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Despite the famous catch phrase ridiculing a certain sort of Boston accent, you’ll not be parking any cars in Harvard Yard. Harvard Yard is a fine place to visit, though, whether you happen to be coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for reasons associated with Harvard University or not.

In fact there are two parts to it, the New Yard, where graduations and other gatherings are often held, and the Old Yard which, unsurprisingly, has been there longer. Both spaces are what the name implies: yards, spaces of grass and trees and greenery and walkways surrounded by buildings which house university offices and university students. Many of the buildings which front on the yard have been home to students for centuries and have housed future presidents, senators, congress people, actors, writers and others.

On any given day during term, you’ll find Harvard Yard looking much like any other green space on a large college campus, with students, faculty, and staff hurrying along to their various pursuits or stopping to chat, people handing out flyers for their causes, and if the weather’s nice, groups and individuals sitting on the lawn to study or chat. That informality makes Harvard Yard a fine place to visit. As you look around you, though, you might feel the pull of history and the weight of story: by the New Yard is one the country’s if not the world’s most renown university libraries, and facing the Old Yard are buildings for students and offices for administrators dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among these is Massachusetts Hall, Mass Hall for short, which was completed in 1720 and has among other things housed troops during the siege of Boston and been home to an astronomical observatory. John Adams, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams are also former residents of the hall. Matt Damon, Horatio Alger, Amy Brenneman, and several presidents are among those who also lived along the Yard during their stays at Harvard.

Then there’s John Harvard himself. In the 1880s when Daniel Chester French was commissioned to make a statue of the young minister after whom the University was named, he faced a challenge: more than two hundred years after Harvard’s death, there were no likenesses of him around.

French was known (and would become much better known across his career) for getting to the heart and humanity of his subjects, though. To understand what John Harvard may have looked like, he studied portraits from the 1630s and read up on the sort of clothes ministers of that time in Massachusetts were likely to wear. He chose a Harvard student who came from an a family with roots going back deep into New England history as his model, and set about creating an image of John Harvard.

A plaque underneath the stature reads John Harvard, founder, 1638 — which is why it is sometimes known as the statue of three lies. It was not taken from a likeness of John Harvard. He wasn’t one of the twelve men who gathered to found a college in 1636, either. His gift of half of his estate and all the books in his library on his death two years later might arguably add Harvard to the list of founders. In any case, it became enough for the university to take his name.
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It is the only statue in the Old Yard. These days, the statue sits quietly by University Hall. Despite occasional student pranks, it remains a dignified and contemplative presence as students and professors and visitors hurry by, stopping now and again to seek good luck by touching John Havard’s shoe. Myself, I especially like walking the Yard at dusk on winter evenings, when the students have gone for the holidays but when a string or two of holiday lights still appear in a few of the windows of the old buildings, and John Harvard sits quietly looking out over the Yard.

Something else to do near Harvard Yard: stop in to see who is playing at historic Club Passim, just a few steps away.

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Kerry Dexter is one of six writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You will often find her writing about places, events, and people connected with music, history, and the arts in Europe and North America. You may find more of Kerry's work at her site Music Road as well as in Wandering Educators, National Geographic Traveler, Ireland and the Americas, and other places online and in print.

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