Photo Essay: Adams Underground

Sometimes the tunnels DO speak, at least they do now. In until the 80s they were silent, just long corridors with tan colored walls, freshly painted and kept pristine under the very strict eye of the super. Then…. But well, let’s let Bob Kiely, the former Master of Adams, tell the tale:

“Around 1988 a few members of the House Committee came to me with the idea of painting the tunnels. I liked it at once, but also knew that the “rules” of the college were that no paint, decoration, etc could be added to common spaces without the approval of the dean. Since Adams then had many artists, other schemes had been proposed and turned down. This time, I (we) decided not to ask. The whole project was planned for a quiet weekend in January Reading Period when the superintendent was away and the administration was not paying too much attention. All day Saturday, deep into Saturday night and Sunday, people painted under the supervision of the House Committee. The rules: 1) You had to sign up in advance since there wasn’t room for everyone to contribute as only main tunnels were painted. 2) Each student or tutor was assigned one hour and one space 3) You were supposed to paint a representation of yourself, not necessarily a self-portrait, but something that spoke for you 4) I provided the funding; House Committee provided paint and everyone helped with cleanup. The whole weekend was amazing. People got into the spirit of it and went around encouraging and admiring one another’s work. Though there was no explicit rule, it was understood that nothing raunchy or gross should go on the walls.

When the super came in on Monday, he was at first furious, but he got used to it. The word inevitably got around the College. Eventually, I invited various deans to come with me on a tour. They all loved it though there were some sighs and heading shaking at how Adams, of course, HAD to be different

In the years immediately following, there were some problems: to paint over or not? What, if anything to save? One roommate painted a very unflattering picture of his roommate. The roommate complained to me. Did I have the right to censor? The worst thing that happened after a year or two is that someone (we never found out who) came through one night and painted a black band over the eyes of almost all the figures. It was totally spooky. Our art tutor removed the marks very carefully, but people were quite shaken by the weirdness of that.”

Fortunately, the culprit of the painted bands has never reappeared (undoubtedly some jealous artist from Quincy House!) and over the years, the logistics have been honed. As all available space is now taken, each spring, the art tutor and co-master Sean Palfrey – with input from the students – decide which panels to cover, and review the proposals for new paintings, submitted by seniors. It’s their last chance to preserve – at least for while – something of themselves on the walls of Adams.

To tour the tunnels, click on any image below to expand.

Photos: Amanda Guzman ’11



Life in an Empty House

All’s far too quiet on the January front…

I began my time at Harvard under the old academic calendar. Like generations of you before me, during my freshman and sophomore years we left campus immediately after the end of classes in mid-December, with about a month before we would have to confront our finals.  A few slightly anxious weeks later, we returned to Cambridge, tried to remember what we had learned in our classes, and took our exams. It was far from a perfect system, but we were used to it.

Then Harvard presented us with a whole new College calendar. As of Fall Term 2009, we would turn in all our papers and take all our exams before leaving for the winter holiday break. And we would have most of the month of January off. The change made sense: it would mesh our schedule with that of most other universities – as well as most other schools at Harvard – and besides, it would be such a relief to head home without exams hanging over our heads.

While the College required the majority of undergraduates to spend our long break off campus, they allowed a select few to return early. These were the senior thesis writers, who had been granted this window of time to focus on nothing except our grand, looming projects.

And thus was born a brand new creature: “The January-Term,” immediately dubbed “J-Term” by students and faculty alike.

This year it was my turn as one of the J-Term thesis writers. I arrived back on campus January 5th to find an incredibly deserted Adams. For a House usually so vibrant and full of activity, with people doing homework in the dining hall, struggling to carry a full laundry basket up a winding staircase, or just milling around in search of food or conversation, Adams was eerily empty.  It was strange to walk the halls without seeing a soul.

