Holmes House

Circling the Square

Just west of Littauer, off to the side of what is perhaps the most grossly disfigured parcel of Harvard's real estate, stands a gravestone with obscure and uninformative markings. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who issued Old Ironsides from the house whose site the stone marks, no doubt would have rescued his birthplace from such funereal treatment with another epic, but, as it was, all he got around to was a written gabfest at his breakfast table.

"It was a great happiness to have been born in an old house," he wrote in 1871, when already there had been 140 years to fill it "with harmless ghosts walking in the corridors." A house had stood on the same site since the founding of Cambridge in the 1630s, but he was referring to the "Gambrel-roofed house" built in 1730, barely four years after Wadsworth House, which (if you ignore the latter's brick bustle) it exactly resembled. The house was privately owned until 1871, but its close ties to the University began with the moving in of Jonathan Hastings Jr., A.B. 1730, who was Harvard's steward for thirty years.

The junior Hastings could not have been very amiable; even his parents, in deeding him the property, carefully noted that it was "for services rendered in taking care of his farm" and "not from a principle of love and affection." His call to command over bevers and commons was the result of the Overseers' crusade to have all undergraduates cat at Commons; the old steward having failed to enforce this order, the Corporation was forced to replace him with Hastings. If this won him his job, however, it nearly led to his ouster, too, for it set the stage for the Great Butter Rebellion of 1766.

It was Hastings' practice to import the winter's supply of butter from Ireland in the fall, this to avoid high prices in New England when forage was scarce and the cows dried up. The students, forced to partake of this and other fruits of the steward's economy, persevered throughout the winter, but when spring came with its ample forage they grew restive.

According to a contemporary account, "Then arose Asa the scribe, and went unto Belcher, the ruler, and said behold our Butter stinketh, and we cannot eat thereof; now give us, we pray thee, Butter that stinketh not..." However phrased in fact, this request was turned down. A strike followed and the undergraduate body deserted Hollis Hall, the commons, almost entirely.

At various times, there was rioting and a general throwing around of crockery, but the chief transgression was the month's flouting of the Overseers' ban on "dining and supping in private homes." Eventually the Overseers beat down the strike. The Board didn't blame the students entirely, rather it resolved, "that there has been great neglect in the Steward in the quality of the Butter provided by him for many weeks past."

Hastings stayed on anyway, and was even held over for a few years when he sought to resign. This was more for his politics than his provender, however; the Overseers refused to accept the Corporation's replacement because he sympathized with the British, a fault which Hastings, for all his love of Irish butter, didn't have. Indeed, from 1771 on, the Gambrel-roofed house had rung with patriotic oratory, as members of the Speakers' Club, flanked by six candles and using a piece of two by four as a rostrum, declaimed weekly against the British.

As the Revolution came on, the house became a center for it briefly. In one of its rooms the Committee on Safety planned the army the Congress had authorized, while in another the high command--at least until Washington arrived--settled its immediate strategy. Captain Benedict Arnold appeared with a Connecticut company to broach a plan for taking Ticonderoga. General Artemas Ward made the house his headquarters, planning the defense of Bunker Hill during his stay, and General Warren, who conducted it, slept there on the eve of battle.

Not long after, the house passed from the Hastings family to another controversial figure, the Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages and for a while acting Praeses, Eliphalet Pearson. "I wonder," mused Dr. Holmes from his breakfast table, "if there are any such beings nowadays as the great Eliphalet, with his large features and his conversational basso profundo, seemed to me. His very name had something elephantine about it, and it seemed to me that the house shook from cellar to garret at his footfall."

The College shook likewise during 1806, for the "great Eliphalet," of the old school that "would sooner cut off his hand than lift it up for an Arminian professor," was in command of a lastditch stand against the Unitarians, with the Presidency and the Chair of Divinity, Harvard's two most important single posts, at stake. After what one Fellow termed "as much intrigue ... as was ever practiced in the Vatican," Pearson's forces lost both positions, and Eliphalet resigned to help the newly founded Andover Theological combat Harvard's errors.

At this point, the Holmes family took up residence in the person of the Reverend Abiel Holmes, whose father in law, Judge Wendell of the probate court, bought it for him and his recent bride. Like Eliphalet, though a gentler soul by far, the Reverend Holmes would have no Unitarian nonsense; and for this he lost his parish. During the early 1800s, the Commonwealth's churches were plagued with vicious internal schisms of this sort, and the Reverend Holmes did better than most when he took sixty parishioners with him.

Thenceforward, the Holmes house reverted to staidness. The Justice was born elsewhere, coming only in his College days to visit his grandmother and uncle, of whom Emerson said something to the effect that 'John Holmes has humor, while Oliver has only wit.' Boston's poet laureate returned in 1871, literally at least, to poke around the garret and compare it to "a seashore, where wrecks are thrown up and slowly go to pieces."

Harvard purchased it by subscription in that year. One gathers that students were boarded there for a while, but by the 1880s the alien mass of Austin Hall was crowding it into Kirkland Street from behind and Professor James Bradley Thayer, a latter-day saint of the Law School, was living there. At some now well-hidden date before the turn of the century, Holmes house was torn down, not to make way for Littauer, which didn't inflate the landscape until much later, but presumably because, like its garret's contents, it was slowly going to pieces.