A History of Adams House
By Sean-Lynn Jones, Michael Weishan ’86, and Santiago Pardo Sanchez '16
Most of the buildings of Adams House were originally private “Gold Coast” dormitories built around the turn of the 20th century to provide luxurious accommodation for rich Harvard undergraduates. They and Apthorp House are older than the rest of Harvard’s Houses and are among the most interesting and architecturally significant structures at the College.
Apthorp House, now the Masters’ Residence, is the oldest part of Adams House. The house was built in 1760 for the Reverend East Apthorp of Christ Church, the first Anglican congregation in Cambridge. The Reverend Apthorp had recently completed his studies at Oxford University, where he apparently acquired taste somewhat more extravagant than early colonists expected to find in an ostensibly religious missionary. Apthorp House was one of the largest and most magnificent houses in Cambridge, surrounded by grounds that originally extended toward the Charles River. John Adams wrote that “a great house, at that time thought to be a splendid palace, was built by Mr. Apthorp at Cambridge.” The opulence of the house aroused suspicions among Cambridge’s Congregationalists that the Reverend Apthorp aspired to become a bishop. The resulting controversy, in which Apthorp House was dubbed “the Bishop’s Palace,” forced him to flee to Britain in 1764. John Borland bought the house and added a third story, but he too was forced to leave Apthorp House when his Tory sentiments became unpopular at the start of the American Revolution in 1775.
General Israel Putnam of the Continental Army subsequently stayed in Apthorp House and planned the Battle of Bunker Hill there. Later in the Revolution, the British General John "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne was held prisoner in Apthorp after his surrender at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Like many subsequent tenants in Cambridge, he complained bitterly about the lack of furnishings and the exorbitant rent he was forced to pay. Legend has it that Burgoyne’s ghost still haunts the house. After the revolution and throughout the nineteenth century, Apthorp passed quietly through a succession of owners until it was incorporated into Harvard’s Gold Coast of private dormitories in the early 1900s. Apthorp House was acquired in 1901 by the Coolidge brothers, who were also responsible for Randolph Hall, and the venerable building became an undergraduate residence. This was apparently a raucous era, complete with indoor rifle and pistol practice, football in the hallways, water fights, and a pet monkey. After almost 30 years of student use, Apthorp had to be completely renovated before it could become the residence of the Adams House Masters (now known as the Faculty Deans) in 1931.
Randolph Hall (Entryways D through I), Westmorly Court (Entryways A & B), and Claverly Hall (Entryways J through M) were all built as Gold Coast dormitories. The Gold Coast dorms were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to provide rich Harvard men an alternative to the antiquated Yard dormitories, which then lacked running water, steam heat, electric light, and indoor bathrooms. These new buildings were privately owned, but rented rooms only to Harvard undergraduates. They contained minimal dining facilities because residents generally took meals in dining or final clubs. When the Gold Coast dormitories flourished around the turn of the 20th century, Mount Auburn Street became the center of much undergraduate life, which was linked closely to Boston society dinners, balls, athletic events, and clubs. Claverly, Randolph, and Westmorly are the only Gold Coast buildings that are part of the current House system. Many of the other private halls of residence have been torn down. Those that survive have become apartment buildings, such as as 1137 Massachusetts Avenue, 65 Mount Auburn Street, and the Beaux-Arts building over the Harvard Book Store.
Claverly Hall, completed in 1893, was the first truly luxurious Gold Coast dormitory, featuring private baths, steam heat, and a now-closed swimming pool on the ground floor. It was financed by Charles Wetmore, a recent Harvard graduate who decided to capitalize on the private dormitory movement. By 1902, Wetmore had formed the Claverly Trust, which owned Claverly and Westmorly, as well as Apley Court, and Craigie Hall, two other Gold Coast dormitories.
Randolph Hall was built in 1897 at the initiative of Archibald Cary Coolidge, a professor of History who later became director of the Harvard College Library and founding editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Coolidge hoped that building a private dormitory would offer a sound investment, allow his brother to practice his skills as an architect, provide himself with lodgings, and enable Harvard students to enjoy a style of residence based on the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. Randolph in many ways was a forerunner of the current Harvard House system. It had its own breakfast room, courtyard, and, after 1907, athletic facilities (including a swimming pool and tennis courts) in what is now the Adams House Art Space. Coolidge functioned much like a Faculty Dean. The building was notable for its Flemish gable, oriels, curved stairstaircases, and telephone system—a rare amenity even by Gold Coast standards. D-Entryway’s floor plans, doors, and trim differ from the rest of Randolph because it was added in 1901 and further rebuilt after being gutted by a fire on March 16, 1911. The construction of Randolph gave rise to a dispute between Wetmore and Coolidge. The former asked the latter to leave a ten-foot setback on Linden Street so that Claverly rooms would still get sunlight.
