Restoring FDR’s Harvard, One Pixel at a Time

A number of our readers have been curious as to how we’ve found all the framed art that hangs on our walls. Well, let me tell you –  it’s been quite a process. First of all, we’ve been extremely lucky: discovering Lathrop’s descendants and their generous sharing of the Brown family archives; acquiring rare finds from the internet such as the Hertzog scrapbook I wrote about last week; benefiting from wonderful scholarship and support from the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. But even with all this, sometimes it’s not enough to fulfill our mission. You see, unlike a house museum where the present is held in stasis, our goal is to create a living environment that actually transports you to 1904. If all the materials look old and faded, the illusion is compromised. Think about it: In 1904, everything would be new, or newish; colors bright, fabrics fresh, pages crisp. Which is why, for instance, we had craftsman Lary Shaffer create two “new-old” Morris chairs, and why we’ve sent “FDR’s desk” out for a complete renovation. Unlike the folks on the Antiques Roadshow, we don’t want too much patina of age.

This is especially true of paper goods. Take for instance this fascinating piece which came as part of the EBay find last week:

Now while it doesn’t look like much in its current state, this is really something special. It’s a 13″ x 19″ map of Harvard, drawn by the Harvard School of Engineering, centered on University Hall, and showing the extent of the College in 1901-1902, FDR’s sophomore year. Not only does the key list principle buildings of the University along with dates of construction, but it also shows the addresses of most of the principal professors at the College. (Can you imagine that in this day and age!) Unfortunately for us, the condition is pretty bleak: besides having a huge bite out of the right hand margin, the map had been folded and left in a very acidic scrapbook for almost a century – you can see the acid marks clearly. Now as an antique, this piece could conceivably be mounted and hung in the Suite, and we could call it a day. But its very condition reminds us all too readily that 110 years have passed. It’s 2010, not 1904, looking at this map. How much better would be a fresh copy, say, like this…

And in fact, we now have just that, ready for framing. This minor miracle is achieved using a program called Photoshop, which allows an operator to manipulate digital images. The process goes like this: the original document is first scanned into the computer, and then, in a series of steps, the effects of aging are removed one by one. This is possible because the computer sees the image not as a picture, but as millions of tiny dots called pixels, each with an assigned range of characteristics. I can ask the computer to group and isolate these pixels in a variety of ways – taking say, all the pixels of a certain color tone (such as faded tan) and changing them to white. I can have the computer sharpen lines by telling it to group all pixels within a certain color range more tightly and eliminate outliers. I can also remove or reinforce any element, eliminating a tear here, or darkening a capital there. (In actual period photographs, the process is much more dynamic and difficult, but the result is the same. We can often return a damaged century-old photo to brand-new condition.) The correction process is very much trial and error, and relies entirely on the skill level of the operator. Fortunately, after ten years in the media biz, I’ve gotten to be an old hand at such digital manipulation. (Need to lose 10 pounds and those wrinkles on your published photo, give me a buzz! lol) Still, it takes a tremendous amount of time. The map above required a good three hours to fix, but I think you’ll agree the result is fairly spectacular. Below’s a larger version. Just click on it to maximize your view. (It’s a very large file, so depending on your download speed, it may take a bit of time. Then, once you see the map appear, you may enlarge the image further through your browser and poke around the Cambridge of 1901.)

Just for fun, I’ve added three red numerals to this version of map, to point out to you how valuable pieces like this are to understanding FDR’s Harvard. At 1, you’ll see Soldiers’ Field as FDR first knew it, with wooden football bleachers and no Harvard Stadium. No Biz school either; that’s another 25 years off.

In FDR’s time, athletics were still grouped north of the yard, near numeral 2, which explains the odd location of the College’s Hemenway Gymnasium. (It’s also where the first football game was played, from my previous post.) This area was rapidly becoming built up though, and soon (1903) the Stadium would rise and athletics would move permanently across the River.

