A Tale of Two Morris Chairs
Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by our guest contributor, Lary Shaffer. I discovered Lary via the Internet earlier this year, and immediately came to respect his almost encyclopedic knowledge of Morris chair design. He’s quite a character as well; a former filmmaker and college professor – a “recovering academic” as he puts it – who moved to Maine a while back to craft custom furniture; Lary also just happens to be a huge FDR fan. Read the excellent article below, and I think you’ll agree he’s the perfect person to build the Morris chairs for the FDR Suite.
“I have written to Paine. I wonder if you have your Morris Chair and if the cushions are high and fit well.” Sara Roosevelt to Franklin, October 8, 1900
A period ad for an American Morris Chair
Mention the term “Morris Chair” to the average person these days, and chances are you’ll draw a blank stare. But a hundred years ago, everyone would have known precisely what you meant; by 1900 the Morris chair had become the preferred type of easy chair for sitting in formal parlors or for relaxing in front of the fire. The FDR Suite, in fact, had two: one for Franklin, and one for Lathrop Brown, his roommate.
My name is Lary Shaffer, and I have the pleasure of being the craftsman selected by Michael Weishan of the FDR Suite Foundation to reproduce two Morris chairs for the Restoration. Michael’s brief to me was simple: build two chairs of slightly varying designs that were historically accurate while at the same time able to stand the wear and tear of modern use. Not surprisingly, this produced a considerable amount of back and forth, and we both thought it would interest you to learn how I go about recreating a bit of furniture history.
First though, a little background:
The Morris chair derived from an example discovered about 1866 by Warrington Taylor at the country workshop of Ephraim Coleman in Sussex, England. Taylor was an administrator at Morris and Co., a firm founded by the famous designer William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts aesthetic derived its inspiration from the forms found in nature. Morris very much looked down on what he considered to be an excess of Victorian adornment, and above all espoused “honest” (meaning hand) craftsmanship over industrial production. The chair Taylor found in Sussex must have fit this bill precisely, as he was impressed enough to recommend that a similar piece be included in his company’s furniture line. His hunch proved correct; the version of this chair produced by Morris and Co. was soon wildly successful, in fact so successful that it was widely copied and adapted both in Britain and North America. The prototypical Morris chair has a wooden frame with little or no applied upholstery and loose boxy seat and back cushions. Its defining characteristic is a reclining back. Most often the back reclined against a bar that could be placed in four or five different positions.
It is likely that hundreds of thousands of Morris chairs were made in America from about 1890 to 1930. The Paine Furniture Company from which Sara Roosevelt obtained FDR’s Harvard Morris chair operated an expansive store in Boston. They manufactured some furniture but also sold a vast array of furniture from all over the world. They probably carried many different designs of the Morris chair.
I have been making Morris chairs in my Maine workshop for seven years, continually improving a basic design that I derived from the measuring many original chairs. I found that most antique Morris chairs fall within a few inches of each other, even though they were made by many different makers. I use the arithmetic mean of those measurements as the design base for the Morris chair I make. The result is a seat that is very comfortable for most people. Even though the two chairs for the FDR Suite will be quite dissimilar to represent the different ownership of the originals (Lathrop presumably bought his own chair from a different source) they will both have these antique measurements in their basic structures. One of the chairs will be quarter-sawn white oak and the other will be black walnut.
For months I have been looking for the kind of beautiful boards that should be used to build these chairs. All of the wood I purchase is appropriately dry and rough-sawn. Initially I lay out the major parts of the chair by sketching them on the wood, paying particular attention to the grain and color match of the wood. I plane two sides of the boards so that they have a square edge and then let them sit around for a few days to permit them to bend and twist if that’s what they want to do. I then plane the boards again to touch up the square edges. If these edges remains square, then a few days later I will square and flatten the other sides of the boards.
Seven different thicknesses of wood are required for each Morris chair. Once the appropriate thicknesses and widths are achieved, I mark and cut the mortises and tenons that will hold the main frame together. Next, I trace non-linear shapes from patterns, and saw them on a bandsaw to eliminate as much scrap as possible. I finish them on a high speed shaper, clamped into a jig that assures the correctness of the final shape. I make the side spindles for the chair by hand on a small lathe. With lots of practice and a full-scale outline as a reference, I have found that I can produce sets of spindles by eye that appear to be identical.
