The tower was constructed between 1917 and 1921 as part of the Memorial Quadrangle donated to Yale by Anna M. Harkness in honor of her recently deceased son, Charles William Harkness, Yale class of 1883, and the second son of Stephen V. Harkness, an early investor in the company that became Standard Oil. It was designed by James Gamble Rogers, who designed many of Yale's "Collegiate Gothic" structures. Rogers said his design for the tower was inspired by "Boston Stump," the 272 foot tall tower of the parish church (of St Botolph) in Boston, England. The 15th-century Boston Stump is notable as the tallest parish church tower in England. Rogers also based some details on the 16th-century tower of St Giles church in Wrexham, Wales, where Elihu Yale is buried.
James S. Hedden was the contractor's supervisor for the project and photographs of the early construction can be located at Yale University Library's Manuscripts and Archives Collection entitled, "James S. Hedden Photographs of Memorial Quadrangle, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. From the street level to the roof there are 284 steps. It was, when built, the only couronne ("crown") tower in English Perpendicular Gothic style that had been constructed in the modern era.
The tower contains the Yale Memorial Carillon, a 54-bell carillon. It is a transposing instrument (the C bell sounds a concert B). Ten bells were installed in 1922, and the instrument was augmented by the addition of 44 bells in 1966. The instrument is played by members of a student-run group set up for the purpose, the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, and selected guest carillonneurs. During the school year, the instrument is played for two half-hour sessions per day (the evening session is a full hour on Saturdays); in summer it is played only in the evening, with a Summer Series of regularly scheduled concerts on Fridays. (Some residents of Branford College and Saybrook College, of which the tower forms a part of the periphery, have been known to call the daily performances "death by bells.")
Harkness Tower is 216 feet (66 m) tall — one foot for each year since Yale's founding at the time it was built — with a square base rising in stages to a double stone crown on an octagonal base, dissolving at the top in a spray of stone pinnacles. It was built of separate stone blocks in the authentic manner. Yale tour guides like to perpetuate the myth that the Tower was once the tallest free-standing stone structure in the world, but needed to be reinforced because its eccentric architect poured acid down the walls to make the tower look older. Despite the myths, however, the Washington Monument has been the tallest free-standing stone structure in the United States since it was completed, long before Harkness Tower was built. The Tower was reinforced with steel in 1966, but the actual reason was to bear the weight of the 44 carillon bells that were added that year (the total weight of the bells is 43 tons).
Midway to the top, four openwork copper clockfaces tell the hours. The bells of the carillon are located behind the clockfaces, fixed to a frame made of steel I-beams. The playing console of the carillon is at the level of the balconies immediately below the clock faces. Lower levels of the tower house a water tank (no longer used), two practice carillons, the old chimes playing console, office space for the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs, and a memorial chapel.
Its decorative elements were sculpted by Lee Lawrie (1877-1963). The lowest level of sculpture depicts Yale's Eight Worthies: Elihu Yale, Jonathan Edwards, Nathan Hale, Noah Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, John C. Calhoun, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Eli Whitney. The second level of sculpture depicts Phidias, Homer, Aristotle, and Euclid. The next level of sculpture consists of allegorical figures depicting Medicine, Business, Law, the Church, Courage and Effort, War and Peace, Generosity and Order, Justice and Truth, Life and Progress, and Death and Freedom. The gargoyles on the top level depict Yale's students at war and in study (a pen-wielding writer, a proficient athlete, a tea-drinking socialite, and a diligent scholar), along with masks of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare.
The witticism, attributed to various modernist architects, that had he to choose any place in New Haven to live he would select the Harkness Tower, for then he "would not have to look at it," is apparently apocryphal, derivative of a similar story told of Alexandre Dumas and the Eiffel Tower.
The tower's image was adopted by the Yale Herald, a weekly student newspaper, for its masthead.