It stands at the end of a newly created dead-end road, half a mile from campus. All that identifies it to passers-by is a small blue historical marker set there by the city of Cambridge—and that’s the way Harvard’s presidents have wanted it. For just as the house stands as a symbol of the job, it also is a private place for reflection and a chance to escape the daily stresses of Massachusetts Hall.
Although relatively new to Harvard’s presidents, the stately house has long been a part of Harvard history—in fact, since its construction in 1767, the building has only housed Harvard graduates, professors and now presidents. As the former residence of governors, wounded soldiers, members of Congress, English professors and deans, Elmwood’s history is closely tied to that of both Massachusetts and Harvard.
Thomas Oliver, Class of 1753, built the house on what was then known as “Tory Row” after he made his fortune trading in the West Indies. Its outward appearence has changed little over the intervening years. As the Revolutionary War neared, Oliver, then lieutenant governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, managed to hold on to power as others were driven from office.
But on Sept. 2, 1774, angry colonists surrounded Elmwood and forced Oliver to resign. “My house at Cambridge being surrounded by about four thousand people, in compliance with their demand I sign my name,” he wrote in his letter of resignation. Several days later, Oliver embarked for England, never to return.
Over the coming years, as Harvard College relocated to Lexington and continental troops were billeted in the Yard, Elmwood became a field hospital for George Washington’s troops and the command post of Yale University alumnus and future traitor Benedict Arnold.
In 1779, the Commonwealth sold the house to Andrew Cabot, who promptly resold it to Elbridge Gerry, Class of 1762. Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, dearly loved his “Mansion House” at Elmwood, and it was in the house’s parlor that he stood on March 4, 1813 to take the oath of office as Vice President of the United States.
After Gerry’s death, the house went to the Rev. Charles Lowell, Class of 1800, who first named the house “Elmwood” and changed the landscaping of the expansive yard better to attract birds. Perhaps most importantly, Lowell brought with him his personal library of nearly 3,000 volumes. In 1819, James Russell Lowell, Class of 1838, was born in one of the building’s bedrooms. The younger Lowell eventually inherited the house and went on to be the Harvard professor of belles-lettres.
Elmwood remained in the Lowell family for nearly a century, passing from father to son, from Harvard grad to Harvard professor—although the estate dwindled over the years as land was sold to other residents and used to create the Lowell Memorial Park.
In 1920, A. Kingsley Porter, later Boardman professor of fine arts, bought Elmwood from the Lowells. Although he used it as a private residence, he taught some of his advanced courses on the first floor and allowed his graduate students to make use of the extensive library in the back corner.
In 1933, when Porter drowned in Ireland, his will bequeathed the mansion to Harvard, provided that the University allow his wife to live there until her death, which occurred in 1962.
After a $130,000 renovation, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Franklin L. Ford moved in with his wife and two sons. Ford lived there until 1969, when he resigned after the police raid on University Hall. His replacement, John T. Dunlop, was quite fond of his current house in Belmont and announced that he had no desire to use live in Elmwood.
Dunlop, though, used the house for entertaining and recalls leaving his home in Belmont with table settings, driving with his wife to Elmwood, greeting the mansion’s maid and butler in the ample kitchen, meeting his guests, hosting a small dinner in Elmwood’s formal dining room, bidding his guests farewell, and then driving back to Belmont.
In 1971, Derek C. Bok was appointed the University’s new president. Bok, a friend of Dunlop’s and a fellow Belmont resident, was reluctant to occupy 17 Quincy St. (now Loeb House), then the president’s official residence, for several reasons: construction of Pusey Library was underway, creating a large hole in the residence’s backyard, and, more importantly, student protests at the house had led to serious security concerns for Bok and his young family.
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