When Derek C. Bok assumed the Harvard presidency in 1971, he took on all the traditional trappings except one--he chose not to live in the President's House at 17 Quincy St. By opting for his more secluded residence off Brattle St., Bok became the first University president to live elsewhere since the house was built 60 years before.
Today, the elegant Georgian house next to Emerson Hall serves as a bureaucratic and social center for the administration. The Corporation and Board of Overseers claim it for their offices during the day, and exquisite University functions are often hosted there at night.
But the small, busy brick building, a mystery to most of the hundreds of undergraduates who run by daily, has taken a much lower profile in the past 12 years than it was originally planned for.
Abbott Lawrence Lowell (Class of 1877) decided during his presidency to raise a President's House on the Yard site where three of his 19th-century predecessors lived. In 1912, he commissioned his brother to design the building, and presented the $155,000 project as a gift to the University.
Lowell's successor, James B. Conant '14, moved into 17 Quincy St. when he took office in 1933, but he cleared out during World War II to allow Navy troops stationed at Harvard to train in the structure. During that period, according to archives documents, the building was used to simulate ship life, as watches were stationed and sailors were forced to scrub the oak floors as punishment.
After the war, Lowell settled back in until retirement, turning over the lease along with his duties to Nathan M. Pusey '28 in 1953. It was during Pusey's 18-year term that the house began to realize some of the disadvantages to being so closely located to the undergraduates.
It was during Pusey's administration that the students began to use more militant means to achieve their ends. In 1961, for example, Pusey drew heavy criticism for his decision to have all University diplomas printed in English--a switch from the traditional Latin. The controversy culminated in a huge student protest, in which several hundred students surrounded 17 Quincy St. They held signs that read "Latin, si, Pusey, no," and Pusey finally came out and addressed them in Latin. Few of the protesters understood, driving home the point that no one could understand what Harvard diplomas said either.
As the decade proceeded the student demonstrations became more serious and more hostile. Even when they did not center on the small house in the eastern part of the Yard, they made living there a burden. "The College Yard was a great scene for demonstrations and marches. Practically every day there was a march in the Yard; almost any day you would find a group of students marching up and down, hither and yon. I don't think he [Bok] wanted to live with it," says Minister in Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes, then a Divinity School student.
Bok denies that the turmoil affected his decision to skirt tradition when he took office in 1971. The motivation, he says, was that, at the time, he had three small children, and the construction of Pusey Library created a huge crater in the Yard.
As all University presidents are required to live in Cambridge, Bok moved with his family from Belmont to the designated residence of the Dean of the Faculty, Elmwood House, which had been recently vacated by then-Dean John T. Dunlop.
Furthermore, the vacancy at 17 Quincy St. offered an ideal solution to the overcrowding at Massachusetts Hall, the result of Bok's decision to appoint five vice presidents instead of the traditional one. When the University's main governing board set up shop there, it relieved those concerned that "the library syndicate would move in and build a brand-new library complex," says a senior University official.
The top two floors have been converted into offices, and the basement houses a University social organization, the Harvard Neighbors (see accompanying story). But no structural changes have been made in the building--only temporary partitions divide the rooms, and the ground floor still sports the decor of the gracious home it once was: Oriental rugs cover the polished floors, furniture gleams beneath the quiet glow of fine oil paintings.
Today, this floor serves as the setting for "significant entertainment," says Secretary to the University Robert Shenton. Social functions that take place at 17 Quincy Street are generaly initiated by high-level University administrators such as Bok and the Deans. Other University groups can request to use the facility but must be formally approved--like the Signet Society annual dinner. The entertainment primarily consists of formal dinners that range from two to 140 people--such as the town-gown meeting between administrators and Cambridge officials which took place last June, or the massive semi-annual Development Office bash.
The small informal dinners, which took place regularly when the house was actually lived-in, only rarely take place there now--it is reserved for the important, exclusive events. Kathleen A. Montague, assistant manager of the Faculty Club, says that they occur only when "Mr. Bok is having lunch with God, or somebody very important, and instead of coming to the Faculty Club, he'd have it over there."