Last fall when Harvard acquired "Elmwood," the famous 18th Century house near the intersection of Mount Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway, local historical societies made loud protests. They feared (with good cause) that the University would tear down the imposing frame house and promptly commission architects Sert, Jackson, and Gourley to put up another of the parti-colored concrete horrors that already disfigure sites on both banks of the Charles.
But in an enlightened moment the Corporation designated Elmwood as the residence of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and promised to spare no expense in restoring the house to its original elegance. Certainly, there was much to restore. Elmwood's owner until 1962 had been Mrs. A. Kingsley Porter, widow of a Harvard professor of Fine Arts and a strong-willed woman who brooked no meddling with her crumbling mansion. Shunning modern comforts, she lived by 19th Century candlelight that masked the rotting timbers in shadow and made her appear so formidable that even the City of Cambridge dared not violate her wishes by installing sewer connections. The great elms which gave the house its name had grown up into the sort of forest one finds in Grimm tales, and inside, each of the twelve large rooms was done up in gloomy Victorian style--a sad fate for what was once a bright, airy Colonial country house.
When Mrs. Porter died a year ago, changes came quickly. Cambridge immediately put in the sewer, for one thing. Then restorations began, and Harvard set about making good on its promise to spare no expense. Before anything else, modern fixtures were installed (plumbing, electricity, heating), and the grounds were overhauled. Then the structural supports of the house were put in order. Finally, architects and artisans started the long process of finishing the house in authentic Colonial style. Magnificent flooring (wood-pegged, not nailed) was put down in the first-floor reception room and dining room. (It is singularly comforting that in an age of Sert buildings there are still craftsmen able to construct such wonderful floors.) A fine old chandelier was hung over the graceful staircase. Authentic wallpaper of the period was found for the second-floor guest room. Fireplaces were scraped down to their original brownstone. Finally, the house was furnished with as many appropriate antiques as could be had. Carefully designed replicas were used when originals were not available.
By August the house was ready for occupancy, and Franklin Ford, his wife, and two sons took up residence in an Elmwood that would have been at home in pre-Revolutionary Cambridge. Last Tuesday, Mrs. Ford took us on a guided tour of the new Elmwood, from the front door with its heavy brass latch to the attic timbers with their bayonet scars. (At least, 13-year-old John Ford says the marks on the attic timbers are bayonet scars.) The grounds were still in an uproar, but the house itself was remarkably complete and remarkably pleasant.
Elmwood has always been closely connected with Harvard. Thomas Oliver of the Class of 1753 built the three-story square house on Tory Row in 1767. Oliver was an amateur poet who had inherited a fortune made trading in the West Indies. He was also lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when, in 1774, George III appointed him president of the Council, formerly an elective office. Enraged at the appointment, a crowd of citizens gathered threateningly on the grounds of Elmwood and forced Oliver to resign. He noted, "My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their demand I sign my name." Dean Ford thinks the whole affair is an unfortunate precedent.
During the Revolution, Elmwood was held by the Committee of Safety and served for a time as a hospital for Washington's troops. The house and land were confiscated in 1779 by the Commonwealth and sold in 1780 to Andrew Cabot of Salem. Apparently, Cabot never lived at Elmwood. He sold it in 1787 to Elbridge Gerry, Class of 1762, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Gerry called his new home "The Mansion House" and while living there was twice elected Governor. At Elmwood on March 4, 1813, Gerry took the oath of office as vice-President of the United States. He died in Washington in 1814, leaving "debts and fame," the latter resting upon his invention of the curious Massachusetts electoral district that looked like a salamander.
Mrs. Gerry sold the house in 1818 to the Rev. Charles Lowell of the Class of 1800, minister of the West Congregational Church in Boston. We are told Lowell was "enchanted by the great grove of elms around the house" and hence named the residence "Elmwood." Nonetheless, he proceeded to plant pine trees on the grounds.
James Russell Lowell of the Class of 1838 was born at Elmwood on February 22, 1819. As a boy, the story goes, he planted a single horse chestnut "which he saw grow large and handsome in his lifetime." Probably, young Lowell planted horse chestnuts all over the grounds before one grew. In any case the tree, still large and handsome, lives on, just to the right of the house.
Lowell was Smith Professor of French and Spanish Languages and Literatures and Professor of Belles-Lettres at Harvard. He sometimes met his famous Dante classes at Elmwood. When Dean Ford holds his seminar at his home this year, he will thus be carrying on another Elmwood tradition.
Since Lowell was the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a co-founder of The North American Review, minister to Spain, and Ambassador to Great Britain, Elmwood in his day was an intellectual center in Boston, the "Hub of the Universe." Undoubtedly, the Fords will make Elmwood an important part of Harvard, but now that Boston is "the All-America City" instead of the Hub of the Universe it seems unlikely that Elmwood will ever again enjoy the reputation it held under James Russell Lowell.
After Lowell died in 1891, Elmwood remained with his heirs, until 1925 when A. Kingsley Porter, a student of medieval architecture, purchased the house. In the same year Porter became William Door Boardman Professor at Harvard, and held his gradute classes in his private library on the top floor of Elmwood. After Porter's death in 1933, Mrs. Porter kept the door of the house open to students and Faculty friends. Reportedly, she was a generous but demanding hostess who often summoned her young guests to the somber music room and made them give good accountings of themselves. The music room is now Dean Ford's study and presumably will not be the scene of any more interrogations.
Mrs. Porter's medieval Italian dining room table has been put to use as a mammoth desk for the Dean, and Elmwood's candelabra have been fashioned into lamps for most of the house. The new dining room stands out in Napoleonic splendor. Surely, the historical societies which were so apprehensive last year are delighted with the results of Harvard's restoration.
As the official residence of the Dean of the Faculty, Elmwood's future association with the University is assured. The splendid history of the old house is best captured in imagined scenes from the past. One can picture Thomas Oliver sitting on a window seat looking nervously out at the angry crowd on the lawn of his country house; Elbridge Gerry staying up into the late hours, poring over maps by candlelight and contorting electoral districts into weird configurations; James Russell Lowell leading lively discussions in the sitting room, gazing out the window from time to time at the horse chestunt tree he raised from seed; A. Kingsley Porter holding seminars in Fine Arts high on the third floor; Mrs. Porter interviewing visitors to her gloomy mansion and fending off the sewer installers; Franklin Ford smoking his pipe behind the desk that was once a dining room table; and, surely, future Deans supervising Faculty affairs from the 18th Century rooms of Elmwood.