Once the parts are formed and sanded, I dryfit the chair: that is, I assemble it without glue. I check every joint to be sure that it fits tightly. I wish I could say that everything always goes together perfectly but, in fact, various fittings often need a minor shave or other adjustment. Once a satisfactory dryfit has been achieved, I take the chair apart and reassembled it with glue. One side of a chair has eleven separate parts. The assembly of a side requires me to focus and, at the same time, scamper because woodworking glue begins to set within a few minutes. Gluing a chair side is the most difficult part of building a chair.
Next, I install the hardware allowing the entire chair frame to be set up for the first time. Following this, I wipe the wood with multiple coats of linseed oil and rub it down with very fine steel wool between coats. This time-tested finish produces a deep satin sheen that wears very well and, in the event of damage, is easy to repair. A coat of paste wax can add gloss to the satin finish if desired.
I forge the hardware for my Morris chairs myself, using rather primitive blacksmith methods. The hinges that permit the back to recline are of a special configuration that I believe is only found on Morris chairs. They resemble a miniaturized pin-and-eye gate hinge and permit the chair back to function like a gate, enabling it to swing freely over a very wide angle. I also make the steel bar against which the back rests. This bar is supported on hooks by two metal brackets. I normally make these hooked brackets for my chairs. However, in order to preserve the historical appearance of the FDR chairs I salvaged brackets from two antique chairs that were damaged beyond redemption.
The cushions of the FDR chairs will be covered with fabric appropriate to the period, and chosen to blend with the decor of the FDR study as Sara no doubt would have seen to, as she helped select the furnishings of her son’s Harvard suite. (Though you often see modern Morris chairs covered in leather, that’s not at all correct for this period.) The seat cushion of each chair rests upon coil springs that I build into a rigid oak frame and hand tie eight ways. The springs are covered with several layers of bonded Dacron and a top cover of denim decking material. The cushions are filled with down that is pillowed around a soft foam core. These cushions hold their shape and I believe that they closely approximate the seat-feel of a new Morris chair in 1900. Of course, I want to be certain that Sara’s desires are met and that “the cushions are high and fit well.”
A white oak chair in my shop ready to ship. The two FDR Suite Chairs should be ready in December.
As mid-term examinations slowly creep up on current undergraduates thanks to the new, advanced Harvard academic calendar, we thought it might be appropriate to show you a bit of the testing rigors FDR endured. Our new research assistant Nina Ranalli (a senior at Eliot House) and I were poking around the Archives last week, and come upon quite a cache of information in the memorabilia of Clement Scott, a fellow member of FDR’s class of 1904. Though the two didn’t share a great number of classes, they did share some, and unlike FDR, Mr. Scott was kind enough to save many of his examinations, complete with scribbles, notes and arcane markings. This is an invaluable trove of information, because while we do know what courses FDR took at Harvard, (thanks to another one of our students, Justin Roshak, who researched and compiled the list) we don’t know much about the content of individual classes. To my knowledge, these exams have never been published before, and as you can see, the questions aren’t easy:
I don’t know about you, but the memory of exam time gives me the shivers…
And speaking of shivers, I had a similar fright last week when I looked into the Foundation’s bank account, and saw very little but dust and bits of paper (and none of those with denominations!). Not only do your continuing generous donations fund the physical restoration of the Suite, but they also provide invaluable research opportunities for our student scholars. To this end, we’ve instituted an new annual membership program to quantify giving and support our efforts. Won’t you consider donating at one of the levels below?
Contributions should be made out to the FDR Suite Foundation, Inc. Adams House, 26 Plympton Street, Cambridge MA 02138. The Foundation has applied for charitable 501(c)3 status, and your contributions are fully tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.
We truly need and value your support!
A Project in Search of a Piano – And a Donor – Plus, A Discovery!
“The study furniture was two desks and chairs, a large day bed, a piano and two casual chairs. FDR sang 1st bass on the Freshman Glee Club (I, 2nd bass) which is part of the justification for the piano” Lathrop Brown to Master Brower, 1958
“Our piano is coming tomorrow, $40 for the year which is $10 off the regular price. It is a very nice one and of good tone.” FDR to Sara, November 1900.
