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Dana-Palmer House

Circling the Square

By David W. Cudhea

Letter-writers to the Alumni Bulletin in the spring of 1946 were wroth indeed--48 columns wroth, in fact, with amounts of outrage, protest, and indignation thrown in. That spring, it seems, the University had decided to rip down the ancient, tradition-mellowed Dana-Palmer House and erect Lamont Library on its site.

Partially as a result of such protest, and partially because the library's donor, Thomas W. Lamont '92, obliged with funds, the University merely decided to uproot, rather than destroy, the yellow wooden structure. Since 1947 therefore it has squatted between the Union and the Faculty Club, and, provided with a permanent hostess and various pieces of period furniture, has housed an estimated three to four hundred visitors to the University--all of them official guests of varying status.

Transient accommodations hardly play the major role in the building's history, however. Once the College observatory, it has provided a home for such notables as Professors F. C. Huntington, George Herbert Palmer, William James, and C. C. Felton, as well as serving as President Conant's house during World War H.

Its occupant in the early 1820's and 30's was Richard Henry Dana, who left the house his name and also managed to size Richard, Junior author of Two Years Before The Mass. One of a row of yellow colonial houses, of which Wadsworth is at present one of the two survivors, the building at this time apparently served as a social center for the children of the neighborhood. Witness James Russell Lowell, who chronicled Dana's hospitality in verse:

My pony through his own front door he drew,

I on his back, and smiled with winning airs;

Rejected hospitality. The more

He tugged in front, he backed toward the door.

Had oats been offered, he had climbed at least

Up to the attic, canny Scottish beast.

Soon after the building was acquired by the College in 1935, it was sacrificed, or at best modified, to the demands of what seemed to the Yard like a new-fangled science--Astronomy. The Dana House became the College observatory, its rooms filled with instruments. On the roof was a revolving turret on wheels for telescopic use ("Caboose" snorted Felton) and a transit mechanism rested in the main room.

Transit operators took fixes on a marker in the Blue Hills, 11 miles away in Milton, but when an enterprising farmer built a barn next door, it cut off the view. By no means non-plussed, the University acquired right of way to the barn, and chopped a hole in its roof for sighting purposes.

After the University moved on in 1842, Felton, a gentleman of wit, moved in. He was followed some years later by F. C. Huntington, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, and long the University preacher. Huntington was regarded as somewhat of an apostate when he finally turned Episcopalian after a long Unitarian career, and Felton summed him up, too. "Christian Professor of Plumber's Morals," said he.

Professor William James, the famous philosopher, thought up his "Pluralistic Universe" after he took up residence in 1881, in between the visits of various foreign gentlemen whom James, a friendly person, often put up and interviewed. One such fellow arising early on a morning found a bootblack industriously shining his shoes, left outside in the corridor. The visitor attempted to give him a quarter. The shoe-shiner was James, who calmly continued.

After Professor George Herbert Palmer arrived, the turret went, and the house received some remodling. Palmer lived there the longest of anyone--from 1884 to 1933, existing on "the decay of Greece", as he put it--and presented the Yard with the last half of the house's name. Richard S. Gummere, retired director of Admissions, occupied it until Conant moved in, dispossesed from his own lodgings by the U. S. Navy. The President moved back down Quincy Street in 1946, and by the next year, the house was in its present location.

The present full-time hostess, Mrs. Florence Preble, has managed to provide a welcome for her visitors which has left some surprised, and all pleased. "Marvellous," "Wonderful" are the usual superlatives, from such classes of travellers as Ames Competition Judges, endowed lecturers, chancellors of foreign universities, members of the Corporation, Overseers, and honorary degree recipients.

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