Harvard Stadium Football History
Welcome to Historic Harvard Stadium
When it was built, there were doubters who thought it would never withstand the weight of a large crowd, let alone the brutal cold of a New England winter.
But more than a century later it still stands proud, the “aristocrat of American sports amphitheaters” as one writer put it, and is celebrated for saving football as well as for its timeless charm and fabulous sightlines for fans.
Harvard Stadium turns 107 years old this fall, and the nation’s oldest permanent concrete structure for intercollegiate athletics has never looked better. First opened Nov. 14, 1903, for a game against Dartmouth, the Stadium has since hosted over 660 Harvard football contests as well as hundreds of other athletic and non-athletic events, including Olympic and professional soccer, lacrosse, rock concerts, benefits and political rallies.
In March of 1903, it was announced that the Class of 1879, in honor of its 25th anniversary, would present the university with a stadium seating 40,000 spectators. The plans provided for a horseshoe-shaped structure of steel, similar to the stadium at Athens, with seats of stone and concrete for 27,000 persons. An additional 15,000 temporary seats were to be added whenever the demand made it necessary. Its total cost was $310,000.
It would be a much-needed addition to the Harvard athletics landscape. The football and baseball teams had played for several years at Soldiers Field, where fans jammed into decaying, unsafe wooden bleachers to cheer on the Crimson. Work on the Stadium began shortly after the completion of the 1903 baseball season, and the foundations were dug in early July. Even when the Stadium opened some four-and-a-half months later, it was far from a finished product. Much of the seating on its eastern side was of a temporary wood nature and capacity stood at just 20,000.
The Stadium marked the first use of reinforced concrete on a large scale, and skeptics abounded who were certain the building would not be safe. To allay those fears, the construction superintendent walked beneath the stands while spectators took their seats on opening day.
In those days, football was a running and kicking game. But as the sport became increasingly violent, some colleges were dropping it in favor of rugby, so in 1906 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt 1880 stepped in to save the game. He organized the Intercollegiate Football Conference — a collection of 28 colleges and universities and the forerunner of the NCAA — and demanded it adopt rules changes to make the sport safer. Some suggested widening the field, but the permanent nature of the stands at Harvard Stadium made it impractical for the school to endorse this plan.
Concerned that eliminating football at Harvard might mean the end of the sport on a national level, the committee instead approved the forward pass, though it did its best to minimize its effect on the sport. In 1906, the penalty for an incomplete was for the offensive team to lose possession (the rule was “softened” in 1907 to a loss of 15 yards). Other rules changes were also implemented, including giving the offense just three downs instead of five to gain a first down and shortening games from 70 to 60 minutes with a mandatory 10-minute rest between halves. In hindsight, however, it was the adoption of the forward pass that curtailed the sport’s violence and led to the surge in popularity that remains to this day.
The Stadium colonnade was added in 1910, and the press box was also built to accommodate growing media interest. When the press box burned down in 1981, it was rebuilt at a cost of $375,000, more than the price tag for the entire Stadium some 80 years earlier. The Stadium’s seating area was refurbished two years later.
Today, Harvard Stadium remains one of the great venues in all of organized football. Sports fans from across the nation visit the Stadium to experience the rich tradition, and Harvard’s student-athletes are quick to talk about the unique experience of playing in one of the sport’s true treasures.