[For this this issue we’re delighted to have Pam Canfield Grossman, Lathrop Brown’s granddaughter, as guest author. – Eds.]
Lathrop Brown, Helen Hooper Brown, and daughters Halla and Camilla, about 1915
Questions about my grandfather Lathrop Brown and his life after Harvard keep surfacing in these pages, most recently concerning the Tin House at Big Sur. The life stories of Lathrop and Hélène Brown could practically be told as a succession of the houses in which they lived, nearly always at the edge of the continent. First on Long Island where Lathrop raised and raced horses [now the Knox School], then near the White House in Washington while Lathrop was in Congress and, later, when he was assistant to the Secretary of Interior. Afterwards they lived in Manhattan, then Montauk Point, and Boston.
Saddle Rock and the Cove
In 1924 they traveled to Carmel, California in search of a secluded site at the ocean. On a horse and mule trip to the Big Sur area they found Saddle Rock Cove where a waterfall poured over the rocky bluff into the Pacific. They purchased the adjacent 1800 acre cattle ranch and began a bi-coastal life, maintaining a residence in Boston as well as Big Sur.
The Big Sur & Pacific Railroad
The old ranch house at Saddle Rock was soon replaced with a new house built using the local redwood trees. Electrical power was supplied by a waterwheel driven by the stream. In 1939 construction began on Waterfall House. Sited halfway down the cliffs from the newly built highway above and reached by a short funicular railway, it was a beautiful contemporary building, with gardens around the house and across Saddle Rock cove.
Waterfall House from the West
The Tin House, which the family called the Gas Station, was built in the mid 1940s high on the hills above Saddle Rock cove. It could only be reached by a rough dirt road climbing steeply up through the ranch to a bluff overlooking the ocean.
The house was actually constructed of materials from two abandoned gas stations and, oddly, had no windows facing the spectacular view. I have no idea why my grandparents built it.
The Tin House
The story that it was to be some sort of vacation retreat for FDR is pure fabrication. It was a small, primitive, and nearly inaccessible place, wholly unsuited to a wheelchair bound president. It has now fallen into total disrepair.
When Lathrop died in 1959, my grandmother left Big Sur and gave the ranch and the house to the state of California as the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. She wanted the house to be used as a museum and a center for local artists, and insisted that the house be destroyed if that was not possible. When funds for that purpose could not be found the house was bulldozed into the ocean below.
Pamela Canfield Grossman, Berkeley, California.
[There was one last amazing Brown housing project: at the time of Lathrop’s death, the Browns were in the process of converting a former Mississippi paddle boat into a winter home on Sanibel Island, Florida. It was never completed. For more on Lathrop’s fascinating life, see HERE – Eds]
Well I don’t need to tell you how warm it’s been in Cambridge, because chances are you’ve been as warm or warmer. Still, despite the heat and the bang-bang-booms coming from the Quincy House renovations next door, we’ve been quietly (or perhaps, more precisely, less-noisily) pursuing our own projects in the Suite:
For one, we’re under construction again in the bathroom, this time to retro-fit some very inconspicuous museum-style recessed lighting into ceiling. Those who have stayed in the Suite overnight have commented that it’s darker than Hades with only one 30-watt Edison bulb as your companion, and it’s true – which is precisely why gentlemen in FDR’s time shaved & dressed in their rooms, where there was better natural light. This concession to modern living – which can be turned on, or not, according to whim – will also allow us to showcase a small collection of patent medicine bottles and other personal products of dubious efficacy from the turn of the century that we’ve been assembling. It’s amazing the wild variety of nonsense that was marketed for health and beauty in FDR’s youth, and this collection, once proudly installed on the bathroom wall shelf, will elucidate this thankfully-passed aspect of late-Victorian life.