I spent a few silent days in Widener Library, where long rows of shelves, darkened now by inactive motion sensors, did little to assuage my impression that hardly anyone else was around. In need of socialization and sustenance, fellow thesis writers and I trekked to Annenberg in Memorial Hall—the only dining hall open. It was an oasis from frigid temperatures and study isolation. I ran into friends from freshman year whom I had barely seen since they ended up in other Houses. With all of us back together, it felt like a mini-preparation for the Commencement activities that are coming all too soon.

As the snow started piling up – already measured in feet this year – I began to spend more time working in the House. When Cambridge was struck by its second blizzard, my fellow thesis writers and I celebrated by taking a break from work and having a snowball fight in Randolph Courtyard. For a brief moment the House came back to life.

Now, at the start of the new Spring term, Adams has returned to normal. The friendly faces have returned to the Gold Room, a medley of voices emanates from the dining hall, and the House e-mail list is abuzz with questions about courses. But it’s not quite the same as before. Being here while nearly everyone else was gone made me realize that the essence of Adams is not so much the House, as it is the people – without them it’s like being in an empty theater without audience or performers. Take away my roommates, the other students, the tutors, and the staff, and this becomes just a big, worn-down collection of buildings on Plympton Street.

I understand that come May this sense of community will vanish again, this time permanently – a last curtain call for us seniors. But while there will be days when I may not miss this dear old stage with its clanging pipes and creaky floors, I know I will certainly miss the people that have brought it to life.

Restoring FDR’s Harvard – One Pixel at a Time

(This article is a modified version of one of my FDR Suite Blog posts. If you aren’t familiar with the blog, and are interested in House & Harvard history, you should most certainly take a look. I update the blog several times a month, and you can sign up for e-mail or RSS notification when there’s a new posting. The links in the article below will direct you to blog pieces referencing the items or individuals mentioned.)

Victorian decor is all about “more is more.” The wall above the mantle is still only about half full.

Quite a number of the visitors to the FDR Suite have inquired as to how we’ve found all the artworks that grace walls. Well, let me assure you –  it’s been quite a process. First of all, we’ve been extremely lucky: discovering the descendants Lathrop Brown – FDR’s roommate – and the family’s generous sharing of their private archives has added substantially to our collection. Then too, we’ve acquired rare finds from the Internet. We’ve also benefited from wonderful scholarship and support from the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park.

But even with all this, sometimes it’s not enough to fulfill our mission. You see, unlike a house museum where the present is held in stasis, the Foundation aims to create a living environment that actually transports you to 1904. If all the materials look old and faded, the illusion is compromised. Think about it: As a visitor to the Suite in 1904, you would find everything new, or newish; colors bright, fabrics fresh, pages crisp. Which is why, for instance, we had craftsman Lary Shaffer create two “new-old” Morris chairs, and why we’ve sent “FDR’s desk” out for a complete renovation. Unlike the folks on the Antiques Roadshow, we don’t want too much patina of age. This is especially true of paper goods. Take for instance this fascinating piece which came as part of a recent ebay purchase:

The Harvard map in its original state

Now while it doesn’t look like much, let me assure you this is really something special. It’s a 13″ x 19″ map of Harvard, drawn by the Harvard School of Engineering, centered on University Hall, and showing the extent of the College in 1901-1902, FDR’s sophomore year. Not only does the key list principle buildings of the University along with dates of construction, but it also shows the addresses of most of the principal professors at the College (can you imagine that in this day and age!) along with principal points of interest, such as clubhouse locations. Unfortunately for us, the condition is pretty bleak: besides having a huge bite out of the right hand margin, the map had been folded and left in a very acidic scrapbook for almost a century – you can see the acid marks clearly. Now as an antique, this piece could conceivably be mounted and hung in the Suite, and we could call it a day. But its decayed state reminds us all too readily that 110 years have passed. It’s 2010, not 1904, looking at this map. How much better would be a fresh copy, say, like this…

The restored map – quite a difference, eh? Click anywhere above to see an expanded version. You may then use your browsers expand version to make the image even larger.


