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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Here’s a Health to King Charles

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 12.00.14 PMThroughout  the course of the the Restoration, I’ve been continually surprised and delighted to find little gateways back in time. Here’s another one. Last year, my dear friend Abbot Peterson ’58 died. Recently, his widow – another dear friend – Barbara, was cleaning out some files and came across an old 78. Labelled “Alvin V Laird sings to the class of 1904”, it had been mailed in 1950 to Abbot’s father, Abbot Peterson II, a member of FDR’s class. (As was Mr. Laird.)

The 78 contained two songs: “A Health to King Charles”  and “Dolores.” I haven’t been able to gather much information on “Dolores,” but “King Charles” was a very widely sung drinking ditty which would have been immediately recognized by FDR and Lathrop. The song is based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and perfectly embodies the Victorian romantic longing for causes lost:

BRING the bowl which you boast
Fill it up to the brim;
’Tis to him we love most,
And to all who love him.
Brave gallants, stand up,
And avaunt ye, base carles!

Were there death in the cup,
Here’s a health to King Charles.

Though he wanders through dangers,
Unaided, unknown,
Dependent on strangers,
Estranged from his own;
Though ’tis under our breath,
Amidst forfeits and perils,
Here’s to honor and faith,
And a health to King Charles!

Let such honors abound
As the time can afford,
The knee on the ground,
And the hand on the sword;
But the time shall come round
When, ’mid Lords, Dukes, and Earls,
The loud trumpet shall sound,
Here’s a health to King Charles!

So here, after tracking down someone who still had the means to play and digitize a 78 (!!!), for the first time in over a century, may I present to you: “Here’s a Health to King Charles”

Click the bar below to listen

This song, by the way, is part of an ongoing process to make a CD of “The Music of FDR’s Harvard” that will contain many of these wonderful old melodies well overdue for a come back. As always, your help in making this and our other work possible is greatly appreciated




We’re featured in Harvard Magazine!

1900 glee club 18 x 18 copy

Taken in the fall of 1900, a young FDR (front row second from left) and Lathrop Brown (front row, far right) gaze serenely into their Harvard future.

To mark the debut of the Ken Burns PBS series on the Roosevelts this Sunday,  Harvard Magazine has reprinted Geoffrey Ward’s remarks at the Sixth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture this past May. For those of you who were unable to attend, here’s your chance. Take a look HERE.

The Real Gentleman’s C

If you google the term “gentleman’s C,” chances are you’ll come up with some version of: “a grade given by certain schools (often Ivy League) to the children of wealthy or influential families in lieu of a failing grade” — that’s certainly what I always thought the term meant. But in FDR’s day, the meaning of a “gentleman’s C” was entirely different. A “C” was the grade a gentleman aspired to, so as not to seem too interested in studies and be considered a “grind.”

A 1909 verse by Robert Grant, ’73, LL.B. 1879, explains this neatly:

The able-bodied C man! He sails swimmingly along.
His philosophy is rosy as a skylark’s matin song.
The light of his ambition is respectably to pass,
And to hold a firm position in the middle of his class.

Should you try to hard, you became the stuff of parody, as the “The Grind’s Song” from the 1902 Hasty Pudding Show HI.KA.YA reveals:

I’m a typical College grind,
I look it, you’ll admit, you’ll admit, you’ll admit

You’ve heard it’s a grind to be a grind
Not a bit, not a bit, not a bit!
Just the opposite!
Don’t let my words belie my looks
My happiness is in my books

I love to work, I hate to play
For me life’s simply the other way
Don’t enlist your sympathy, I’m as happy as can be,
For to read my Latin Grammar is life in Arcadie!

To document how much things have changed, I thought you might be interested in seeing the study cards of FDR and Lathrop, president and congressman of the United States, respectively. We’ve recently received copies from the Archives, and will reproduce them for viewing in the Suite.  The upper right hand corner reveals their entrance examination results, and year by year grades proceed from left to right across the bottom.

Click on each to view them full scale.

