Photo Essay: A Video Tour of the FDR Suite

Suite Tour

This five minute video preview of the Suite is a precursor to a larger documentary on the FDR Suite Restoration
coming Winter, 2012. (Please note: you may adjust the size and picture quality by upping the pixel count indicator (the number with “p”) up and down. The original was filmed in high-defintion and can be viewed as such in full screen mode if your internet connection is sufficiently fast.)


For historical tales, fascinating tid-bits of the past, and the real story behind the Restoration, be sure to visit:

State of DisUnion

The Rise and Demise of Harvard’s First Great Social Experiment, The Union

To whom the conception of a Harvard Union is due is beyond my knowledge; but we owe the fostering of the idea to many men, and we owe the grounds to the Corporation. As you see, it is the result of Harvard team-work, of mutual reliance, the future abiding place of comradeship; and therefore let it never and in no place bear any name except that of John Harvard. We will nail open the doors of our house, and will write over them: –’The Harvard Union welcomes to its home all Harvard men.‘” The conclusion of the dedicatory speech given by Henry Lee Higginson October 15, 1901.

The Harvard Union in its original glory, from a period postcard. Note that the “breakfast room” was originally an open pavilion for outdoor events.

In my day (that’s to say the mid 80s) when one mentioned the Union, the immediate impression was of a rather rundown dining hall where Freshmen trudged three times a day for meals. Well, perhaps “rundown” is a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly “dowdy” seemed fair –not to mention a bit “strange.” I remember sitting in the Union that first fall, admiring the grandiose decor: the baronial stone fireplaces on either end (one stuck incongruously behind the salad bar); the ornate wood paneling; even the immense antlered chandeliers – given by TR someone said – and reportedly the last of over 30 moose heads and other trophies that once graced the room. (Truth be told, my appreciation of the fixtures was dimmed somewhat by the pads of butter that were routinely lobbed into the antlers by smart-aleck jocks, just waiting to melt on unwary diners.) Later, wandering around the many nooks and crannies of the basement and upper floors, I discovered a warren of rooms, most of which were locked and obviously little used. The whole place had a melancholy, lost-in-time ambience, sad in a way I could never quite understand.

Major Henry Lee Higginson, as painted by John Singer Sargent. This portrait remains in the Barker Center.

It certainly didn’t start out that way: the 1902 Union, designed by the illustrious firm of McKim, Mead and White with a $150,000 gift from Major Henry Lee Higginson, was erected as a shining example of social reform through architecture. Conceived as a gathering place for students unable to afford the luxuries of the final clubs, the Union was intended to be literally just that – a unifying force where “pride of wealth, pride of poverty, and pride of class would find no place.” Its very location was, in fact, a symbolic compromise: constructed on the former site of the Warren House, which was moved next door, the building sits precisely equidistant from the wealthy digs of the Gold Coast and what was, at the time, the poverty of Harvard Yard. Membership was open to all, without the elaborate initiation rituals of the clubs, and annual dues were deliberately kept low – from $10 for current students, to $50 for lifetime privileges for alumni, all in order to encourage active use. The building, a triumph of Georgian Revival design, was equipped with an amazing array of features: a massive Great Hall (then used as a club room, but later the Freshman dining hall); a full restaurant (open to ladies on weekends – they had their own special dining room other times); a lunch counter for a quick bite; an athlete’s training table (where special healthy meals for athletes were served); a barber shop; cigar and news stands; billiard rooms (where students could obtain free instruction “from a well known professional”; a library with 6,000 volumes; meeting rooms and other social spaces; as well a guest rooms for visitors. It was in fact, a final club for the masses. The only thing the Union lacked was the ability to provide its general membership with that favorite collegiate brew, beer. Cambridge was officially dry at the time, and to be served “exhilarating beverages” one needed to belong to either a private final club, or cross the Charles into Boston. FDR attended the Union’s “impressive” opening ceremonies in October of 1901 – without, of course, surrendering his memberships in other, more exclusive, not to mention more liquid, clubs. Later that year, he joined the Union Library committee, writing Sara to tell her he had spent $25 of the check she had sent to buy the library “a complete set of St. Amand’s work, and also a Rousseau, both of which we needed.”

The original “living room” of McKim, Mead and White from an early photo.

Most importantly in the Rooseveltian context, however, the brand new Union was the brand new home of the Harvard Crimson. McKim had taken pains to design a custom space for the College newspaper, after officials had convinced a reluctant Crimson management to occupy a suite of offices in the basement of the new building. (The Harvard Monthly and the Advocate had already agreed to move in upstairs.) Previously, the Crimson had rented a dingy series of private rooms on Massachusetts Avenue that had become obviously inadequate, and the paper had been considering a new site for some time. When the College’s offer arrived however, it wasn’t greeted with the enthusiasm one might have expected. According to published accounts, the Crimson management feared that accepting space from the University might mean surrendering editorial integrity. Reading between the lines, however, it also seems that, given the dry nature of the building, the Crimson staff feared that the College might seek to limit the historically bibulous aspect of publishing the College daily. Clearly however, an arrangement suitable to both parties must have been concluded, because the final plans detail a special series of rooms for the paper, including an ornately fireplaced Sanctum replete with beer steins. The Crimson moved in as soon as the building was completed, and it was here FDR had his office when he became President of the Crimson in 1903.

