Piecing Together FDR’s Rooms, Literally
It all started so simply. Last fall while photographing the FDR Suite, I noticed some curious bits of something dangling behind the large radiator in the main study. What could they be? Those infamous Harvard dust motes again? Ah no! Historical clues, perhaps? The mind raced…. in vain. Most turned out to be prosaic modern paint chips; then however several little vermilion bits turned up… Wallpaper!
Intrigued, I collected the fragments for further study. But from when did they date, and what, if any pattern did they form? Working with Kari Pei, Director of Design at Wolf-Gordon, Inc., a skilled Adamsite who materialized as if by godsend at our last FDR Memorial Dinner with an offer to help reproduce period wall paper (mirabile dictu!) we began to try to piece together the puzzle. It wasn’t easy. The break came when I found a tiny strip still in situ behind the main radiator, and was able to photograph it. As you can see below, it’s clearly sitting on the base plaster, which means that if it isn’t the original paper for the Suite, then it’s very early, because subsequent layers were not removed, but simply painted over. This fragment also gave us the vertical orientation for the design.
From here, it was just a matter of playing with the pieces on the computer until something fit together. It sounds simple, but the process is long and tedious, and took many, many hours.
A final design eventually emerged from the bits: to give you some idea of the scale, the circles are only 1/4″.
And from that, thanks to the artistry of Kari Pei, the past re-emerges in amazing approximation. From the dust and grime of a few wind tossed fragments, here’s the reconstructed paper. (The scales of these two images don’t quite match, but you get the general idea.)
Here’s the pattern as it will repeat across the walls of the study.
Not exactly a pattern for shrinking violets, but extremely typical of the time. The effect, especially when teamed with rich draperies and all the bric-a brac of Victorian life, will be quite spectacular.
Bravo to all who have helped on this quest! Again, our most heartfelt thanks to Kari Pei and Wolf-Gordon, who have made such a tremendous donation to the project, as well as Merle Bicknell, Assistant Dean of the Department of Physical Resources at Harvard, who worked wonders to make sure this wonderful gift would grace the walls of the Suite this fall.
A solitary Harvard student, replete with bowler, May 1900. A mystery view, courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.
Here’s a scene that FDR knew intimately. It was taken in May 1900, during the period Franklin was in Cambridge finalizing his room arrangements at Westmorly Hall for the upcoming year. Though the perspective would change considerably during his time at Harvard, owing to the ambitious enclosure program instituted by President Eliot, this view would remain instantly recognizable to any member of the class of ’04.
Can anyone tell me what we’re looking at?
There’s a prize if you can: each month until the next FDR Memorial Dinner in February, I’ll be offering two free tickets to the 3rd Annual lecture for anyone who correctly guesses my monthly puzzler. Think hard: we have a very special guest coming to speak – all the way from France, in fact – someone who knew FDR as well as he knew this view, so good guessing will have quite a payoff.
(The mandatory fine print: Contest deadline is one week from the posting date; one winner per contest, to be announced in subsequent posts. Awards are good only for the lecture portion of the event. To enter, leave your guess as a comment below. I will contact winners by email.)
OK, a small hint: to my knowledge, only one of the buildings seen in the distance is still standing, though it’s no longer visible from this angle.
George Washington Lewis
I’ve been doing a bit of research on the Porcellian Club, in advance of the architectural walking tour I’m leading this November for the Harvard Alumni Association entitled Presidential Pathways: Tracing TR and FDR at Harvard (More on that later.) My interest springs, of course, from the fact that TR was a Porcellian member, counting his admission among his proudest achievements, and that FDR tried and was blackballed, counting this among his life’s greatest failures – a memory made even more galling by the success of TR’s sons a few years later. It’s hard today to understand precisely what all the fuss was about; it is, after all, just a club, with pleasant, though unremarkable facilities. (The rooms were published a number of years ago by the Crimson, for those of you wishing to take a look.) The appeal of the Porcellian however, was never the building: exclusivity was the lure, that and the fact that once admitted, you gained a dedicated group of friends for life. Apocryphal tales of Porcellian loyalty abound: the old line that “any member who failed to earn a million by age 30 was simply given one by his fellows” is typical. But there are many real life glimpses of the Porcellian’s reach that are quite telling: for instance, when H.H. Richardson, at the start of what would become a meteoric architectural career, submitted plans to build Trinity Church in Boston, the untested architect was given the commission over many more experienced competitors. The reason? We’ll never know for sure, but the fact that five of the eleven members of the deciding committee (not to mention the rector, Phillip Brooks) were fellow Porcellian alums certainly didn’t hurt. Membership in the Porcellian was the passport to many coveted things once you left the ivy-covered halls of Harvard, and you can begin to see why a forward-looking (and status conscious) young man like FDR was so disappointed at not getting in. Within the University of course, there was no question of the club’s official stature: you immediately appreciate the position the Porcellian held in that gilded age when you realize that it’s the only institution at Harvard to have its own entrance to the Yard. Donated by the club in 1901, and accepted without a moment’s hesitation by the College, the elaborate brick portal is technically dedicated to Professor Joseph McKean, who founded the Porcellian in 1794. The large boar snout keystones on either side of the gate, however, proclaim otherwise: this is a thinly veiled memorial to the power of wealth and privilege at 19th century Harvard, made all the more ironic by the democratic nature of the gate itself. Unlike the locked clubhouse door across the street – also marked by the sign of the pig – this gate is the only porcine threshold that the vast majority of Harvard students were ever allowed to pass.