And in fact, the Suite now has just that, ready for framing. This minor miracle is achieved using a program called Photoshop, which allows an operator to manipulate digital images. The process goes like this: the original document is first scanned into the computer, and then, in a series of steps, the effects of aging are removed one by one. This is possible because the computer sees the image not as a picture, but as millions of tiny dots called pixels, each with an assigned range of characteristics. I can ask the computer to group and isolate these pixels in a variety of ways – taking say, all the pixels of a certain color tone (such as faded tan) and changing them to white. I can have the computer sharpen lines by telling it to group all pixels within a certain color range more tightly and eliminate outliers. I can also remove or reinforce any element, eliminating a tear here, or darkening a capital there. (In actual period photographs, the process is much more dynamic and difficult, but the result is the same. We can often return a damaged century-old photo to brand-new condition.) The correction process is very much trial and error, and relies entirely on the skill level of the operator. Still, it takes a tremendous amount of time. The map above required a good three hours to fix, but I think you’ll agree the result is fairly spectacular.

Just for fun, I’ve added three red numerals to this version of map, to point out to you how valuable pieces like this are to understanding FDR’s Harvard.


At 1, you’ll see Soldiers’ Field as FDR first knew it, with wooden football bleachers and no Harvard Stadium. No Biz school either; that’s another 25 years off.

In FDR’s time, athletics were still grouped north of the yard, near numeral 2, which explains the odd location of the College’s Hemenway Gymnasium. (It’s also where the first football game was played, detailed in an earlier posting.) This area was rapidly becoming built up though, and soon (1903) the Stadium would rise and athletics would move permanently across the River.

And finally, take a look at 3, the area south of Mt. Auburn:


Notice how the Charles still has watery fingers pushing towards the Square (remnants of now long-contained streams running from the north) and how the area along the still-tidal banks is almost industrial. (You can clearly see the College coal wharf.) No Memorial Drive for another few years, and no Harvard Houses either. Where Eliot today sits there is a coal-tar plant, Leverett and Winthrop are swamps, and Mather’s site is occupied by a long-vanished boat house. And see the grouping of buildings along Mt. Auburn, including  our beloved Westmorly (or half of it, with A-Entry yet to be built), and how there’s almost nothing to the south worth mentioning? At last, the term “Gold Coast” begins to have some meaning… Oh, and how about that! Something I never noticed before: a Catholic church on Mt. Auburn, too, just west of Claverly where Holyoke Center now stands. Perhaps the predecessor to the later St. Paul’s we now know so well?

All in all a very different Harvard, this, and one we’re able to restore – one pixel at a time – thanks to support from people like you.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create a  living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and rely on your help to continue our efforts!

The View from Apthorp

As Masters of Adams House, Sean and I are thrilled to welcome you to the Gold Coaster. Our sincere thanks go out to Michael Weishan and the other alumni volunteers, who have brought us all closer together through the remarkable means of the Internet.

We have been serving as Masters here at Adams House since 1999, following the extraordinary quarter-century tenure of Bob and Jana Kiely. These two had set a tone of tolerance and joy that we very much appreciated and aimed to maintain. As stewards of this marvelous House, with its magnificent architecture, unique resources, quirky and proud history, faithful staff, wonderful Senior Common Room members, talented tutors, and creative student body, we have seen it as our role to foster an Adams that cares about three things: learning, community and fun.

A House, at its best, is an intellectual sanctuary, a place where students are not tested, don’t have due dates and can ask less than totally formulated questions. It is an academic environment without the burdens of grades and critiques. Through formal and informal gatherings, we seek to foster the kind of intellectual exchange that brings students together from all the different disciplines. During the year, we revel in the “push back” moments in the Dining Hall, when the students finish their meals, push back their chairs, and chat about “the origin of life,” or Alexander the Great, or the federal ban on stem cell research. They even discuss the Red Sox… they had better! But the point is, wherever, whenever or whatever the discussion, we all learn from each other.

