Here, There and Back Again: A Tale of A Sign

A couple months ago, I received a call from a very courteous gentlemen in Santa Fe, inquiring whether or not I might want to buy an old, wooden sign. But not just any sign: An old “Adams House sign,” the caller said. “It dates to about the time of the Civil War, and originally came from Boston.” Oh, my ears perked up immediately, as I had once seen a faded old letter in the House archives a few years back…now if I could just remember the specifics…  But perhaps I should tell you the story from the beginning.

You see, before there was Adams House, there was the Adams House, one of Boston’s earliest luxury hotels. Opened in 1846 on the Washington-Street site of the historic Lamb Tavern, The Adams House Hotel possessed a stern Federal stone facade — and, critical to our story —  a large wooden sign above the main entrance. Later expanded with an annex in the 1850s (which still stands on Washington Street) the original structure was replaced with a much larger Victorian edifice in 1883 (now demolished).

The original 1846 Adams House Hotel on Washington Street, Boston.  (Courtesy: Boston Atheneum)

The original 1846 Adams House Hotel on Washington Street, Boston. Click to enlarge. The sign pictured above may be the very one we acquired.  (Courtesy: Boston Atheneum)

In 1889, King’s Hand-Book of Boston noted that the Adams House was “one of the finest and best-equipped hotels in the city, of which its dining-rooms and café are … conspicuous features.”

The Victorian iteration. The Adams Hotel is the large whitish building to the left; the 1850s annex is immediately to the right

The Victorian iteration. The Adams Hotel is the large whitish building to the left; the 1850s annex is immediately to the right

By the early 1900s, however, the Adams House clientele began to change, with short-term guests ceding way to local politicians and businessmen looking to secure cheap extended lodging near the Statehouse. Calvin Coolidge, notorious for his frugality, took a room at the Adams House for $1 per day in 1906 as a new member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In an unusual display of extravagance a day after being elected governor in 1919, he expanded his digs at the Adams House to a two-room suite with bath on the third floor for $3.50 per diem. Coolidge was at the Adams House when he received the telephone call informing him of his nomination as Warren G. Harding’s vice presidential running mate in 1920.

The Adams House Hotel fell victim to declining revenues during Prohibition (deprived of the income from all those hard-drinking politicians and newsmen) and was closed in 1927. The main building was demolished in 1931. In 1930, Harvard, anxious to name one of its new Houses after the Adams family, acquired the name and goodwill from the bankrupt establishment as a legal precaution. That signed contract was the document I had remembered from the archives all those years ago, addressed to Professor James Baxter, who would shortly become the first Master of the new Adams House:

cover letter

contract-1So of course I was interested in the sign!

Pictures and descriptions flew back and forth as price negotiations got underway.

The sign as seen in Santa Fe.

The sign as seen in Santa Fe. Somewhere along the way, it was cut in two.

Based on typography and construction, the sign almost certainly dates from the 1846 iteration of the Adams House Hotel. (Whether it’s the sign you can see in the 1848 lithograph above we don’t know, but it looks almost identical, and the size and scale are an excellent match. The only real difference is that the sign in the illustration has raised capitals, but that might be artistic license. Regardless, this particular lettering style fell from fashion after the Civil War, so the sign most likely predates the 1882 Victorian incarnation.) The 18″ letters are gilt with paint, hand-carved into a single pine plank 2” thick, 2′ wide, and 16’ long, which weighs close to 80 pounds! The entire black background was then hand-chiseled to produce a rippled effect (click the picture below to enlarge). This was not an inexpensive sign, then or now. Though the exact provenance can’t be proven, a reasonable guess would be that the original hotel sign was retained as a showpiece when the first structure was demolished in 1882, and then later dispersed with the goods of the hotel during bankruptcy in the 30s. By the 1950s, the sign was documented in the hands of a Boston antiques dealer, who sold it to the mother of my caller, who also owned an antique shop — in fact, she named the business Adams House Antiques, where the sign remained over her Santa Fe door until she decided to retire this past year.

Long story short: a mutual price was agreed, the item shipped, and then I took a month or so to gently restore the sign, mending it back into its original single piece frame. Given its age, the sign’s condition is remarkable, no doubt due in part to the many decades spent in the humidity-free desert Southwest.

Here’s how it looks hanging in the Gold Room entrance to the dining hall:

signinsitu

The restored sign hanging in the Gold Room. Click to enlarge the image in order to see the fine chiseled detail.

So, a small piece of the first Adams House returns to its legal successor, the second Adams House, after one hundred-seventy years. A neat bit of cyclical history, don’t you think?

 


Some people read history, others make it. Support the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation!

 

Not Your Average Summer Vacay

In the movie “Legally Blonde” actress Reese Witherspoon anounces to her ditzy friends:  “Girls, I’m going to Harvard!”

“Like on Vacay?” they scream in reply. “ROAD TRIP!!!!!!”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is not a tale of your average “vacay,” though it does involve an extensive road trip. More than one, in fact.

I think I speak for the entire House when I say we are deeply proud to present this 8-minute film that chronicles the summer odysseys of two very remarkable young people, our inaugural Franklin Delano Roosevelt Global Fellows, Charlotte McKechnie ’15 and Ty Walker ’14.