And finally, take a look at 3, the area south of Mt. Auburn:

Notice how the Charles still has watery fingers pushing towards the Square (remnants of now long-contained streams running from the north) and how the area along the still-tidal banks is almost industrial. (You can clearly see the College coal wharf.) No Memorial Drive for another few years, and no Harvard Houses either. Where Eliot sits there is a coal-tar plant, Leverett and Winthrop are swamps, and Mather’s site is occupied by a long-vanished boat house. And see the grouping of buildings along Mt. Auburn, including  our beloved Westmorly (or half of it, with A-Entry yet to be built), and how there’s almost nothing to the south worth mentioning? At last, the term “Gold Coast” begins to have some meaning… Oh, and how about that! Something I never noticed before: a Catholic church on Mt. Auburn, too, just west of Claverly where Holyoke Center now stands. Perhaps the predecessor to the later St. Paul’s we now know so well?

All in all a very different Harvard, this, and one we’re able to restore – one pixel at a time – thanks to support from people like you.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create a  living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and rely on your help to continue our efforts!

EBay, FDR and the Fall River Line

I have another circular tale for your consideration:

During our recent open house over the Harvard-Yale weekend, many of you wanted to know how we found period items for the Suite.

Well, basically it works like this: Three years ago, during our early research, we created a list of objects – furniture, textiles, art, memorabilia, etc. – that were documented from FDR’s letters & other historical records as having been in the Suite, or were presumed from similar rooms pictured in the Harvard Archives.  After that, the process essentially became one large treasure hunt, played across three continents. Whenever my day job permits a bit of down time, I don my Restoration cap, and go out hunting. Sometimes the trips are physical – days spent at antique fairs, or journeys to out-of-the-way dealers – but more often than not, I close the door to my office, and disappear into the Internet. I’ve become a modern day FDR sleuth in my spare time, tracking down bits of early 20th century Harvard from all over the globe. This is especially true when it comes to all the ephemera that once filled the FDR Suite, and which one day, Deo volente, will again. Unfortunately, acquiring this material is not at all straightforward. What was a matter of simple retention for Lathrop and Franklin – a saved theater program here, a football ticket there – becomes hugely involved a hundred years later. Most of the time, when these kinds of items appear, they are offered singly, from single sources, and at great cost.

But not always…

An example: I was delighted to receive a notification last week that a collection of Harvard memorabilia from the estate of Walter S. Hertzog ’05 was going to be sold on Ebay. (For those of you wondering how I learned this, you can program the EBay site to notify you when objects within a certain parameter appear for auction.) While the years weren’t quite what we normally look for, (FDR and Lathrop were ’04), the match was close enough to interest me if the price were right.

Here’s what the collection looked like when I first saw it online. (This is but one view of the original eight.)



“Good lord!” you may be thinking to yourself. “What IS all that stuff? Looks like old scrap paper!” Well, to some extent it is, and before I started researching the FDR project, I might have expressed the same, but now, having seen an odd dozen of these Victorian student collections in the Harvard Archives, certain elements jump right out. For example, that little piece with the string?  It’s is a dance card, worn about the wrist; one lovely lady per dance, still signed up a century later. The postcards with stamps? Those are grade or class notifications: the penny post was the email of the day, and a letter mailed from the College in the morning had a very good chance of arriving that afternoon, in one of the three daily-mail services. You see these cards all over the period photos, if you look closely, tucked into pictures here, there and everywhere. For example, this is the desk I showed you in the last posting:


Now if you look very, very carefully, in the hunting scene above the desk, you’ll see the postcards tucked into the frame. This appears again and again in the period room views we possess, and now, at last, we’ll have some of these exact cards for the Suite:


Then too, on closer inspection, in the cubbyholes of the desk you can make out class exams, grade sheets, tuition bills, all the flotsom and jetsom of student life in 1900 Harvard. This is exactly mirrored in the EBay collection. While some of this material, especially the programs for the 1905 Class Exercises won’t be of use to us, much will, added to the Suite to fill out the picture of everyday living in 1904.  But among all this, here are two items I found particularly interesting:


Now the Fall River Line may not ring any bells to you, having disappeared in 1937, but if you were a wealthy New Yorker in Boston at the turn of the century, you would most certainly recognize the name, as the Line, which ran a train service from Boston to Fall River, and then a steamship service to New York, was one of the easiest and most luxurious ways to travel to and from New England in 1900.


