The 'Statue of Three lies' remains a drawcard for tourists who enter the grounds of Harvard to rub the buckled shoe for good luck.
The 'Statue of Three lies' remains a drawcard for tourists who enter the grounds of Harvard to rub the buckled shoe for good luck. Wikimedia Commons posted by user Alainedouard

Boston: America's Athens

"YOU'RE meant to do three things while at Harvard," expat and ivy-league graduate Lara Markstein tells me. "One is to pee on John Harvard's foot."

Unfortunately, the namesake of America's oldest university has been buried since 1638. But John Harvard's iconic statue still stares eagle-eyed from his bronze seat in Harvard Yard, Cambridge. A buckled shoe juts out from its granite perch. The top is brushed smooth, made golden from the tens of thousands of tourists who come to this small Boston town to rub it for luck.

The Harvard tour guides probably forget to include the student ritual of urination in their encouragement of this fond gesture. And so Harvard's foot continues to shine on all.

But the foot isn't really Harvard's foot. It belongs to 19th-century student Sherman Hoar, who modelled for sculptor Daniel Chester French after Harvard died without any portraits made of him. Over 100 years later, Sherman Hoar is still the posterboy for Harvard, who, despite the statue's declaration of him as "John Harvard, Founder, 1638", didn't really found Harvard - he donated his library to it. The statue is wrong about the date, too. Harvard was actually founded in 1636.

Dubbed the 'Statue of Three Lies', the eccentricity of Harvard's statue reveals plenty about the oddities of Boston, which is simultaneously one of the oldest and most innovative cities in the United States.

Markstein is vague regarding the other two 'requirements' of Harvard undergraduates, claiming she's never actually attempted any of them herself. One involves some degree of nudity. The other requires fornicating in the stacks of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. The library, however, is closed to both tourists and tour guides. We agree this is probably a good thing.

All the ivy is dead when I visit. This winter has been a particularly traumatic one for Massachusetts, and snow clumps still lie like dirty rocks in shadowed corners.

As the oldest centre for higher learning in the United States, Harvard University not only celebrates turning 375 this year, but celebrates an undiminished reputation of prestige, with a whiff of arrogance, within a city known as the 'Athens of America'. Among their stockpile of innovations, Bostonians can claim Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone and the first US subway for their own.

Boston today is a sometimes-bizarre mix of classicised grandeur and the gleaming new. The ideals of the past and the intellects of the future are continually battling it out academically. While Harvard comes out top again in the 2011 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, its neighbour, the space-age Massachusetts Institute of Technology, closes in at number three. The MIT campus runs parallel to the Charles River, and its allegiance to the new is reflected by its astonishing architecture.

The Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, built in 2004, looks as though someone gripped it in the middle and squeezed. Inverted metal walls beam up the sun, and terracotta towers stab the sky. It's a bit Surrealist, and a little bit Disney. Once, I ventured inside, expecting to see more of the robots (yes, robots) I'd glimpsed through the windows of this lunar castle. Instead, students were setting up a drum circle next to the ground-floor café.

Outside the walls of academia, it feels good to look at the gushing Charles River and the eclectic metropolis behind it. Everything here is mixed up: skyscrapers enfold the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House, and Victorian brownstones peep through towering office buildings.

In the city, old and new work well together. On the Boston Common, America's oldest public park, wintertime skaters skirt the edges of the Frog Lily Pond. The better skaters twirl in the centre while newbies young and old cling terrified to the sides.

Down Hanover Street in the culture-rich North End (Boston's 'Little Italy') diners queue around the block of Giacomo's Ristorante just to get a seat. Across the road, crowds fill up Mike's Pastry, waiting for cannoli. The ricotta-stuffed shells are dusted in icing sugar and tucked into cardboard boxes.

Uphill, the back-to-back historical neighbourhoods of Back Bay and Beacon Hill are especially ripe for wandering tourists. Up the cobbled streets of Beacon Hill, brass door knockers line the rows of Georgian storybook houses. Gas lamps glow day and night. Bostonian novelist Henry James once declared Mount Vernon St in Beacon Hill "the only respectable street in America". Other legendary thinkers in this aristocratic realm included Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, painter John Singer-Sargeant, and poets Anne Seton, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.

When you start walking in Boston, you start seeing the world through a crimson lens. There's no escaping Harvard here. And, if you look closely, you might even spot a student or two.

Just don't take photos of them, says Markstein. She's been snapped too many times to be cool with it - especially when caught in less than ideal circumstances.

"I'd be walking with my laundry across the yard and tourists would be taking photos of me," she sighs.

Like any zoo animal, Harvardites can be provoked.

"Don't touch the statue," Markstein warns.


Harvard Tours: Tours are free and run daily.