Harvard paying tribute to FDR

School restoring 32d president's student suite

Franklin D. Roosevelt posed for a picture with the class of 1904 at Nantasket Beach. Franklin D. Roosevelt posed for a picture with the class of 1904 at Nantasket Beach. (FDR LIBRARY)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / February 28, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - As a lanky high school senior touring Harvard University in 1900, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was smitten by a first-floor corner suite in a strip of luxury apartments known as Harvard's Gold Coast. He marveled at the high ceilings, "light and airy" bedrooms, and spacious study in a six-page letter to his parents that included a drawing of the floor plan.

Now, more than a century since Roosevelt lived there, Harvard is restoring the 600-square-foot suite as the first campus memorial to the four-term president. The tribute coincides with a revival of interest in the charismatic 32d president, as the country struggles through an economic crisis with echoes of the Great Depression.

"It's almost as if FDR were walking amidst our time again," said historian and Roosevelt biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. "It's long overdue for Harvard to have honored him."

Goodwin will deliver a lecture at the university today on Roosevelt as a crisis leader, kicking off a benefit gala to help raise the $250,000 needed for the restoration project, which is expected to take several years. Guests will dine on a six-course meal - recreating Roosevelt's 1901 freshman class dinner that included Blue Point oysters and beef Richelieu - as a pianist and string quartet play parlor songs from the Victorian era.

No photographs exist of the suite in the Westmorely wing of what is now Harvard's Adams House dormitory. Volunteers have begun scouring correspondence and archival photos, piecing together how the young, athletic Roosevelt and his roommate, Lathrop Brown, lived between 1900 and 1904.

Michael Weishan, a historic-landscape architect and president of the FDR Suite Foundation, discovered a collection of silver nitrate images of Gold Coast rooms taken by a student photographer in 1900 for a university time capsule. They depicted cluttered rooms with pillows inscribed with Harvard mottos, beer steins hanging from mantelpieces, pipes, gas desk lamps, and rugs layered upon rugs. Harvard banners and framed team photographs fill the walls.

Weishan, a 1986 Harvard graduate, also knows how Roosevelt's suite was furnished and decorated by studying two years of letters between Roosevelt and his mother. Much of the furniture, rugs, and curtains for the room came from Jordan Marsh department store and Paine Furniture. His mother wrote asking whether the cushions on his Morris chair are high and fit well, and whether his "two big rugs, blue and red, and the small rugs" had arrived.

Roosevelt, who sang first bass on the freshman glee club, also rented an upright piano for his apartment - at $40 a year, $10 off the regular price, he noted in a letter.

He lamented in other letters about a bookcase that was a tad too wide and implored his mother to bring the "dog" tobacco jar on his bureau. "I have got a beautiful table and it looks very well between the two front windows," he wrote.

While less fortunate classmates slept in Spartan Colonial-era accommodations in Harvard Yard, Roosevelt spent his undergraduate years mingling with well-heeled peers on the squash courts and in the indoor swimming pool of their resplendent living quarters.

Rent was $400 for the year, equivalent to a laborer's annual wage and about three times Harvard's tuition. That bought Roosevelt the most up-to-date amenities, including central steam heat, electricity, and a fireplace to lounge in front of. There were few signs then that Roosevelt - a charming, mediocre student surrounded by affluence - would as president, establish government social programs and regulatory legislation to benefit the poor, and build the American middle class.

His liberalism helps explain why it has taken so long for Harvard to erect a tribute to Roosevelt, Goodwin said. His fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, has a collection of papers housed in a Harvard library. But Harvard-educated financiers disdained Franklin Roosevelt for what they viewed as the New Deal's excessive government intervention.

"He was out of style here at the university for quite awhile, having been portrayed as a traitor to his class," said Weishan, who lived in Adams House as an undergraduate but did not learn he shared Roosevelt's Harvard residence until recent years.

Sean and Judith Palfrey, Harvard-educated pediatricians, made it their goal to resurrect Roosevelt's memory when they became masters of Adams House 10 years ago. But the suite was being used as a professor's office and then modern-day dorm rooms until recently.

Sean Palfrey, who is the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, sees the restoration as an opportunity to discover the types of books students read, the music they listened to, and the Victorian custom of trading photographic calling cards. Then there will be the hunt to furnish the room with period antiques and monogrammed linens.

Traces of the Gilded Age remain in the suite. A fragment of burgundy damask wallpaper could be seen behind the radiator. The closets are large enough to store stacks of steamer trunks. The bathroom is still outfitted with the marble sink where Roosevelt shaved, claw foot tub, and a wooden water tank above the tiny pull-chain toilet.

When the restoration is complete, the suite will serve as guest quarters for Roosevelt scholars and visiting dignitaries. Harvard will allow the public to tour the presidential museum a couple times a year when students are on break. The project will also raise scholarship money for undergraduates to conduct research in Roosevelt's presidential library in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"It would be nice to keep his memory at the forefront," Weishan said, "so we don't have to relearn these history lessons all over again."

Tracy Jan can be reached at

Correction: Because of an editing error, an article in Saturday's Metro section on restoration of the suite President Franklin D. Roosevelt used when he was a student at Harvard failed to credit the illustration to Jeff Stikeman.

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