The Crimson’s Sanctum, as FDR knew it, was housed in the Union basement, complete with printing office and press room.
This picture hung in FDR’s bedroom at Hyde Park. Photo Courtesy: National Park Service.

After FDR left Harvard, the Union continued on, though as years passed, it became clear it would never fulfill its initial promise. (Click here to read about the early high hopes for the Union in a 1902 article from the New York Times). As the administration discovered to its dismay, many of the men at Harvard in the early 20th century didn’t particularly desire social equality, and despite a heady start, Union membership began a steady decline after 1908, putting the organization on a shaky financial basis almost immediately. A movement to make Union membership mandatory, and term-bill the annual expense, never succeeded. The Crimson decamped for its current quarters on Plympton Street in 1915, and by the late 1920’s the facility was largely vacant. Higginson’s noble experiment had failed. When the House system was organized in 1930 (itself an even grander attempt at integrating the student body which drew many lessons from the failed Union) the building became the freshman dining hall, its original purpose almost – but not quite – forgotten. It seems the University had contemplated the relative merits of continuing to use Memorial Hall as a dining facility – as it had been almost since its inception – or adapting the old Union for the freshmen. In making the decision, College officials “had looked carefully into Major Higginson’s will,” to quote a rather tongue-in-cheek 1957 Crimson article, and “discovered that the benefactor had made allowances for failure of his institution as a club, and promptly decided to name its new freshman dining hall the Harvard Freshman Union.” And so it remained for almost 40 years.

Sole survivor: the one remaining Theodore Roosevelt
chandelier in the Barker Center stairwell.

Ultimately however, either the penalties contained in the will expired, or else the University simply decided to accept the loss and move on, as the Administration decided to radically alter the space. The Union was finally closed, the Freshmen returned to the newly renovated Annenberg Hall, and the interior then controversially remodeled (some would argue gutted) in 1996 as office space for the Humaniies Departments, as detailed in the New York Times. (The exterior was fortunately protected as part of the Harvard Square Historic District.) The Union’s most prominent feature, its magnificent “living room” with its coffered ceiling was ripped apart and sliced in two to house an entirely bland and oversized stairwell, with the carved stone mantle pieces on each side of the original room now dwarfing two ill-conceived conference rooms. One single TR antler chandelier dangles forlornly in the new space, almost mocking visitors with the hint of lost grandeur.

Ironically, a little more than a decade after this “reconfiguration” of the Union, the College finds itself highly pressed for venues that can conveniently host large social events – the primary purpose of the original McKim interior – and current students constantly lament the lack of social and meeting spaces for the almost innumerable number of College groups and organizations that have sprung up over the last few years, so much so that the University has placed high priority in creating such areas in its House Renewal program, recently launched. Had the planning been more far-sighted, and the renovations less drastic, both of these needs might have been addressed while preserving the magnificence of the original interiors as well as the intent of the founder.

But such was not to be. Today the Union lives on as a poignant reminder of what was, what might have been, and most certainly, what not to do again.

Adams, The Irrelevant

According to many, the College lost something ageless when the class of 2001 donned their academic dress, and with long-labored degree in hand, departed the Yard for the last time as undergraduates. With their matriculation, the final class to have specifically selected their own House bid their alma mater a fond farewell, and the New Age of Randomization reigned supreme.

Some predicted: Adams, the Irrelevant.

I’m here to say: hardly.

For us in 2011, the lore of the Harvard Houses before randomization has become mythic – whether entirely accurate or not:

Kirkland and Mather, we understand, each had a stint as the house for athletes, both conveniently located near the river, offering quick access to the athletic facilities via JFK (then Boylston Street) or the Weeks Memorial Bridge.  Winthrop was supposedly the first to welcome Catholics (witness: Kennedy et al.); Asians congregated in Quincy; and African-American students favored Leverett, or the Quad, or both. 

As for Adams, we’re told the archetype went through several phases. The previous concentration of the well-to-do, left over from Adams’ former existence as private luxury apartments, dissipated almost immediately after the Houses were formed – enticed by the usual “latest-and-greatest” syndrome, les riches, nouveaux or otherwise, bailed for Eliot and Lowell and their clean modern feel. 

(How quaint it is to think of Eliot as modern now, yet still, I must admit, technically it is more modern than Adams.) 

At first, Adams was the “Jock House” (all those separate entrances were hard to police late at night, in the age of parietal regulations.) Then, in the 60s Adams became the “Rebel House”; then the “Artsy House” in the 70s, culminating in the “Gay & Artsy House” in the 80s & 90s.

Finally Adams has become what it is today, the self-styled “Classy House.” (Though certain outsiders might be less generous. Tant pis!) 

Throughout most of Harvard history, each House has been defined by those who chose to live there, and it might be expected that, with randomization, Houses and their unique individuality would fade away, becoming little more than glorified residence halls. Yet more permanent than the quadrennially refreshed student population are the buildings themselves, the Masters, and tutors.

The House Masters in particular have championed the idea of individual houses espousing different experiences – a fortuitous happenstance of history that could easily have swung the other way under different circumstances.  What would Eliot be if not The House Obsessed with Intramural Crew?  This is a hold-over that, while doubtless originating in the blue-blooded Brahmin days of the past, remains alive and well today, fostered by long experience having nothing to do with its now randomly selected body of students. 

