In the fall of 1928, rumors spread across the Harvard campus about a proposed design of the College dormitory system. The so-called “House Plan,” conceived by University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, called for the development of seven dormitories near and along the Charles River to separate upperclassmen from the freshmen, who would remain in Harvard Yard. Specifically, having witnessed the success of residential College systems at Oxford and Cambridge, President Lowell promoted the Houses as a means of fostering a strong college community, “where differences of wealth and origin would be minimized and students could develop wider circles of friends.” With a generous gift from Edward Stephen Harkness, the project became a reality.
To put the House plan into operation, President Lowell turned to Chester Noyes Greenough (’98), who had recently submitted his resignation as Dean of Harvard College to return to his post as English Professor. During his eight years as Dean, Greenough had instituted significant changes in undergraduate advising and the relationship between students and the rest of the University, including the initiation of “Freshman Week,” a week-long orientation for freshmen before the start of their first school year. President Lowell asked Greenough to be Master of one of the Houses; after some hesitation, Greenough accepted the position.
Two Houses were scheduled to be ready by the autumn of 1930, with Greenough to take the role of Master of Dunster House, named after Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard (1640-1654). Dunster was a graduate of Magdalene College in Cambridge, England. To honor and strengthen the relationship between the two Colleges, two stones were sent from Magdalene College to Dunster House and were placed in the wall near the doors to the Dining Hall. The architect of Dunster House, Charles Coolidge, meanwhile designed the building in the neo-Georgian style that would come to define the River Houses. However, the House’s most distinctive feature, its gold and crimson clock tower, is a Classical interpretation of the Gothic-style Tom Tower at Oxford’s Christ Church.
Once the House opened, the House library became one of Greenough's primary focuses. With a gift of $25,000 in memory of Alexander Moss White (’92), and numerous other donations, Greenough's hopes for a grand library were soon fulfilled. By the end of the first year, the library boasted 11,000 books, while Greenough continued his efforts to expand the facility. In honor of the White contribution, a motto was inscribed over the fireplace in the library.
In the years between its opening in 1930 and the randomization of Harvard Housing in 1995, Dunster was known for its strong focus on academics, as well as its beautiful dining hall and library. In 2014, the House underwent a complete renewal. The renovations preserved the classic neo-georgian architecture and beautiful hallmarks of Dunster House, including the dining hall and house library, while introducing innovative spaces, expanding House facilites, and redesigning the House living spaces. Read more about the renovations on the House Renewal page.