Life in the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House: The Emerson and Dow Years


This paper is from the Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings for the Years 1976-1979, Volume 44

A native of Portland, Maine, Sterling Dow received his undergraduate and graduate education at Harvard, where he taught Classics and the history of ancient Greece until his retirement as John E. Hudson Professor of Archaeology in 1970. His paper was given on June 6, 1976.

William and Frances White Emerson bought the Hopper-Lee-Nichols House in 1924 from Austin White, grandson of George Nichols, whose family had owned it since 1861. The Emersons died in 1957. By her will Mrs. Emerson bequeathed the house to the Cambridge Historical Society. The Society voted to establish the position of William and Frances White Emerson Scholar, to be held by “a member of the Society acting as Curator of the House,” and Professor Dow was appointed to the position. He and Mrs. Dow lived in the house from 1957 to 1976.— Ed.

It is pleasant to be able to talk here today, I hope not too informally, to touch on some of the fine things that have happened to Mrs. Dow and to me in these fine surroundings, and to bring out what I can bring out of the character and personality—if those are the right words—of the house itself. It is a house that, having been lived in for almost three hundred years, inspires devotion.

Our predecessors, the Emersons, had of course died some months before we moved in. Of their staff, which had consisted of two maids and a chauffeur/man-of-all-work, only their man Walter was left. Walter was a rather intelligent and somewhat mischievous person, repressed in many years of service. We ourselves at that time had a maid (how far back that seems!), and she was seated at the kitchen table one day with Walter. We were passing through the kitchen when Walter declared, in tones loud enough so that we would be sure to hear, “No one famous ever slept here!” In a sense, Walter was right, at least down to the time, in 1923, when the Emersons moved in. Many worthy people, some of them modestly prominent, had lived here before them, but I think no one of really great eminence in any field; no one famous outside Massachusetts. Before 1923 this house had not sheltered anyone to compare with the occupants of some other houses along the street. At the other end, John Fiske, for instance; or Roger Bigelow Merriman; or, at the second corner from here, Charles William Eliot—not to mention the occupant of that handsome but junior residence, the Longfellow House.

But the arrival of the Emersons did bring some touches of real greatness, real and surprising. It is not irrelevant to mention them here, for the Emerson years make up the immediate background of our own near-twenty years. Mrs. Emerson’s father, William Augustus White, a financier and book collector, had the foresight to realize the worth of the poet and artist William Blake and to collect everything that had to do with Blake. I can speak of it only remotely, but it must have been a fabulous collection, housed in part and at times on the shelves here. Presently the world of taste and of collectors caught up with the intuition of the financier, and I imagine that many persons felt some intensity of longing to have that collection remain nearby. Alas for them, it was left to the British Museum, except for a remainder which sold in London for $225,000. Some standard sets of Blake’s writings were given us by the heirs, and stand on the shelves to represent the most marvelous lot of material ever to be in this house. Others may feel, as I do, no special attraction for Blake’s drawings, but who can deny that
“Tiger, tiger, burning bright In the forest of the night” has magic? Literary men (“critics”), it seems to me, often restrict the term poetry (and other terms as well). Poetry can and does take all sorts of forms, some perhaps less good than others; but surely magic is one of the best, and surely William Blake had it.

Mrs. Emerson, at least in her later years, has left a memory of strength of mind, not to say imperiousness. Among other things, she did not like smoking. Guests who wished to smoke were compelled to sit within the fireplace. Her husband, a very mild and sweet person, William Emerson, dean of the School of Architecture at M.I.T., was himself an architect of some interest, as well as a draftsman, painter, and writer: you can see his charming folio, Old Bridges of France (1925), here in the library. But I wish to mention now the connection, hardly known to anyone, which Dean Emerson gave to this house, a connection with one of the grandest constructions in all Christendom, in fact the grandest of all Byzantine churches, Haghia Sophia in Istanbul.

Within the last hundred years and more, the most profound and diversified movement of culture in America was the return to the Middle Ages—from Henry Adams on—in all the humane departments of Harvard and elsewhere, with vital effects down into our own day. Adams and nearly everybody had dealt only with the Western Middle Ages. But presently the Eastern Middle Ages, that is, Byzantium, was discovered. Its devotees were fewer but ardent. Thomas Whittemore of our own city was one of these. In 1931 he told Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who then ruled Turkey, that the great Byzantine church, Haghia Sophia, ought to cease to be a mosque, and that the mosaics spread across its immense interior, and covered with Mohammedan paint (from Italy), ought to be revealed once more. The next day there was a sign outside, “Closed for Repairs,” and Whittemore set to work. Others supported Byzantine undertakings, notably Robert Woods Bliss, who with Mrs. Bliss founded Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. There at Dumbarton Oaks worked Robert Van Nice, an architect who was attempting a publication of Haghia Sophia in perfectionist detail. William Emerson supported Van Nice for twenty-two years, and it is pleasant to record this connection, spiritual as well as fiscal, between 159 Brattle Street and the greatest monument of Eastern Christendom.

The Van Nice drawings were just too good ever to be finished, and had to be published in somewhat truncated form. Whittemore carried through most of the work on the mosaics, but in spite of all his well-to-do friends, his work also faltered at the end. My own part in all this was minor—or do I mean minimal?—but I do recall how, at a time when the people who had always given Whittemore a thousand dollars or more each year, now gave less, he said to me one day at lunch in the Union Club, “I hate five hundred dollars.”