As for our neighbors to the South, would Dunster really be Dunster if they didn’t roast and eat a goat every spring? Again, this is most CERTAINLY a product of tradition, not randomization.

At least, we hope so.

Our own Masters Palfrey have been instrumental in this regard, plucking and preserving the best of Adam House traditions.  Drag Night is the most famous survivor now-a-days, but Winter Feast, with its black-tie Pooh readings, is equally a descendant of the House’s storied past, as is the House’s current “classy and sassy” persona, replete with our own rendition of not quite fully-dressed formal attire (read: tux on top, with shorts).

[Editors’ note: O tempora, o mores]

Finally, winter nights studying by the fire and Masters’ teas in Apthorp add a warmth and community that can only be found in Adams.

As for my fellow students, it shouldn’t be surprising to find that the general “attitude” – if it can be called that – of a house like Mather or Quincy, or any of the Quad houses would be different from that of our dear Adams. Mather students have passed down and cultivated a house image of “bad-assery,” to coin a phrase, – a sort of rebellious attitude in which the Tower’s 70s Brutalist architecture perfectly embodies an inherent disregard of Harvard’s staid brick and granite.

Our neighbors, the Quincy-ites, (oh, so difficult to spell!) revel in their house’s 60s feel and unpretentious architecture. We’ve learned that Quincy was built in the late 50s to relieve us of excess baggage; little wonder their so-called balcony soirees have become an integral part of Q-H culture, as has pointing out their copious square-footage to envious Neo-Georgian house residents.

The Quad’s spacious rooms, too, make extended suite parties the standard fare in that far-away land – after all, who could be adverse to an outing in the country?

Adams, on the other hand, still embraces an “old boys’ (girls’) club” ambience, with House events taking on a deliberately archaic theme.  The wood-paneled halls, spiraling staircases, the many hearths (though never afire these days) and above all, a daring predominance of gold leaf all add to our gilded atmosphere. After all, on Housing Day [cf. Editors’ note below], as hoi poloi of the other houses traipse about the yard distributing their welcoming letters, it’s still Adams that everyone is hoping for.

Each house today is, by University design, more a microcosm of Harvard than a commune of like individuals, but that has not diminished the degree to which today’s student can feel a house experience to be unique.  Nonetheless, Adams remains alone.

Why?  Superb history, location, and architecture, of course.

Superlative students, staff, tutors, Masters: most assuredly.

Yet, an unnamed magic remains.

I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it; there still is no better place to live and learn at Harvard than Adams.


[Editors’ Note for those pre-2001: Housing Day, which falls in April, is the date on which freshmen are notified of their housing assignments, met by perspective members of their new Houses in a raucous celebration of House spirit.  In recent years this has become quite a celebration, with parades, music, and videos produced by each House championing their superiority.]

A House Remembered

Bob Kiely, 1975

I knew that there would be challenges when I accepted the Mastership, but I was not quite prepared for the girl with the Russian Wolfhound. Sometime in my early and innocent days at Adams, I received complaints from students who heard a dog yelping for hours from a room in their entry. Then a sophomore told me that her roommate had moved a large dog and an “older man” into their suite. Not wanting to load this onto a new Senior Tutor, I called the student in to see me. She was very small and looked about twelve, but I could sense immediately that she had strong feelings. “That’s Dmitri’s Russian Wolfhound,” she proclaimed with no apology. “Who is Dmitri?” I asked gently. “He is a Russian ballet dancer.” (An unemployed one, it turned out.) When I began to explain that pets were not allowed in the House, her tone hardened. “Dmitri cannot live without his hound and I cannot live without Dmitri!” Realizing that I was in a place known for theatricality, I attempted to remain calm as I said that both Dmitri and the dog would have to go. She jumped up, stomped out of Apthorp House, and was never seen again in Adams. I think she actually left Harvard. I hope now that she is a middle-aged lady living happily somewhere – with or without Dmitri and his hound.

To be honest, I had led a fairly sheltered childhood and was not used to this kind of thing. The only dogs I knew were cocker spaniels and mutts growing up in Larchmont, where I went to public schools, and then to Amherst College, where I majored in English. Nor did wolfhounds, Russian or otherwise, feature even slightly during my stint in the Navy where I served two years in Pearl Harbor as an Ensign (went to Japan and Hong Kong and spent a lot of time on Waikiki Beach reading Joseph Conrad and Henry James) and a year aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in the Mediterranean Fleet as a Lieutenant (jg) serving in communications and as ship’s organist. After working for six months as ad writer in NYC (about shoes, Chevrolets and pianos with nary a hound in sight), I realized more than ever that I wanted to be a professor of English. In 1957 I went to graduate school for my PhD at Harvard. That first year I was lonely and miserable, but I gradually made friends for life and in my third year I was invited by the Master of Leverett House to be a resident tutor. In those days you could not apply for a tutorship. You had to be recommended by a faculty member and chosen by the Master. I instantly liked being in a residential House, the contact with undergraduates and faculty from different fields, the combination of the academic and social. I admired the Master, John Conway: Canadian historian, veteran of World War II, with warmth, wit, rare intelligence, and genuine interest in students and tutors. We became good friends and I later escorted his Australian bride, Jill Conway (who became the first woman president of Smith), down the aisle when they were married at St Paul’s Church. I met my own wife, Jana Moravkova, a brilliant, beautiful graduate student in genetics, born in Prague, a graduate of the Sorbonne, and we were married in 1962, the year I received my doctorate.