 

UAIII_15_75_10_F_Box_7_Brown_Lathrop UAIII_15_75_10_F_Box_7_Roosevelt_Franklin

As you can see, both FDR and Lathrop (especially Lathrop!) eschewed any possibility of being viewed as a grind! I find this fascinating, not only because it reveals a student ethos so foreign to the current one, but also because it shows the level of grade inflation since the Vietnam War when most universities across the country, including Harvard, felt the pressure of keeping students from falling below a B average and thereby opening them up to the draft. The result was a rapid escalation of grades, to the point where the average grade at Harvard is now -A. (One of our undergraduates recently made the suggestion during a Suite tour that there hadn’t been grade inflation at all, rather that the current students were just smarter, which left me and several of my peers a moment to wonder at the folly of youth.)

On an entirely different subject, today is the last day of the fiscal year, and our coffers are looking uncomfortably bare, given the roster of programming we have planned for the next academic year. I’d like to urge any of you who have been thinking about making a contribution to the numerous activities of the Foundation, that now is time to so! It’s quick, secure and takes only a few seconds online.


Ah, The Fly at Last! Or, There and Back Again, A Tale of Retraction

A while back one of our Adams alums, Rick Porteus ’78, who also happens to be the Vice President of the Fly Club Board of Directors, had written to me kindly noting that perhaps it was time to pay a little more attention to the club FDR actually joined, rather than the club he didn’t. Fair enough. And to back up that sentiment, Rick invited a number of us to dinner the night before historian Geoffrey Ward’s lecture. It was a grand affair, made all the more pleasant by the company of Geoff, who sat fireside where FDR surely had, regaling us with fascinating bit of Roosevelt legend and lore. The Club also presented the Foundation with a lovely framed photo of FDR and his Fly Brothers from 1904. This visit got me thinking more and more about FDR and the Fly, and our quest to acquire a Fly Club medal, which coincided nicely with renewed interest at the Fly in its own history. FDR had played a prominent role there: he was club librarian, and eventually sent three sons to the Fly as well.

Fly_Club,_Harvard_University,_2009

The Fly Club Exterior. The interior is remarkably preserved and looks much as it did in FDR’s time, especially the library.

Meanwhile, you may remember that recently—after a great search—we  found a Porcellian Club medal for Lathrop. Now precisely why we ever thought that Lathrop was a member of the Porcellian is entirely murky. Lathrop’s descendants certainly thought so, having remembered reading it somewhere. I did, too—the part about one roommate getting into the Porcellian and the other getting his dreams crushed (FDR was still smarting 20 years later) has become a potent element of our narrative concerning these two men. How wonderful of them, I always thought, to have overcome what might have proved to be a large obstacle to their continuing friendship.

So, sparked by our visit, we renewed our efforts to find a Fly Club medal for poor old FDR. We’d been looking for a while, but this hunt was complicated. The Fly was originally part of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, which was founded at Hamilton College in 1832. Long story short: the Fly seceded not once, but twice from the national chapter, and was in the process of wrapping up this divorce just when FDR was active in the club. These days the Fly sports a leopard rampant on its crest, but previously it had been the star and crescent of the Alpha Delta Phi, which is what FDR would have possessed.

Then enter Elisha Lee ’80, who had come across my postings online, and who as a former collector of Harvard medals—exonumia for those in the know—pointed out to me several facts I had not been aware of, namely that the club medals were generally worn with their club color ribbons, not their class colors as we were showing in the Suite, and suggested several possible venues where I might locate a Fly Club medal. But which medal?

Thus one afternoon while I was stuck on the phone on what seemed an interminable hold, I dashed off a note to Bob Clark at the FDR Presidential Library asking him if perchance they had any Fly Club or Alpha Delta Phi medals in the Museum collection. It was a small chance, but I was banking on two well known facts: FDR almost never threw anything away; and that FDR had maintained an active relationship with the Fly for the rest of his life, even returning to Cambridge as president for Fly events. And sure enough, the Museum did indeed have an Alpha Delta Phi “medal,” inscribed with FDR’s name and class year, sill perfectly preserved in its leather box. Within seconds I was on eBay, looking; and miraculously, there was a vendor with a 1904 “medal” for sale.

$_12

The Fly Club Pin, Much Enlarged!

Hurrah! But wait: after triumphantly announcing my news, Elisha wrote back to me pointing out that this was the Fly pin, not the medal—a fact that became totally obvious when this tiny, tiny, tiny little box arrived in the mail to reveal a pin the size of my small fingernail. In all fairness, the picture at left was the one I viewed online, never reading the measurements. Caveat emptor! So foiled again! Well, partially: the pin is quite nice, enamel and gold, but oh, ever so small and expensive at $230! (Broad hint for a donor.) But FDR did have one, so it’s absolutely correct.