Building a sense of House community in the age of randomization has been an interesting challenge, but because of the strong traditions at Adams, this has not been as hard as you might imagine. The students value the House and consider admission to Adams as winning the lottery. We still rally around the flag that proclaims “Adams is the Best”. And we mean it! But this special sense is not just directed at the House – the students care about the Cambridge, Boston and world communities as well. They involve themselves in local homeless shelters, AIDS outreach, work for prisoners, Red Cross blood drives, and on and on. The history of Adams motivates: We make it a priority to let our students know about the brave Adams residents who once upon a time stood up against Apartheid abroad, or who fought for equal rights for women and minorities in this country, including those who struggled for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered freedoms. These are all part of the heritage of Adams House, and continue to provide proud examples to our current residents.

As for having fun, well that’s the easy part, with 450 undergraduates under your roof! We continue the traditions of Drag Night and the Winter Feast, with its annual black tie Pooh Reading (we believe this year was either 43rd or 44th occasion). Each year’s Chinese New Year tops the last one and every spring witnesses Strawberries and Champagne on the Apthorp lawn.

We hope to see you back here for the 4th Annual FDR Memorial Lecture and Reception, which this year takes place Saturday April 30, 2011. In the meantime, we look forward to keeping in touch with you through this marvelous new e-zine, the Gold Coaster.

Go Adams!

Judy and Sean Palfrey



Stranger Than Fiction: Five Adams House Novels

(Editor’s note: clicking on the images below will take you to Amazon for those volumes still in print.)

Many novels have been set at Harvard. Some, such as Erich Segal’s Love Story, William Martin’s Harvard Yard, Nick McDonnell’s An Expensive Education, John Marquand’s The Late George Apley, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Tenured Professor have become bestsellers or minor classics. Others, such as Little Codfish Cabot at Harvard, have been forgotten, perhaps deservedly so. Of the numerous fictional portrayals of Harvard, at least five books have been set partly or entirely in Adams House or the Gold Coast dorms that were incorporated into Adams when the House system was born: Michael White, Descent (2010); George Weller, Not to Eat, Not For Love (1933); Lisa Pliscou, Higher Education (1989); Jane Harvard, The Student Body (1998); and Sean Desmond, Adams Fall (2000). Let’s consider these books in historical order, according to when the events portrayed in each took place.

The storyline of Descent revolves around an actual event: the mysterious death of Stewart Douglas Robinson, nephew of Theodore Roosevelt, who on February 20, 1909, fell fatally from his room in Hampden Hall (the Beaux-Arts building on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Plympton Street that now houses the Harvard Book Store). The novel’s author, Michael White (a pen name for an Adams alum), introduces Henry Appleton Wadsworth, a Harvard undergraduate and Crimson reporter living in Westmorly Court (in what is today restored as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Suite). Wadsworth, a classmate of Robinson’s at Groton, turns detective to unravel the mystery of his friend’s death. In the course of his pursuit of the truth, he also enjoys the benefits of Porcellian membership, confronts his own budding sexuality, and meets historical figures such as T.S. Eliot and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Descent is the most recent Adams House novel, but its temporal setting is the earliest of the five books discussed here. Many of its events take place in the Gold Coast residences of Westmorly Court and Randolph Hall, both of which were later incorporated into Adams House. White paints a vivid picture of the Edwardian interiors, including the layered oriental rugs, gas lamps, the Morris chairs that were de rigueur in Gold Coast undergraduate rooms, and, of course, the luxurious Westmorly swimming pool, “glass roofed, decorated with white trellis and palm trees, fireplaced and sporting an abundantly mouthed river god that spouted jets of heated water into the marble-lined bath.”  It probably will come as no surprise to those who lived in Adams before the late 90s that the pool is central to the novel’s plot, serving as the scene of late-night illicit activities that prove critical in resolving the mystery of Robinson’s death. The cosseted opulent life enjoyed by Gold Coast residents goes hand-in-hand with a rigid social hierarchy and pervasive snobbery. Wadsworth lives in a privileged world of final clubs, dances in Boston’s finest hotels, and summers in Maine. He is part of the “set” of Bostonians and New Yorkers who will join the right clubs and make the right connections at Harvard. Wadsworth muses that gentlemen pursue C’s not because they are incapable of academic excellence, but because it would be unseemly and unnecessary to excel in the classroom. Students outside this exclusive group are either “digs,” social outcasts who insist on taking their studies seriously, or “everyone else”: foreigners, students born west of the Hudson (who seem to Wadsworth “more foreign than the foreigners”), excessively serious athletes, and scholarship students. Wadsworth’s roommate, Sinclair (loosely based on John Reed), has socialist leanings and offers a deft counterpoint to the worldview of Wadsworth’s society circles.
The Harvard depicted in Descent is a web of secrets that the College assiduously attempts to conceal. Behind the ivy-covered walls, the aura, the mystique, and the age-old traditions, a shocking scandal lurks. In doggedly seeking the truth about Robinson’s death, Wadsworth soon uncovers far more than he bargained for. As the story darkens, Henry’s tutor, Archibald Cary Coolidge – builder of Randolph Hall, professor of history, and university librarian – informs Henry: “You are merely a player in a much greater game…A mere player, with few options, none good.” Indeed!

