CHRISTMAS, 1941

Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library)

It was Christmastime when Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington on December 22, 1941—two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and eleven days after Hitler audaciously declared war on the United States.

For eighteen months Churchill had wooed Roosevelt, cajoling, charming, and even begging him to bring the United States into the war against Germany. Now Churchill’s prayers were answered:  the United States would certainly enter the war. On learning of the attack, Churchill later wrote, “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the thankful and the saved.”

Churchill had come to Washington to make sure that earlier agreements of an Anglo-American alliance against Germany (should America enter the war) remained firm in the face of the Pearl Harbor attack. Understandably, the American people had an overwhelming desire to strike back at the Japanese. Churchill needed to turn them from thoughts of revenge to Britain’s view of the realities of the Axis threat. His task was made more difficult by Japan’s stunning victories in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. In the Philippines American troops were trapped on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula and the Rock of Corregidor. Within a matter of days, Guam, Wake, and Hong Kong had fallen. American territories were being invaded and American lives lost. Americans wanted to throw everything they had against the Japanese.

Yet there was Britain’s precarious position to consider: if the Soviets fell, Hitler would throw his full strength into the temporarily delayed invasion of the United Kingdom. If Britain fell, what would be next for the United States? Germany was the more powerful of the foes. In an Anglo-American alliance, Churchill’s longstanding policy was the defeat of “Germany First.” He needed to make sure that the great power of the American war machine was leveled first against Hitler and second against the Japanese. Fortunately, Roosevelt agreed with him. But his position was not without dissent from some military advisors—and critics in the press and public.

Whatever his motives, Churchill’s presence was a tonic to the shattered Americans. On December 23 he joined FDR in a news conference in the Oval Office. More than two hundred journalists crowded into the room, some using edges of the president’s desk to take notes. “Wearing polka dot bow tie, a short black coat, and striped trousers,” Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us, Churchill

stared imperturbably into space, his long cigar between his compressed lips as Roosevelt spoke. When the time came for the prime minister to speak, reporters in the back called out that they could not see him. Asked to stand, Churchill not only complied, but scrambled atop his chair. “There was a wild burst of applause and then cheering,” The New York Times reported, . . . “as the visitor stood there before them, . . . with confidence and determination written on the countenance so familiar to the world.” (p. 303)

Bernard Baruch was among those invited to the White House that Christmas season. He “believed that Churchill’s visit would ‘galvanize’ American public opinion,” according to Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook.

With the Pacific fleet in ruins, Wake Island fallen, Singapore besieged, and the Philippines invaded, Baruch considered Churchill “the best Christmas present” to restore heart and hope to the Allied world. “The pink-cheeked warrior in the air raid suit” was the leading symbol of resistance to the Blitz: “Do your worst, we can stand it,” his presence seemed to say. “We won’t crack up.” (Cook, pp. 409–410).

Wartime blackout regulations and tight security precautions were already in place in Washington; nevertheless, Roosevelt insisted on lighting the national Christmas tree. Various reports describe the event. “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies,” he declared. Churchill joined Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the balcony of the White House before a crowd of 20,000 and in a national radio broadcast that reached millions. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” Churchill said, and then:

Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

On December 26 Churchill addressed a Joint Session of Congress, declaring himself half-American. “By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.” Much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s distress (who had a more internationalist vision), he stressed the unity and implied superiority of the English-speaking world, speaking of the “outrages they have committed upon us at Pearl Harbor, in the Pacific Islands, in the Philippines, in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, December 23, 1941. (FDR Presidential Library)

The White House hosted a steady stream of diplomatic and military dignitaries during Churchill’s two-week visit. Meetings were held every day and long into the night—including Christmas day when a War Council was held from 5:30 to 6:45 pm. The war planners set themselves to the business at hand: North Africa, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, military strategy, war production, tonnage, and the Far East were among the subjects of talks. Ambassador Maxim Litvinov from the USSR, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada, and the chiefs of the American Republics of South America and the Missions of the Allied Power and Refugee Governments came and went.

Since Churchill’s arrival he and FDR had been working on a Joint Declaration of Unity and Purpose for the Allies. As they laid the groundwork for war, they also began to frame the peace. It was FDR who suggested to Churchill on the morning of December 29th the name that would signify both war power and the promise of peace: the United Nations.

On New Year’s Day Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Maxim Litvinov of the USSR, and T. V. Soong of China signed the Declaration of the United Nations. An exultant Churchill declared, “Four fifths of the human race” has resolved Hitler’s end.

The next day twenty-two additional countries signed: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa, and Yugoslavia. Subsequently Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela signed.

Those countries that signed by March 1945 would become the founding members of the United Nations.

