John Harvard Didn't Sleep Here

For three-quarters of a century, the Harvard rooms at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, have hosted graduates of the New England university named for one of the college's alumni who received his degree from Cambridge in 1632. The scholarship that brings them is renowned for its generous funding and lack of formal academic requirements — a "year of grace" to recover from a taxing undergraduate career. That John Harvard, about whom so little is known, once studied and lived at Emmanuel has only intensified craving for biographical detail and, not surprisingly, has inspired a few leaps of historical imagination. The most beguiling has been the common assumption that the suite of rooms was once John Harvard's own.
Historic digs: Lionel de Jersey Harvard Scholar Sophia Domokos '03 in her sitting room at Emmanuel College
Photograph by Jamison Stoltz

On the fellowships circuit at Harvard, rumors even stretch to detail the suite's furniture. Imagine sitting at John Harvard's ancient writing desk or reading in his favorite armchair! Generally forgotten is the fact that the scholarship was founded by American Harvardians to honor an entirely different Englishman — distant relation and Harvard graduate Lionel de Jersey Harvard '15, who died just three years after graduation while serving in the British army during World War I and who never lived at Emmanuel. A framed drawing of the suite on one of its walls notes, vaguely, that "John Harvard lived in a set much like this one at Emmanuel" but, as is often the case with legend, ambiguity merely feeds it — so much so that when this year's Harvard Scholar arrived at Cambridge she believed she had moved into the original suite. "I was so intimidated," says Sophia K. Domokos '03, whose name is currently painted in white curling script above the doorway.

The Harvard suite sits on the first floor of the aptly named Brick Building, just beyond the seventeenth-century Front Court designed by Christopher Wren. Both graduate students and undergrads live here, in rooms similar in layout and size to the Harvard suite, although only the Harvard Scholar has the luxury of being a lone occupant. The Brick Building does offer a few modern amenities — electricity to plug in laptops, televisions, and mini-fridges, as well as Internet access — but bathrooms are not among them. A common morning sight is towel-clad students darting across to a neighboring dorm, built in the 1960s.

The Harvard suite has four rooms in total: two bedrooms (one originally a "gyp," or college servant, room), a tiny room that currently serves as a kitchenette, and a spacious sitting room awash in deep crimson fabrics and encased in oak-paneled walls. Windows on opposite sides of the suite face Emmanuel's two ponds, each framed by flowering gardens and home to the College's most beloved residents — about two dozen ducks — whose quacking, Domokos sighs good-naturedly, sometimes keeps her awake. But the location has other benefits as well. "One of the things I like most about this room is that it's at the center of [the] College, so people will stop by to see me, and I find myself serving tea at random times during the week," she says.

A most remarkable space for a make-shift tea room, the sitting room is a veritable curiosity cabinet of Harvard and Emmanuel artifacts. Posters from Harvard's tercentennial compete for wall space with color photographs of Harvard and Emmanuel crew teams, while oars, rugby balls, and badminton rackets perch above doorways and on bookcases. On the mantel above the sealed fireplace, two heraldic panels — one bearing the Veritas shield, the other Emmanuel's purple lion — hang side by side. John Harvard's armchair, if he ever owned one, is nowhere to be found.

And for good reason. "The Harvard rooms have nothing to do with John Harvard," says Janet Morris, the Emmanuel College archivist. "There is no way he could have lived there, since the building would not have been finished at the time he left." A recent History of Emmanuel College notes that the Brick Building was constructed in 1633-34, and Harvard completed his undergraduate degree in 1632. He did receive his M.A. from Emmanuel in 1635, although, as is still customary in Cambridge, it was conferred simply as an honor three years after the B.A. degree (it granted the holder voting rights in the University Senate). If Harvard returned to participate in the M.A. exercises at Emmanuel in 1635, he might have glimpsed its latest structure. But Harvard "left no mark on the college," as the History notes, so even that much remains speculative. Just two years later, in 1637, he sailed for New England.

The Harvard rooms owe their present shape to another Emmanuel man altogether. When an incoming Harvard Scholar complained about the suite's "dismal appearance" in 1930 — a mere two years after the scholarship had been established — Emmanuel fellow Edward Welbourne, an historian, undertook the rooms' renovation. A famously loquacious tutor, Welbourne was also immensely popular among undergraduates. When a sum of $500 — about $5,000 today — was allocated for the work by the Harvard Club, "a committee, of which I seemed to be the permanent member, somehow came into life," he later wrote.

