At Harvard, it can be difficult to tell history from myth. Archives, legends, and centuries-old student organizations all do their part in keeping both truth and stories alive. Harvard’s chairs sit at the heart of this process. The grand oak thrones that populate the sanctums, houses, and castles in Cambridge are all bulky reminders of the weight of the past on Harvard’s present.
Not much is known of these relics. Harvard’s grand chairs have historically been located on Mount Auburn Street, which once spilled over with the fine luxury clubs and private dorms that earned it the title of Harvard’s "Gold Coast." In the murky early years of the 20th century, the student organizations near Mount Auburn—the Crimson, the Lampoon, and the Advocate—began to commission their own seats of scrolling arms and heavy feet.
The Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, had one such grand seat reserved for its president in its early years. But the original dark and stately chair went missing, as objects of status are wont to do, and was never recovered. In 1967, alumni donors gifted an unknown amount of money for the construction of a new chair made of Honduran mahogany.
The Lampoon has a strict no-picture policy inside the castle. Lampoon President Eric R. Brewster ’14 and and his roommate Tyler M. Richard ’14, a member of the Lampoon’s business board, both report that the chair was constructed on-site since it was too big to fit through the tiny blue-and-yellow door of the organization. The farcical size serves a practical function as well—it is insurance against theft. If the Lampoon Chair ever vanishes in the middle of an event, it will have left the building in pieces.
The Advocate’s humble, human-sized throne, which easily fits out the door, fell victim to real theft in 1995. Harvard Police suspected a harmless student prank and investigated no further. While the oldest publications on campus often make these chairs the subject of light-hearted pranking, it is easy to forget that these artifacts hold real historical and monetary value. A Harvard parent happened to salvage the throne only a year later at an antiques fair in Malden, MA—but how it got there remains a mystery.
The solid and humble arts-and-crafts style chair now rests in its rightful home on the second-floor sanctum of the Advocate building at 21 South Street. The chair dates back to 1919, when the Advocate ordered a stately chair built for their house, then sandwiched between the Crimson and the Lampoon at 53 Mount Auburn Street. When the Advocate moved locations in 1957, the chair was paraded through the streets of Cambridge behind a white horse with white cardboard wings, a representation of the Pegasus, an Advocate motif.
Unlike other chairs, the Harvard University Band’s "Throne" has clear provenance—and has never been stolen. The Throne stems from the flourishing tradition of grand chairs created nearly 40 years ago by student publications, but was loaned to the Band by the University. In 1953, the Band received a notice, according to a letter that hangs on a wall next to the Band Manager’s office, that the Dean’s Office would like "to loan a chair to the Band on a permanent basis if it would be acceptable" to be used as the Manager’s chair. The Band’s Throne is nearly eight feet tall, edged with molding in the egg-and-dart style, and is topped with a brass plate inscribed with the Band’s motto, Illegitimum non Carborundum, which is bad Latin loosely translated as "don’t let the bastards grind you down." The chair is in terrible condition, its dark wood scratched and discolored.
The equally tall, blonde-colored Crimson chair sits chained in the center of The Crimson’s second-floor sanctum on Plympton Street. It has been stolen many times throughout its history, and the chains and locks securing the chair to the warped wooden floor have grown thick and tangled. On the front of the chair is the organization’s name couched in simple carved scrollwork. On the back are plaques engraved with the names of Crimson presidents since 1903 (as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt ’04, retroactively added). Some of the brass plaques have fallen off in repeated pranks by the Lampoon. In 2011, the chair was flown across the country and made a surprise appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show. Later that year, it was stolen during a Lampoon parade honoring the Boston Bruins as "The Best Sports Team Ever."
Despite Lampoon-sponsored jaunts across the country, The Crimson’s chair has changed very little over the years. More names of Crimson presidents, engraved on plaques, have been added, but a picture of the chair in 1910 could have been taken yesterday.
Today, Richard, the Advocate’s current President, does not worry about his throne being pranked—even after being legitimately stolen, the throne is neither chained nor locked in the smoky sanctum at 21 South Street. Rather, Richard worries more about how little institutional memory exists at the Advocate.
And indeed, in all Harvard’s student organizations, members file in and out within the space of four years, leaving little documentation of their time or impact. In some ways, then, the marks or memories they leave on these chairs reify them as relics. The chairs become more real than the fleeting presence of the organizations they represent.
Richard recognizes this in his inability to pin down much of the history surrounding its artifacts. He finds the disconnect "very problematic and a little unsettling." For Richard, the chairs play some part in rectifying this disconnect. As he says, "These chairs function as a totem through time."