Ah, but the story gets even better! Elisha also produced the 1907 Fly Club member rolls, and who’s name should appear but Lathrop Brown’s? Uh-oh… A quick search of the FDR bios on hand reveal no mention of our remembered Porcellian association. Uh-ho, Uh-ho. Then a check of the Porcellian records reveals no Lathrop. Big uh-oh. Finally, Rick Porteus chimes in to say they have just received back from the book binder the club minutes from that precise period, and sure enough, Lathrop was not only a member, but also secretary and briefly president! His brother Archie (elder by a year) was also a member, as would be his younger brother Charles in a few years. In fact, Lathrop was a member before FDR, and he and Archie would have voted on FDR’s election.

Fly 2; Porcellian 0.

All this to say that we have been barking up the wrong tree. Howling might be more apt, and it goes to show what happens in history when facts aren’t thoroughly checked: if you repeat a lie often enough, Goebbels once said, it becomes the truth, or in this case, the accepted truth, however erroneous.

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 12.45.12 PMThere is still one missing piece to this whole Porcellian-Fly Club biz, which Rick Porteus has promised to check on. Originally, there were only two “final” clubs, the A.D and the Porc, so called because they were the terminal points of the club system. You could only join one. All the others were “waiting” clubs, the Edwardian equivalent of circling the airport, waiting to land. One by one, however, these waiting clubs voted themselves final during this period. Precisely when this occurred at the Fly is still being researched. The only reason this matters is that it rewrites the narrative in a rather potent way: instead of some variant of the oft-used phrase “FDR was forced to settle for the less prestigious Fly,” which occurs in almost every FDR bio, the tale should possibly read “FDR chose the Fly with his Groton chum and roommate Lathrop Brown, but was foiled in his attempt to advance to the Porcellian.” Or, “FDR failed to get into the Porcellian and at the urging of his roommate Lathrop Brown, decided to join the Fly.”

We’ll see how this falls out. Either way it’s not quite the listless casting about portrayed in the history books; it makes great sense that these two life-long friends would have gone to the same club.

These revelations, however, put us in a real bind, because now we need not one but TWO very rare silver medals that look like the one above. If seen, please contact immediately! In the meantime, nostra culpa.

 

 

 

Sixth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture, Saturday April 5th 2014: Historian & Author Geoffrey Ward

Looking around snow covered, frigid Boston you would never know it was March 5th, but it’s true! The Six Annual FDR Memorial Lecture is upon us!

220px-Geoffrey_C._Ward copy

Geoffrey Ward

This year we are dee-lighted to welcome historian and television writer Geoffrey Ward to Adams. Geoffrey C. Ward, former editor of American Heritage magazine, is the author of seventeen books, including three focused on FDR: Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt 1882-1905; A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of FDR (which won the Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); and Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley. He has also won seven Emmys and written twenty-seven historical documentaries for PBS, either on his own or in collaboration with others, including Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “Unforgivable Blackness,” “Prohibition” and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” a seven-part, fourteen-hour series on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt” that will run on PBS this September.

His topic will be “The Roosevelts at Harvard”

We are equally delighted to welcome back Dr. Cynthia Koch, Former Director of the FDR Presidential Library and now Professor of Public History at Bard College (and our 4th Memorial Lecture speaker) who will introduce Geoffrey.

This year is a reception year, as opposed to a banquet year, and comes with all the trimmings: The famous Roosevelt raw bar will return, to accompany cocktails and a book-signing after the reception. (The question before us is which of Geoff’s 17 books we’ll offer!)

This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the man behind three of the most important FDR bios ever written, not the mention, thanks to his work on PBS, one of the most influential and far-reaching American historians of the last century.

Tickets may be purchased easily on line by clicking the button below. Seats are limited to 50, so they will go fast! If you are unable to attend, please consider donating a place to an Adams student or tutor using the ticket options window below.

 Sixth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture
Saturday April 5th at 4 PM
Adams House Lower Common Room
26 Plympton Street, Cambridge Massachusetts


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