May I hazard to guess that FDR regularly took an alternate route?
The Steward (Lewis of the Porcellian) Joseph DeCamp 1919
The Porcellian does contain one treasure though, amongst its collection of usual clubhouse bric-a-brac: the portrait of George Washington Lewis, painted by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp in 1919. This masterpiece of the Boston school celebrates the club’s most famous employee, whose 45 year tenure at the Porcellian spanned both TR’s and FDR’s time at Harvard. Mr. Lewis appears to have been a highly unusual character for his day, a gentleman’s gentleman who very early on learned the art of the polite smack-down to keep his uppity charges in place, as Reverend Gomes once related in a 1996 New Yorker interview:
“It seems that when Elliot Perkins, the great-grandson of John Quincy Adams, was an undergraduate at Harvard, he decided to become better acquainted with George Washington Lewis, the formidable black steward of the Porcellian Club. So one day Elliot began to make conversation and asked, ‘Mr. Lewis, when did your people come up North?’ To which Lewis replied, ‘Mr., Perkins, my great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Bennington, which is in Vermont, as you may know.'”
Ouch. Game, set, and match to Mr. Lewis.
One can but wonder, if only he’d been allowed in, how FDR might have fared….
FDR and Harvard’s First Great Social Experiment: The Union
“To whom the conception of a Harvard Union is due is beyond my knowledge; but we owe the fostering of the idea to many men, and we owe the grounds to the Corporation. As you see, it is the result of Harvard team-work, of mutual reliance, the future abiding place of comradeship; and therefore let it never and in no place bear any name except that of John Harvard. We will nail open the doors of our house, and will write over them: –’The Harvard Union welcomes to its home all Harvard men.‘” The conclusion of the dedicatory speech given by Henry Lee Higginson October 15, 1901 and attended by FDR.
The Harvard Union, from a period postcard. Note that the breakfast room on the far right was originally open to the air. The Crimson Offices are on the far left, on Quincy Street
In my day (that’s to say the mid 80s) when one mentioned the Union, the immediate impression was of a rather run-down dining hall where Freshmen trudged three times a day for meals. Well, perhaps “rundown” is a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly “dowdy” seems fair –not to mention a bit strange. I remember sitting there the fall of my first year, admiring the grandiose decor: the baronial stone fireplaces on either end, one now stuck incongruously behind the salad bar; the ornate wood paneling; even the immense antlered chandeliers – given by TR someone said – and reportedly the last of over 30 moose heads and other trophies that once graced the room. (Truth be told, my appreciation of the fixtures was dimmed somewhat by the pads of butter that were routinely lobbed into the antlers by smart-aleck jocks, just waiting to melt on unwary diners.) Later, wandering around the many nooks and cranny’s of the basement and upper floors, I discovered a warren of rooms, most of which were locked and obviously unused. The whole place had a melancholy, lost-in-time ambience, sad in a way I could never quite understand.
Henry Lee Higginson, painted by Sargent. This portrait still hangs in what is now called the Barker Center.