You see, before the days of direct express service, you generally needed to transfer trains multiple  times from Boston to New York, and depending on what Road you used, you might even need to disembark in New Jersey and take a ferry into Manhattan at the end of your journey. (No tunnels at that time!) So instead of this tiresome rail trek, many people in-the-know took the luxurious steamers of the Fall River Line, like the Commonwealth, to New York. commonwealth-hallNow this was no run-of-the-mill boat: first class passengers had their own cabins for the eight hour voyage, and the public spaces, as you can see from the picture to the left, were highly luxurious, featuring a library, smoking room, and a dining room that served a full dinner service, hence the menus we found on EBay.

So what you may ask, has this to do with our hero, FDR?

Here’s a bit from his letter to Sara dated October 8, 1902

Today Alice Sohier left for Europe, and I saw her off on the “Commonwealth.”

Alice Sohier, for those of you wondering, was a strikingly beautiful Boston debutante who had infatuated FDR. As the story goes, he proposed,  she declined, and went off to Europe, departing, as the first stage of her trip, on the Commonwealth to New York. So, do you suppose the couple had one last meal together from this exact menu before the steamer departed, and did FDR once more plead his case? And, had Alice accepted, would young Frank ever become the FDR we now know? We’ll never be sure.

A year later, Franklin proposed to Eleanor, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For our purposes, however, the EBay find presents a wonderful chance to expand and amply the Suite’s narrative, so we’re going to add these menus to the period wire hanger above FDR’s desk, along with an elaborately framed photo of Alice destined for the desk top, as an almost forgotten memento of a farewell lunch that might – given a different response – have changed American history.

All well and good you say. All well and good. But did you finally acquire the items, and at what cost? It must be stupendous!

Nope. A total of $137.50, all brought about by supporters like you.

Oh, and a final postscript: In an ever so appropriate twist, Dr. Walter S. Hertzog ’05 would later become, of all things,  the Director of American Historical Research for the Los Angeles City School Department. The items he so carefully preserved will finally return to Harvard next week, after a century of almost unimaginable journeys.  Those pieces not used in the Suite will be donated to the Harvard Archives.

You see, as I promised: a circular tale, indeed.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create a  living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and rely on your help to continue our efforts!

Home Stretch

This window treatment for a "portiere" or French door, is very similar to what's intended for the study.

This window treatment for a "portiere" or French door from Paine's 1898 catalogue, is very similar to what's intended for the study.

“They write me from Jordan and Marsh that the curtains are to be put up in your rooms today, so I hope you will be in order by tomorrow.” Sara to FDR October 6, 1900

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We’re entering the home stretch of the renovation, and we need your help. Our immediate goal is to raise 6K for the room textiles: draperies, door swags, mantel cover, etc. We know they were there, because we have both written evidence from Sara, and physical evidence in Suite itself: we can see the attachment holes! Victorian rooms aren’t complete without fabric, and this is a remarkable opportunity to recreate a real bit of history, as we actually have, thanks to the Baker Business Library Collections, a period Paine’s catalogue (the supplier of  some of FDR’s furniture) to base our designs from.

For all of you who have not contributed (and that’s about 90% of you reading this post, ahem) please consider supporting us. For those of you who already have, October is the time to renew your annual memberships. Won’t you consider an additional donation to help us meet this important milestone? I will keep you posted on progress.

BTW: our adopt an antique program still has many homeless children!