The Declaration read in part:

The Governments signatory hereto,

Having subscribed to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dated August 14, 1941 known as the Atlantic Charter.

Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world,

Declare:

(1) Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.

(2) Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.

 

What then was this Atlantic Charter that underpinned the entire agreement?

It was nothing less than a declaration of goals for the postwar world, an instrument for peace forged in the exigencies of war: “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, [it envisioned] . . . a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”

To ensure that world, Roosevelt and Churchill called for permanent disarmament and envisioned a “permanent system of general security.”

All of the nations of the world, for realistic as well spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten aggression outside of their frontiers, [the signatories] believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential.

Churchill had come to the Atlantic Conference seeking American entry into the war against Hitler to preserve the British Empire. The Atlantic Charter was Franklin Roosevelt’s vision, a reimagining of the lost promise of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed vision for an end to all war. Out of it grew the United Nations—an ambitious idea for a post-war world of peace, disarmament, decolonization, democratic self-determination, respect for human rights, and free trade.

This is the legacy of Christmas 1941—and a reminder of work we have yet to complete.

 

Sources:
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, Volume 3, 1939–1962. New York: Viking, 2016.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

 

FDR’s Last Personal Diplomacy: Ibn Saud and the Quest for a Jewish Homeland

The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States goes back seven decades, to when King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal.

New York Times, September 29, 2016

 With Saudi-American relations in the news again, I thought it worth remembering that today’s alliance had its beginnings in one last bit of Rooseveltian personal diplomacy: an attempt to use his redoubtable skills on behalf of European Jews.

The meeting with King Abdulaziz (often known in the West as Ibn Saud) took place immediately following the Yalta Conference in February 1945 when the Big Three—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Roosevelt—hammered out the final diplomatic agreements of the Second World War. Besides the conference with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt also arranged meetings with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia that are little remembered today.

By scheduling the meetings without Churchill’s knowledge, Roosevelt breached the United States’ longstanding hands-off policy respecting Britain’s sphere of influence in the region. When Churchill learned of the meetings, he hastened to schedule talks of his own. But a change was already under way.

The strategic importance of the Middle East had become increasingly clear during the war, and Roosevelt’s economic and military advisers were anxious to secure America’s military presence in the Middle East—as well as cement America’s budding oil-drilling partnership with Saudi Arabia. These were solid reasons for Roosevelt to meet with Ibn Saud, but there is ample evidence that Palestine was the main purpose of the president’s visit.

In 1944 both Republicans and Democrats vied for Jewish votes with pro-Zionist planks in their campaign platforms. But this statement from Roosevelt, read to the Zionist Organization of America on October 15, confirmed the loyalty of American Jewry to the Democratic Party. “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and Democratic Jewish commonwealth.   I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if reelected, I shall help to bring about its realization” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 259).

Historian Robert Rosen and others point out that Roosevelt had also privately promised his Jewish friends to try to solve the problem of Palestine before the war was over. Before he left for Yalta, he conferred with Rabbi Stephen Wise and told his Cabinet that he would meet Saud and “try and settle the Palestine situation” (quoted in Rosen, pp. 409–410).  Historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman recount that after the election he began to make plans for the Yalta trip, stating to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, “I am going to take a trip [the Yalta Conference] this winter and will see a lot of people. . . . I want to see if I can’t unravel this whole situation [the question of Palestine] on the ground,” leading them to conclude that Roosevelt hoped to use his personal, persuasive diplomacy to settle matters on Palestine (p. 297). In early January, Roosevelt told Stettinius that when he met with Ibn Saud after Yalta, he wanted a map with him that showed the small size of Palestine in relation to the Arab world in order to make the case that “he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs with the understanding, of course, that the Jews would not move into adjacent part of the Near East from Palestine” (Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

 Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Roosevelt’s translator at Yalta, Charles Bohlen, recorded in his memoirs Witness to History (p. 212) that Roosevelt raised the subject with Stalin during the Yalta Conference in a controversial conversation that contained an unfortunate remark that led some to label Roosevelt anti-Zionist. Breitman and Lichtman interpret the anti-Semitic exchange as an “ice-breaker,” which Roosevelt used to test the waters of Stalin’s potential opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine—and found no resistance (p. 301). Roosevelt biographer Frank Freidel agrees, “In actuality Roosevelt was stubbornly pro-Zionist, and had a difficult time with Ibn Saud when he tried to persuade the king to accept 10,000 more Jews in Palestine” (p. 594). Breitman and Licthman also tell us that Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who worked closely with the president, believed that Roosevelt “like the late Justice Brandeis, thought a Jewish state would become a model of social justice and would raise standards of living in the region. FDR also knew that Saudi Arabia badly needed outside funds for development. Surely a farsighted Arab leader would recognize such benefits—along with the advantages of American aid” (p. 299) Adding to all of these considerations, the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in late January revealed to the world the horrors of the Holocaust. Thomas Lippman, another scholar of the subject, states categorically that Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud because “the Jews had a claim on the world’s conscience, and on Roosevelt’s” (p. 3).

