There’s never a bad time for a party at old Adams, and in true House spirit, residents celebrated the 250th anniversary of Apthorp House on a raw day this past April. A great cast of characters was assembled, spanning the entire history of the House.. Despite the weather, spirits ran high:
The year 1944 was notable for various reasons: D-Day, Rome was liberated, the war in the Pacific was finally going well, FDR got re-elected for a fourth term, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the atom bomb was almost ready to be dropped. (Alas, the Red Sox, with Ted Williams now a Marine pilot, finished fourth; the hapless Boston Braves finished sixth.) 1944 was also the start of my connection with Harvard, a couple of weeks after the invasion of Normandy.
After attending public schools in my home town of Atlanta, I was shipped off “to finish”, and I spent my last two high school years at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. When senior year came around, I had only a vague idea of going to Harvard, known to me mainly for its football team and a world-famous astronomer, Harlow Shapley. My father, a successful adman, had no input in my decision; it was my best friend, Shaw Livermore, who talked me into applying. His dad had a Harvard degree; mine was a UPenn dropout. My grades had been only slightly better than average, but somehow, I got accepted. Maybe it was because the southern boy quota was unfilled, or maybe it was that that Harvard was scraping the barrel in those grim WW II years. Whatever the reason, I got lucky: I had not applied to any other university.
We began our Harvard experience in July of 1944. Harvard had changed to a three-semester year so that we and other undergraduates could graduate in two-and-a-half years, an interesting option for the many of us in the Class of ’48 who were too young to be drafted into the military. We could, if we wished, go sooner to work or start graduate school earlier — if we escaped the draft. Another switch was to put freshmen in either Adams or Lowell House since all the other River houses and all those in the Yard had been taken over by WW II military units: the V-12 (Navy college training program), the V-5 (Navy and Marine pilots), and the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program). These programs included many 18-year-olds who would otherwise be drafted, plus some older fellows whom the military deemed officer material. There were around three thousand of them, roughly twice as many as civilian undergraduates. One was Robert F. Kennedy; another was “Crash” Davis, an ex-major leaguer who now coached my sport, baseball. (Later his name and career would be made famous by Kevin Costner in the movie “Bull Durham”.)
The luck of the draw put me in Adams House. The House secretary, Mrs. Dallas Hext, perpetually cheerful in spite of being a war widow, had assigned me to A-36, in those days a quad, with two lively roommates from Seattle, and my prep school buddy Shaw Livermore concentrating in history. I had long ago decided to be an astronomer — I had been a passionate amateur star-gazer — and as I explained to my roommates, I was primarily interested in the ABCs: Astronomy, Baseball and of course, Co-eds. At the time I was going steady with a local girl about to go off to Pembroke College (now integrated into Brown University).
In the next room was an exuberant Frenchman concentrating in mathematics who had bought an old upright piano and put thumbtacks in all the felt hammers to make it sound more like a spinet. Just down the hall lived a secretive fellow in his late 20’s who was studying Japanese, presumably sent to Harvard by the WW II equivalent of the CIA. Over in B-entry next to the FDR suite was a fellow astronomy concentrator. (At the time we were the only two in the College.) I rarely ventured much farther than C-entry with the dining hall, the Lower Common Room, the library and one or two piano practice rooms. For me, Westmorly Court was home. However, on occasion I met with my freshman adviser, a boozy, hard-bitten American who had lost a leg fighting fascists in Spain. He taught Spanish and now lived in G-entry. Why Harvard chose a language teacher to be my advisor is a mystery, and of course, he had me enroll in his beginning Spanish course, made entertaining by his occasional political outbursts. (“Benito Mussolini, el hijo de puta en su balcón!”)
The Astronomy Department, very much depleted by the war effort, was missing several of their best known professors. My beginning two courses in Astronomy were actually taught by a former adman and lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Charlie Federer, who recently had become the editor of Sky and Telescope magazine. His wife, Helen, taught the labs. We later became good friends.
The President of Harvard was an eminent physical chemist, James Bryant Conant, who had made, and would make, many changes in the University. Perhaps most importantly, his administration inaugurated the use of entrance exams, thereby eliminating the promise that if your dad was rich and went to Harvard, you were automatically admitted. Another innovation was the General Education Program which required students to take courses in three broad areas: natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. (I still have nightmares that at time of graduation I lack one of the required courses.)
The Master of Adams House was the Secretary to the University, David Little, a kindly fellow with a prodigious memory for names. Time Magazine claimed he knew more alumni by first name than any other man alive. At our first, and I think our only face-to-face meeting, he surprised me by addressing me by my nickname, Red.
