House History

A Concise History of Adams House

By Sean-Lynn Jones and Michael Weishan ’86. 
Edited by Brandan Griffin ’16, Santiago Pardo Sanchez ’16, and Timothy Smith ’08
 
 
Adams House, which celebrates its 84th birthday this year,
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“Mt. Auburn Street, 1907,” image courtesy of the personal collection of S. Pardo Sanchez.
has often been called “Harvard’s most historic House.” Its former residents include Franklin Roosevelt, Buckminster Fuller, William Burroughs, William Randolph Heart, Jr., Henry Kissinger, Bernard Law, Martin Feldstein, and William Weld. John Kennedy met with his senior thesis advisor in the Coolidge Room. Aaron Copland, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, and J. Robert Oppenheimer lived in the House as a guest. More recently, Fred Gwynne, Peter Sellars, John Lithgow, Amy Brenneman, and Donal Logue have lived in Adams and added to its reputation as a haven for the performing arts.

Most of the buildings of Adams House were originally private “Gold Coast” dormitories built around the turn of the 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.

Contents: 

Apthorp House

Apthorp House, now the Master’s 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.” Its opulence aroused suspicions among Cambridge’s Congregationalist 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 the 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 by the Coolidge brothers (read about Archibald Cary Coolidgein 1901, 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 Adams House Masters’ Residence in 1931.

The Gold Coast Era and its Buildings

Randolph Hall (D-Entry and I-Entry), Westmorly Court (A and B entries), and Claverly Hall (Entries 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 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 century, Mt. 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 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.

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"Claverly Hall, 1904," image courtesy of the personal collection of S. Pardo Sanchez.

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, Westmorly, Apley Court, and Craigie Hall, another Gold Coast dormitory.

 

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. 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 House Master. 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.

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“Commencement, 2014,” image courtesy of S. Pardo Sanchez
Coolidge refused, but Wetmore bought the present site of the Lampoon Castle and threatened to build a ten-story building that would cast its shadow on all of Randolph. Coolidge was thus forced to leave the current strip of grass on the Linden Street side of Randolph.

 

Westmorly Court was 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 Station (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

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“Westmorly Court,” image courtesy of the Adams House Archives.
1913 President Lowell began building modern, tax-exempt Harvard dorms, reversing an earlier decision not to build untaxed halls of residence. Declaring that “the luxurious private dormitory is an enemy to democracy,” Harvard constructed freshman dorms along the river. These buildings are now part of Winthrop and Kirkland Houses. Seniors then lived in the Yard dorms, which had been renovated, and sophomores and juniors had to fend for themselves. Competition from the lower-priced dorms forced the owners of the Gold Coast buildings to sell them to Harvard. Harvard acquired Randolph and Apthorp in 1916 in exchange for College House, which now houses cvs and other stores on Massachusetts Avenue. Professor Coolidge lost money in the transaction, but continued to occupy his Randolph suite until he died in 1929. Harvard bought Claverly and Westmorly in 1920 for $420,000.

The Birth of Adams House

While the teens and twenties were boom years for America as a whole, the profitability of these private dormitories softened considerably as Harvard’s new President, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, began to formulate his House plan (thanks to a donation by Edward Harkness). Competition from the recently completed freshman dormitories, combined with a major drop in enrollment during the First World War, allowed Harvard to acquire Randolph, Westmorly, Claverly, and Apthorp House (which was at the time used for student housing) on generous terms. Also acquired during this period was Russell Hall, another Gold Coast dormitory that stood where New Russell Hall, or C-Entryway stands today.
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“Adams House, 1932,” image courtesy of the Adams House Archives.
 
It is because of old Russell Hall, in fact, that Adams contains some of the most remarkable public rooms at Harvard: the Gold Room, Adams’ Moorish inspired entrance way; the Lower Common Room, with its carved ceiling and gigantic marble fireplace; the intricately parquetted Dining Hall; and the vaulted Library – perhaps the most beautiful of all the House libraries. These ornate features were intended as special compensations when the House was conceived in 1930, helping to enhance appeal of the by-then 50-year-old accommodations immediately surrounding them. At the last minute however, additional funds from the Harkness bequest became available, and old Russell, which was a close twin to Claverly, was torn down, and the Georgian-style C-Entryway, with its tower topped by a gilt dome, took its place. Construction of this new building also allowed the insertion of a tunnel under Plympton Street, which provided easy communication between the structures in inclement weather, and much later on, the forum for the famous Adams House student murals.