By all accounts the meeting with King Abdulaziz was extraordinary. Ibn Saud and his retinue of 47—which included an astrologer and food taster—traveled across the Arabian peninsula from Riyadh to Jeddah where they boarded the U.S.S. Murphy for a two-day sail on the Red Sea to Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. Only once before had the king left the Arabian peninsula. Fitted out for the king’s use, the Murphy’s deck was covered with colorful carpets and shaded by an enormous brown canvas tent. A flock of sheep, brought along for fresh meat, grazed in a corral. Food was cooked on charcoal braziers on the deck. Abdulaziz, 64 years old, a large and imposing black-bearded man dressed in Arab robes, his headdress regally bound with golden cords, was seated on a golden throne. The king was attended by barefoot Arab warriors armed with long rifles, each with a scimitar bound to his waist. One American witness described it as “a spectacle out of the ancient past on the deck of a modern man-of-war” (quoted in Lippman, p. 2).

Roosevelt waited on the U.S.S Quincy, surrounded by his own retinue of admirals and high-ranking diplomats. Ibn Saud was transferred to the Quincy and the two leaders, meeting from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on February 14, 1945, forged an improbable alliance that linked the two nations and shaped the history of the Middle East for decades to come.

I first learned about the meeting between Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 2003 when American Counsel to Saudi Arabia, Hugh Geohagan, visited the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. His purpose was to discuss returning to the Library a collection of objects that had been borrowed a few years earlier for an exhibition, “Gifts of Friendship,” in the King Abdulaziz Archives in Riyadh. Held in 2002, the exhibition commemorated the centennial of Abdulaziz’s rule by displaying the state gifts that he and Roosevelt exchanged in their shipboard meeting in 1945.

DC-3 passenger plane given by FDR to King Abdelaziz.

Ibn Saud’s gifts to FDR included brightly colored camel’s hair robes embroidered with gold, hand-painted perfume bottles, a bottle of granular musk, lumps of ambergris, a gold dagger set with diamonds, and a gold filigree sword and belt set with diamonds. In return FDR famously gave the king a DC-3 passenger plane (fully staffed with a crew supplied by the U.S), which marked the beginning of the Saudi Air Force. When he saw that the king had trouble walking, FDR spontaneously gave him one of his wheelchairs. The gifts were extraordinary, but not as extraordinary as the meeting itself.

Formal talks began after they had exchanged the gifts and enjoyed lunch and Arabian coffee. “Roosevelt came straight to the most urgent point: the plight of the Jews and the future of Palestine, where it was already apparent that the governing mandate bestowed upon Britain by the League of Nations twenty years earlier would come to an end after the war” (Lippman, p. 8).

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

An account of the conversation, FDR Meets Ibn Saud, was published by U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia Col. William A. Eddy, who was deeply involved in the intricate intercultural arrangements for the meeting. Born in what is now Lebanon, Eddy was fluent in Arabic, and as translator, was the only person to hear both sides of the conversation between the two leaders. As quoted from Eddy’s account in Rosen (pp. 412–413), “President Roosevelt was in top form as a charming host, witty conversationalist, with the spark and light in his eyes and that gracious smile which always won people over to him whenever he talked with them as a friend. . . . With Ibn Saud he was at his very best.” Roosevelt said that he felt “a personal responsibility” for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had suffered “indescribable horrors at the hands of the Nazis: eviction, destruction of their homes, torture, and mass murder” and asked the king for his advice. The king replied that the Allies as victors should give the Jews and “their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.” Roosevelt responded that the Jews had a deep desire to settle in Palestine and were fearful of remaining in Germany. The king said he did not doubt that the Jews did not trust the Germans, but “surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims. If the Allies do not expect firmly to control future German policy, why fight this costly war?” He lectured the president on the long history of animosity between Arabs and Jews.