Because of the war, life in the House was rather austere and our food rationing cards had been collected at registration to be used by the dining hall. Meat was in short supply as were dairy products like butter, cheese and ice cream. Still, Adams had, according to the Harvard Crimson, the best food of any House. There were other benefits of residency. Because of Adams’ dozen or so unguarded gates, there was a constant challenge to the strict parietal rules intended to keep naughty girls from “visiting” us after hours. And it had the only House swimming pool.
Perhaps because of the general instability of college life at the time, Adams had not yet achieved the reputation of the “artsy House”, and many of us were just marking time until we turned 18 and got drafted. My turn came in July of 1945 and I spent 11 months of the dwindling days of WW II in the Chicago area enrolled in the Navy’s Radio Technician program. (The atom bombs were dropped and the war ended while I was still in boot camp.)
When I returned to Harvard in September of 1946, Mrs. Hext had, for reasons unknown, assigned me with two of my former roommates to F-2 where I continued until graduation in June 1949. We were now, on the average, older and more mature following our time spent in the military. And many of us were there thanks to the G.I. Bill which paid not only tuition but also for books and essential school supplies. (It mattered not in which university you were enrolled; if you were admitted, the G.I. Bill paid.) As a result, a Harvard education became possible for many students from various socioeconomic backgrounds. In the next suite were two exceptional guys, Harold May and Clifton Wharton, both Afro-Americans, and we quickly jimmied the lock on the door separating the two suites. Not only did we all greatly enjoy and appreciate the greater diversity in all our backgrounds, but the semi-secret connecting doorway made it possible for one of my roommates, who seemed to have a new girl friend every month, to quickly shuttle his current lady friend into the other suite if the House superintendent came a-knocking unexpectedly. (Years later Clif became, first, President of Michigan State University and then Chancellor of the entire SUNY system. Harold was the cox of the varsity crew and now practices medicine in Boston. He also had 12 years of residency in rural Haiti at the Albert Schweizer Hospital.)
Even though I was spending more time up on the hill in the Astronomy Department, I continued to be active in Adams House life, especially in matters of house sports and music. One classmate and house member, Joe Blundon, had formed a square dance band, and one of my roommates (on banjo) and I (guitar) would occasionally pick up $25 a gig playing for local college alumni groups and VFW parties. I also remember good times playing jazz piano duets with Clif Wharton on WHRV, the Harvard radio station that would later become WHRB. He also taught me how to jitterbug.
I soon had almost enough credits to concentrate in music, and together with my Radcliffe girl friend, Elizabeth Menzel, a talented violinist and music enthusiast, we took in concerts and participated with music groups around town. It was here and now that I began a new avocation: building musical instruments. My first construction was a crude bass fiddle, made of plywood and 2×4’s, for a small symphony orchestra up at the Observatory, but later I became more serious and started building a clavichord just because I was into — and still am — baroque and pre-baroque music. It’s sitting here in my studio even as I write this.
In many ways, those were the good old days. As I have noted, students generally were more mature and serious about their studies (but still left ample time for the usual recreational activities). Many (most?) of us never bothered to lock our doors (and rarely suffered robberies), the war was over, and Ted Williams was back. As for me, I was now happily doing real astronomical research (analyzing radar blips from meteors), and had an honors thesis underway.
For me, because of my hitch in the Navy, graduation came a year late, in 1949, and I left to pursue graduate studies at the University of Michigan, said by some to be the “Harvard of the mid-west”. But eleven years later, now with a PhD, a reputation as a pretty fair teacher, and several well-received research papers, I returned to the real Harvard, having been made offers that I couldn’t resist: a full professorship and the Departmental chairmanship and later, the Robert Wheeler Willson Chair of Applied Astronomy. Within a few short months, I was back to going to Apthorp House Friday teas and the regular science lunches, first as a non-resident tutor and soon as a House Associate.
Then in 1968, totally out of the blue, I was asked by President Nathan Pusey ’28 to become Master of Adams House, succeeding Reuben Brower, the beloved English professor who had been Master for thirteen years. I suppose that President Pusey got my name from the Dean of the College, Fred Glimp ’50 whom I had known since undergraduate days when we played together on Harvard’s baseball team. But the offer came as a total surprise, although, of course, Adams House was very much an active part of my life.
And so, in the summer of 1968, with Dallas Hext still — after 25 years — worrying about the nuts and bolts of the House, I moved into Apthorp House with my wife Martha Hazen, a former student of mine from Michigan, and our two young children, John and Hilary. Although the concept of “co-Masters” was still not officially recognized, Martha was very much involved in House activities, advising me on many matters and charming the House staff members and those students who attended the Friday teas. You can see her and the kids in action in an Esquire Magazine article about the Apthorp teas entitled “You Wouldn’t Mind a Little Class, September 1972.