Westmorly Court was one of the first buildings designed by the New York firm of Warren and Wetmore, in which Charles Wetmore was a principal architect. The firm later was responsible for Grand Central Terminal (1913) and the Biltmore Hotel (1914) in New York. Construction of Westmorly proceeded in two phases: Westmorly South, now B-Entryway, was completed in 1898, while Westmorly North—A-Entryway—did not open until 1902. Even in the heyday of the Gold Coast, Westmorly was notorious for its ornate swimming pool and some of the most expensive rooms at Harvard. It also featured a solarium on the roof of B-Entryway that has since been removed. Westmorly, Claverly, Randolph, and the other Gold Coast dormitories initially prospered, but in
James Phinney Baxter '14, the first Master of Adams House, chose to name the new House after John Adams and the Adams family. The family has produced two presidents, several ambassadors, leading industrialists, a famous historian, and one of the great women of the Colonial and Federal periods. Portraits of various Adamses hang on the Dining Hall walls. The house coat-of-arms is derived from the seal ring of John Quincy Adams. Master Baxter made the background gold to symbolize the Gold Coast and the five sprigs of oak leaves stand for the five buildings of Adams House. The House motto, “Alteri S[a]eculo,” is from Caecilius Statius, as quoted in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: “he who plants trees labors for the benefit of future generations.” House residents are called “Gold Coasters.” Adams was the last of the initial group of undergraduate Houses to be completed. It evidently did not enjoy immediate popularity. Undergraduates of the 1930s seemed to prefer the modernity of other Houses to the history and tradition of Adams. In 1932, the
By 1948, the House was more popular, and the Crimson extolled the virtues of Adams: “You can sleep till Memorial Hall chimes ring and make your 9 o’clock class. You can eat the best food in the College as immense inter-house eating lines attest. You can swim in the only House pool. And you can test your attitude toward parietal rules against the challenge of a dozen unguarded gates. In short, almost everything prospective House residents want, Adams claims to have.” There was one drawback, however: “When it comes to athletics, Adams takes a back seat, having experienced a conspicuous lack of success in the past few years.” The following year, the Crimson voiced its approval of the residents of Adams: “Socially, Adams men are above par. They wear their share of dirty white shoes and striped ties, and drink brandy or sherry freely. The house’s dignified yet comfortable atmosphere is well-suited to impress a date.” Upon Little’s untimely death in 1954, English Professor Reuben Arthur Brower assumed the chair at Apthorp. It was during this period that Adams’ popularity began to soar, for reasons alluded to above. Parietal rules were still in force, but unlike its gated River House sisters, Adams doors were largely unpoliced. Adams House grew in popularity during the early 1950s and developed some enduring and endearing traits.
The 1960s and 1970s saw many changes in Adams and other Houses. By the late 1960s, the requirement that men wear jackets and ties in the Dining Hall seemed anachronistic and the University gave up trying to enforce it. The later sixties brought radical changes to Adams as it did to the other Houses: due mostly to its proximity in the Yard, Adams became a center for student activism. On several occasions Adams residents, tiring of the constant disturbances, had to forcibly escort outside protestors
Another major societal shift was the empowerment of gay and lesbian students in the House, a process that began in the late1970s. Master Robert Kiely recounts its gradual institutionalization:
One lunchtime a small group of students 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 [by administrators], 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. 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 much-lamented Adams House Raft Race also dates from this period. Originating in the early 1970s, the Raft Race, held each May, attracted entries from every House and some dorms from MIT and BU. The so-called rafts—floating objects of varying size and shape—started at the Anderson Bridge and ended, if they and their occupants were still afloat, at the Weeks Bridge. All rafts had to be hand-propelled. MIT and Dunster House tended to design the most elaborate and seaworthy craft, according to Master Kiely, while Adamsians created the best T-shirts. (In the late 1970s the Bow and Arrow Press,
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the arts flourished in Adams House. In the late 1970s, Peter Sellars staged his famous production of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Egypt and Rome were represented by barges floating in what is now the Pool Theater. The House drew crowds for Sellars’ innovative weekly plays. In the 1990s Adams House underwent several changes. The random assignment of freshmen to Houses made Adams House more of a microcosm of Harvard College and less of a concentrated haven for the artistic and idiosyncratic. The iconic swimming pool, which had become legendary for illicit late-night parties, was closed and converted into a theater due to a leak.
The Kielys were succeeded as House Masters in 1999 by Drs. Judith and John “Sean” Palfrey ’67, both pediatricians. The Palfreys immediately faced a difficult issue: how to integrate Harvard’s new housing randomization policy into Adams without destroying the feeling of open community that the House had achieved. Working closely with students, the Masters and Tutors preserved much of the old, while encouraging programs and activities appealing to the widest possible range of students, not merely an artistic elite. In particular, Adams retained many enduring traditions, including Faculty Dean’s Teas, the black tie reading of Winnie the Pooh at the annual Winter Feast, House Formals, Chocoholica. To maintain Adams House's place in queer history, the annual Drag Night continued and remains Harvard's oldest drag show. The French Farce Fest, organized by the late long-time Senior Common Room member Norman Shapiro ’51, became an established tradition featuring a mix of outstanding actors from inside and outside Adams House. The Palfrey era was marked by a focus on global citizenship as Adams House opened up to the world and the FDR Foundation was established in B-17.
In 2016, the title of “House Master” became “Faculty Dean.” In another sign of change, the Palfreys began the plans for House Renewal, what would be a multi-year effort to remodel and restore the buildings of Adams House. When the Covid-19 pandemic sent Adams House students back home, the Palfreys faced the challenge of how to bring together the House remotely. Though virtually, the Palfreys kept the traditions of Adams House strong with weekly Carpes, online teas, and a Drag Night via Zoom. The students of Adams House would not return to the Gold Coast for two years. In 2021, the Palfreys announced their retirement. After 22 years and over 3000 students, the Palfreys brought Adams House into the 21st century without losing its sense of history and inclusivity.
In the fall of 2021, Mercedes Becerra '91 and Salmaan Keshavjee, both professors of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, succeed the Palfreys. With the students returning back to Harvard after two years away, Deans Becerra and Keshavjee took over the House at a time when the majority of its students had never lived in it and was in the midst of House Renewal construction. As stewards of Adams' history of inclusivity and community, they maintained the traditions of old while creating new ones like the Adams House Series on Human Liberation, the Adams Flies Club, and the commissioning of new portraits for the House.