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Memorial Hall Roof Restoration Project at Harvard University Receives Paul & Niki Tsongas Award


Preservation Mass is pleased to announce that the Memorial Hall Roof Restoration Project at Harvard University has received a 2024 Paul & Niki Tsongas Award.


Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, Memorial Hall is recognized as one of the nation’s most dramatic examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture and is the most prominent landmark on the Harvard University campus. Designed by architects William Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt as a memorial to those Harvard graduates who fought and died for the Union cause during the Civil War, construction of the memorial began in 1870. Annenberg Hall (then referred to as Alumni Hall or the Great Hall) and The Memorial Transept were dedicated for use in 1874; Sanders Theatre was substantially completed a year later and first used for Commencement exercises in 1876. The tower was completed in 1877, was modified in 1878 to add copper ornamentation, altered again in 1897 to install a bell and four clock faces, stripped of its copper during World War II, destroyed by fire in 1956, and finally rebuilt in 1999 (per the 1878 tower design).


Memorial Hall is distinctive for its colorful polychromatic slate roof, with patterns made of black slate from Monson, Maine; red slate from Granville, New York; and green slate from Rutland County, Vermont. Although the building’s roofs had been well-maintained over the years, the slate tiles themselves, at almost 150 years old, had reached the end of their expected lifecycle and were failing at an increasing rate.


In 2018, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) began planning for a comprehensive replacement of Memorial Hall’s slate and copper roofing. Due to the sheer size and complexity, the project required construction over three summers: Phase 1 – Sanders Theatre; Phase 2 - Transept Gables and Minor Towers; and Phase 3 - Annenberg Hall.

FAS assembled a highly qualified and experienced design and construction team: Preservation Technology Associates (Dr. Judith Selwyn), Shawmut Design and Construction (preservation specialist Carl Jay), and Gilbert & Becker Roofing Co. Oliver Radford of Perry and Radford Architects served as project architect for the roofing replacement, undertaking scholarly research of original conditions, preparing new construction documents, and overseeing construction details.


All phases of work involved stripping the roof areas of existing slate tiles, underlayment, and copper flashing down to the wood substrate. Replacement slate was carefully reviewed with Charles Sullivan of the Cambridge Historical Commission and chosen to match the slate used in the 1999 Tower reconstruction. To ensure availability and color consistency over the course of the project, slate for all three phases was procured during the first phase. The project also involved extensive new copper work including new flashing, gutters, and downspouts.


The re-roofing project presented an opportunity to restore the decorative steel cresting at the upper gables of the Transept and the ornamental zinc-coated copper cresting along the main ridge of Annenberg Hall and at the ridges of the west porticoes, all of which had been removed in the 1940s. This aspect of the project involved extensive archival research, the modeling and fabrication of new steel and copper cresting to match the original design, and new structural support for installation. The new cresting restores the visual character of historic roof details not seen for almost 80 years.


Memorial Hall is an architectural landmark not only of the Harvard campus, but of the City of Cambridge, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and our nation. The roof restoration project strengthens the structural integrity of the building helping to ensure its long-term preservation. The careful planning and execution of the project have resulted in the restoration of one of the key architectural features of the building, highlighting Memorial Hall’s original Victorian exuberance.

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