The House Era

James Phinney Baxter, 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 Seculo,” is from Cicero’s “he who plants trees labors for the benefit of a future generation.” 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

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“James Phinney Baxter,” image courtesy of the Adams House Archives.
Harvard Crimson pronounced its judgment on Adams House: “It is a small House…though conveniently near the Yard, its surroundings are noisy and comparatively unattractive. Only one of its dormitories is modern and the rooms incline to be dingy.” According to the Crimson, Westmorly and Randolph feature “thick walls and Germanic gloom.” and even the modern Russel Hall (C-Entryway) “calls to mind the stern lines of a frontier blockhouse.” A year later the chairman of the Adams House Committee, A.B. Gardiner ‘33, concluded that “House spirit may be said to be still in its infancy,” and lamented that no one has yet volunteered to “rally round and die for dear old Adams.” But slowly, House spirit grew, promoted by Master James Baxter ’14. Baxter was succeeded as Master in 1938 by Secretary to the University David Mason Little, who guided the House through the turbulent war years when Adams and Lowell were the only Houses open to undergraduates. (The other Houses, as well as the Yard, were all occupied by military training programs, meaning that for the first and only time in Harvard history, the Houses were home to freshmen.) A kindly fellow with a prodigious memory for names, Little was quite popular with graduates and undergraduates alike. Time Magazine once claimed he knew more alumni by first name than any other man alive.

By 1948, however, 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 Rueben 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.

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“Adams House Formal,” image courtesy of the Adams House Archives.
In 1951, the Crimson noted that “the basement pool serves House members at odd hours of the day,” that rampant individualism” characterized Adams residents, that the newly-founded Oak Leaf was “a racy little mimeographed House newspaper,” and that the House enjoyed “excellent student-tutor relations.” In the same year, a movie called Gold Coasting was made about House Life. A 1954 Crimson story revealed that the “Adams man lives graciously, but he tends to do so in groups within the House,” and noted that “House members claim that the food is the best in the University but also claim that it is not what it once was.” The same article saw “little purpose in attempting to establish an Adams type.” By the late 1950s, Adams was consistently the most popular choice of freshmen. The Crimson declared that “‘Unity in Diversity’ would be a good motto for Adams House.”

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

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“Now Prohibited,” image courtesy of the Adams House Archives.
from the Lower Common Room (which had been briefly declared by a reluctant House Committee “common” to all, including those from other schools). And then came perhaps the most dramatic of changes: co-education. Adams House Master William Liller was the first to invite women to reside in a Harvard House, and through his efforts “one bright and sunny weekend in February 1970, the twenty-five young ladies from South House swapped places with young men from Adams on a trial basis.” One by one the remaining men’s houses quickly followed suit, and by the early seventies, Adams became the first House to achieve a fifty-fifty ratio of men and women. One of the first women to move in described Adams as “the oldest and most luxurious house…artsy-fartsy” and “the most difficult house to get into.” The arrival of women, and the relaxing of inhibitions during the 1960s, apparently brought new excitement and exuberance to Adams, including Sunday night co-ed nude water polo matches in the pool. Commenting on House life in the early 1970s, one alumna later said: “I’m surprised grown-ups lets us behave like that.”

Another major societal shift was the empowerment of gay and lesbian students in the House, a process that began in the late seventies. 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 seventies, 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 had to be hand-propelled. MIT and Dunster House tended to design the most elaborate and seaworthy craft, according to Kiely, while Adamsians created the best tee-shirts. (In the late seventies the Bow and Arrow Press,

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“Adams House Raft Race,” image courtesy of the Adams House Archives.
revived by Jim Barondess ’79 in the basement of B-Entryway, designed and produced magnificent Raft Race posters among its other theatrical announcements and poetic publications.) Prizes were awarded for the “worst and last” raft as well as for “first and best,” with the festivities wrapping up in Randolph Courtyard with a student barbecue. Unfortunately, as the years passed the race attracted increasingly rowdy crowds and after one incident in which students were pelted with rotten vegetable projectiles, the event was cancelled by Dean of Students Archie Epps III

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 Palfrey Era

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“Housing Day, 2014,” image courtesy of Jen Yao.
The Kielys were succeeded in 1999 by Drs. Judith and John “Sean” Palfrey ’67, both pediatricians. The Palfreys have immediately faced several difficult issues; in particular, 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 preserve 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 has worked hard to preserve many enduring traditions, including Master’s Teas, the black tie reading of Winnie the Pooh at the annual Winter Feast, the in-House Formals, Chocoholica, and Drag Night. The French Farce Fest, organized by long-time Senior Common Room member Norman Shapiro ’51, has become an established tradition that features a mix of outstanding actors from inside and outside Adams House. The House also retains the Bow and Arrow Press, the Molotov, art studios in the squash courts, regular theatrical productions in the Pool Theater and the Richard Kronauer Space, and a maze of tunnels that are periodically redecorated with student art.