Continuing with Eddy’s account as recounted in Rosen, Roosevelt persisted, saying that he counted on Arab “hospitality” and on the king’s help solving the problem of Zionism, but the king repeated his position. “Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives.” Later Roosevelt returned a third time to the subject. The king lost patience, observing that American “oversolicitude for the Germans was incomprehensible to an uneducated Bedouin with whom friends get more solicitude than enemies.” Ibn Saud’s final remark on the subject reiterated his unalterable position. According to Arab custom, he said, survivors and victims of battle were distributed among the victors according to their number and their supplies of food and water. Palestine, he said, was a small, land-poor country “and had already been assigned more than its quota of European refugees.” Still Roosevelt persevered. “The Arabs would choose to die,” he told the president, “rather than yield their land to the Jews.” Roosevelt offered economic aid, irrigation projects, and improved living standards for the Saudi people who were then poverty stricken by war-time disruptions to their economy (quoted in Rosen, pp. 413–414).

But the king was adamant. Was his confidence shaken? He later told Eleanor Roosevelt that his failure to convince Ibn Saud was his one complete failure. To Rabbi Wise he said, “I most gloriously failed where you are concerned.” To Congress, in his report on the Yalta Conference, he said only, “I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He later reported to Wise:

There was nothing I could do with him. We talked for three hours and I argued with the old fellow up hill and down dale, but he stuck to his guns. He said he could see the flood engulfing his lands, Jews pouring in from Eastern Europe and from America, from the Riviera and from California, and he could not bear the thought. He was an old man and he had swollen ankles and he wanted to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause [quoted in Rosen, p. 415].

Roosevelt himself had less than two months to live. Judge Joseph Proskauer later recalled that FDR was frightened now for the Jews in Palestine. He believed that “either a war or a pogrom would ensue” (quoted in Rosen, p. 416).

 Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Why did he do it? This was one of Roosevelt’s last acts. Surely he knew that his life was slipping away. Too ill to endure a fourth inauguration ceremony on Capitol Hill, a swearing in was held at the White House followed by the second briefest inaugural address in history. Yet two days later he began his 14,000-mile journey to Yalta, where he secured his twin priorities of Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific and Stalin’s commitment to the United Nations. It was only Roosevelt’s vision of a secure and peaceful postwar world that sustained him—not only at Yalta, but also to extend his arduous journey and meet with King Abdulaziz.

Many historians have reported on Roosevelt’s supreme confidence, his steadfast belief that through personal diplomacy—by meeting adversaries face to face—he could solve problems that stymied others. Breitman and Lichtman report on a telling incident, “After attending a presidential session on the Middle East, State Department economic advisor Herbert Feis said, ‘I’ve read of men who thought they might be King of the Jews and other men who thought they might be King of the Arabs, but this is the first time I’ve listened to a man who dreamt of being King of both the Jews and the Arabs’” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

Despite his own failure at Great Bitter Lake, Roosevelt’s belief in the power of personal diplomacy was intact. It was, after all, the foundational idea for the United Nations—that is, that seemingly intractable problems can be solved in a world organization that brings people together to overcome their differences. A belief fervently shared by Eleanor Roosevelt, for FDR it was the only hope that the world could avert war.

With his health failing, FDR went to Warm Springs on March 30 to attempt to recover his strength. There he would write his “Jefferson Day” radio address, scheduled for April 13. He died on April 12.

 

With his powers of personal diplomacy failing, Roosevelt bequeathed to all of us the hope that what he knew about “science of human relationships” could be invested in a world organization. The fate of the Jews of Europe, like so much unfinished business of the Second World War, would fall to the United Nations. There has been no end to war, but neither has there been a Third World War.

 

Sources

Bohlen, Charles E. Witness to History: 1929-1969.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1973.

Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman.   FDR and the Jews. Cambridge:  Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2013.

Coppola, John.  “A Pride of Museums in the Desert: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Gift of Friendship’ Exhibition,” Curator 48/1 (January 2005): 90-100.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.  Boston and New York: Little Brown, 1990.

Lippman, Thomas, W. “The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud,” The Link (April-May 2005):1-13.

Rosen, Robert. N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.

 

When Reason Trumped Politics: The Remarkable Political Partnership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie

Editor’s Note: To inaugurate our new Recent Publications page, we’re delighted to welcome Alumni Advisory Council Member and avid history buff C. Stephen Heard ’58 to our author pages with his thoughtful retrospective on one of the forgotten greats of American politics, Wendell Willkie. 

As the American people nervously watch this year’s presidential campaign descend into a rant of name calling and outright crudity that would be inappropriate in a saloon, it might be wise to pause and look back 75 years to a remarkable partnership between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie, opposing candidates in the 1940 election. Though the race was boisterous and equally contentious — FDR was running for an unprecedented third term to the horror of the Republican Party — each candidate managed to wage a vigorous campaign that kept sight of a shared common goal: the betterment of America. Even more importantly, their cooperation during that election year and in the years that followed likely prevented the collapse of Great Britain and provided America with its greatest fighting ally against the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

This relationship is all the more remarkable considering….read more

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?

 


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