Adams was by now solidly established as the artsy house thanks primarily, no doubt, to having had for many years a Professor of English as Master. To have now a relatively young (41 years old) astronomer as Master signaled (alarmed?) some that all that would change. However, from the start, I vowed that I would support in any way I could the continuation of the arts, for example, by ear-marking a goodly portion of the House budget for the Music, Art and Theater Society activities.
Then came the shattering events of April 9, 1969 with the forced occupation of University Hall by several hundred students (not all from Harvard) who were opposed, among other things, to the presence of the ROTC on campus. After a rather violent response from the Cambridge police called in by President Pusey to oust them, the University atmosphere continued to be tense fueled also by the unpopular war in Vietnam. The following week, there was a call by protesting students for a strike, and at a meeting attended by some 12 thousand students and faculty (in the Harvard stadium), it was narrowly voted in favor, and for the first time in its history, Harvard was on strike — for three days.
Adams House, being closest to the Yard and Harvard Square, became a convenient meeting place for agitators, and despite complaints from many of the House residents — and the Master — the Lower Common Room was, on several occasions, taken over by movement leaders for meetings meant to organize further demonstrations. The House Committee by, I suspect, a slim majority, had decided that the Common Room was indeed a common room, and so as long as at least one House member was involved and played host, the meetings could take place. Subsequently, at least to some, and particularly to one visiting B.U. coed, I became known as the “radical, hippie Master”. To be sure, I was one of the more liberal of the Masters at the time, but I was hardly “hippie”, and in fact, many faculty were far more radical than I.
The Students for a Democratic Society, the SDS, became increasingly active and militant even, some charge, setting fire to the ROTC building. One small group, led by an ex-Columbia student King Collins, would invite themselves into various students’ quarters where they would stay for a few nights before moving on. Adams House was not spared, but after a couple of nights, several burly House football players peacefully persuaded the group to take up residence elsewhere. “This has become a bad scene,” Collins was quoted as declaring. Around the same time, according to the Harvard Crimson (4/15/74), “three of Collins’s friends took off their clothes and washed them in the Eliot House laundry room, before a crowd of interested onlookers. When Alan Heimert, Eliot’s master, asked one of the three if he had ‘some kind of masculinity problem,’ the man pulled a cigarette from Heimert’s mouth. ’Fuck off,’ he explained. Collins went back to disrupting classes.”
The ROTC had been and continued to be one of the main topics of discussion at Harvard — and elsewhere in the Ivies. The faculty and various faculty-student groups held numerous meetings to argue the future of the ROTC which had been a Harvard presence since 1916. During the Korean War, 1950 -53, according to President Conant, 40 per cent of the undergraduates were enrolled in the ROTC receiving financial support of one sort or another. And in the months before the occupation of University Hall, the faculty were already debating its future. But by mid-1971, ROTC was effectively banished from the University.
During these difficult years, many important changes were taking place in the University administration. Derek Bok, formerly Dean of the Law School, succeeded Pusey as President in 1972, and Martina Horner, a Social Relations professor, replaced Mary Bunting at the head of Radcliffe. John Dunlop, a professor of Economics and a highly successful Washington labor negotiator, took over the University Deanship from Franklin Ford. The History Department’s Ernest May was Dean of the College, 1969-71, and he was then succeeded Charles P. Whitlock, who served until 1976. Both Bok and May I knew as neighbors in Belmont, and I felt confident that they could successfully steer Harvard through these difficult times. And Dunlap quickly became one of my most admired administrators as he awed me and others in his masterful handling of the problems of the times.
Meanwhile, back in Adams House, an ongoing hot topic of discussion was the possibility of the House becoming co-ed. During my undergraduate days, Radcliffe was another college almost entirely. Women were allowed to take some of the smaller undergraduate courses offered by Harvard, but the larger classes were split in two: one section for males, one for females. According to Wikipedia, back then, Radcliffe was the “coordinate college” for Harvard University. Formal merger was not signed until 1977, and full integration not until 1999. Even so, Radcliffe had by the late 60s become an ex-officio part of Harvard University
In the winter of 1969-70 I received a telephone call from the Master of Radcliffe’s South House, Professor Richard Baxter of the Law School. (South House was later renamed Cabot House in 1983.) And so began turning yet another wheel of change. Baxter told me that he had asked “his girls” in which House, if they had the choice, they would like to live. “Adams,” was their near-unanimous reply. I’m not sure if Baxter knew that I had already been campaigning for a mixed House, but we decided to send a proposal to President Pusey that would have, “on an experimental basis”, 25 female students from South House swap places with an equal number of Adams House men. Pusey had earlier let it be known to me and to others as well that he opposed integration, but now no doubt sensing that change was inevitable, he formed a committee chaired by psychology Professor Jerome Kagan to advise him. The committee subsequently voted overwhelmingly in favor of integrated housing, and during a bright and sunny weekend in February 1970, the swap was made. One by one the remaining men’s houses quickly followed suit.