George Weller’s Not to Eat, Not for Love, is not exclusively about Adams House. It is a much more general fictional account of Harvard life in the 1920s. Written in a modernist style with similarities to the work of James Joyce and John Dos Passos, Not to Eat, Not for Love won much praise when it was published in 1933. Arthur Schlesinger called it “the best book about undergraduate life at Harvard.” Timothy Noah of Slate magazine agreed, referring to the book as the “best novel ever set at Harvard” when he wrote about Weller’s death in 2002.

Modern readers may have trouble following the action of Not to Eat, Not for Love, because today’s Harvard bears little resemblance to the Harvard of the 1920s. Adamsians, however, will find accounts of familiar places. Among these is Apthorp House (today the Masters’ residence), which in the 1920s  was an undergraduate dorm. Structured as the answer to an exam question, “Discuss the influence of a single building in Harvard University on the social life of members of the University during a period you have studied,” the chapter on Apthorp explains that “the old house had an infinite amount of living in it.”  Weller describes how at one time,  windows had been broken by snowballs “scattering hundred year old putty on the broad oak beams of the carpetless floor and launching a cold sword of February air across the room into the blackened mouth of the fireplace.”  Students played football in the halls and “every Tuesday night in spring and autumn they held a water fight that streaked into overwashed weariness the majestic white treads of the ancient staircase.” When  the house was later renovated, showers were installed, individual locks were placed on each room’s door, and an editor of the Law Review became a proctor. The chapter also includes the comments of the instructor who graded the fictional exam: “Why no mention of General Burgoyne’s confinement in Apthorp House? …Your answer is undocumented, padded, and incomplete.”

Weller reveals that “the men in Apthorp used to unlock a basement window of the Squash Courts during the day and go swimming at night in the pool under Apthorp House.” That pool, which was actually in the basement of the former athletic building behind Apthorp, closed long ago, but Weller’s account suggests that the tradition of surreptitious late-night swimming was not confined to Westmorly. In another chapter, Weller briefly alludes to one of the legends associated with it: “Two men stand on the edge of the Westmorly pool rubbing themselves dry. ‘Pretty lucky to be able to swim in your dormitory,’ says the visitor, watching the green waves grow calm. ‘I know,’ answers the host. ‘There’s a story about Ann Pennington and this pool, but no one seems to tell it the same way.’” (Pennington, a famous showgirl/actress of the early 20th century, reportedly swam nude in Westmorly.)

After publishing Not to Eat, Not for Love, Weller became a war correspondent and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943. He was present when Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942 and was one of the first Westerners to enter Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city. He wrote books on each set of events, although his account of the devastation in Nagasaki was censored and was not published until 2006. After World War II, he returned to Harvard as a Nieman fellow and reestablished his connection to Adams House, playing center on the House intramural football team.

