History of Phillips Brooks House

Phillips Brooks House opened its doors in 1900. Named in honor of an influential preacher and overseer of Harvard College, Phillips Brooks House soon became home to five religious groups and Harvard's Social Service Committee. These groups championed "charity, piety, and hospitality," virtues the building upholds to this day.

Since 1900, students have become increasingly involved in public service. Through the Phillips Brooks House Association and other student groups, Harvard conducted hundreds of community service programs throughout the Boston area and even overseas. During World War I and II, the house even hosted ROTC, Red Cross, and Cambridge Draft Board programs. Since that time the building has served as a center for both community service groups and the study of religion.

Today the house continues its mission of service. Throughout their tenure, two out of three Harvard students are involved in everything from running the homeless shelter, to mentoring area youth, to providing literacy training, to teaching English as a Second Language, to operating summer camps for poor children. The Center for Public Interest Careers, Harvard Public Service Network, and the Phillips Brooks House Association all have offices in Phillips Brooks House. The building enjoyed a centennial re-dedication ceremony in January of 2000.

To learn more about service programs run through Phillips Brooks House, contact us at publicservice@fas.harvard.edu.

Who was Phillips Brooks?

For more than a century, the name of Phillips Brooks has echoed through the corridors of Harvard. Today his bust greets entrants to Phillips Brooks House, his appellation rests inscribed in the pulpit of Harvard's Memorial Church, and his image shines down upon dining freshmen from the towering stained glass walls of Harvard's Memorial Hall. To the Harvard community, his name is as familiar as those of fellow alumni Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Adams.

This esteemed preacher graduated from Harvard College in 1855 and received his Doctorate in Theological Studies from Harvard in 1877. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest. This 6'4", 300-pound man was renowned not only for championing emancipation, but also for writing hymns. In fact, Reverend Brooks wrote the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" during a visit to the Holy Land.

Brooks became the rector of Trinity Church in 1869, an imposing stone gothic structure that he designed along with his friend, the architect H.H. Richardson (another Harvard graduate). He became a two-term Overseer of Harvard, served on the university's rotating Board of University Preachers, led morning prayers, and counseled students. He also encouraged religious activism; along with the other University Preachers, he called for "a new building within the college yard for the use of the various religious societies." Unfortunately, Reverend Brooks did not live to see the construction of such a building. In 1891, he died of diphtheria at age 57. Harvard students carried his heavy casket for miles, from Trinity Church in Boston, across the Charles River, through Harvard Yard, and westward to Mount Auburn Cemetery.

On the morning of his burial, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper printed a letter in which an alumnus proposed building a house for religious societies as a fitting memorial to Brooks. Contributions flowed in from more than 29 countries. Upon completion, Phillips Brooks House housed five religious societies, a reading room, chapel, lecture hall, and the Social Services Committee.