It certainly didn’t start out that way: the 1902 Union, designed by the illustrious firm of McKim, Mead and White with a $150,000 gift from Major Henry Lee Higginson, was erected as a shining example of social reform through architecture. Conceived as a gathering place for students unable to afford the luxuries of the final clubs, the Union was intended to be literally just that – a unifying force where “pride of wealth, pride of poverty, and pride of class would find no place.” Its very location was, in fact, a symbolic compromise: constructed on the former site of the Warren House, which was moved next door, the building sits precisely equidistant from the wealthy digs of the Gold Coast and what was, at the time, the poverty of Harvard Yard. Membership was open to all, without the elaborate initiation rituals of the clubs, and annual dues were kept deliberately kept low – from $10 for current students, to $50 for lifetime privileges for alumni, all in order to encourage active use. The building, a triumph of Georgian Revival design, was equipped with an amazing array of features: a massive Great Hall (then used as a club room, but later the Freshman dining hall); a full restaurant (open to ladies on weekends – they had their own special dining room other times); a lunch counter for a quick bite; an athlete’s training table; a barber shop; cigar and news stands; billiard rooms (where students could obtain free instruction “from a well known professional”; a library with 6,000 volumes; meeting rooms and other social spaces; as well a guest rooms for visitors. It was in fact, a final club for the masses. The only thing the Union lacked was the ability to provide its general membership with that favorite collegiate brew, beer. Cambridge was officially dry at the time, and to be served “exhilarating beverages” one needed to belong to either a private final club, or cross the Charles into Boston. FDR attended the Union’s “impressive” opening ceremonies in October of 1901 – without, of course, surrendering his memberships in other, more exclusive, not to mention more liquid, clubs. Later that year, he joined the Union Library committee, writing Sara to tell her he had spent $25 of the check she had sent to buy the library “a complete set of St. Amand’s work, and also a Rousseau, both of which we needed.”
The TR chandelier, now in the Barker Center
Most importantly in the Rooseveltian context, however, the brand new Union was the brand new home of the Harvard Crimson. McKim had taken pains to design a custom space for the College newspaper, after officials had convinced a reluctant Crimson management to occupy a suite of offices in the basement of the new building. (The Harvard Monthly and the Advocate had already agreed to move in upstairs.) Previously, the Crimson had rented a dingy series of private rooms on Massachusetts Avenue that had become obviously inadequate, and the paper had been considering a new site for some time. When the College’s offer arrived however, it wasn’t greeted with the enthusiasm one might have expected. According to published accounts, the Crimson management feared that accepting space from the University might mean surrendering editorial integrity. Reading between the lines, however, it also seems that, given the dry nature of the building, the Crimson staff feared that the College might seek to limit the historically bibulous aspect of publishing the College daily. Clearly however, an arrangement suitable to both parties must have been concluded, because the final plans detail a special series of rooms for the paper, including an ornately fireplaced Sanctum replete with beer steins. The Crimson moved in as soon as the building was completed, and it was here FDR had his office when he became President of the Crimson in 1903.
The following views, with the exception of the plan and FDR’s own pictures from Hyde Park, come from The Harvard Crimson, 1873-1906
- The is the McKim plan for the basement of the Union, showing the Crimson offices on the right.
- The reporter’s room
- The composing room
- FDR as Crimson President with the other officers.
The officers' offices: the door to the left of the table was FDR's; the editor, next to the right; and the counter was for the business manager.
The Sanctum, looking west. This was FDR's own picture, which still hangs today in Hyde Park. Note the beer steins, and the piano at the far left: obviously not all was about reporting! Courtesy the National Park Service, and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum
Another picture from Hyde Park. The Sanctum, looking east. Courtesy the National Park Service, and the FDR Presidential Library and Museum
This unmarked entrance was the door to FDR's Crimson offices on Quincy Street.
After FDR left Harvard, the Union continued on, though as years passed, it became clear it would never fulfill its initial promise. (Click here to read about the early high hopes for the Union in a 1902 article from the New York Times). As the administration discovered to its dismay, many of the men at Harvard in the early 20th century didn’t particularly desire social equality, and despite a heady start, Union membership began a steady decline after 1908, putting the organization on a shaky financial basis almost immediately. A movement to make Union membership mandatory, and term-bill the annual expense, never succeeded. The Crimson decamped for its current quarters on Plympton Street in 1915, and by the late 1920’s the facility was largely vacant. Higginson’s noble experiment had failed. When the House system was organized in 1930 (itself an even grander attempt at integrating the student body) the Union became the freshman dining hall, its original purpose almost – but not quite – forgotten. It seems the University had contemplated the relative merits of continuing to use Memorial Hall as a dining facility – as it had been since its inception – or adapting the old Union for the freshmen. In making the decision, College officials “had looked carefully into Major Higginson’s will,” to quote a 1957 Crimson article, and “discovered that the benefactor had made allowances for failure of his institution as a club, and promptly decided to name its new freshman dining hall the Harvard Freshman Union.” Shades of Mrs. Widener and “touch not one brick!” Ultimately however, either the penalties contained in the will expired, or else the University simply decided to accept the loss and move on, as the Union was finally closed and controversially remodeled in the late 90’s. The building is now the Barker Center for the Humanities, and the rooms where FDR inked articles and cried for copy, a series of bland office spaces.