In the study, two complex projects are underway. Master craftsman Lary Shaffer and I are in the process of reverse engineering a period daybed we discovered (or rather, several, in photographs), to make a version for the Suite. Ours has to have several novel features: it needs the look and feel of an authentic period piece, yet it has to disassemble for easy movement when we film the New Fireside Chats – not to mention be both durable and comfortable for visitor use. At left, the very, very beginning of our efforts, as we start to think about how to construct the spindle back that will link the two rear lyre-shaped legs. As usual, this has turned into quite an adventure, one that I’ll be detailing in future posts. We’re hopeful that we’ll have the piece designed, assembled and outfitted for the study by the fall.
Also, thanks to major funding from the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust (and of course, viewers like you), we’ve been able to engage the services of the prestigious Pewabic Pottery in Michigan to produce a period-accurate set of tiles for the fireplace surround. Somewhere in time, no one is quite sure when or why, the tiles were ripped out from all but one of the fireplace surrounds in Westmorly, most likely as part of a general rebuilding of the fireboxes or flues. Fortunately, we still have the intact fireplace in the old porter’s lodge at the base of B-entry, which we’ll be using for a model. This, too, I’ll be documenting as the project unfolds.
Finally, we hoping to complete renovations to the hall outside the Suite to install a small FDR timeline-museum, which will help visitors place the Suite in the context of FDR’s life and presidency. With the assistance of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, we’ve selected the images for the timeline, and will be mounting them on the wall outside the Suite, along with improved lighting and seating.
See, we have been busy!
Finally, we’ve some new acquisitions to show you. Obviously as the physical restoration of the Suite winds down and we switch over to our educational and philanthropic activities (for more on that important mission, see here) the new items we acquire become fewer and fewer. Still, we’re on the active hunt for rare pieces that either have a direct Harvard/FDR connection, or that help elucidate life at FDR’s Harvard – and how very different that life is from today’s. Here are four great items we’ve recently discovered:
OK, any guess as to what this is?
Hint: it’s glass, exactly the size of a cigar, and missing a small cork on the left end…
If you guessed cigar flask – which I’m sure you didn’t! – you’d be correct. This type of small novelty flask was very common in the late Victorian era. Drinking hard liquor in mixed company was frowned upon, but at the same time, such alcohol was de rigueur at most social events, so what to do? Why, carry this tiny little flask in your vest pocket, that’s what, which to all the world looks like a cigar; then when the ladies aren’t looking, bottoms up!
Here’s a wonderful piece that came to us as a gift from Dr. Cynthia Koch, Past Director the FDR Presidential Library, and her husband Eliot. Though many people think of Stetsons as big floppy western hats, that was only one – albeit the most famous – of their products. Founded in 1865, the John B. Stetson Company began when its eponymous founder headed west and created the original hat of the frontier, the “Boss of the Plains.” Stetson eventually became the world’s largest hat maker, producing more than 3.3 million hats a year in a factory spread over 9 acres in Philadelphia. This particular hat, in its absolutely brilliant red box, is known as a boater, and was common apparel for young men in the warmer months from the FDR’s Harvard days well into the 20s. As it turns out, “our” hat was simply predestined to be in the Suite: I first saw this Stetson in an antiques store in Hudson, New York, and was immediately interested. The seller however named a price I thought unreasonable, and refused to haggle, which is just not “the way” in these kinds of deals – I was put off, and left. Almost a year later, Dr. Koch spied this same hat, still on the shelf in the same store, and thought it would be perfect for us. She immediately called me, and began to describe the “wonderful hat I found, in a well-preserved red period box…” I interrupted, completely amazed: “Don’t tell me you’re at such and such antique store in Hudson!!?” And the rest, as they say is history. Dr. Koch however, proved no better bargainer than I, for the seller again refused to budge and she was forced to pay full price. I take some rather perverse satisfaction in the fact both stubborn seller and store are now gone, but not before we got our hat. Thanks again, Cynthia and Eliot!
