The Pusey Library in Harvard Yard was conceived from a 1960 report by Harvard, which outlined the needs for future expansion and growth for the university. The potential for expansion of facilities within Harvard Yard was surveyed between 1968 and 1970 by Hugh Stubbins, who examined the 22-acre area for circulation and the possibility for additional structures. Three years later, Stubbins was commissioned to design a new library in Harvard Yard.
The new library was to be named after Nathan Pusey, president of Harvard University from 1953-1971. President Pusey oversaw one of the largest building programs in Harvard’s history (second only to President Lowell). In 1957, Pusey announced the start of a program for Harvard College, a $82.5 million effort that raised $20 million more and resulted in three additions to the undergraduate House system: Quincy House (1959), Leverett Towers (1960), and Mather House (1970). During the 1960s, the Program for Harvard Medicine raised $58 million. In April 1965, the Harvard endowment exceeded $1 billion for the first time. Pusey left Harvard in June 1971 to become the second president of New York’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Hugh Stubbins believed that an above-ground library would be too constricted in the Yard and he began plans for a subterranean structure. From the beginning, the proposed library was envisioned as an interconnecting link among three existing libraries – Widener, Houghton and Lamont, all within close proximity. Its roof serves as a link as well, with paths and landscaping reinforcing the existing circulation network in the yard. From the exterior, the Pusey Library is a slanting grass-covered embankment only visible from some areas in Harvard Yard. Its roof is a stone-rimmed platform of earth containing a lawn, trees and shrubs.
The main entrance to the library is built into the slope of the hill with a broad band of brick paving at the ground level which forms a moat between the berm and the window wall. The moat allows for light to reach the interior on the perimeter walls without completely disrupting the landscape. Alexander Calder’s “The Onion” sculpture marks the main entry to the library.
At the center, a two-story light well between Houghton and Lamont is apparent seemingly to only those who look for it. Sunk down two floors into the ground, the well is home to a Japanese Maple tree, which just peaks out from its subterranean home providing a clear statement of presence for the library.
Stubbins even designed the interior spaces, using a very 70’s design aesthetic. Nylon carpeting was used throughout except in bookstack areas. Most of the furniture was made of oak, as was the trim work. Walls were covered with a textured vinyl fabric with a flat off-white, non-reflective surface to reduce sound reverberation and create a sense of warmth in the otherwise bunker-like building. The interior spaces have since been modernized to meet current needs for the library.
While underground construction is not needed or desirable in every location, it was brilliantly executed at the Pusey Library. Former Director of the Cambridge Historical Commission and historian, Bainbridge Bunting has said, “No other building has added so much to Harvard Yard yet disturbed its integrity so little”. We could not agree more!
Architectural Record. September 1976, pages 97-102.
HOLLIS Images http://id.lib.harvard.edu/images/olvsite32606/catalog
Nathan Marsh Pusey, Biography. Harvard University. https://www.harvard.edu/about-harvard/harvard-glance/history-presidency/nathan-marsh-pusey
Radcliffe Archives, Pusey Hall under construction. Images.