FDR’s Harvard Through The Brush of Edward Penfield
A line from Vergil: "One day this too may be happy to recall" graces the entrance to the Coolidge Room in Adams House. Note the pipes and beer steins, an integral part of 19th century Harvard.
Many of you may not be aware (as I was not, despite 3 years residence) that Adams House possesses a tremendous artistic treasure built into its walls, one that gives us a fascinating glimpse of what FDR’s Harvard must have looked like. I’m referring to the incredible series of murals in the Coolidge Room, the former breakfast room of Randolph Hall. This building, another one of Harvard’s fabled Gold Coast dormitories, has a fascinating history of its own. Built in 1897 by Archibald Cary Coolidge (later Harvard Professor and Head of the University Library System) this luxurious Flemish Revival edifice was state of the art when constructed: electric and gas lighting, private bathrooms, swimming pool, concierge entrance – all the trappings of a 5th Avenue Mansion. FDR himself originally thought to live there alone in a single, until Groton chum Lathrop Brown agreed to room with him; the pair eventually spurned Randolph for digs in Westmorly Hall, 2 years newer and even more palatial.
Somewhere during the construction process, Coolidge must have convinced Edward Penfield to paint a series of murals for the breakfast room of his new building. How this occurred, and what precisely their connection was, is entirely unclear. Penfield at the time was a nationally known artist, made famous by his covers for Harpers magazine. 1897, the year he painted the murals in Randolph, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the year Penfield wed. It’s possible that the newly married artist, never rich, decided to moonlight for additional funds. Or perhaps there was some personal connection to Coolidge, or to Coolidge’s brother who was the architect of the building. Whatever the case, Penfield surely warmed to his task, perfectly capturing the aristocratic, upper-class image that Harvard very much wished to portray (and did portray) during that era. Interestingly, these scenes of College life, though lovingly conserved at Adams for over one hundred years, have languished in scholarly obscurity: they don’t appear in many published canons of Penfield’s work, and are rarely mentioned even in Harvard art circles. That’s a real shame, because as you’ll see, they are spectacular. While FDR never mentions the murals in his College correspondence, undoubtedly he knew of them: Coolidge, who himself lived in Randolph, was FDR’s tutor, and it’s highly likely that Roosevelt had many acquaintances among the smart set living just next door. In any event, these pictures, painted just three years before FDR arrived in Cambridge, constitute a remarkably preserved window into the Harvard our 32nd president knew intimately.
The following pictures, by the way, are just a selection of the several dozen panels that circle the room at head-height. Unfortunately, my amateur photography doesn’t do them full justice. With any luck we’ll get the complete cycle professionally photographed next year.
The ball: FDR was invited to attend the exclusive Saturday Evening Dance Classes (really soirees) at the Somerset Hotel, where the scene must have looked much like this. The image, by the way, is not distorted; the panel actually curves to meet the baronial fireplace just out of sight to the right.
The track race: our Harvard boy seems momentarily behind, though soon to break out, no doubt! Other panels show scenes from football, hockey, and baseball.
Tally-ho and all that! Watching polo at the Myopia Club on the North Shore was a common pastime for undergraduates.
On the Way to the Big Game
This is John the Orangeman, a cherished College character for decades. (You may be wondering how we know who this is, considering none of the panels bear labels. The fact is, the old boy had been totally forgotten until this past year, when I, by pure chance, discovered pictures of John and his donkey in several of the student scrapbooks now in the Harvard University Archives.) Once identified, the image becomes clear – according to Lucius Beebe in his 1935 work, Boston and the Boston Legend, recalling his own Harvard days not long after FDR's : "The Yard swarmed with personalities... Most beloved was John the Orangeman, who greeted all Freshmen cheerily with the same exclamation: 'I knew y'r father, fri'nd!" Welcome back, John!
This is the old Harvard boat house, which FDR would have rowed from, located where the Weld boathouse now stands. Notice the rather run down buildings to either side – the University wharves – as well as the still tidal nature of the Charles. The riverfront would not look like today's for many more decades. Note, too, Penfield's amazing treatment of the water, with an almost deco feel to the waves.
A soothing country ride on one's "Wheel." FDR kept a Columbia Chainless while at College.