In Higher Education, Lisa Pliscou tells the story of ten days in the spring of the senior year of Miranda Walker, member of the Adams House class of 1982. Miranda parties at the Advocate and the Spee Club, juggles the men in her life, worries that she may be pregnant, has sessions with her therapist at the University Health Services, works as a desk attendant in the philosophy library, and borrows her roommate’s underwear. Although she seems to be a strong student, Higher Education barely touches on Miranda’s courses or academic interests as an English concentrator. If she studies, she hides it well. She prefers “to breeze into exams, serenely whip [her] way through a bluebook or two, and leave forty-five minutes early.”

The plot unfolds almost entirely in the form of dialogue and Miranda’s first-person narrative. There is abundant witty repartee and sarcasm as Miranda and her classmates strive to be hip: “What brings you into this den of sin anyway? Waiting for Godot or something?” Readers may find some of the dialogue—and Miranda herself—annoying. Miranda’s classmates and friends certainly do, and, among other things, they call her “a manipulative, neurotic bitch.” Miranda’s therapist reads her poetry for insights into her psyche and finds that, “There’s a morbid theatricality here which is pretty striking.” Miranda thus falls far short of being a sympathetic character.

Miranda rarely seems to be enjoying herself. At one point she even says, “Do you really believe that this is my idea of fun?” When the Reverend Peter Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals, declared at the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Adams House that he was sure that Adamsians were (sinfully) having much more fun than the rest of Harvard, he apparently didn’t have Miranda and her classmates in mind.

By the end of the interlude depicted in Higher Education, things seem to be looking up for Miranda. She gets a job offer from First Boston and the starting salary increases every time she tells her friends. A thick envelope arrives from Columbia and she learns that she has been accepted into graduate school. Miranda and her roommate are on better terms. The book ends on a hopeful note as Miranda resolves to move forward “one step at a time,” but where she is going remains unclear.

Higher Education evokes the Adams House of the early 1980s with descriptions of the House and its residents that will ring true to students of that era. Miranda observes that “the Adams House dining hall embodies an intricate and ever-changing social matrix in which different areas and even specific tables manifest varying degrees of prestige and chic” and she walks to her chosen table “taking care to avoid all unnecessary and potentially fatal eye contact en route.” The dining hall is guarded by an ever-vigilant checker who accosts and evicts interhouse diners who dare to eat at Adams. For flamboyant Adamsians, the dining hall is the place to see and be seen. Miranda admires the attire of Robbie and Adolfo: “handsome red frocks—new Kamalis, if I’m not mistaken. Their earrings, necklaces, stockings, and pumps are all charmingly coordinated in varying shades of red.”

Somewhat surprisingly, given the (in)famous natatorium’s central role in other Adams House novels, Higher Education sets none of its action in the Adams House swimming pool. The book does, however, tantalize readers with an allusion to an incident at the Indoor Athletic Building (IAB—now the Malkin Athletic Center) pool in which “somebody on the swim team got tangled up with the inflatable shark and almost drowned.”

In Adams House and beyond, Higher Education offers reminders of Harvard life in the 1980s. Students drink at the Ha’Penny Pub, the Oxford Ale House, and other long-forgotten establishments. A “Stop Apartheid Now” banner hangs in front of the Crimson. Students run to the occasional “Eurofag Quaaludes-and-Cointreau party.” With its descriptions of such activities and a population of students with different genders, races, ethnicities, national origins, and sexual orientations, Higher Education reminds us how much Adams House and Harvard in the 1980s differed from the Harvard depicted in Descent and Not to Eat, Not to Love.

The Student Body, by Jane Harvard (a pen name adopted by four Harvard graduates), is also set in the Harvard of the 1980s. The plot revolves around Toni Isaacs, an Adams House junior and Crimson reporter, who suspects that some Harvard students may be working as prostitutes and starts to investigate. She uncovers a complicated web of intrigue involving a ring of Harvard prostitutes, a university committee charged with increasing the value of Harvard’s investment portfolio, a biotechnology start-up firm that is a prime candidate for investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, and Harvard faculty engaged in various illegal and immoral activities. Along the way, Toni pretends to be a prostitute, gets hauled before the Ad Board, and spends some time in a cell at the Cambridge police station. She and her classmates also have lots of great sex, which the book describes in explicit detail.