By the age of 35 I had tenure, we were living in Newton (still hound free) where my wife was teaching biology at Newton College, and we were raising three children when Derek Bok became President of Harvard and asked me to be the first Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. The late ‘60’s were a tough time at American universities with demonstrations, sit-ins and constant tension between faculty and students. Although Harvard had its problems, I could see that the Houses were a huge factor in providing forums for debate and (most of the time) keeping things from boiling over. When President Bok asked me to become Master of Adams House, I knew that I wanted to try it partly because I missed the smaller community of Amherst and I had seen what a positive influence Master Conway had had. Our youngest daughter Christina ‘91 was only three, but she and her eight year old brother Jan and ten year old sister Anne and my wife were game. We agreed to accept a five year term and then reconsider.

Voted one of the “one of the sexiest professors at Harvard” by Boston Magazine in 1979, Bob was described as “the epitome of Harvard Professor – wool ties, tweed blazers, and hiking boots.”
“Mostly women take his class,” the magazine oozed: “They’re swooning for him.”

It was at this point that hounds, hair, hippies (and a great deal of hilarity) began to factor in my life. The first year or two at Adams were the most challenging mainly because we all had to find our way around, get to know people, learn by trial and error. A few crucial decisions helped. Reuben Brower who had been one of my professors at Amherst and was Master in the late ‘50’s advised us to sell our Newton house and find a getaway where we could escape and have privacy as a family. We took his advice, bought a charming, somewhat dilapitated 18th century farmhouse in southern New Hampshire, and have spent weekends, holidays, and summers there ever since. Even at the busiest times of the academic year, it has been our place to unwind, ski, hike, swim, relax. The other decision, inspired by Masters Conway and Brower, was to define my job as “professor in residence” rather than CEO, boss, major-general. There was no rule-book on how to be a Master. (The Harvard at that time had a much smaller bureacracy and fewer rules, fewer deans than it does now! The President chose Masters and we always had direct access to him.) I was determined to hire the very best, most talented, most colorful tutors I could find and the most mature and efficient Senior Tutor. I made sure that music, drama, literature, and art were well represented, but we also had absolutely first-rate medical, law, economics and science tutors. I wanted all of us to think of our academic, creative roles first and our administrative roles second. Rather handing down college rules and room assignments, I much preferred to talk with students about what they were thinking, reading, studying, performing. I continued to teach a full schedule of courses (seminars and large lecture courses on the modern and post-modern novel) and tutorials; I served three years as chairman of the English Department; I spent many hours every week in my Widener study, and published articles and various books, including one on Robert Louis Stevenson, one on the Romantic Novel in England, one on Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, and one on the post-modern novel.

Bob and Jana Kiely with Naama Patok ’87

My wife Jana was Director of Religious Education at St Paul’s Parish so her commute across the street was as short as mine to the Yard. After a few years when she and several Masters’ wives (all the Masters were men) proposed that spouses have the option of becoming Associate or Co-Masters (with a stipend and a Harvard ID which until then they did not have), she chose Associate because her job and our children took much of her time. (Our fourth child, Maria ’99, was born in 1977 and grew up as a native Adamsian.) Our division of labor was bordered by Plympton Street. She presided over everything at Apthorp House, hiring student helpers, managing the budget, arranging the almost weekly receptions, teas, dinners. Our children adjusted quickly. There were times when they missed living in a neighborhood with other kids, but often married tutors and Senior Tutors had children they could play with. As they grew older, they loved having big brothers and sisters among the students.

As for the “other side of the street,” I was kept very busy. A particular place to meet with students was in the Dining Hall. Try to imagine Adams in 1973: the serving line was still in the main hall; the room was dark; there was smoke and a lot of hair. (Smoking did not stop ‘til the late 80’s and though big hair was a ‘70’s style, Adamsians seemed to have more of it per square foot than any other House.) And half the students were women! This may not seem a big deal now, but it had only been a few years since the Houses became “co-residential.” Because Radcliffe was considerably smaller than Harvard, in those early years of transition women students chose their Houses. Some Houses attracted small numbers, while Adams became the first to achieve a 50/50 ratio. Some alumni and faculty thought the whole idea was risky and that mayhem would result. But, as in the classroom, House life only improved. I remember a Radcliffe trustee visiting a few years later asking a table of women students how they liked “living in a man’s house.” They all looked totally blank since no one thought of it that way any longer. The Dining Hall was rarely overcrowded since there were 300, not 400, students in the House. There was little sense of rush. People seemed to be in no hurry to leave, but would sit over their coffee and cigarettes planning the next Crimson, Advocate, Lampoon, concert, or play.

