Glitter and Gold
Circling the Square
Shouts of "Fill her up!" echo daily over the foundation of one of Harvard's most stately dormitories. For the twentieth century and a Gulf gasoline station long ago replaced the first fashionable queen of the Gold Coast, Beck Hall.
For those few who can remember back to the period between 1870 and the depression, the Gold Coast was a string of expensive dormitories for sociable sons of millionaires. With swimming pools, squash courts, high Victorian ceilings, and elaborate marble mantels, these mansions stood, as a contemporary has written, "in relatively obscure streets traversing the gentle slope between the center of the University world at Harvard Square and the world's end at the Charles River."
On one of the obscure streets, Massachusetts Avenue, Beck reigned in the 1870's and 1880's. Opposite the Union on "Quincy Square," it housed such famous men as Theodore Roosevelt, John Jacob Astor, Jr., and John Pierpont Morgan. Its elaborate suites, properly filled with oak panelling and mahogany furniture, were often passed from father to son to keep the tradition in the family. When Morgan's son, for example, was only four hours old, his father telegraphed a reservation to Beck Hall for young Junius. And it is even said that Walter C. Baylies, vice-president of the newly-formed Edison Electric Company, bought the entire hall in 1911 solely to assure his son's admission.
Beck Hall was unsurpassed for its "sanitation, ventilation, convenience of location, and general comfort." It was more popularly famous for its annual class day spreads on the front lawn, and for its Japanese prince who supposedly spent thousands of dollars for teak living room panelling. The hall's lawn was also reserved for the elite, enclosing a grass tennis court on which many stars of the time played.
With the advent of the twentieth century, Beck Hall's chandeliers soon began to lose their brilliance. A portion of the ground floor was even given over to "a school for teaching young women the art of riding on a bicycle." Eventually, construction of Claverly in 1893 and other later dormitories forced this original Gold Coast mansion to surrender its social prominence to Mt. Auburn Street. It was torn down in 1930.
Long before Beck was razed, Claverly had captured its prestige, for after the "Institute of 1770" moved its initiations from Beck to Claverly, the Mt. Auburn St. structure became so popular that freshmen, to live there, had to compete in an election. A minor reason for Claverly's appeal, of course, was the fact that Yard dormitories offered neither central heating nor plumbing above the basement. Although suites in Claverly were expensive--some nearly $1,000 an academic year--the swimming pool, personal attendants, and telephone system made living there attractive to wealthy young gentlemen.
Another Gold Coast mansion, Randolph Hall, used to vie with Claverly for the honor of attracting football players and social elite. Now the western part of Adams House, Randolph in the second decade of the century had everything Claverly could offer--plus a sunny corner on the first floor used as a breakfast room. Panelled in stained oak, this "special cafe" served light breakfasts until noon "to those whose drowsiness keeps them abed after hours."
The end of the Gold Coast era was signalled as early as 1906 when a government professor named A. Lawrence Lowell made a speech deriding the Mt. Auburn St. area's disrupting influence upon the unity of the College. But the University did not buy the Mt. Auburn St. dorms of Claverly, Russell, Randolph, Westmorly, and Dudley until Edward S. Harkness had given the money to incorporate most of them into the House System in 1929.
Then, as Lowell said, the Gold Coast became "engulfed in the march of democracy." Or, as another writer expressed the change, the Coast--once the home of the social and proper--became "a region of outer darkness."