 

 

New Views of the Suite, November 2012

I was at the Suite yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, beginning what’s going to be a three-month intensive effort to catalog the objects in the collection for inclusion in our new Internet museum. I was working away contentedly at Lathrops’ desk for an hour or so, when just before twilight, I realized that for the last few minutes I had been idly eyeing the room. Perhaps it was Thanksgiving-dinner-post-partum, or else simply the distraction of the hour; whichever, I noticed that the late afternoon light was casting lovely patterns of sun and shadow about the room, and so decided my time might be better spent with a camera.

It’s been a while since we’ve taken still photos for the blog, and I think you’ll agree this was indeed the golden hour.

Above: craftsman Lary Shaffer’s latest and second-to-last last creation for the Suite, the new daybed, takes pride of place in the study. (Double click on any image to expand; these are but thumbnails.) Lary and I reverse-engineered this piece from a tiny, grainy photo over a period of six months, and I’ll be doing a future post on how this magnificent creation came together. In the meantime, it’s easy to appreciate how the rich walnut and plush fabrics add to the Victorian elegance (not mention comfort!) of the room – especially when you compare these views to those taken in April 2010.

Above: On the smoking table, young Frank at Groton, 1899, next to “Uncle Ned’s dog tobacco jar” and our collection of pipes.

The Atlantic of 1903, record-holder extraordinaire, looking ready to sail at a moment’s notice.

Our exceedingly rare John the Orangeman mug caught in a golden beam on the mantle. Immediately behind is a recently acquired etching of Harvard Yard in the 1840s.

Another mantle view, this time with the light catching our Harvard football mug, and the 1904 stein recently gifted to the Foundation, already looking right at home.

 

FDR’s desk glowing in the sunlight. When this inventory project is finished, you’ll be able to click on any of the above objects to learn their individual history, and how that particular piece relates to other pieces in the collections, as well as to the history of the Suite as a whole. For instance, that large volume sitting on top the revolving bookcase? That’s not just any book, it’s the 1900-01 bound edition of the Harvard Crimson, where FDR’s soon to become a reporter. And that young lady next to Eleanor, why that Alice Sohier and of course you know how that affair went…  Ah, and then there’s the elegant Half Moon II… How fortunate to have your own yacht in the harbor… Given that there are currently well over one thousand objects to classify and digitalize, this isn’t going to be the quickest project in the world, and we will require substantial help – in fact, thanks to a recent pledge of support, we’ve already hired two student researchers half-time during Harvard’s new Winter Session. But given how far we’ve come, I have no doubt we’ll get there, especially with help from viewers like you!

Come Make A Little History. Support the FDR Suite Foundation!


 

Six Buildings

Ladies and Gentlemen:

As you know, we have been working madly away on a joint project with the HAA, Six Buildings That Shaped Harvard History.

Well, our work is finally done, after eight months trial and travail. The film will preview to the HAA Board tomorrow, and then be promoted worldwide to our alumni beginning in May, as the last official part of the 375th celebrations. With luck it will increase not only awareness of the FDR Suite & our mission, but also how fascinating an historical resource we have in the College that surrounds us.

Thus, may I present to you, our supporters, a special pre-premiere premiere of Six Buildings:

 

Six Buildings That Shaped Harvard History from Michael Weishan on Vimeo.

Note: the entire video is 36 minutes long, and may take some time to load on slower connections. For those of you wishing to skip about, click on the video, press play, then pause, allowing the film to fully load on your PC (the status bar will progressively go gray.) You may then skip about at will. In later editions, the film will be divided into six segments for quicker viewing. You may also unclick the “HD” button on the lower right for considerably faster, lower definition viewing.

Some People Read History. Others Make It.
Come make a little history: support the FDR Suite Foundation!

Advance Tickets for the 3rd Annual FDR Memorial Lecture Now Available

fdr 2010 front cover 700

Curtis Roosevelt and FDR at Mt. Hood, September 1937

Good news! Advance tickets for the February 27th event will be available starting tomorrow 1/7/10 at noon EST at the Harvard Box Office. While online sales won’t open to the general public until the end of this week, you may order tickets by phone by calling the HBO charge-by-phone number (617.496.2222). I’ll post the web link when available. Keep in mind that seating is limited to 180 for the dinner, and thanks to the good folks at the Harvard Alumni Association, who are helping us publicize the event this year to the general alumni body, we hope to sell out fairly quickly, so please take advantage of this advance notice to you, our members and blog readers. (Those of you entitled to discounts must contact me directly for tickets: weishan at fas dot harvard dot edu.)

Also, just in time for April 15th: the IRS has officially granted the Foundation’s status as a public tax free 501(c)3 charity, so any contributions made in 2009 (and going forward, ahem! we still need your help!) are fully tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. We owe a HUGE round of thanks to Christopher Leich, Sara Schaffer Raux, and the entire team at Ropes & Gray LLC for their pro bono help on what turned out to be a fairly epic quest to incorporate the Foundation and set up the tax free status for our restoration and educational programs.

And finally, on the subject of donations, we’re currently soliciting contributions for our live auction during the FDR event. Non-tangible, transferable items such as vacation stays, donation of services, gift certificates, behind the scenes tours, celebrity meet and greets, club memberships, etc are ideal, so if you, or any or your acquaintances, are so generously inclined, we would be happy to receive your help. Plus it’s a great way to publicize your enterprise, and receive a tax credit to boot.

That’s all from a snowy and frigid Cambridge. More soon.