Early on I was informed that Adams House had traditions and what some thought of as anti-traditions, things that Adamsians did not do, such as lock entry-doors; celebrate graduation with a ceremony (seniors filed into Apthorp study, collected their diplomas, shook hands with the Master and Senior Tutor, and went out the side door across Plympton Street for their chicken salad); or wear bathing suits in the swimming pool. When I heard that a stranger followed one of our women students into the tunnels late at night, I had the locks changed and the entry-way doors locked despite protests from a few freedom fighters. Later in the year a delegation of seniors asked if we could have a degree ceremony, not just like the other Houses, but better, and I readily agreed. Over the years, joining the Senior Tutor and tutorial staff in celebrating the graduating seniors became one of my favorite events. As to the notorious swimming pool and the lurid folklore surrounding it, I checked an old Oak Leaf recently and found the following: “Pool open from 4 pm to midnight with a lifeguard on duty. Groups of two or more from the House may obtain a key from the Super at other hours. Women’s hour: 3-4. Suits required 4-8, otherwise optional.” We often took our children and their friends to swim. I also went a few times during the “optional” period and joined a few students of undetermined sex swimming laps. I’ll never know whether they had been warned I was coming. Actually I think they didn’t notice I was there.

Among the great Adams House traditions was the concert reading of a chapter from Winnie the Pooh at the Winter Feast, then called The Christmas Dinner. Students and members of the Senior Common Room, solemn and unsmiling in formal dress, paraded into the Dining Hall, sat on stools, and gave a dramatic reading of Expotition to the North Pole or Pooh Sticks. Chief Bob Tonis, retired head of the Harvard police ALWAYS read the part of Pooh; Professor David Maybury-Lewis, British and dapper, ALWAYS read the narration in exquisite Queen’s English; and the Master ALWAYS was supposed to read the part of Christopher Robin. After a year or so of too few, too straight lines, I rebelled and assigned myself the role of Eeyore which I felt gave greater scope to my acting ability. Some House Masters considered giving up the seasonal celebration altogether for fear of offending the religious or non-religious feelings of some students or because in their Houses the meal had turned into a rowdy food-fight. I never felt that civility, tradition, and good times were mutually exclusive. The solution did not seem to me “animal house” or nothing. The kitchen staff worked their hearts out to feed us well. Should we show our thanks by throwing the food at one another? After discussions with students and tutors, we changed the name to Winter Feast and invited students from various traditions to sing, chant, light candles, or recite for the benefit of all. The evening began with a feast in the main Dining Hall for students, a formal dinner in the Library for the Senior Common Room, dessert and coffee for all in the Gold Room, entertainment in the Dining Hall, and caroling and eggnog at Apthorp House. The innovation that I was proudest of was the singing of African-American spirituals by the House Associate, the late, much loved Ruth Hamilton, a librarian at the Science Center, who had spent her earlier years as a Gospel Singer in the South. Her lovely and powerful voice, her dignified presence was a gift to us all. I rarely heard that big room fall so silent as when she sang or the applause so thunderous as when she finished. One of my regrets is that in those low-tech days we never thought to record or video-tape her.

Passing under the weeks bridge in the 70s

Another House tradition, now probably gone forever, was the Adams House Raft Race on the Charles River each spring. Every House and some dorms from MIT and BU constructed rafts—floating objects of varying size and shape—that started somewhere down river and ended, if they were still afloat, at the Weld Boathouse. All had to be hand-propelled. MIT and Dunster House tended to design the most elaborate and seaworthy craft. Adamsians created the most stylish T-shirts (I still have a few faded originals), organized appearances by the Harvard Band and local models, and persuaded beer distributors to set up bleachers and provide free kegs. (Mass. drinking age was still 18.) What were the Adams rafts like? Hmmm. One or two sank in mid-race. Most started late and finished last. I still remember waking up early in the morning of the race to the sound of hammering in Randolph Court where a team, aided by my ten year old son, were patching together what looked like sticks, balloons, and empty oil cans. I think their craft started but did not complete the race. Since I awarded the prizes, beer and t-shirts, I created a prize for “worst and last” as well as for “first and best.” Afterwards we all came back to Randolph Court where the Dining Hall set up a barbecue and a student band played into the night. As years went by, the crowds of spectators grew beyond Harvard and became pretty rowdy. Townies began throwing rotten vegetables and other objects at the rafts. One student was hit by a rock and fell into the polluted Charles. Fortunately, he was pulled out and taken to Stillman for a tetanus shot, but that was the end of the affair. The Dean of Students cancelled the Raft Race ever after. Too bad. But it had become dangerous.

“French Wall ’83 and his date cut in on my wife and me. When I found myself waltzing with a tall handsome junior, I asked, “Who should lead?” I’ll never forget his answer: ‘You’re the Master!'”

During that first decade of our time at Adams, two events—both initiated by students—changed (for the better) life in the House for years to come. The first began one lunchtime when a small group of students I thought I knew well joined me. When others at the table left, they began a bit shyly to explain that they were gay and hoped to form a student organization that would be recognized by the College and could hold meetings in Adams House. When they asked me to be one of their faculty advisers, I was deeply touched by their trust. (We have to try to remember that in the Harvard of that time, homosexuality was not part of the public conversation. When mentioned, it was either on the sly or with embarrassment. I recall a dean telling me that he had heard there were gay students at Adams and wondered if I wanted him to “do something about it.” I told him that I never asked students about their sexual orientation and, in any case, I did not want anything to be “done about it.”) Over the next year or two, these students and their friends visited all the House Masters and set up tables in all of the Houses inviting anyone who wanted to sit with them. It took courage. Some Masters and students cooperated; others did not. One Master told me that “X House had no gays. It was an Adams House problem!” That spring I made a point to invite the newly formed organization to come with dates to the Waltz Evening which they did, women with women, men with men. French Wall ’83 and his date cut in on my wife and me. When I found myself waltzing with a tall handsome junior, I asked, “Who should lead?” I’ll never forget his answer: “You’re the Master!”