As we begin to gear up furnishing the Suite, we’ve started the search for an upright piano. While we don’t know precisely what FDR’s piano looked like, we can make a good guess. The picture above comes from just down the hall, in what’s been called the Vanderbilt Suite, B-22. These rooms, which are unique in Westmorly, were customized for William K. Vanderbilt Jr’s second (and last year) at Harvard by the building’s architect – and Vanderbilt cousin – Whitney Warren, as this 1898 article from the New York Times attests:
The chronology of our photo is a bit uncertain; given the richness of the decor, we’ve always presumed it was taken the year “Willie K,” as he was known at Harvard, was in residence. But the music on the piano, identified by our friends at parlorsongs.com, turns out to be the The Absent Minded Beggar, published 1899, leaving scant time for this picture to have been taken while Willie was in residence. The Vanderbilt heir had left Harvard to be married by March of 1899, and as most of the other Burroughs pictures were taken in May of 1900, it begins to seem likely that this view reflects the furnishings of the next, if perhaps less famous, certainly equally opulent occupant.
No matter. This Times article, which I just tracked down today, at last confirms the color of the wall covering! This is a great discovery, as a similar treatment is a potential candidate for one of the FDR Suite bedrooms, and we can now establish with certainty the color scheme…
But, I digress – as is so common in historical ramblings like these – from the main topic at hand, the piano…
The piano in the Vanderbilt Suite was an Ivers and Pond, and judging from the many ads found in the Crimson for piano rentals in this pre-Victrola age, Ivers and Pond, a Boston manufacturer, was the leading supplier to Harvard students of means.
Thus, we’re now in active search of an Ivers and Pond upright piano dating from between 1895 and 1900, and we need your help! This kind of instrument normally runs in the $2000-4000 range restored, and periodically surfaces at various NE retailers and on Ebay; an instrument like this would make a fantastic individual or institutional contribution to the FDR Suite, which we would gladly commemorate with a small plaque. And of course, the gift is fully tax deductible.
Won’t one of you consider returning the gift of music to these historic halls?
Piecing Together FDR’s Rooms, Literally
It all started so simply. Last fall while photographing the FDR Suite, I noticed some curious bits of something dangling behind the large radiator in the main study. What could they be? Those infamous Harvard dust motes again? Ah no! Historical clues, perhaps? The mind raced…. in vain. Most turned out to be prosaic modern paint chips; then however several little vermilion bits turned up… Wallpaper!
Intrigued, I collected the fragments for further study. But from when did they date, and what, if any pattern did they form? Working with Kari Pei, Director of Design at Wolf-Gordon, Inc., a skilled Adamsite who materialized as if by godsend at our last FDR Memorial Dinner with an offer to help reproduce period wall paper (mirabile dictu!) we began to try to piece together the puzzle. It wasn’t easy. The break came when I found a tiny strip still in situ behind the main radiator, and was able to photograph it. As you can see below, it’s clearly sitting on the base plaster, which means that if it isn’t the original paper for the Suite, then it’s very early, because subsequent layers were not removed, but simply painted over. This fragment also gave us the vertical orientation for the design.
From here, it was just a matter of playing with the pieces on the computer until something fit together. It sounds simple, but the process is long and tedious, and took many, many hours.
A final design eventually emerged from the bits: to give you some idea of the scale, the circles are only 1/4″.
And from that, thanks to the artistry of Kari Pei, the past re-emerges in amazing approximation. From the dust and grime of a few wind tossed fragments, here’s the reconstructed paper. (The scales of these two images don’t quite match, but you get the general idea.)
Here’s the pattern as it will repeat across the walls of the study.
Not exactly a pattern for shrinking violets, but extremely typical of the time. The effect, especially when teamed with rich draperies and all the bric-a brac of Victorian life, will be quite spectacular.
Bravo to all who have helped on this quest! Again, our most heartfelt thanks to Kari Pei and Wolf-Gordon, who have made such a tremendous donation to the project, as well as Merle Bicknell, Assistant Dean of the Department of Physical Resources at Harvard, who worked wonders to make sure this wonderful gift would grace the walls of the Suite this fall.
A solitary Harvard student, replete with bowler, May 1900. A mystery view, courtesy of the Harvard University Archives.
Here’s a scene that FDR knew intimately. It was taken in May 1900, during the period Franklin was in Cambridge finalizing his room arrangements at Westmorly Hall for the upcoming year. Though the perspective would change considerably during his time at Harvard, owing to the ambitious enclosure program instituted by President Eliot, this view would remain instantly recognizable to any member of the class of ’04.