Considering the large number of objects in the Suite – heading towards two thousand, if you can believe it – one of the things we’re strangely lacking is period books. The reason is twofold: the first is, simply, the cost of good volumes. FDR, as you probably know by now, was an avid bibliophile who began collecting books while at Harvard. He was on the library committee for the Harvard Union, and also served as the librarian for the Fly Club. (Club libraries, though diminishing in importance by FDR’s time, were still much valued as a source of more popular, less serious reading material than was found in Harvard’s library.) Given a rather refined taste, and a hefty budget supplied by Sara, FDR proved a discriminating buyer, and we find ourselves hard-pressed financially to duplicate his acquisitions. Secondly, we’re constrained to pre-1904 volumes that reflect FDR & Lathrop’s taste and interests – not something that pops up too often at the local used-book seller. But here’s a slim little volume that meets both criteria: Two Addresses by Col H. L. Higginson (1902). Higginson was one of Harvard’s most enthusiastic benefactors, giving both the money for Soldiers Field, as well as the funds for the Harvard Union. This book contains the text of Higginson’s two dedication addresses, and is particularly appropriate for the Suite as FDR was in the audience for the Union dedication in October, 1901. This is a volume he certainly knew of, most likely owned, and most certainly helped acquire for the new Union Library, which would function as Harvard’s main undergraduate library until the opening of Lamont in 1947.
What a stunner! This is a very rare piece, both because of size (it’s 11″ tall by 6″ wide) and function: a heavy ceramic water pitcher. It came out of an estate in California, and is exactly of the period. How do we know that? Well in this case the pitcher is labelled on the bottom: “Royal China Pottery, England,” which sets parameters for the date. But even if it weren’t, the style and typography of the Harvard pennant would give it away. After 1910 or so, the flag font and shape changes, (and continues an every-decade-or-so metamorphosis right until the present day), giving the practiced eye a pretty precise measurement of age.
(It’s amazing the strange talents you acquire when putting together a project like this!)
Well, that’s all for now. I’ll be back in touch as the weather cools down with news on our fall events, including the FDR Memorial Lecture, and our plans for the Big Game.
Until then, please remember that none of this gets done without your continuing help.
Some People Read History. Others Make It.
Come make a little history: support the FDR Suite Foundation!
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:
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!
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.
Curtis Roosevelt, FDR’s eldest grandson, will give the Third Annual FDR Memorial Lecture at 4 PM, February 27, 2010, at Adams House. His topic will be his new book, Too Close to the Sun: Growing up in the Shadow of My Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor. Mr. Roosevelt, now 79, will be traveling from his home in Provence to speak to us. First -grandchild “Buzzie,” as he was known, was quite a celebrity in his own right, having spent a large portion of his formative years in the White House, and this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear FDR history from someone who knew FDR intimately. Dr. Cynthia Koch, Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, will also be joining us for the festivities, and will be introducing Mr. Roosevelt.
Some other plans still in the formulation stage:
• a pre-dinner cocktail reception and book signing with Mr. Roosevelt.
• a live auction to benefit the FDR Suite Foundation.
• a gala dinner dance with the Bo Winiker Orchestra, Boston’s premiere big-band. This year’s theme will be “FDR’s White House. ” The dinner will be based on a State Menu from the 30s, and we’ll be counting up the years musically from 1932-1944, so get out those dancing shoes! Plans call for current Adams House students to join us for dancing from dessert onwards, and we’ll be doing ballroom refresher classes at the House on several nights prior for those of you (like me) who may want to get those foxtrot and swing steps in shape.
For non-resident guests, or for locals who simply would like a romantic weekend in town, I’m arranging two special packages: one at the Charles Hotel (a few blocks from Adams), for those of you who prefer to be nearby, as well as at Boston’s newest luxury hotel, The Mandarin Oriental, for anyone who might want to come a night early, catch a show, shop Newbury Street, or simply indulge in the Mandarin’s 16,000 square foot spa. I hope to have details on all this, with pricing and reservation information, here on the blog within the next two weeks.
So, in short: save the date for a real bit of history! SATURDAY 27 February, 2010, starting at 4 PM