That Adams House was now a better place, there can be no doubt. It seemed that everywhere, from the dining room to the common rooms, from the library to the Friday afternoon teas, the general ambiance, overall spirit and civil manners were improved. Life in the House had become more natural and relaxed, and the hateful parietal rules were out the window. Only one minor residual tension seemed to remain: the swimming pool, where before integration, dress or lack thereof had been optional. The student House Committee’s solution was to continue this rule — except for two hours in the morning when bathing suits were required. Some grumbling was heard but not for long. The only concern voiced by Dean May’s office was that proper sanitary conditions be maintained.
During these tense and often turbulent times, I was fortunate to get good, sound advice from both students and faculty. To name just a few, Charles Schumer, Adams House ’71 and later a Resident Tutor (and New York senator), discussed all sorts of matters with me at lunch on various occasions. Vernon Jordan, a Fellow at the Kennedy Institute and soon to become President of the National Urban League, resided in the House and advised me on the Black Studies issues. (He would often delight House members by referring to me as his “Massa”.) Once, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times supporting a black student’s rights, I received some unsigned hate mail. One asked simply, “Did you ever kiss a n—–‘s ass?” (hyphens not used in the letter). The student, Joseph Rhodes, a House member and Harvard Junior Fellow, had been arguing for a Department of Afro-American Studies. (The next year Joe was named by Time Magazine as one of the 200 new leaders of America. He subsequently served three terms as a Pennsylvania State Representative.)
And of course there were the indispensable Senior Tutors, first Robert Haney and then James Thomas, plus Assistant Senior Tutors Joseph Harris, Jackson Bryce and Fred Fox. All were frequently consulted as was a good friend Professor Jack Womack who could often be found in the FDR Suite, B-17, in those times a Tutors’ Study.
I tried to vary my own participation in House activities. That included music, performing with Fred Fox, he on oboe, I on harpsichord, at one of the annual Christmas parties (where I, of course, assumed the role of Christopher Robin in the traditional reading of “Winnie the Pooh”). Charles Bernstein ’72 put on a highly successful and entertaining production of Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade”, staged in the Dining Hall, with me taking (naturally) the role of the Master of the insane asylum. And noting that I had been a catcher back in my undergraduate days, the House baseball team called me up out of retirement (at the age of 46 !) to catch for the House team: I’m intensely proud to say that we made it to the finals, losing a close one to the mighty Eliot House nine. Also, our House softball team, with Professor Mark Ptashne pitching and me at shortstop, demolished the Harvard Crimson, although the paper reported erroneously, as they always did back in those days, that they had won, 23-2.
Back in 1968, Harlow Shapley, one of my senior colleagues at the Harvard Observatory, had warned me that the dual careers of House Master and research astronomer would ultimately result in my becoming a has-been in the rapidly-evolving latter profession. And so, taking heed of this warning, I decided to terminate my Mastership and get back to full-time astronomy. After all, for my entire life I had been enamored with the cosmos. And so in 1973 when Derek Bok asked me if I wanted to continue, I decided to pass the pleasure on to my friend Bob Kiely, yet another English Professor who would surely see to it that Adams House remained healthy, happy and artsy. And Dallas Hext would be there ready to assist him.
Later still, in 1981, I decided that professionally, I really needed a change. I had been going once or twice a year to Chile to use the new, big telescopes that were sprouting up in the clear, dry climate there. At the same time, for personal reasons, my marriage was coming apart. And so when a tempting offer came for me to become Associate Director of an established Chilean astronomy center, I pulled up stakes and moved to the oceanside city of Viña del Mar. Several years later, I re-married and, well, here I am. It’s been thirty years now, and even though I’m doubly widowed, I continue happy, living with a Chilena who is not only a very dear friend but also an excellent caregiver. This year I’ll be 84, and my health is holding up quite well enough for me to continue getting out to my little NASA-supplied telescope in the back yard to look for comets, novas and other things that pop up unannounced in the night. I’ve now got about five dozen discoveries to my credit.
Apthorp House, which sits quietly in a green quadrangle at the center of Adams House, has had a fascinating and sometimes tumultuous history. In its 250 years, the house has been the center of a religious controversy, the headquarters of an American general and the involuntary residence of a British general during the American Revolution, a rowdy undergraduate dormitory, and the residence of the masters of Adams House.