The second event that changed the way things were done in Adams House for years to come began in the Lower Common Room at a reception for new sophomores. A jolly personage came smiling up to me, shook my hand vigorously, introduced himself as Peter Sellars ‘80, and asked for twenty-five dollars from the Master’s Fund to clean up and paint an old basement storage room so that it could be used as a theater. At first, I thought he was kidding, but it quickly became clear to me that despite deferential giggles and guffaws, he was in earnest. So I figured twenty-five bucks, what can I lose? But little did I imagine what Adams House and the College were about to gain! Within days, the dungeon-like space was cleaned, painted, and lighted. Not very well lighted, but there were a light bulb and two small dirty windows looking out at people’s feet passing up and down Plympton Street. Soon those feet were headed to Explosives-B, the new Adams House theater, seating capacity a comfortable twenty or an uncomfortable forty sitting on mattresses left over from storage. The first production, if I remember correctly, was a Polish satire that involved an enormous hand made of plywood that kept entering menacingly from the only door. The performances, the concept (short plays, no admission charge, limited space, late starting times), and the unbounded creativity and imagination of the director and actors made the place a sensation. Everyone wanted to come! People lined up in Randolph Court hoping to squeeze in.

Theatrical talent and ideas rained down on Adams House. A new play seemed to appear every few weeks. Some were new and experimental, others old favorites. Nothing seemed too ambitious. I went to them all, but some still seem to have been impossibly terrific. Peter decided to do something Russian. Was it Boris Goudonov? Anyway, it was a mammoth Russian opera cut down to forty minutes. Peter liked moving his audiences around, so it began in Explosives–B, then, with the director leading us on like Puck, we moved to the Billiard Room where Boris or someone died on the green felt table, and then we all were taken (in a lightly falling snow) to the Lowell House courtyard where I swear he had arranged to have the Russian bells ring. Am I dreaming this? Some of the details may be wrong, but the picture is right. Other classics followed in various unlikely places: a thirty-five minute Macbeth with three actors in the tunnels; Genet’s “Balcony” utilizing the staircase of the Gold Room, and most memorable of all, Antony and Cleopatra in the Adams House pool (audience sitting around the sides, Cleopatra enthroned on a raft in the middle of the water.) They were some of the very best, most original theater I have ever seen at Harvard. Peter would sit in the Dining Hall, eyeing the crowd and then walk up to someone who had never been on stage, saying, “You would be a terrific Lady Macbeth.” Non-actors became actors; non-stages became stages.

For years after Peter graduated, variations on his ideas continued. In a House that had seemed to have no convenient theatrical space, the whole place—C-entry, the Library, the Upper Common Room, and another storage room named for Acting Masters Richard and Joanne Kronauer– seemed just perfect for Beckett, Genet, or Shakespeare. (Our youngest daughter Maria ‘99 who was born while we were at Adams House wrote and directed a play that was performed on the roof of C-entry. Audiences were provided with blankets on cool nights. Peter would have loved it.)

Contrary to popular opinion, Adams House had some fine athletes—varsity tennis, crew, basketball, soccer, and squash were well represented. The House had four of its own private squash courts. But there is no denying that the House became a haven for students who thought of it as different from mainstream Harvard. In those days students chose their Houses. And that is exactly what they did. Writers, actors, artists, and musicians found and helped to sustain their own “Left Bank.” Many dressed the part. You saw more black in Adams than anywhere at Harvard. Some outsiders found it pretentious, but I loved it mainly because I knew that beneath the stylish surface, most of these students took their art seriously. I can never forget Maggie-Meg Reed ’81 belting out show-stoppers that turned the Dining Hall into the best (only) nightclub at Harvard; or the exquisite Tamara Mitchel ’78 (who later became Law Tutor while resting her mezzo-soprano voice) and the rich-toned, warm-hearted Margery Helmold ‘83. Roy Kogan ‘81, Max Sung ‘75, and the exceptional David Braverman ’82 (who graduated first in his class and lost his life during his first year of medical school) were already accomplished pianists. We were extremely lucky in our music tutors, Robert Sirota (who composed the music for an original Adams House opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Bontshe the Silent) and his organist wife Vicki; Jim Ross ‘81, student conductor of the Bach Society; Beverly Taylor, conductor of the Radcliffe Choral Society and the first woman to conduct the Harvard Orchestra and combined Glee Clubs. Conductor and founder of the Pro Arte Orchestra, the great Reverend Larry Hill, of beloved memory, was a House Associate. For years he turned Adams into a little Vienna, bringing Pro Arte to play at our Waltz Evenings.

