wall was built," he said. "Neither the architect or engineers could have foreseen that." This resulted in new granite work on the side of the building that faces the courtyard and is now the entrance to the building. 

As with any major change in a School's life, this one does not come without some grieving. Both Stendahl and Gomes expressed sadness that the building has ceased to be a round-the-clock residence. But Cross emphasizes the positive side: "Divinity Hall has gone through a number of different transformations in its history. Maybe in 75 or 100 years we will come up with a new way to think of it, but this renovation fits this time and the school's history." 

And there may be some overnight residents still lurking around, after all. Part of the lore of the building includes ghost stories. Gomes reports hearing from his proctors that Divinity Hall was haunted, and he passed this impression along when he became a proctor. "It was said that if you heard strange noises by the chapel, or saw someone there you didn't recognize, it was probably a ghost," Gomes said. These ghosts were believed to be "benign, doubtless Unitarian, rational ghosts," he said. 

The ghost stories are much like the memorabilia that were unearthed in this renovation—a 1923 Sunday school instruction book, a top hat, and an assortment of artful nineteenth-century medicine bottles, for example—reminders that even as Divinity Hall faces the future, it will never leave its rich history behind. 

by Wendy McDowell