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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Wadsworth House

Circling The Square

By Samurl B. Potter

Despite its dating back to 1726, Wadsworth House has long since blended into the general chaos of Harvard architecture, and there are probably not ten students in every hundred who could direct a tourist to it. Surrounded by Lehman, Grays, and Boylston, it is the yellow mongrel--part wood, part brick--wagged by the long tail of Wigglesworth.

There was a time when it was more celebrated--the century and a quarter when it served as the President's House. Until 1725, lack of decent presidential quarters hampered Massachusetts-Bay in its search for able College Presidents. This was finally brought home to the General Court and thus, when the Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth became the College's eighth Praeses, that body not only voted a pay raise, but "further to encourage Mr. Wadsworth cheerfully to go through the momentous affairs of his office," it also granted one thousand pounds to build him a "handsome dwellinghouse, barn, and outhouses."

This was a gracious thing to do, considering that Wadsworth's predecessor had fought bitterly with the General Court, but there was less encouragement in the offer than might appear. Thus the sly line in the Corporation's petition of thanks, expressing Harvard's willingness to use the money as far as it could "unless the General Court should see meet to entertain a new thought, and build it by a committee of their own choosing..." In other words, the handsome dwellinghouse would cost more than one thousand pounds and the Corporation was trying to duck the extra bills.

Such delicacy served so purpose, and Harvard reluctantly proceeded. Some the walls and roof were in place; Wadsworth and the workmen spread a bouquet, gave thanks that "no life was lost, nor person hurt," and concluded with the 127th Psalm. The thousand pounds was gone, however, and the Corporation made a more candid appeal to the legislature, emphasizing the President's grievous state. He had spread his family among different homes and his belongings among different barns, and despite his exalted post had lived this way for a year. The General Court was unimpressed.

Winter came on and Wadsworth, notwithstanding "the House was not half finished within," moved in anyway. The Overseers suggested completing it on credit, then thrusting the IOUs at the legislature. As indirection and pathos had failed before; so the fait accompli failed here, and Harvard finally had to plumb its own treasury for the eight hundred pounds due. Even then, Wadsworth House was not wholly done. 1783 saw the two wings and the ell on the north side. The brick part was built in 1810 as a separate unit and sixty years later was spun around to adjoin the ell. The most recent change was in 1950 when the east wing was widened and a doorway opened into Wigglesworth.

As the President's House, Wadsworth was the scene of many an imposing event. General Washington, along with General Robert E. Lee's father, "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, set up his first headquarters there, and on July 3, 1775 thence rode out to the Common to take command of the Revolutionary troops. It is said that the plans to oust King George from Boston took form in the Wadsworth parlor. And it was in the same room that President Andrew Jackson received students after taking his honorary degree, greeting each and all with "'I wish you all much happiness,' 'Gentlemen, I heartily wish you success in life,' and so on, constantly varying the phrase, which was always full of feeling." Visitors from abroad were entertained there as well: Francisco de Miranda from South America, "martyr to the cause of which Bolivar was the hero," finished his tour of Harvard in the Wadsworth dining room, the guest of President Willard whom he found "lean, austere, and of an insufferable circumspection."

It was President Quincy, however, who filled the house with the most geniality--not because he was very genial himself, but because he brought four unmarried daughters with him. Among other things, they are credited with the sudden blooming of Class Day. Commencement being in August, there had always been a July ceremony called Seniors' Farewell, but that did not amount to much until Quincy's day. Then it became an orgy, highlighted by such scenes as "the College janitor, in vain protesting, yet not without hilarious collusion on his own part, (being) borne in wavering triumph on a door." The afternoon always began in Wadsworth House over what Professor Morison cryptically calls "cake and wine."

In 1849, when Jared Sparks decided to stay in his nearby home, Presidents ceased to live in the Old President's House. Where once only a few rooms had been used to board students--including Ralph Waldo Emerson '21--now the whole house was hired out to a harpy who charged students $5 a month for room and meals during the Civil War. At one point Henry Adams, lately made an Assistant Professor, took lodgings there. This long spell of lowly service was broken for a while in the early 1900s when the House was made headquarters for visiting and resident preachers. The idea was mainly to give them room to meet students. How much room was needed is indicated by Phillips Brooks: "I have had two callers this morning. One of them was inquiring the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. The other asked where he could find the bursar's office."

More and more the Harvard officialdom has taken over Wadsworth, from the Hygiene people to the Summer School. Following a complete structural renovation in 1950, it became the Alumni Center, home of the Alumni Bulletin, the Harvard Fund Council, the University Marshal, and other such activities. Though this is very appropriate for the second oldest house in the Yard, still it is not like the old days. But who knows? Dean Bundy or someone may move in and Wadsworth, like Massachusetts Hall, will begin the road back.

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