Two unforgettable student artists (and characters) were Romolo del Deo ’82 and Doug Fitch ‘81. At different times, both had a key to Apthorp House and used our basement as their studio; both eventually became Resident Tutors; and both went on to distinguished creative careers. Occasionally, weird odors of epoxy and paint wafted into our kitchen, but I could not say no to any of these people. I saw how hard they worked, how determined they were, how many hours way beyond class time they spent. Romolo was the right-hand man of sculptor Dmitri Hadzi (Adams Associate.) He was also a fantastic chef and now and then, he would surprise us with a fabulous Italian dinner. Doug designed the Larry Hill Memorial Bench and the biggest, best, most menacing papier-mache dragon for Chinese New Year.

It is tempting as I look back over old Facebooks to conclude with a litany of names, but the list would go on much too long. I am struck by how quickly I realized that the best pool for House tutors was recent Adams graduates. Just a few examples in addition to those previously mentioned: Jeff Melvoin ’75 (who already knew how to write), Jeff Sachs ‘76 (who got an early start giving sound economic advice), Aaron Alter ’79 (the happiest Hawaiian of Law tutors), Roz Anderson ’77 and Willis Emmons ‘81 (both of whom made Gilbert and Sullivan sparkle), Jim Barondess ’79 (who revived the Bow and Arrow Press and ran it skillfully for many years), Gino Lee ’84 (who kept the Press going), John Krasznekewicz ’79 ( a wizard Business Tutor), Bill Mayer ’78 (who kept us up on Chicago politics), and Rebecca Spang ’83 (who became Acting Senior Tutor.) Thinking of what made those years so happy, I still see the smiles of Bella and Ivone on the serving line, Manager Paul DuFour and Chef Winston. Gayle Boose, Ginnie Fletcher, and Jessie Iarrabino kept the House office running smoothly. The Senior Common Room grew and flourished. Professors Patrice Higonnet, Norm Shapiro, Richard Wilson, and Jack Womack were well established before the Kielys arrived and have been faithful associates ever since. Gifted and conscientious Senior Tutors, Larry Besserman, Peter Dale, and John Hildebidle (all mysteriously hired from the English Department) brought working wives, growing families, and a reminder of the real world to I-entry. In Apthorp House, Hilda De Courcy, hired as a housekeeper by Master Brower in the 1950’s, baked brownies for the Teas, supervised all receptions and dinners like a Major-General, and became a beloved “grandmother” to our newborn Adamsian who came home from the hospital in 1977 and was introduced at a Friday Tea.

I think I must have driven the other Masters crazy bragging about Adams House, but I couldn’t help myself. There was no doubt in my mind that Adams was more civilized and more fun than anyplace, that it was the best neighborhood with the greatest concentration of talent in Cambridge. And then in 1982-83, for something entirely new (knowing that we would return), we went on sabbatical to China….


Letter from Cambridge

The Reverend Peter Gomes

This past August, for the first time since I can remember, there was no Reverend Gomes to welcome the incoming freshmen. Of course the newly minted Class of ‘15 didn’t notice the gap, but for those who had known the man, his absence was palpable. A Harvard Personality with a capital P, Gomes’ wry sense of humor, his passion for the University and its traditions, his entirely inimitable manner of speaking, his innate story-telling ability with its uncanny ability to thread the most disparate events and unexpected characters into a cohesive tale – all these traits were, like the man, truly one of a kind. Who present at the Adams 75th Anniversary celebrations could forget his invocation,where, rather than giving the standard prayer for those present, he chose instead to bless his own house, Lowell, calling on the Divinity to make its occupants less boring and drab, praying that they might receive a mere fraction of the spirit, creativity, and raucous fun that that he’d witnessed at Adams all these years?  The crowd simply roared with laughter. Settling in to listen to Reverend Gomes (and settling in was indeed required, as brevity wasn’t one of his sterling traits) you never knew precisely where you were going, but you always knew that when you finally arrived there would be a razor sharp moral lurking within his soft, almost British cadences, as when he was addressing the subject of Harvard and race in the New Yorker:

“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.’”

Game, set & match to Mr. Lewis, and quintessential Reverend Gomes.

He will be much missed.

Departed too this fall, though happily in a far less permanent manner, is our dear Master, Judith Palfrey. Long an advocate of children’s health, Judy was chosen to head Michele Obama’s new teen anti-obesity campaign, Let’s Move. She’ll be in Washington, given favorable political winds, for quite a while. In the meantime, co-Master Sean Palfrey, and Resident Senior Tutor and now Master pro-temps Sharon Howell have things well in hand. Still, I admit I miss seeing Judy around the House as I go about the Foundation’s business. Judy has a particular way about her, a friendly smile, a soft laugh – a certain firm assurance tinged with maternal sensibility – that paradoxically both soothes and motivates. Talking to Judy, everything seems possible (even crazy ideas like funding and restoring a stripped and empty set of rooms once occupied by a certain Frank Roosevelt, Class of 1904.) She’s such a font of energy, always spinning out new projects and ideas, that it’s no wonder she leaves a bit of an emotional void in the wake of her departure. However, I have no doubt that America’s teens will benefit greatly from our temporary loss, and that we, and Adams, will be just fine while she’s away.

And that’s the really remarkable thing about Harvard: the College truly does have a life of its own, independent of the temporary players that parade through its ivy halls. People come and go: the great, the good, even the mediocre; they live, laugh, leave, die – and Harvard continues on, and on. I find something incredibly re-affirming in that. The famous essayist Walter Lippmann, class of 1910, gave a remarkable address at his 25th Reunion that summed up this feeling perfectly:

When the burden of choice and decision and responsibility sits too heavily upon you, when the rapidity of change and the uncertainty of affairs frighten and threaten to overwhelm you, one of the best of all ways to refresh and to reassure yourself is to come back to Harvard and remind yourself that you belong forever to the oldest human institution created by the American people. Wars, panics, elections, and all the other excitement of history take on a new perspective when you remember that Harvard has survived them all.

