Adams House has often been called "Harvard's most historic House." Its former residents include Franklin Roosevelt, Buckminster Fuller, William Burroughs, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., Henry Kissinger, Bernard Law, Martin Feldstein, and William Weld. John Kennedy met with his senior thesis adviser in the Coolidge Room. Aaron Copland lived in the House as a guest. More recently, Fred Gwynne, Peter Sellars, John Lithgow, 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 in the House system.
Apthorp House, now the Master's Residence, is the oldest part of Adams House. It was built in 1760 for the Reverend East Apthorp of Christ Church (son of British-born merchant Charles Apthorp), the first Anglican congregation in Cambridge. The Reverend Apthorp had recently completed his studies at Cambridge University, where he apparently acquired tastes somewhat more extravagant than early colonists expected to find in an ostensible 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 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 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 Coolidge) in 1901 and the venerable building became an undergraduate residence. It apparently was 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.
Randolph Hall (D-Entry and I-Entry), Westmorly Court (A and B entries), and Claverly Hall 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. The buildings were privately owned, but rooms were rented only to Harvard undergraduates. They contained minimal dining facilities because residents generally took meals in finals or dining clubs. When the Gold Coast dormitories flourished around the turn of the 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, Westmorly and Dudley House's Apley Court 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 1137 Massachusetts Avenue, 65 Mount Auburn Street, and the Beaux Arts building over the Harvard Book Store.
Westmorly, Claverly, Randolph, and the other Gold Coast dormitories initially prospered, but in 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. (Seniors then lived in the Yard dorms, which had been renovated, and sophomores and juniors had to fend for them selves.) These buildings are now part of Winthrop and Kirkland Houses. 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 in Harvard Square. 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.
James Phinney Baxter, the first Master of Adams House, chose to name the new House afterJohn Adams and the Adams family, which has made a distinguished contribution to American history. 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 and athletic teams are called "Gold Coasters."
The birth of Adams House. Apthorp, Randolph, and Westmorly were combined to form Adams House when the House system was established in 1930. The House opened its doors in the fall of 1931, but it was not completed until 1932 when the present Russell Hall (C-entry) was built to replace a dilapidated 1900 Gold Coast dormitory of the same name. It thus was the last building in the House system to be funded by a gift of Edward Harkness. Apthorp House became the Master's residence. The Dining Hall, Common Rooms, Gold Room, Library, and tunnels were added to convert the hitherto separate buildings into a unified House. These new additions include the only deviations from the uniform Georgian revival architecture of the other Harkness Houses: Eliot, Lowell, and Dunster. The Lower Common Room is modeled on a room in a Florentine palace and includes an antique Renaissance fireplace from Italy. The Gold Room and Upper Common Room are also based on Italian and Spanish Renaissance interiors. The mudejar dome over the staircase adds a vivacious Moorish touch. To round out the architectural eclecticism of the new Adams House common spaces, the library has a barrel-vaulted ceiling of English design and the Dining Hall resembles the pump room of an 18th-century British spa. The beautiful wood floor of the Dining Hall reportedly was installed in compensation for the House's architectural defects.
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 theatre. After many years as masters, Robert and Jana Kiely were succeeded by Judith and Sean Palfrey. Nevertheless, Adams House has proudly maintained many enduring traditions, including Master's Teas on Friday afternoons, the masquerade, the black tie reading of Winnie the Pooh at the annual Winter Feast, the Waltz, and Drag Night. The House also retains a printing press, the Molotov Cafe, art studios in the squash courts, regular theatrical productions in the Pool Theatre and the Kronauer Space, and a maze of tunnels that are periodically redecorated with student art. The Palfrey era already has featured noteworthy Adamsian accomplishments, such as winning the Straus Cup for intramural athletics for the first time in 2002. Adams House also has been prominently featured in recent works of fiction. It is the setting for Adams Fall, by Sean Desmond, and for much of the action in The Student Body, a murder mystery by "Jane Harvard" (a pseudonym for a group of recent graduates).