East Apthorp Builds a Splendid House
East Apthorp, the builder of Apthorp House, was born in 1733 into a prosperous Boston family. He attended Boston Latin School then studied abroad, receiving his B.A. in 1755 and his M.A. in 1758 from Jesus College at Cambridge University. He returned to Boston when his father died in November 1758.
Apthorp remained in Massachusetts and became the rector of Christ Church in Cambridge. The Anglicans of Cambridge, tired of making the trip to services at King’s Chapel in Boston, petitioned the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to dispatch a mission to Cambridge to set up their own church. One Cambridge Anglican wrote that a minister like East Apthorp would “give a great check to the fashionable licentiousness…which even such seminaries of learning and Education [i.e., Harvard] are not always free from.” East Apthorp accepted the invitation of the Society and the Cambridge Anglicans to be rector of the new church.
Construction of Apthorp House began in 1760, but was not completed until mid-1761. East Apthorp married Elizabeth Hutchinson on August 27, 1761, and moved into his new house shortly thereafter. He began his duties at Christ Church when it opened on October 15, 1761. Despite the Reverend Apthorp’s efforts, the congregation remained small, although he acknowledged that “those we have are serious and respectable characters.”
Apthorp House is a prime example of a grand eighteenth-century mansion. It originally stood in the midst of extensive gardens and commanded a view of the Charles River. It was built with elements of the Palladian style, which was then fashionable among the rich and cultured of England and the colonies. The house’s exterior is distinguished by its Palladian proportions, massive Ionic pilasters, and prominent projecting central pavilion.
Peter Harrison, one of America’s first professionally trained architects, was probably the designer of Apthorp House. An anti-Tory mob destroyed Harrison’s papers in 1775, so no records of his plans for Apthorp House survive, but Wendell Garrett, author of Apthorp House, 1760–1960, sees evidence that Harrison was the architect. Harrison was a business associate of the Apthorp family. He also designed Christ Church, so it would not be surprising for him to be the architect of its minister’s house. Apthorp House shares many stylistic features with Harrison’s other buildings.
A Religious Controversy: The Reverend Apthorp Departs
The Reverend Apthorp had little opportunity to enjoy his new house and position. In 1762, a rumor spread that the Church of England planned to appoint a bishop in the colonies and that Apthorp was a likely candidate. The Reverend Jonathan Mayhew of Boston’s Congregational West Church was especially vigorous in his opposition to the rumored appointment of an Anglican bishop, fearing that a bishop would strengthen the Anglican Church and encourage more converts from other churches. Mayhew claimed that there was “a formal design to carry on a spiritual siege of our churches.”
The controversy over the potential appointment of an Anglican bishop may now seem arcane and insignificant. In the New England of the1760s, however, it reflected the deep social and religious divisions of colonial America. The Congregationalists were heirs to the Puritan tradition. They remained suspicious of Anglican motives and actions. The dispute was hardly trivial; many historians regard it as one of the leading causes of the American Revolution.
Apthorp House itself played a central role in the controversy. Mayhew regarded the house as a “superb edifice” that might serve as a bishop’s palace. Whether or not the Reverend Apthorp hoped to become a bishop, the charge that his house was built to be a bishop’s palace seems implausible. Apthorp probably built a grand house because he could afford to and because he was accustomed to living in style. His father had been a rich merchant whose mansion on King Street (now State Street) was one of the finest in Boston. Although East Apthorp was not the family’s eldest son, he inherited a substantial sum of money when his father died and was able to build his house with minimal help from the congregation of Christ Church.
As the controversy over his purported ambitions raged, East Apthorp decided to abandon any hopes of becoming an American bishop—and his splendid house in Cambridge. In January 1764, he wrote to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to request that he be allowed to return to England to attend to “private matters.” This request may have reflected his desire to escape the controversy and to pursue a more tranquil life or it may have been prompted by the Church of England’s desire to conciliate its opponents. In any case, the Reverend Apthorp left his congregation and house in Cambridge and on September 17, 1764, sailed for England, where he subsequently served as vicar of Croydon, rector of St. Mary-le-Bow in London, prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and prebend of Finsbury. He died in 1816 and is buried in the chapel of Jesus College at Cambridge University.
After East Apthorp’s departure, his brothers sold Apthorp House to John Borland. Like Apthorp’s family, Borland’s family had prospered in trade. Borland owned the house in Braintree that was to become the “old house” of John and Abigail Adams and their descendants, but he preferred a larger residence in Cambridge that was closer to his wife’s cousins, the Vassalls (who built what would become the Longfellow House in Brattle Street.) Apparently, Apthorp House was not large enough for his twelve children, servants, and two slaves, so Borland added a third storey.
