Harvard Stadium viewed from above. Built in 1903, it's the oldest concrete collegiate football stadium in the United States.

Harvard's Colosseum: A History of Harvard Stadium

By Mairead B. Baker, Crimson Staff Writer
Harvard Stadium viewed from above. Built in 1903, it's the oldest concrete collegiate football stadium in the United States. By Griffin Wong

Just a mile across the river from the Yard, Harvard’s U-shaped colosseum towers over Allston, offering a space for eager runners, spectators, and athletes. At nearly 120 years old, the home of Harvard football also houses decades of American and Boston history.

Though most of Harvard’s facilities sit in Cambridge, Harvard Stadium can be found alongside the Harvard Business School and the University’s other athletic facilities in Allston. The historic stadium is the soaring centerpiece of the athletic complex, standing next to other celebrated venues such as the Bright-Landry Hockey Center, Gordon Indoor Track, Lavietes Pavilion, and the Beren Tennis Center.

Built in 1903 from a $100,000 donation from the Class of 1879 and $75,000 from the Harvard Alumni Association, Harvard Stadium remains the nation’s oldest concrete stadium and the first architectural piece to use reinforced structural concrete. It was modeled after Greek colosseums and Roman circuses in an effort led by Lewis Jerome Johnson, Class of 1887, a civil engineering professor at Harvard at the time.

Johnson spearheaded the construction of reinforced concrete, which was incorporated following the discovery that the stadium’s original wooden seating posed a danger to attendees. The wood was not sturdy enough to hold thousands of fans, let alone withstand a potential fire, leading the Alumni Association to require firemen and trucks at every contest at the stadium to ensure safety. In 1981, the press box burned down in a fire known as “the phoenix of the press box,” costing $375,000 to repair and rebuild — nearly three times the cost it took to build the stadium decades beforehand.

Still, a larger problem was at hand: the sport of football itself. After losing hundreds of players to serious injuries and some to death, President Theodore Roosevelt, a member of Class of 1880, organized the Intercollegiate Football Conference in 1906, the predecessor of the NCAA. The conference instituted a new set of rules, requiring fields to be 40 yards wider. Harvard objected to this rule because of the size of its stadium. In turn, the committee instead ordained the forward pass – the throwing of the ball towards the defensive team’s goal line. Without Harvard Stadium, the sport of football would not be the same, as it influenced the standardization of field dimensions and the installation of the forward pass.

The stadium has continued to undergo renovations in recent years. In fact, as timeless as it is, the stadium did not have electrical lights until 2007, just a couple years after turf replaced its former grass. The Crimson practiced in the dark during the wee hours of the morning and in late evening practices for decades before this renovation project began. Harvard played its first night game against Brown on Sept. 22, 2007, beating the Bears 24-17.

Harvard Stadium viewed from above. Built in 1903, it's the oldest concrete collegiate football stadium in the United States.
Harvard Stadium viewed from above. Built in 1903, it's the oldest concrete collegiate football stadium in the United States. By Griffin Wong

Harvard Stadium will host the Crimson and Bulldogs this weekend in The Game, but the first contest ever played on its grass was actually an Ancient Eight clash of Harvard and Dartmouth on Nov. 14, 1903, nearly 120 years ago. Since then, the field has hosted a number of national and international contests, such as soccer matches in the 1984 Summer Olympics and the New England Patriots of the National Football League.

In fact, two ice hockey rinks were built inside the stadium for Harvard men’s ice hockey in December of 1904, allowing spectators to watch the games. The stadium served as the home for the hockey team until World War I.

Harvard hockey was not the only northeast team to compete in the stadium. During the fall of 1970, the Boston Patriots – now known as the New England Patriots – played their inaugural NFL season at Harvard Stadium. The Patriots contacted Harvard athletic officials about playing at the stadium while their current home, Gillette Stadium, was under construction. Harvard only agreed to allow the Patriots to use the stadium for one year on the condition the team would replace the field afterwards. The Patriots, who would later go on to win six Super Bowls while playing their home games at Gillette Stadium, were not allowed to use the varsity locker rooms, which were reserved for the Crimson. Though Harvard students only had to trek across the Charles River to watch NFL games, few were interested.

One Boston team that has yet to mark its territory in Harvard Stadium is the Boston Bruins. Part of the National Hockey League’s Original Six, the Bruins have played a major role in the history of Boston sports. In January 2023, they will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Fenway Park for the 2023 NHL Winter Classic, one of the NHL’s premier events that is typically held at a football or baseball stadium against a nearby NHL team. The Bruins look poised to be a candidate to host the Winter Classic again in their 100th anniversary season. If awarded the 2024 NHL Winter Classic, Harvard Stadium, alongside Fenway Park, could serve as a potential option for the historic sports event.

To this day, the venue is one of only four college stadiums recognized as a Natural Historic Landmark, along with the Rose Bowl, the LA Coliseum, and the Yale Bowl. The near-colosseum in the Allston neighborhood of Boston was built to hold just over 30,000 fans, and on Saturday, it will likely hold a sellout crowd, as The Game returns to Harvard Stadium for the first time in six years. Although the schools typically alternate hosting duties, the 2020 iteration was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the 135th playing of The Game was held at Fenway Park in 2018.

Fans at Harvard Stadium first witnessed a victory over Yale in 1913. This weekend, tens of thousands of students, alumni, and family members will hope to see the Crimson pick up its 62nd win in the historic rivalry. Last year, Harvard locked up its 61st in epic fashion, beating Yale 34-31 in a fourth quarter thriller in New Haven, Connecticut.

Currently, the Crimson has a 6-3 overall record and 4-2 record within the Ivy League. It defeated Ivy foe Penn 37-14 last Saturday, keeping its hopes for an Ivy League title alive and marking Harvard’s first undefeated road record since 2015.

The 138th playing of The Game is slated for a noon kickoff at Harvard Stadium this Saturday, continuing the venue’s legacy and standing as a reminder of its impact on both the sport of football and the University it represents to this day.

—Staff writer Mairead B. Baker can be reached at mairead.baker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @baker_mairead.