Contributions may be sent to:

The FDR Suite Foundation, Inc.
Adams House, 29 Plympton Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!

Bird’s-Eye View of Harvard

birdseye view of harvard1

A while back, I acquired this wonderful 1895 bird’s-eye view of Harvard for the Suite, and I thought you might enjoy seeing it.

(The original is 11 x 17;  click on the image above to expand; in most browsers, you may then click again to supersize; or, use your browser’s scaling feature (the same one that increases type size) to increase image size.)

This is the College much as FDR would have known it. You’ll see many lost buildings: the old Appleton Chapel, torn down to make way for Memorial Church;  Gore Hall, the library building replaced by Widener; even the original hexagonal gymnasium, which stood where the Fire Station is now, across from the GSD. It’s also interesting to note how open the Yard was; notice the lack of gates and iron fences (these were just being started in 1900) as well as all the missing Yard dorms  – Straus, Lionel, Mower and Wigglesworth. These last were built, beginning in the 20’s, with the distinct idea of enclosing the Yard against increasing urban encroachment. Another difference is in the Memorial Hall tower: in 1898 it gained four clock faces, and FDR would have told the hour by their sonorous strike. No Union either, you’ll note. That arrived in 1901. Nor anything, really, east of Sever: the current Fogg is four decades away. Oh, and where Lehman Hall now stands, diagonally fronting the Square? In FDR’s time, the Greek Revival edifice you see tucked next to Matthews was the Bursar’s office; before that,  it was the first home of the Law School. In this picture, the new Austin Hall embodies the whole place. How things have changed!  O tempora, o mores!

And as a reminder, this is just one more item that is up for adoption, ladies and gentlemen! It’s going in FDR’s bedroom. The piece needs some conservation, and framing: $200 will give it a new home! Anyone interested, please email me at the following: mweishan at fas dot harvard dot edu, or leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!

Lathrop’s Desk


“The rooms look as if struck by sheet lightning, the sitting-room having the chairs and tables but no curtains or carpets. The bed is in place in my room and it looks inhabitable.” FDR to Sara, 9/25/1900

“Also tell me if you have your two big rugs, blue and red and the small rugs I ordered. I have a bill from Paine for only the large red room rug, and Lathrop’s spring (without the mattress or covering). I enclose a card showing a desk which might suit Lathrop if he has not bought his.” She then goes on to correct his grammar: “*One does not say “inhabitable.” Sara to FDR 9/30/1900

For over a year, we’ve been looking for two desks: a small roll-top for FDR, and a gentleman’s desk for Lathrop. The latter, I’m delighted to say, is finally in hand. I found this wonderful piece half-forgotten in a barn in New Hampshire, and was able, by a margin of a quarter inch, to fit it into my car and get it home. Desks like these are extremely rare these days, as the demands of modern electronics generally mandate far larger surfaces. (As I write this, I sit at a desk 9.5′ long, which is almost buried under phones, monitors, scanners, printers and other paraphernalia of the electronic office.) But this little gem harks back to a gentler age. Dating to about 1895, it measures just 40″ across and is made of solid black walnut, with a black leather top. Stylistically the piece is quite interesting, sitting exactly on the cusp of two ages: the bat-wing handles on the drawers are very much Victorian, but the turned spindles of the legs, and the overall simplicity of the work  suggest the beginnings of a new design aesthetic, one that would ultimately be known as Colonial Revival. And what a location beside these glorious windows! Who wouldn’t want to pen a line or two here? On top the desk, another prize: a 12-piece solid brass desk set I found recently (also very rare, as it’s complete) along with a green-shaded Alladin desk lamp. Add a nice leather blotter, a calendar, a black walnut chair and some gentleman’s calling cards, and the desk of Mr. Lathrop Brown will soon be ready for occupancy.

FDR’s desk, however, still remains at large…

And of course, it goes without saying that these items (ahem, ahem!) are all up for adoption: the desk at $500, the lamp at $100, and the desk set at $300. More homeless antiques can be found HERE.