I do not say it is the only way, but I do say it is one certain way, to remember that through all the commotion of affairs, through all the quick, the transient and changeable movements of life, there are living things that arc permanent and endure. It would be possible to say many things in praise of Harvard but at this moment perhaps the most important thing one can say is that Harvard is a place where you can, when you feel the need of it, cool your fevers and walk quietly and confidently once more.

As our dear departed Reverend would have most certainly added: Amen to that!

Selected Letters from Our Readers


Bob Guttman ’48 reassigned to ’52 writes: I was pleased (surprised) to read a letter from a member of the class of ‘48. I became a member of that class when I entered as a Freshman in March of 1945 and lived in Adams House – all the spaces in the Yard being taken over by various “V” programs. I finished only one semester and returned in January of 49 when I was assigned to the class of ‘52 and that is when I graduated. If I had not been reassigned, I could have celebrated my 60th 3 years ago instead of having to wait another year. O, the tragedies of life.
Bob Guttman ’48 reassigned to ’52.

(Think of it this way Bob, you’re now four years younger than you would otherwise be!)

Bob Hermann ’50 writes: I lived in Adams House, C entry, with roommates Wil Brown and Jim Timmis. It was a great place to live, the food in the dining hall was the best on campus. I started a dance band, the Harvardians, which played dances at many of the houses, as well as most of the girl’s colleges in the East. We even played 2 dances at West Point one weekend. Adams House was our first engagement. In 1949, we played the Hasty Pudding show, the first time in its history a college band played that show. Many great memories of Adams House!

Isaac D. Benkin ’56 writes: Thank you for sending the Gold Coaster link to me. It was good to see that Harvard’s sons and daughters have not lost their sense of humor.

(They most certainly have not! Glad to oblige.)

Tina Smith ’83 writes: Thanks so much for sending the link! It was wonderful to see the restored FDR suite. Will there be any California events for Adams House alums? I was sorry to miss the 75th anniversary activities in Cambridge. What a wonderful magazine!

(We know of no regional events for Adams Alums, but I’m sure the HAA might be amenable to such a suggestion, especially if you offered to organize…)

Guy Benveniste ’48 writes: Many thanks Michael and others for undertaking the Gold Coaster. Congratulations and thanks also to a new technology that allows us to do things impossible in the past.

In my own case, I arrived at Adams in February 1945. I was supposed to start in the fall of 1944 but was late, because my student visa had been very slow in coming. I was a Frenchman living in Mexico since 1942 and the State Department had a huge file about my mother, an American citizen who had lost her nationality when she married my father in France .

I write in response to William Liller’s excellent article about his early days at Adams and his return as Master, which you include in your second issue.

I knew “Red” [Bill Liller] vaguely for he was in A when I was in D and later when I moved to C he came back into F. But when I look at his photo in the year book I remember his very cheery personality. He claims the food at Adams had a high reputation notwithstanding the rationing prevailing during World War II. I can assure the readers that for a Frenchman who had experienced two years of very serious rationing in Vichy France, the food at Adams was not so great. Overcooking prevailed in those days and mushiness went hand in hand with New England blandness.

I wrote about my experience at Adams in a recent memoir titled From Paris to Berkeley. “The food we received in the dining hall was a bland version of New England cooking. We ate lots of beets and lots of brown looking pies. Chicken-a-la-king probably defines this cuisine, or Boston-baked beans with sausages. It was food but no more. We had a somewhat white/brown/green diet, like white New England chowder, white bread and white macaroni in cream sauce. Or we had brown stew, brown cake and spinach and some other greens cooked to death. The only good restaurant was Lock Ober in Boston, where you could get an impressive cut of roast beef au jus, but Lock Ober was too expensive for our budgets. As far as I remember there were no French restaurants, you had to go to New York for that. Our only affordable escapes were a few Greek restaurants in Boston. There was nothing much in Cambridge, only a few drinking places such as Cronin’s and Jim’s that served large containers of beer, hamburgers and “French” fried potatoes. There was an expensive pastrami place. There were chain establishments like Horn and Hardart or Hayes Bickfords who served the bland diet we obtained in the dining hall. Ultimately, I did find one small place where I could order under cooked ( I had to be very specific about it being practically raw otherwise it came as shoe leather) calf liver with onions. Together with a cup of soup, vegetables, potatoes and a scoop of ice cream, the price was 75 cents.”

Maybe other ’48 survivors have different or better experiences and memories.

I did not return to Harvard. After a very complicated life which went from Harvard back to Mexico, then again to the US, back to France, back to the US and from Engineering to Economics to Sociology of Organizations, I finished at Berkeley where I was appointed to the faculty of the Graduate School of Education in the very turbulent year of 1968. There I found a few Adamsiens, and more importantly, the nouvelle cuisine, Chez Panisse and the culinary transformation of the American landscape.

(You and Bob Hermann will have to duke it out about the food and let us know!)