Many of you may not be aware (as I was not, despite 3 years residence) that Adams House possesses a tremendous artistic treasure built into its walls, one that gives us a fascinating glimpse of what FDR’s Harvard must have looked like. I’m referring to the incredible series of murals in the Coolidge Room, the former breakfast room of Randolph Hall. This building, another one of Harvard’s fabled Gold Coast dormitories, has a fascinating history of its own. Built in 1897 by Archibald Cary Coolidge (later Harvard Professor and Head of the University Library System) this luxurious Flemish Revival edifice was state of the art when constructed: electric and gas lighting, private bathrooms, swimming pool, concierge entrance – all the trappings of a 5th Avenue Mansion. FDR himself originally thought to live there alone in a single, until Groton chum Lathrop Brown agreed to room with him; the pair eventually spurned Randolph for digs in Westmorly Hall, 2 years newer and even more palatial.
Somewhere during the construction process, Coolidge must have convinced Edward Penfield to paint a series of murals for the breakfast room of his new building. How this occurred, and what precisely their connection was, is entirely unclear. Penfield at the time was a nationally known artist, made famous by his covers for Harpers magazine. 1897, the year he painted the murals in Randolph, was also – perhaps not coincidentally – the year Penfield wed. It’s possible that the newly married artist, never rich, decided to moonlight for additional funds. Or perhaps there was some personal connection to Coolidge, or to Coolidge’s brother who was the architect of the building. Whatever the case, Penfield surely warmed to his task, perfectly capturing the aristocratic, upper-class image that Harvard very much wished to portray (and did portray) during that era. Interestingly, these scenes of College life, though lovingly conserved at Adams for over one hundred years, have languished in scholarly obscurity: they don’t appear in many published canons of Penfield’s work, and are rarely mentioned even in Harvard art circles. That’s a real shame, because as you’ll see, they are spectacular. While FDR never mentions the murals in his College correspondence, undoubtedly he knew of them: Coolidge, who himself lived in Randolph, was FDR’s tutor, and it’s highly likely that Roosevelt had many acquaintances among the smart set living just next door. In any event, these pictures, painted just three years before FDR arrived in Cambridge, constitute a remarkably preserved window into the Harvard our 32nd president knew intimately.
The following pictures, by the way, are just a selection of the several dozen panels that circle the room at head-height. Unfortunately, my amateur photography doesn’t do them full justice. With any luck we’ll get the complete cycle professionally photographed next year.