Cambridge Architecture, Part Two: Gore Hall and Widener Library

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Gore Hall, a now-demolished Harvard University structure, was built in 1838 constructed of Quincy granite. Gore Hall served as Harvard University’s first library. It’s architectural style was Gothic Revival, a style found across the globe. It was named in honor of Harvard graduate and Massachusetts Governor and United States Senator Christopher Gore. Gore Hall was demolished in 1913 to make way for Widener Library.

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Christopher Gore

Christopher Gore was a lawyer, Federalist politician, and U.S. Diplomat born into a family divided by the American Revolution. He was the seventh governor of Massachusetts, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on September 21, 1758.

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Gore Hall being demolished in 1912

His education was attained at Harvard University, where he graduated in 1776. He studied law, and then established his legal career in Boston. Gore entered politics in 1788, serving as a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. He also served as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1788 to 1789, was the U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts from 1789 to 1796, and served as commissioner to England from 1796 to 1803. He was the charge d’ affaires at London from 1803 to 1804, was a member of the Massachusetts State Senate from 1806 to 1807, and served again in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1808. Gore won election to the Massachusetts governorship on April 3, 1809. He was sworn into office on May 1, 1809. During his tenure, the state’s economy was strengthened after the embargo act was eliminated. Also, a trade agreement was initiated that opened trade routes with England. After running unsuccessfully for reelection, Gore left office on June 2, 1810. He later served in the U.S. Senate from 1813 to 1816, and was a presidential elector in 1816. Governor Christopher Gore passed away on March 1, 1827, and was buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.

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The City Seal of Cambridge has Gore Hall, along with the Washington Elm on it’s design. This was designed in 1846 by Harvard President Edward Everett, who was a politician, pastor, educator, diplomat, and orator from Massachusetts. Everett, a Whig, served as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, the 15th Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, and United States Secretary of State.


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The Widener Memorial Library, located at Harvard University, houses some 3.5 million books and remains the centerpiece of the Harvard College Libraries. The library is named after Harvard graduate, bibliophile and RMS Titanic sinking victim, Harry Elkins Widener. His mother, Eleanor, ensured that the library was built in accordance with Harry’s will.

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According to the Harvard Gazette:

On the evening of April 14, 1912, RMS Titanic was four days into her maiden voyage, clipping through a moonless, frigid night at a brisk 22 knots. Then came disaster, one that is celebrated, feared, and fought over even 100 years later, an event whose name is the world’s stoutest cliché for mischance, the hubris of the powerful, and the limits of technology.

At 11:40 that night, the Titanic — 90 stories long and 10 high — scraped against an iceberg. The collision was brief and glancing, but it was enough to tear a 300-foot gash under the waterline and open five watertight compartments to the sea. Less than three hours later, the ship, nearly 500 miles from the closest land, rose stern up and plunged sparking and booming into the black sea. Of the 2,224 passengers aboard, 1,514 perished.

One of the dead was first-class passenger Harry Elkins Widener, a 27-year-old Philadelphia businessman and book collector who had graduated from Harvard College in 1907. He perished along with his father, George D. Widener. His mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived, floating to safety aboard lifeboat No. 4.

Not long after the Titanic went down, the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library went up at Harvard, thanks to a $2 million donation from his grieving mother. The University had framed plans in 1902 for a new library to replace drafty, humid, and cramped Gore Hall, its first library building, built in 1838. Only the money was missing.

With the bequest, Harvard moved quickly. Starting in August 1912, it took four months to clear books out of Gore Hall. Workers operating a pair of electric trucks moved nearly 600,000 volumes to temporary shelves in other campus buildings.

By the following February, Gore Hall was a pile of rubble. On Feb. 11, after a 48-hour bonfire had softened the frozen ground, Harry’s younger brother, George D. Widener Jr., ceremoniously dug the first spadefuls of soil. On June 16, his mother presided over the laying of the cornerstone.

That summer of 1913, library director Archibald Cary Coolidge estimated that 50,000 bricks a day were being added to the new structure. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell wrote to Mrs. Widener that the library “was literally growing out of the ground.” In a 2004 “biography” of the library, historian and Harvard librarian Matthew Battles summed up the breakneck pace. “Widener,” he wrote, “rose in stupendously short order.”

The library officially opened on June 24, 1915, Commencement Day, barely three years after the Titanic sank. U.S. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge delivered the keynote address. “This noble gift to learning,” he said, “comes to us with the shadow of a great sorrow resting on it.”

That “great sorrow” cost the lives of at least three men affiliated with Harvard. A fourth, with remarkable luck, survived.

Harry Widener had boarded the ship after a book-buying trip to London. On the fatal night, wealthy Philadelphian William Ernest Carter advised him to try for a lifeboat. “I’ll stick to the big ship, Billy,” Widener replied, “and take a chance.” Not long after, Carter slipped into the safety of lifeboat No. C. With him was J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the Titanic’s White Star Line.

On the Promenade Deck that night was investor, author, and inventor John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man aboard. He had started at Harvard College with the Class of 1888, but left without taking a degree. At 1:55 a.m., Astor helped his second wife, Madeleine, who was 19 and pregnant, into a lifeboat. Then Astor stood aside. His body was recovered a week later.

The third Harvard man lost that night was Francis Davis Millet, a member of the Class of 1869 and an accomplished painter, writer, and designer. On that voyage, Mrs. Widener wrote to President Lowell, Millet and her son “would sit up very late talking of their love & ambition for the University.” Millet’s body was recovered.

Another first-class passenger that night was R. Norris Williams II, a 21-year-old Swiss-born tennis champion traveling with his father. He was to enroll at Harvard that fall and graduate with the Class of 1916.

Knocked off the deck by a giant wave, the athletic Williams thrashed his way toward safety. Behind him, his father struggled, and in moments was crushed to death when the Titanic’s forward funnel broke off and crashed into the water. That created a wave that swept the lucky Williams to within 20 yards of lifeboat Collapsible A. He clung to the boat for hours, waist-deep in water so frigid that his legs were frostbitten.

A doctor on the rescue ship RMS Carpathia recommended amputation. Williams refused, and recovered fast enough to win his first U.S. tennis championship that same year. He went on to play four years of tennis at Harvard, watch Widener Library rise brick by brick, win decorations for bravery during World War I, and win the gold medal in tennis at the 1924 Olympics.

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