Apthorp House in the American Revolution
Some of the most significant events in the history of Apthorp House occurred during the American Revolution. The political upheaval forced John Borland to flee to his Boston house in early 1775, abandoning Apthorp and his possessions in the face of threats from rebellious anti-Tory mobs.
After Borland’s departure, General Israel Putnam, who had arrived from Connecticut to help lead the colonial troops, moved into Apthorp House, which had been appropriated by the revolutionary forces. General Putnam fought bravely in the Battle of Chelsea Creek on May 27, 1775, and then returned to Apthorp House in high spirits and told his fellow officers that “we shall have no peace worth anything, till we gain it by the sword.” John Borland, Apthorp’s erstwhile owner, watched the battle from the roof of his Boston house. He fell as he descended, injuring himself so severely that he died shortly thereafter.
Apthorp House remained General Putnam’s residence and headquarters during the late spring and early summer of 1775. Putnam and his fellow American officers planned the Battle of Bunker Hill there in June. General Artemas Ward, the cautious commander of the American forces surrounding Boston, hesitated to occupy the hills of Charlestown, but Putnam eagerly advocated fortifying the high ground and played a prominent role in the battle.
Later in the American Revolution, the British general, John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne, was confined in Apthorp House. Burgoyne and his troops had surrendered after their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. Under the terms of their surrender, they would not be held as prisoners of war but would be taken to Cambridge, where they would stay until British ships arrived to transport them home. When Burgoyne arrived in Cambridge in November 1777, an American officer leased Apthorp House to him until April for £150, which Burgoyne thought exorbitant: “a larger sum, for an unfurnished house out of repair, than would have been required for a palace in the dearest metropolis of the world.” Burgoyne sailed for England on April 6, 1778. His ghost is said to haunt Apthorp House.
Following Burgoyne’s departure, his second-in-command, General Philips, took charge of the British troops in Cambridge and moved into Apthorp House. He complained frequently about the treatment of his soldiers. After several testy exchanges with American generals and incidents involving Cambridge residents, the American military placed Philips under house arrest in Apthorp House.
The Nineteenth Century
John Borland’s untimely death enabled his family to reclaim Apthorp House after the Revolution, because he died before the confiscation of the property of loyalists who had fled. Borland’s heirs sold the house to Jonathan Simpson, who owned it from 1784–1802. Simpson found himself in financial difficulty. He divided the property, making possible the construction of what are now Linden and Plympton Streets, and eventually sold the house to Timothy Lindall Jennison and Thomas Warland.
Jennison leased his half of Apthorp House to Warland, but initially continued to live there and temporarily revived the house’s connection to the Apthorp family. In 1803 Susan Apthorp Bulfinch, sister of East Apthorp and mother of Charles Bulfinch, wrote to East Apthorp’s daughter to report that her son, Joseph Coolidge, had taken a room with the Jennison family.
When Warland died in 1837, Apthorp House passed to his daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. They and their families lived in Apthorp for the rest of the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Warland, who was widowed twice, took in Unitarian clergymen and Harvard affiliates as lodgers. One was John Langdon Sibley, author of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates. Mary Warland married Dr. Sylvanus Plympton, a Cambridge selectman and state representative. After the Plymptons’ son, Henry, died in the Civil War in 1863 and Dr. Plympton died in 1865, the Cambridge City Council gave the family name to adjacent Plympton Street, which had been known as Chestnut Street.
Apthorp as an Undergraduate Dormitory
In 1901, Apthorp House was bought by Harvard Professor Archibald Cary Coolidge and his brothers, who were descendants of East Apthorp’s sister, Susan Apthorp Bulfinch. The Coolidge brothers had previously bought the front yard of Apthorp House and erected Randolph Hall there in 1897. They hoped to make a profit by operating a private “Gold Coast” dormitory that would offer luxurious accommodation to Harvard undergraduates. Apthorp thus became part of a residential complex that included Randolph Hall and an athletic building that was subsequently built behind Apthorp House. Apthorp was a dormitory between 1901 and 1930.
Undergraduate life in Apthorp was raucous and spirited. The house became renowned for parties and was a center of Gold Coast social life. Little changed after Harvard acquired Apthorp and the Randolph complex in 1916. Students held indoor shooting practice, smashed beer bottles against the wall of the athletic building, and were steady customers of a local bootlegger during prohibition. One kept a pet monkey. In his 1933 novel, Not to Eat, Not for Love, George Weller writes of Apthorp life in the 1920s, describing football games in the halls, water fights, and snowballs flying through windows. As a lasting legacy of the era of “Apthorp College,” students scrawled graffiti on the walls of what were once student bedrooms on the top floor of Apthorp.
