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Circling the Square

Apthorp House

By Malson DES Roues

Last week Adams House proudly celebrated its twentieth anniversary. But imprisoned within its walls stands an even older structure, Apthorp House, with two centuries of tradition behind it. Neither the bold new buildings around it nor the passage of time have dimmed the colonial beauty of the three-story mansion that East Apthorp built in 1761.

After an Oxford education, Rev. East Apthorp came home to Cambridge in 1760 as missionary to the University village. An old history book says "He came, not only out of the greatest luxury of life in America, but fresh from his student life in England, and with a knowledge of the elegancies of life there that many simpler American citizens had ever possessed."

But the "simpler American citizens" had no use for Apthorp's extravagant "excellencies of life" or his pro-British sympathies. Cambridge made life so tough for the young minister that he soon set out for England, leaving everything behind him. No one was sorry to see Apthorp go, and the "Bishop's Palace" went unoccupied for almost a year.

The second owner of the Bishop's Palace was no more palatable to the Cambridge citizenry than the first. John Borland, a shady Tory merchant, was finally kicked out of town in 1775. General Israel Putnam and the Rebel Army then took over the mansion as their headquarters, and the Apthorp house remained a military establishment during the Revolution.

Also in 1775 Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne and his Convention Army came to town after their defeat at Saratoga. Burgoyne and his men got the usual welcome accorded visiting Englishmen. Their baggage was dumped in the middle of the Cambridge Common, and Gentleman Johnny was imprisoned at Apthorp House. Burgoyne had noting to complain about during his stay in Cambridge. He had plenty of good food and drink, a soft bed, and everything he wanted at the expense of the Commonwealth, or so he thought. But when Burgoyne was about to be exchanged, the town of Cambridge presented him with such an enormous hotel bill that he was left without a cent.

When the war was over, Apthorp House once again went on private sale. But the cost of its upkeep was so great that no owner could keep it very long without going bankrupt. Even so, during the 1800's the Bishop's Palace was one of the show places of New England society. The deep window seats, spacious rooms and wide windows, the old staircase with its three original baluster patterns still intact, and the white pine mantelpiece of the dining room with its surrounding work of original old Dutch tiles, made the building one of the main points of interest for visitors to Cambridge.

The flanking movement began in 1897 when Randolph Hall, a private Harvard dormitory, went up on two sides of the old mansion. In 1901 another wing was added, and the owners of Apthorp sold out to the University. The old mansion then became a college dormitory under the name of Apthorp House. "It was for many years the dormitory for students coming from St. George's School at Newport, a school which furnished most of Harvard's pre-war athletes." This was very unfortunate for the St. George Boys. Because Apthrop's large windows were perfect targets, the inmates of Randolph Hall used to break them with snowballs in the winter and rocks in the spring. By the time Adams House was formed, Apthorp was a wreck.

And yet, the student era formed a tradition of its own around Apthorp. Some of the most famous college songs originated there: songs line "Don't sent my son to Princeton, the dying mother said," and "My son Oscar, he goes to Dartmouth." And all old Apthorp men remember of time that two sailors from the Arizona staggered in after a football game and collapsed in a second floor bathtub.

But with the advent of the House system, Apthorp underwent a change. The wide window seats became radiators. The second floor bathtub was replaced by a shower, and the whole building was given a new coat of white paint. Professor James Phinney Baxter, now president of Williams, moved in as Housemaster.

David Little, present Adams Housemaster, considers Apthorp House a fine place to live. He especially likes his study, which is probably the largest in the College. When asked what he thought was the most interesting thing about his house, Mr. Little thought for a moment and said:

"Well, upstairs on the fourth floor there are two unfinished rooms. The former students who lived in the house made them the scene of their artistic efforts. It's much higher than the subway type of art, but it's got one motif--naked women."

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