As in Descent, the Harvard depicted in The Student Body has lots of scandals and secrets that it strives to conceal. Toni uncovers plenty of damning evidence of how Harvard’s faculty and high officials have been led astray by their ambitions, sexual appetites, and desires to further enrich Harvard. She faces a choice between revealing the truth and protecting the University. Ultimately, she does exactly what one would expect of a student at a college that has “Veritas” as its motto.

Although the plot of The Student Body unfolds in locations ranging from a working-class neighborhood in Revere to a mental institution in the Berkshires, much of the action takes place in Adams House. The book offers rich—and slightly stereotypical—descriptions of Adams House and its residents in the 1980s. The authors gratifyingly acknowledge that Adams is “one of Harvard’s most desired dorms.” The “Adams House uniform” consists of “entirely black clothes.” Two students are held up as exemplars of Adams House. Nguyen Van Minh is a beautiful bisexual refugee from Vietnam: “Even among the hipper-than-thou residents of Adams House, Van was a standout, as famous for his wit and good nature as for his perfect cheekbones.” Aimee Milvain, with her “asymmetrical blond hair” and “a pierced eyebrow,” is “a mainstay of the Adams House in crowd and Van’s biggest follower.” For Toni, “Aimee was quintessential Adams House—shallow, trendy, and self-dramatizing. In addition, she had a nasty tongue. She did, however, consider Toni a friend, and she could be amusing on occasion.” Toni joins her friends at her “usual table in the smoking section of the dining hall.”

The Adams House swimming pool has a central place in The Student Body. With a hint of envy that will convince readers that the book’s authors did not in fact live in Adams House [They lived in Lowell, poor things! Ed.], The Student Body declares: “Adams was the only house to have its own private swimming pool. House residents knew they had a good thing going; they jealously guarded their aquatic sanctum, with its lovely wooden details and cavelike intimacy.” Outsiders are aware of “rumors that get started every year” about “wild orgies in that swimming pool.” These rumors are confirmed when Toni’s roommate peers through the door to the pool late one night and observes Nguyen Van Minh, various other students, and “the aristocratic British music tutor” with “limbs interwoven, as if caught in an early morning game of Twister.” (If you just have to flip to those pages first, it’s 145–147).  Later, Toni makes a more chilling late-night discovery in the pool: the nude body of a fellow student, floating face down. In a case of art imitating—indeed, anticipating—life, the pool is then drained and closed.

The Adams House tunnels also feature in The Student Body: “all kinds of hangout spaces, created by artistically inclined students who seemed to have a lot of time on their hands.” Late one night, Toni is pursued into this “subterranean maze” and a lengthy chase ensues. She passes “titillating graffiti,” as well as “empty weight rooms” and “psychedelic murals” before she reaches a dead end and is cornered. (The description of the tunnels is not entirely accurate, in that Toni runs by squash courts and eventually finds a tunnel that leads toward the central kitchen and other dining halls, but the authors are entitled to a little poetic license.)

One of the many villains in The Student Body is the master of Adams House, Sterling Kwok, who bears little resemblance to Professor Robert Kiely, the actual master of Adams House in the 1980s. Kwok is noted for “his affected mannerisms, his Anglophilic persona, and above all his readiness to uphold the status quo.” Originally from Hong Kong, Kwok has risen to become dean of students and master of Adams House, but “the illustrious Dean Kwok” is now jaded and disillusioned after his recent divorce, covered in great detail by the Crimson . For Kwok, “Once the world had seemed full of possibilities. But that had been nearly twenty years ago.”
Sean Desmond’s Adams Fall depicts the disastrous fall semester of an Adams House senior. The unnamed protagonist of the book begins the narrative by remembering that “the year began strangely” and that “by senior year I saw nothing but the tedious steps toward a burnt-out career or frustrated life playing Frisbee with other graduate students inside a self-preserving bubble called the academy.” Things rapidly get worse. He grows tired of his long-time girlfriend and starts cheating on her. He neglects his academic work and finds himself on probation. His application for a Marshall scholarship fails miserably. After he submits an unsatisfactory outline and sample chapter, his thesis adviser informs him that he must abandon his thesis and give up hope of graduating with honors. His comment, “Something about senior year was leaving a bitter taste” turns out to be a huge understatement. As Thanksgiving approaches, he recognizes that “Disaster seemed imminent” and descends into madness and illusion.

