100+ Years at 73 Brattle by John Wang '16
The winner of the third cycle of the Radcliffe Institute Public Art Competition is John Wang ’16, who was a concentrator in the history of art and architecture at Harvard College. The innovative Radcliffe Institute student competition supports the installation and awards a $10,000 prize for the construction of public art in the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Garden in Radcliffe Yard. Wang is the first undergraduate student to win the competition.
Here, he describes the research behind his public art installation, 100+ Years at 73 Brattle (previously titled In Search of 100 Years at 73 Brattle), which is being constructed during the summer of 2017.
The Wallach Garden
This garden was created as part of the Radcliffe Yard Master Plan to provide a blank canvas for exhibiting public art designed by students at Harvard University. The Radcliffe Institute established a Public Art Competition to engage students across the University in generating and sharing new ideas.
100+ Years at 73 Brattle, the winner of the Radcliffe Institute Public Art Competition for 2017 and 2018, was conceived of and developed by John Wang ’16. The installation draws upon the footprints of buildings that once stood at this site, now preserved in the archives of the Cambridge Historical Commission and Radcliffe. Each footprint is given a corresponding material, form, and program to invoke a part of the site’s history. Taking cues from the vernacular buildings of New England, Bates House (1821–1875) is reimagined as a sloping wood deck that doubles as an access ramp to the excavated ground. The Sawin House (1875–1930) perimeter, demarcated by blocks of reclaimed granite, a material commonly used for large building foundations, offers a space for meditation and gathering enclosed within a fragrant garden of rosemary, lavender, and Russian sage bounded by the Gilman footprint (1930–1932). As an urban palimpsest and a public space, this installation invites visitors to engage with the past in a lively setting.
This art competition and installation have been made possible by the generosity of Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach, longtime champions of the Radcliffe Institute and Harvard, for whom the garden is now named.
More than 40 competition submissions, involving 86 students, were evaluated by a jury of Harvard faculty members:
- Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
- Anita Berrizbeitia, chair of the department of landscape architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design
- Yukio Lippit, professor of history of art and architecture and director of the Arts Program, Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
- Chris Reed, associate professor in the practice of landscape architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design, and principal, Stoss Landscape Urbanism
- Matt Saunders, assistant professor of visual and environmental studies, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
- Diana Sorensen, dean of arts and humanities, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and James F. Rothenberg Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of Comparative Literature, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
The installation was initially conceived as a part of the January Winter Arts Intensive led by Julian Bonder (MDes ’96). Additional acknowledgement to Sarah Hutcheon at the Schlesinger Library and Charles Sullivan at the Cambridge Historical Commission.
History of the Site
The earliest documented history of this site begins with Williams Bates’s purchase of the plot, on which he and his family lived from 1821 to 1875. Very little is known about him, except that Bates passed away at some point in the late 60s or early 70s. When Mrs. Bates passed away, too, in 1875, the house was auctioned off together with the land. The new owners chose not to demolish the house, but relocated it to 38 Bradbury Street (fig. 1), where the main house still stands. Today, the building is on file in the Cambridge Historical Commission and protected by historic preservation guidelines.
After the Bates house was moved, the land was sold off once more, this time to Moses Sawin, a Cambridge resident who operated an expressman business. Sawin built a large, three-story, Mansard-style house in which his family lived from 1875 to 1917. Census records show that, in the Sawin’s most populous years, a total of 11 people—Mr. and Mrs. Sawin, their three daughters and three sons, Sawin’s mother, a cousin, and a servant—lived in this house (fig. 2). Over the years, as the children married and moved away, the number of occupants dwindled to only four in 1910. In 1917, with the passing of Moses Sawin, his children decided to put the house on sale, thus bringing Radcliffe College into the picture.
The history of Radcliffe College is itself well-documented and eloquently told elsewhere, but some remarks on the physical space deserve to be highlighted. Before Radcliffe became an independent institution of higher education, it was known as the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, or, informally, as the Harvard Annex. Harvard professors offered instruction for women pursuing higher education, which took place initially in the Carret House on 6 Appian Way (now demolished), and later, as the Society expanded and acquired its first property, in Fay House (fig. 3). Serving as the entirety of the Society’s campus for more than 20 years, Fay House stands today behind the ornamental gates of Radcliffe Yard as an administrative office.
With the permanent location of Fay House as the anchor, the Society grew rapidly under Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, who served as Radcliffe’s first president when the school was officially established in 1894. To accommodate a growing student population, additional land was purchased and a gymnasium was constructed. In 1901, Bertram Hall, Radcliffe’s first dormitory building, was built so that Radcliffe could accommodate boarding students. At Agassiz’s 80th birthday celebration in Sanders Theater, a plan to build a student hall bearing her name was announced. Today, Agassiz House continues the initial intent of providing student space as a theater for student production.