Also, if any of you have period volumes you might be willing to donate to help fill our book cases, we would be most grateful to accept them. FDR was quite the bibliophile, and avidly collected rare volumes. Leather or cloth bound fiction or non fiction, with decorative covers & published before 1904, would be most welcome!

As always, we thank you for your interest and support.

Adopt an Antique!

I’m just back from the Brimfield Antiques Fair, the largest in the country. Held three times a year, it’s a truly amazing event, spread out along three miles of bucolic road in Brimfield Massachusetts, with thousands of vendors filling acres of open fields with tents. This year, I was able to find some really wonderful pieces for the Restoration, and it was my first thought to show you a few of them here. But then it occurred to me, rather than just share pictures, why not give you, our supporters, the chance to participate directly in completing the Restoration?  (We really need your help, our coffers are near empty again!) So an idea was born: from now on, I’ll regularly post notices of new acquisitions here on the blog.  These pieces will then move to a new section on our website, “Adopt an Antique” where they will wait exspectantly until some kind soul takes them under their wing. Once they find “a home,” their generous sponsor will be permanently memorialized on our website, as well as in a bound printed book that will reside in the Suite. It’s a great way for you to help us out, and have some fun at the same time. And what a nice present or commemoration for a friend or loved one! Best of all, you can keep coming back for more!

So here are our first batch of “children,” wide-eyed and waiting for your attentions!




This is a spectacular piece, quite rare, in the Oriental ball and stick style so popular in the late 19th century. Called a corner chair, its name is something of a misnomer: it’s armless design was originally inspired not to fit the architecture, but rather so that gentlemen wearing a sword – on either side – could sit down without taking it off.  Nonetheless, these chairs became popular features for odd nooks, and we have just such a one in FDR’s bedroom.



SIZE: 22 X 38″


Now, I’m hoping that someone is going to love this as much as I do. I realize this picture of a brace of pheasant is not exactly to modern taste, but I’m guessing that it would have been exactly to FDR’s, given  his love of ornithology. (Remember our president-resident was an avid hunter and taxidermist since he was a boy. Birds were his passion) What’s really interesting about this piece, and what you can’t see in the picture, is that the image is three dimensional – the chromo-lithograph has been bonded to pressed cardboard, in a way I’ve never seen before: the feathers are raised and articulated, the berries rounded, you can even see mock brush strokes to emulate a fine oil painting. The dealer I purchased this from had four others depicting fishing and hunting scenes, and said these were the only ones he had ever seen in two decades in the biz.



DATE: CA 1900


Now here’s something that should tickle the cleats of the golf fans among you. We found an retired pro golfer to put together this basic set of early 1900’s clubs for us. Both Lathrop and FDR golfed (FDR badly, according to LB) and Lathrop especially would have had a set with him in Cambridge: his mother was the first woman amateur national champion, in 1895. The entire Brown family golfed together, and we have several pictures in the Suite of them on the links. Unfortunately, we were not able to find a case in good enough condition. If anyone has a golf bag in canvas or leather with a 4″ opening (common to that period) that they would like to donate, please let me know!



DATE: PRE-1905
SIZE: 9″


Oh, what a beauty! This is an INCREDIBLE rarity, as very few footballs survive from this period. According to David Patterson, in his excellent article How the NFL Football Got Its Shape, “the football’s nickname of pigskin explains a lot of its history. In the early days, before Charles Goodyear made better use of rubber, balls for early rugby, then football games were made from inflated pig bladders. They were relatively round, durable and in plentiful supply. Later versions covered them in a leather skin, stitched together by laces. Those laces are still on today’s balls, even though they’re not needed for closure. Players use the laces to better grip the ball.Even when pigs were spared in favor of rubber versions in the late 1800s, the early versions were difficult to blow up manually. Their ultimate shape varied from game to game as the bladders were inflated. Moving into the new century, the quality control improved, but the watermelon shape was retained. Over the years, as production methods matured, the ends of the ball became even more pronounced. With all leagues promoting the forward pass, being able to grip the ball with one hand, as well as throw a spiral pass, has ensured the current shape will be retained.”