Comfort rather than historical reproduction drove the project from the outset. Faced with the daunting task of "furnish[ing] fittingly a seventeenth-century paneled room," Welbourne decided that neither mass-produced nor antique furniture would do. Instead he turned to architect Robert Hurd, another Emmanuel graduate, to design and build a desk and dining table out of English walnut to match the style of the paneled walls. Welbourne found Hurd "a little tarred with the brush of the aesthete," but considered the money well spent and predicted that in time the Harvard suite furniture might become "an heirloom from the 1930s."

Meanwhile, he ordered extensive rewiring for improved lighting, adjustments to windows for better ventilation, and installation of a new fireplace and mantelpiece "copied from a survivor next door." Most of the repairs and furniture were completed by January 1931 to the satisfaction of the resident scholar.

For its part, Harvard sent books from the University press — including the five-volume Memoirs of the Harvard Dead, in keeping with the fellowship's aim to honor World War I veteran de Jersey Harvard, and Twenty Harvard Crews — as well as silverware bearing the Harvard seal to outfit the suite. A 12-person, seven-piece setting of Harvard china was also purchased.

Communication between Harvard and Emmanuel was infrequent and imprecise, however, especially when the resident Harvard Scholar failed to act as intermediary. Finances were never agreed upon directly, so that Welbourne had counted on Harvard to provide him with the sum the University instead spent on books, silverware, and china.

When, as these projects often do, the costs of refurbishment exceeded the original budget, Welbourne dipped into his own savings to complete the suite. He hoped to recover the difference from additional funds raised in Massachusetts. "I shall write a stiff letter," he fumed to Hurd in 1931, noting that Emmanuel had at that point spent far more on the renovations than had Harvard.

By the fall of 1931, major repairs had long been completed and the new scholar, Victor Harding '31, finally procured for Welbourne an "authentic Harvard coat of arms" for installation above the mantel. "The room is both adequately comfortable and attractive to the eye," Welbourne wrote that November, elsewhere proudly noting that "several American visitors have described it in terms of great pleasure." Expected complaints about the use of new furniture, rather than seventeenth-century antiques or replicas, did crop up, but apparently from casual visitors rather than from Harvardians, and Welbourne accepted these without much concern.

The renovation had been a "rather troublesome business," he admitted in late 1931, but, in the end, "also a very pleasurable business." Having taken on the project, he gained a place in the Harvard Club of Cambridge, becoming, to his great delight, "the only member who had never crossed the Atlantic."

He also valued the many "friends in America whom Harvard has made for me," especially the students who passed through his college. Welbourne would eventually become senior tutor and then master of Emmanuel in the 1950s, and his enthusiastic support for that "most welcome tradition" of Harvard Scholars ensured that the fellowship only grew in status as the years wore on. Today, there is a quartet of Cambridge fellowships from Harvard to four different colleges, but only at Emmanuel is the position widely recognized: American students here can expect to be asked with some frequency whether they happen to be the Harvard Scholar.

And what of the rooms? Welbourne must have been pained that disruptions during World War II made the suite difficult to maintain. Two students had to occupy the rooms during the war, and most of the china was broken or lost — only two tea-cups survive — while many other fixtures had to be replaced. "The major furniture was never removed and the room suffered no damage," Welbourne wrote in 1961, but several minor pieces as well as a number of books had disappeared.

Most of what remains now are recent heirlooms, passed down by other scholars: stacks of dog-eared Let's Go travel guides, a few LPs but no record player, a cloth badge from Harvard's police department, a guestbook with entries from scholars and visitors, even a pair of old boots. On the mantle sit two engraved pewter steins — one from the Owl Club, another from the Lampoon — left behind by John Alson McKinnon '68. This mishmash of mementos and collectibles makes for an odd decorating scheme, but in its own way sums up the history of the suite. Harvard himself may not have paced the floors of these rooms, but 75 years of graduates have — and many return to knock on the door, reminisce, and swap stories.

~Eugenia V. Levenson  


Cambridge Bound

Four seniors, from 120-plus applicants, have won Harvard-Cambridge scholarships to study at Cambridge University for the 2004-2005 academic year.

Economics concentrator Judd B. Kessler, of New York City and Adams House, will be the Lieutenant Charles H. Fiske III Scholar at Trinity College. Government concentrator Ganesh N. Sitaraman, of Marietta, Georgia, and Currier House, is the Lionel de Jersey Harvard Scholar at Emmanuel College. Psychology concentrator David L. Stahl, of Mission Viejo, California, and Dunster House, will be the John Eliot Scholar at Jesus College. History and science concentrator Abigail Wild, of Carmel, Indiana, and Pforzheimer House, is the Governor William Shirley Scholar at Pembroke College.    

Read more articles by: Eugenia V. Levenson

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