Le Baron Russell Briggs, a Harvard English professor, succeeded Agassiz in 1903 as the second President. During his twenty-year tenure, Radcliffe’s expansion had reached the point at which Briggs saw the need for a comprehensive masterplan for the campus. At Brigg’s commission, Arthur Shurtleff, a landscape architect who had worked under Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., proposed a symmetrical quadrangle encompassing the entire block circumscribed by Garden, Mason, Brattle, and Appian Way (fig. 4). This proposal was developed in response to and affirmed the direction of Radcliffe’s land acquisition such that, by 1916, all but two plots on the block had come under Radcliffe’s ownership (fig. 5). It was only natural that the College would express interest when the Sawin House entered the market.
On June 26, 1917, Ezra Baker, then Treasurer of Radcliffe College, informed Briggs that a meeting with Ms. Sawin had been arranged. Following a visit to the property, Baker reported in a letter to Briggs that the house was “well-built with a good foundation and brick piers and large rooms that would meet the educational use of Radcliffe.” Despite new facilities such the Radcliffe Library, built in 1908, as well as three additional dormitories—Eliot, Whitman, and Barnard Hall—Radcliffe was faced with an urgent demand for space to accommodate the expanding student population and curriculum. After a series of negotiations, Baker and Ms. Sawin settled on $25,000 for the property. The transfer of deeds took place on July 11 with Charles Sawin, Moses Sawin’s son, acting as the administrator of the estate.
Once the house became part of Radcliffe’s campus, it was immediately put to use in the fall semester of 1917 (fig. 6–7), hosting such classes as “Civilian Relief.” The 1917–1918 Annual Report of the College stated that the building helped relieve much of the congestion on campus. A shop also opened in the building soon after, selling such a range of goods as Italian linens, greeting cards, fruits, preserves and marmalade. It even lent out books and provided film developing and printing services.
The next significant event in the history of 73 Brattle took place during the tenure of Ada Louise Comstock, third President of Radcliffe College, who had an ambitious plan to expand the campus even further. To realize her vision, in 1926, Comstock commissioned the Boston architecture firm Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn to create a second campus masterplan that included a chapel, a fine arts building, a lecture hall, a graduate center, and a library extension (fig. 8). Building upon Shurtleff’s plan for Radcliffe Yard, the new campus would stretch across to the south side of Brattle Street. (Today, the Loeb Drama Center, designed by Harvard-trained architect Hugh Stubbins in 1960, occupies the area of the unrealized fine arts building.) To maintain a unified campus and to make space for new buildings, the masterplan called for the demolition of many existing structures, including Putnam, Sawin, and Buckingham House.
It can be safely deduced that it was for this reason that Sawin House was demolished in 1930, after 13 years of service. What followed, however, was an interesting interlude that initially evaded explanation. To begin, an aerial photograph dated 1930 shows that a new building had gone up at 73 Brattle nearly overnight (fig. 9). More mysterious is that only two years later, the structure would be demolished, a decision that would have made little economic sense at the height of the Great Depression. As it turned out, however, this was all part of a carefully choreographed plan.
The building, which is now identified as the Gilman Building (fig. 10), named after Arthur Gilman, an early benefactor of Radcliffe College, had been relocated to 73 Brattle from across the yard at the current location of Byerly Hall. Comstock, realizing the need for a well-equipped laboratory for scientific instruction, had devoted much effort to raise the necessary funds for a new science building that would be named after William Byerly, a well-respected chemist teaching at Radcliffe. This necessitated a new space, for which the Gilman building was moved. In 1931, Byerly Hall was completed and brought together classes that were previously scattered among Fay House, Sawin House, and the Browne and Nichols Building.
This, however, was not the first time the Gilman Building was moved. It was originally erected at the correction location of the Schlesinger Library, on the corner of Brattle and James Street. When the library was commissioned in 1908, the school chose not to demolish the Gilman Building, the school library then, but preserved it by relocation, just as the owners of Bates House once did. Given the historical context, relocating buildings was the more economically sensible choice because of the relative scarcity of materials. It was only in recent times that preservation became primarily associated with a sense of history and culture.
By the time the Gilman Building had moved to 73 Brattle, however, preservation was no longer as economical an option, not only because of the vision of the masterplan, but also because the building itself had become battered. Thus, with the completion of Byerly Hall, the fate of demolition inevitably befell the Gilman Building in 1932. Since then, the plot had remained vacant, serving at one point as a staging area for constructions on campus, until its recent transformation into a canvas for public art.
It is worth adding that, while both the Sawin and Gilman building were demolished, the wood-clad houses known as Buckingham and Putnam stand to this day among the redbrick architecture that pervades the Radcliffe campus. As Bainbridge Bunting, scholar and author of Harvard: An Architectural History, remarked, had the 1930 Perry Shaw and Hepburn plan come to complete fruition, Radcliffe Yard would lack the sense of repose that these two houses offer. Like the current installation, they too are living reminders of Radcliffe’s past.