The Master’s Residence: Apthorp House and Adams House
Apthorp House’s days as a dormitory ended in 1930, after President Abbott Lawrence Lowell decided to make Apthorp the residence of the master of Adams House. During 1930–31 Apthorp was renovated and restored. The plumbing, partitions, and stairs added when the house had been a two-family residence and dormitory were removed. About forty coats of paint were stripped from the walls. The original panels, mantels, cornices, and tiles were repaired or replaced. Thus restored and revived, Apthorp became the residence of the successive masters of Adams House: James Phinney Baxter, David Mason Little, Reuben Brower, William Liller, Robert Kiely, and currently, Judith and Sean Palfrey.
This brief history relies heavily on Wendell Garrett, Apthorp House, 1760–1960 (Cambridge, Mass.: Adams House, 1960), which remains the most detailed and comprehensive work on Apthorp House.
(Editors’ Note: This inteview first appeared in Michael’s FDR Suite Restoration Blog, and is the launch epsisode of The New Fireside Chats, a series of webcasts from the FDR Suite which will feature leading figures in the worlds of politics, history, art, and culture. On the docket are historican Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harvard Professor and PBS Host Skip Gates, and Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen. Stay tuned!)
To summarize Mr Dean’s life in a paragraph is to conjure a passage from some James Bond novel. Born in the last days of the Weimar Republic to a wealthy Jewish family, Dean fled to the US from Germany after Kristalnacht. Growing up in Kansas City, he entered Harvard, became involved with a top secret intelligence operation during WWII, returned, took his diploma (plus several more, including a law degree from the Sorbonne) and then entered the US foreign service. His 30-year career including journeying into far Togo to establish the first US Mission there; brokering the peace in Laos (and preventing a coup); getting shot down in Vietnam; carrying out the flag at the fall of Phnom Penh (below, from the cover of Newsweek); surviving two assassination attempts as Ambassador to Lebanon; rescuing the Chum Museum ( a world heritage site) and speaking his mind about Israeli involvement in Pakistan, which ultimately cost him his career in the US Diplomatic Corps.
We caught up with Mr. Dean a few weeks ago, when he visited Harvard for his 65th reunion. In all honestly, I was prepared to meet an elderly man, retired and retiring, dotting on memories. There was very little of that. Mostly there was a remarkably vital, often feisty, always entertaining old soul who has known (and who has a distinct opinion of) most of the major players on the world stage since the 50s. Our interview, originally scheduled for a half-hour, stretched to an hour and a half. It’s been edited here for cohesion into three largely chronological 20-minute segments. The first covers Dean’s youth and arrival in the US, including his Harvard years and War II experience. The second picks up the first years of his diplomatic career and posting to Southeast Asia; the third discusses the later (and often far too eventful) parts of Mr. Dean’s career, as well as his reflections on the world political stage, and the value, even after 65 years, of his Harvard education.
A word or two on this first episode. The most remarkable thing about my last four years at the FDR Suite has been the fascinating host of new people, places and technologies I’ve been exposed to. The Chats project is no exception. Creating this series included moving from in front of the camera (never easy) to in front and in back of the camera (remarkably frustrating, and full of hidden shoals, not to mention a post-production staff of…. one. Where’s my latte! Get it yourself, fool!) This first episode bears witness to my newness at this game, and has shown the way for many future improvements, including some annoying sound issues here and there. Still, I think that considering this was our first time out, we pulled off a remarkably professional interview. The “we” here, by the way, is cameraman Joe Brancale, ’13; our own Adams Drama Tutor Aubry Threlkeld (whom we gratefully drafted as cameraman when our film students had all departed for summer); Annie Douglas, ’12, who pitched in to help with logistics; and our inimitable Tim Smith, ’08, recently Timothy John Smith, Esq., (congrats) who will be hanging out with us one more year (thank god for that!). Plus, our ever patient Masters, Judy and Sean Palfrey, who appeared in loco clientis during our first video trial runs, and who believed enough in this project to shepherd it through. Bravo to all.
Thus, may I present to you, from the (almost) restored FDR Suite, The New Fireside Chats, Episode 1: (Note: If you’re having trouble clearly viewing the video on the FDR site, you may also watch the Chats directly on the vimeo site, here. You will need a fast internet connection, and updated computer, in either case.)
Over the last couple of weeks, in preparation for the launch of The New Fireside Chats, I’ve been spending an unusual amount of time at Adams, trying to overcome the steep learning curve that occurs when you move from in front of the camera to the back. (Or, more precisely, move from the front to both the front and the back.)
This has all meant that for the first time in 25 years, I was present at the House for an extended portion of Senior Week.
It was an odd experience.