The forward pass, by the way, is how we can date the ball: the pass was part of an intercollegiate agreement signed in 1905 which attempted to reduce fatalities on the field, and rounded balls like this one quickly became outdated. (Pointed balls better facilitated the newly permitted pass.) Interestingly, another idea to decrease football injuries was to increase the side of the field, on the theory that more room meant fewer deadly collisions. This plan was vetoed by Harvard, who had just, in 1903, completed a fixed-width ferro-concrete stadium, one of the first in the country, and was not about to rebuild. The field has been the same size ever since.

We acquired this rare and costly item for two reasons: it recalls, like nothing else, the football mania that gripped Harvard during FDR’s tenure, as well as the fact that Lathrop, huge fan, managed both the Freshman and Varsity teams, and received a varsity “H” for his efforts.


SIZE: CA 10″


This is the first in an odd half dozen or so steins we plan to acquire. Steins were a common feature in almost every room,  inevitably hung beneath the mantle for use on “beer nights.” This is a particularly nice prewar example from Germany with classic detailing.



DATE: CA 1905
SIZE: CA 10″


Another stein, this time one of the sub-genera of advertising steins common at the turn of the century. The Boston firm, Murray Co, produced soda waters, which is not as curious as it sounds: businesses of all types commonly used the ubiquitous stein to get out their advertising message.



DATE: CA 1900
SIZE: CA 15″

ADOPTION PRICE: (shelf) $100 (tin) $25
These little ball and stick shelves are surprisingly rare, especially folding ones like ours. (The shelves pop out, and the sides fold flat for storage. Very handy for a student!)  This great piece will be mounted over the tub, and house a collection of period patent medicines and other period drugs. (Note to Administration: all benign!) A 1901 tin of “Fresh Seidlitz Powders” begins our collection.



DATE: CA 1880
SIZE: CA 36″


This clever item will allow guests to hang towels or clothes in a bathroom from an age before towel racks. Very intelligently designed, the hooks fold flat in an ornamental pattern when not in use, ideal for the space we have in mind behind the door. While this piece, with its Eastlake styling, predates the Suite by a few decades, it’s so handy that I’m thinking it’s one of those essentials Sara insisted FDR take from Springwood: “Franklin, don’t forget those interlocking hooks for your bathroom; I notice there was nothing installed in Westmorly Court, and you wouldn’t want to damage your linens!”



SIZE: 6″ X 5″

This little gem I found for $10. It’s signed Albert Shay; the back has a framing label from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Stylistically, it’s very much of the period, and the subject matter is spot-on for an enthusiast of all things nautical like FDR. The adoption cost includes a new mat and frame to restore this little beauty to its rightful pride of place.



DATE: 1905
SIZE: CA 12″ x9


OK, so technically this was copyrighted in 1905, but I’m invoking president’s privilege here; who’s to say it wasn’t drawn in 1904? Here’s why I’m willing to fudge: it’s an original William Penfield from Colliers, the same Penfield who painted the murals in the Randolph breakfast room in 1897. Highly collectible, it’s a beautiful image, very much in Gilded Age style. Adoption cost includes framing.



DATE: CA 1880-1910

I found a wonderfully knowledgeable vendor at Brimfield who will be helping us select period linens for the tables, mantels, beds etc. These are all hand-stitched pieces, mind-bogglingly detailed. A huge find, and critical to Victorian decor.


SO THEN, have I whet your appetite to help us? I hope so!

If so, leave me a note below in the comment section (or email) as to what item you’d like to adopt, and I’ll be in touch. We’ll be building the official “Adopt an Antique” pages over the next weeks to register your gifts. First come, first commemorated!

As always, our thanks.