Can anyone tell me what we’re looking at?
There’s a prize if you can: each month until the next FDR Memorial Dinner in February, I’ll be offering two free tickets to the 3rd Annual lecture for anyone who correctly guesses my monthly puzzler. Think hard: we have a very special guest coming to speak – all the way from France, in fact – someone who knew FDR as well as he knew this view, so good guessing will have quite a payoff.
(The mandatory fine print: Contest deadline is one week from the posting date; one winner per contest, to be announced in subsequent posts. Awards are good only for the lecture portion of the event. To enter, leave your guess as a comment below. I will contact winners by email.)
OK, a small hint: to my knowledge, only one of the buildings seen in the distance is still standing, though it’s no longer visible from this angle.
George Washington Lewis
I’ve been doing a bit of research on the Porcellian Club, in advance of the architectural walking tour I’m leading this November for the Harvard Alumni Association entitled Presidential Pathways: Tracing TR and FDR at Harvard (More on that later.) My interest springs, of course, from the fact that TR was a Porcellian member, counting his admission among his proudest achievements, and that FDR tried and was blackballed, counting this among his life’s greatest failures – a memory made even more galling by the success of TR’s sons a few years later. It’s hard today to understand precisely what all the fuss was about; it is, after all, just a club, with pleasant, though unremarkable facilities. (The rooms were published a number of years ago by the Crimson, for those of you wishing to take a look.) The appeal of the Porcellian however, was never the building: exclusivity was the lure, that and the fact that once admitted, you gained a dedicated group of friends for life. Apocryphal tales of Porcellian loyalty abound: the old line that “any member who failed to earn a million by age 30 was simply given one by his fellows” is typical. But there are many real life glimpses of the Porcellian’s reach that are quite telling: for instance, when H.H. Richardson, at the start of what would become a meteoric architectural career, submitted plans to build Trinity Church in Boston, the untested architect was given the commission over many more experienced competitors. The reason? We’ll never know for sure, but the fact that five of the eleven members of the deciding committee (not to mention the rector, Phillip Brooks) were fellow Porcellian alums certainly didn’t hurt. Membership in the Porcellian was the passport to many coveted things once you left the ivy-covered halls of Harvard, and you can begin to see why a forward-looking (and status conscious) young man like FDR was so disappointed at not getting in. Within the University of course, there was no question of the club’s official stature: you immediately appreciate the position the Porcellian held in that gilded age when you realize that it’s the only institution at Harvard to have its own entrance to the Yard. Donated by the club in 1901, and accepted without a moment’s hesitation by the College, the elaborate brick portal is technically dedicated to Professor Joseph McKean, who founded the Porcellian in 1794. The large boar snout keystones on either side of the gate, however, proclaim otherwise: this is a thinly veiled memorial to the power of wealth and privilege at 19th century Harvard, made all the more ironic by the democratic nature of the gate itself. Unlike the locked clubhouse door across the street – also marked by the sign of the pig – this gate is the only porcine threshold that the vast majority of Harvard students were ever allowed to pass.
May I hazard to guess that FDR regularly took an alternate route?
The Steward (Lewis of the Porcellian) Joseph DeCamp 1919
The Porcellian does contain one treasure though, amongst its collection of usual clubhouse bric-a-brac: the portrait of George Washington Lewis, painted by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp in 1919. This masterpiece of the Boston school celebrates the club’s most famous employee, whose 45 year tenure at the Porcellian spanned both TR’s and FDR’s time at Harvard. Mr. Lewis appears to have been a highly unusual character for his day, a gentleman’s gentleman who very early on learned the art of the polite smack-down to keep his uppity charges in place, as Reverend Gomes once related in a 1996 New Yorker interview:
“It seems that when Elliot Perkins, the great-grandson of John Quincy Adams, was an undergraduate at Harvard, he decided to become better acquainted with George Washington Lewis, the formidable black steward of the Porcellian Club. So one day Elliot began to make conversation and asked, ‘Mr. Lewis, when did your people come up North?’ To which Lewis replied, ‘Mr., Perkins, my great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Bennington, which is in Vermont, as you may know.'”
Ouch. Game, set, and match to Mr. Lewis.
One can but wonder, if only he’d been allowed in, how FDR might have fared….