For starters, as the term wanes, only the seniors remain, and it shows. In direct contrast to the previous September, when walking through the Yard with the newly minted, bright-eyed freshmen, now it’s remarkable to notice how much more adult, for lack of a better word, the students appear. Not that at 21 they look terribly old, especially compared to my increasingly creaky 46. But markedly gone is the youthful innocence, the exuberance, the awe of the underclassmen. A visible fatigue has set in. These folks have been there, done that, and now they’re merely waiting. Comfortably waiting, to be sure, like passengers in a first-class lounge, but none-the-less waiting, anxious to get going and board the flight of a lifetime.
Sitting in the dining hall, chatting with the students over lunch, I could sense a heightened mood – a mixture of happiness, fear, nervous excitement, relief, gratitude, and perhaps, perhaps, the first tinge of Harvard nostalgia. I tried to recall what I was feeling that last week: all I can remember is a vague sense of dread. My situation was different from many, of course. Having spent my junior year abroad, I came back to Adams the September of my senior year to find my College days almost over. Gone forever was the idyllic pace of sophomore year: now everything was rush-rush to that ominous question: what to do after. I wasn’t ready for after – I had just gotten back! Add to this my lack of desire to attend graduate school (probably a mistake in hindsight) and very little idea of what I wanted to do the rest of my life, and you can easily imagine that for me, the first week of June came as a jarring shove out the door. I still remember an Adams House tee-shirt from the early 80s. It pictured Adams students, diploma clad, madly rushing from the Yard under the placid banner Veritas, directly towards a cliff. Too late, they realize their fate, and tumble off, splashing into the ocean below. In the water sharks circle, swimming round and round a bloody-red Realitas.
In June of 1986, to me, it felt just like that.
In retrospect, things didn’t turn out badly. Far from it: I’ve had a hugely gratifying run (good health, great friends, a satifying career, and perhaps most proudly of all, seeing my name on an author’s card in the Widener catalogue – just in time to watch the whole catalogue disappear!) And, Deo volente, I still have a bit to go. But life certainly didn’t roll out anything like I expected – certainly nothing like the future I tried to envision sitting in this same dining hall twenty-five years ago. I longed to tell my mealtime companions not to fret: instead, to sit back, and enjoy the ride, for whatever will be, will be – or at least, it will be what you make of it. But I largely kept my own counsel: I knew precisely what I would have thought of this platitudinous advice a quarter century ago. Instead, I listened to plans, and hopes, and fears, nodding sagely (hopefully), and smiling at appropriate junctures (hopefully) trying to impart encouragement and enthusiasm. How could I be so sure it would all work out, one senior finally asked me. “Ah well,” I replied automatically, without a moment’s hesitation: “remember, we don’t hold graduations at Harvard, we hold Commencements.”
A pregnant pause, and mutual realization dawns: that in this ever so subtle distinction, barely appreciated by me two and half decades ago, rests the collective confidence of almost four centuries.
For us mere mortals, it doesn’t get much more certain than that.
A few months ago, we celebrated the glorious 250th birthday of Apthorp House with kazoos and Sousa phones blowing. Adamsians in costumes of every type graced the event, mostly 18th century garb borrowed from a somewhat musty Loeb Drama collection. Miniature horses, cuddly rabbits, a goat, llama, and a pig roamed the grounds; more than half the House, hundreds strong, roamed Apthorp enjoying fantastic culinary goodies. A fun day it was: the ultimate “Apthorp moment.” At least, that’s what Sean and I call it when students, tutors and SCR members flood all three doors of Apthorp at once, and the house phone and both of our cells ring together in an ironic kind of harmony. Usually, there is an errant child or grandchild tugging at our elbow as well.
It is a certain type of controlled chaos, most assuredly; but equally, a kind of bliss – one of those “you gotta know it to love it” moments.
But for now, summer has arrived and everything is so quiet, so still. The courtyard is empty with the only major sound coming from Resident Dean’s son Ethan Howell – his hockey stick actively re-enacting each second of the Stanley cup. An occasional siren howls, or, like the other day, a baby bird hatches outside my window, all – “peep, peep, peep peep, ” much like the departed students, but far more soprano, and subdued. On a Saturday here and there, for short bursts, alumni arrive for a visit, or a former tutor celebrates a wedding in the dining hall, violins ablaze. But these go away as quickly as they come. Apthorp House, never changing, shelters Sean and me – plus one or two others, known House-wide as “Elves.” – mostly graduate students who help around the House in exchange for room and board. One of them, our dear Philip Kreycik, proudly wears his “I LOVE WORMS” Tee-shirt, a souvenir from his stay with Will Allen, the MacArthur genius urban-gardener who has inspired us to install a small vegetable garden on the roof of the ArtSpace behind Apthorp House.
And how quiet is it, you ask? Would you believe? We can almost hear the snap peas growing.
Judy and Sean