Visitors to the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the neighboring Harvard-Yenching Institute and Library, which share the same building, often remark on the contrast between the design of the brick and marble edifice at 2 Divinity and the institutions housed therein. In particular, the marble reliefs that adorn the building’s outer walls carry almost nothing that signifies East Asia, and indeed the marble relief map over the main door shows only the Western hemisphere. While the stone lions, a gift to the Harvard-Yenching Institute in the 1930s, help to mark the building as a center for Asian studies, the contrast remains.
This is because the building was not originally designed to house East Asian studies. The main structure was built between 1930 and 1931 to serve as the home for a new Institute of Geographical Exploration. This initial purpose explains the distinctive cartographic reliefs on the building’s façade. The building and the institute within were financed by Alexander and Eleanor Rice, the latter of whom was heir to a considerable fortune left after the death of her first husband George Widener, who perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. This is the same fortune that funded the construction of Widener Library, in honor of the Wideners’ son Harry Elkins. Alexander Rice served as the Institute’s first and only director. Shortly after his retirement in 1951, the Institute of Geographical Exploration was closed and the building reverted to direct university administration.
By the 1950s, the expansion in the faculty and course offerings of the Department of Far Eastern Languages that had begun during World War II, together with the localization of the Harvard-Yenching Institute’s educational efforts in the wake of China’s Communist Revolution, exerted a significant strain on the available space in Boylston Hall. Given the new availability of 2 Divinity, it was decided that this would make a good home for the department. Initially, Far Eastern Languages and the Harvard-Yenching Institute shared the building with the Departments of Mathematics and Statistics. In 1973, the building was remodeled and the expansion which presently houses the Harvard-Yenching Library was constructed with funds from the Harvard-Yenching Institute. From this point forward, the only other organization to share the building was the Department of Indian and Sanskrit Studies, which remained at 2 Divinity until its relocation to 1 Bow Street in 2003.