The protagonist is unnerved by multiple strange events. He finds that someone has added red dye to the washer with his clothes in it in the Adams House laundry room. Crucial pages of notes are ripped out of his thesis notebook. The clothes hanging in his closet are thrown to the floor and a funny smell lingers there. Most important, he begins to believe that someone is watching him. Eventually, on the roof of B-entry, he meets a stranger wearing a jacket and tie—a young man who claims that he once lived in Adams House but finds that “it’s not as fun as it once was.” Among other things, the young stranger tells the protagonist, “The only reason for your paranoia is your paranoia.”

The protagonist of Adams Fall lives in B-entry, which itself almost plays the role of a character. Its dark hallways and stairwell provide an appropriate  backdrop to the protagonist’s accelerating mental collapse. The protagonist describes the building as a “stone monster” whose hallways have “a severe Gothic quality.” He complains that “the starkness of the hallways and landings left me cold and uncomfortable” and that “B-entry had its certain quiet gloom and the shadows were pitched in corners as if it were midnight.”  He asks another student, “Is B-entry haunted?” and she replies, “I know it is. It feels damned…The pipes make these weird noises. And sometimes there’s this smell in the hallway and closets.” As the protagonist spirals downward and the hissing of the steam rises in his ears, he admits that “the whole entryway gave me a nervous feeling” and that “the whole place made me feel claustrophobic.”

Once again, the Adams House swimming pool is the setting for a horrifying event. Although the protagonist does not venture into the pool, he discovers that it was the scene of yet another (fictitious) scandalous late-night aquatic tragedy. He reads old newspapers and visits a retired Harvard security guard to discover that three Harvard seniors died there on a Halloween night in 1956. Two were found with their wrists slashed, apparently victims of a dual suicide. The third may have drowned later, possibly while trying to save the other two. All were naked. The retired security guard had found the deaths suspicious, but he concedes that he never figured out exactly what happened. He tells the protagonist that police officers on the scene “started calling [the dead students] the three fairies or the three Ophelias.”

Adams Fall also locates some of its action in the Adams House tunnels, which it describes as so “dim” and “poorly lit” that “passing people in them made [the protagonist] bristle.” The protagonist ventures outward to wander through the steam tunnels under Harvard Yard and beyond. These tunnels provide a suitably creepy setting for some of the protagonist’s most horrific experiences (or hallucinations). By Fall’s dramatic end, however, a staid and overbearing university again asserts its rights: “The College covered up the affair with the convenience of Thanksgiving break. None of the papers got wind of it, and the families, my own especially, grieved quietly.”

These five novels of Adams House tell part of the story of Harvard’s evolution from an elitist all-male preserve to a coed, multi-ethnic, meritocracy. They offer a mixed and sometimes unflattering composite portrait of the House and its Gold Coast buildings over the past century. Adamsians have more fun than the residents of other Houses, except when they are too busy being tragically hip or lapsing into psychosis. The swimming pool can be a pleasure dome or a den of iniquity. (Is there a difference?) The master might genially preside over tea or engage in venal plots to enrich Harvard and advance his career. All five books should entertain former residents of Adams House, regardless of when they graduated.

Will there be more Adams Novels? It seems likely. In The Student Body one of the characters says, “why not turn your writing talents to Adams House? There are a thousand stories in the naked city, and most of them are right here in your own backyard.”