There are certain personalities in this world who are blessed with a special knack for shedding the prosaic and attracting to their lives the romantic and the curious. Perhaps these people owe more to fate than to talent, but they exist nonetheless. And, if there are such people, there are also such buildings. Some have had to put up with centutries of mediocrity while others have been graced with consistently interesting, and often histrionic, tenants. Cambridge's Warren House belongs to this illustrious category.
Externally, the structure presents a deceiving image. Warren House is a small, pleasantly yellow New England building, picturesque perhaps, but no more so or less so than innumerable other New England buildings. Except for its color it would be, in fact, totally inconspicuous. Yet, this same building has played host to romantic intrigues of the pre-Civil War era, to a drama of exceptional human pathos, and to one of Harvard's largest and most influential departments.
The English Department takes pride in the fact that it is housed in what is probably the oldest academic department headquarters in the country. It is also, undoubtedly, the only English Department in the country to preside in the shadow of an unwritten novel.
The house's interior immediately suggests the unusual. There are nineteen oddly proportioned rooms within this seemingly small frame. The rambling corridors are somewhat analogous to the canals of Venice. They become alternately wide and narrow as they wind. They lower a few steps, then rise a few steps. They give way to an immense hall when one least expects it, and to a glass-encased balcony which is still stranger and more intruiging.
There is even an old 1880 bathroom with an immense tub containing graduated levels. There is an outdoor balcony room enclosed in iron-work, where Kittredge used to hold seminars in the old days. In the basement a darkened wine cellar moulds away in the blackness, straight out of Poe, but without the benefit of wine.
Most romantic of all, however, are the trap door, the secret between-floors passage and the hidden room which date back to the 1800's and Professor of Latin Charles Beck. Beck, it seems, was an ardent abolitionist. It appears that he had these devices constructed for the Underground Railway. The trapdoor leads to a secret chamber at the end of which a laddered well descends to the basement. During the twenties this apparatus constituted great fun and games for freshmen and section men who used to climb up an down the shaft. Unfortunately, the passage was subsequently boarded up as a safety measure.
The basement room, known as the "slave-quarters," uncovered by workmen in the forties, presents its own tantalizing remnants of the past. A stark metal bed and a small bureau bearing an old photograph of a dairy cow still remain. Workmen originally found rotting drapes about the room and a carpet in much the same shape. The drama behind it all remains ambiguous.
The war arrived, however, and with it, abolition. The secret corridors of the Quincy Street Building became antiques. In 1861 Professor Beck passed away. The century wore on a bit, and in 1888 the house entered upon the next episode of its eventful existance. It was purchased by Henry Clarke Warren.
Warren was a man of extraordinary will. As a child, he had fallen from his carriage and injured his spine. He spent the rest of his life in abominable pain.
Despite his extreme suffering, Warren exercised sufficient tenacity to become an Oriental scholar of the first im- portance. For as long as possible he worked standing, with the aid of crutches. Soon, however, even this method became impossible. He then devised a system in which he worked kneeling upon a chair, supporting his weight by leaning upon his elbows. The incessant pain was so great that, in order to sleep, he had a special bed constructed. It is actually a small room built into the wall. The compartment is equipped with heating, ventilation and a roll-top cover which slides down, covering the niche. Warren slept upon the floor of this cubicle.
The glories and the horror of Warren's existence are accentuated dramatically by the quality of understatement which appears to have marked his way of life. First, he found it possible to work extensively and accomplish much. He was the first to know and translate many of the Buddhist and Peli texts. He read for his pleasure in French, Spanish, German, Dutch and Russian. Harvard's great Sanskrit scholar, C. R. Lanman, and President Eliot have both testified to Warren's impact upon the academic world.
Warren's humor, and his ability to suffer in an heroic and almost appalling quiet, are noted by Lanman. The Sanskrit scholar once joked with Warren about the latter's trouser knees which were frayed owing to his constant kneeling. Warren answered, "Ah, but when Saint Peter sees those knees, he'll say, "Pass right in, sir, pass right in."
Toward the end no one had any idea how sick Warren in fact was. He continued working to the last. On a winter's midnight of 1899, Warren was found dead, seated in the corner of an upstairs room.
Apparently facts concerning the subsequent transition of ownership are obscure. The house seems to have passed immediately into the hands of the English Department.
At the turn of the century, Professor Bliss Perry referred to the department in quoting the words an old lady had once spoken in reference to a lecture of Emerson's. "It had no connection," she said, "save in God." And Chairman Bate today adds, "Perhaps our frail, earthly unity is also provided by this strange, old building."
Today the identities of the institution and its home have mingled. To blaspheme the place is common practice on the part of those who adore it. Some refer to it as the "out house." But let anyone suggest changing quarters and a department of disparate factions will respond as one. As Professor Bate puts it, "It would seem like sacrilege."
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Throughout the country "Warren House" has become synonymous with the department itself. Those who "write to Warren House" do so sometimes to ask for faculty appointments or for special reading lists, but also for purposes of a less professional nature. There have been questions about cross-word puzzles, or about how to win at scrabble. A Novia Scotia farmer once sent his poems to be "criticized." The piece-de-resistance is probably a letter from a high school teacher asking for a list of the "twenty best books, with reasons why".
The Warren mystique reaches far and wide. At this point even book salesmen ask to see the trap-door and the room where Kittredge, Lowes and Bliss Perry once examined. Visiting chairmen of other English departments return to see the house which gave birth to their scholarly careers. Everyone agrees that something intangible contributes to making Warren House the indispensable institution it has become. Perhaps one professor best summed it up in quoting Santayana's description of Concord: "External humility and inward pride." ir?-, iohkRCcotkle