And so, with the Blake collection and the study of Haghia Sophia, supreme greatness of spirit and lofty achievement have in some measure dwelt within these walls, and bequeathed to their successors a heritage difficult to equal. My wife and I, so far as it was within our powers, have tried during our years here to maintain some, however little, however different, of the essence of this heritage.

There is another tradition which we inherited from the Emersons and tried to maintain. In their four decades the Emersons made the house a home, full of children romping about; nurturing in the house and spreading to all who knew them the charm and taste eventually preserved in the writings of Mrs. Emerson’s sons by her first marriage: Donald Moffat’s essays, and the splendid yarns about World Wars I and II of Commander Alexander Moffat, a superb storyteller. In such a tradition—a home that is a home of the spirit—greatness is almost easy.

I love to think of the Emersons’ Christmas in front of the big fireplace as it was described to me. The children were drawn up in a hushed circle. Down the chimney came Sandy Moffat (that’s the Commander) dressed as Santa—a tremendous figure, tall, and twice as broad as most men. Even more I like to think of how in conversation Sandy once summed up the principles of rearing children: perfect love, and perfect obedience.

My wife and I moved into this house in 1957. The Society had a dearth of possible candidates; the only alternative was someone (I never knew his identity) who promised to gild all the furniture.

The family connections of my wife, Elizabeth Sanderson Flagg, were perhaps more substantial and Revolutionary than my own. My ancestors missed the Mayflower by nineteen years, settled in Newbury, and eventually departed for Nova Scotia. We used to think that they left because they were Tories, in which case I should be really in place on Tory Row. But some more critical relative has found out that these forebears left, not because they were Tories and established, but apparently because they were hard up. I did have a great aunt who in old age remembered her early days clearly and used to speak vividly, as if she had just seen him, of Mr. Longfellow walking down Brattle Street. She remembered him well. Alice Longfellow, she of “The Children’s Hour,” I did meet once or twice. She had two Rolls Royces. Critical Cantabrigians said one ought to have been enough. My earliest political recollection does have a Tory cast: as a tiny tot I remember the biggest whistle in Bangor, Maine, being turned on when Taft was elected. The whistle blew for a long time, on and on, and I remember feeling that it was being overdone.

Some years before 1957 I had finished being president of the Archaeological Institute of America. Postwar recovery had helped, and I had succeeded in arresting an eighteen-year decline and in very nearly doubling the national membership. I had learned in voluntary organizations always to be kind, always to give something to donors in return, and never, never, to upset arrangements that were working well. The magazine Archaeology, which I founded, was one expression of these policies, and another foundation, our school in Egypt, the American Research Center in Cairo, also represented an effort to reach out for mutual generous enrichment of the spirit.

But these things had taken strenuous efforts, and I was glad to be wholly back in scholarship. Earlier, when no one really qualified was at hand, I had toiled as Harvard War Archivist, with access to seventy-two war laboratories. Much of this is still secret, but it will be a proud chapter when, it may be, someone in the Cambridge Historical Society can write it up.

Instant history is a contradiction in terms, and I suppose instant autobiography is as bad or worse. Still, in a dull Who’s Who sort of way, it could be said that in these years I have belonged to the faculties of five different universities, as well as the American School in Athens, and that part of the wonderful good fortune of being in classical studies is that always and everywhere, and now especially at Boston College, where I have taught since my retirement at Harvard, there are students selected by a natural process. They are some of the best. They want to learn good things. Archaeology has a natural fascination, and when they have worked along a certain way, they can take up inscriptions, which far surpass most archaeology in fascination. The students are amused and they partly agree, politely, when I tell them that anyone who does not spend his whole time on Greek inscriptions ought to have his head examined.

This work is actually so pleasant that no vacations are needed. Without interruption for the past ten years I have given a new course each year, a new lecture each time, and in most of the lectures new material, new discoveries.

Next year there will be two new (half-) courses, one on Homer, the other on Greek religion. But the center of most of these studies has been the Athenian Democracy, the world’s most thoroughgoing democracy, the one with the maximum participation of the citizens. George Grote ended his twelve-volume History of Greece just 120 years ago. In it Grote established the favorable view of the Athenian Democracy which has prevailed on the whole ever since. In a vague and minor sense this house has been a shrine for the admiration of Grote, and also of Mrs. Grote. My wife published an article about Mrs. Grote, who also was extraordinary: she wrote a biography of her husband. How many biographies can you name, of a husband by a wife?

Grote’s favorable view of the Athenian Democracy was largely that of my master William Scott Ferguson, who with the aid of inscriptions (Grote had practically no epigraphical documents) made the Athenian Democracy even more wonderful than before. I have tried, in these years, as best I could, to clarify, to balance, to deepen, to see Periklean Athens as it really was. The city, I tell my students, that could make Plato Plato, could make anybody anything.

With luck, and also with effort, and it may be with subtle inspiration from living in this house, discovery has followed discovery, in almost deplorable abundance, so that although I get something written every day, I am years behind in actual publishing. But even if there is an embarrassment of scholarly riches, every bit of it is recorded in notebooks, and my wife finds it grimly amusing to be told that if I am run over by a truck this very day, there will be no loss whatever.

The house, during our years here, has had its share of cultural occasions. One day Sir Ronald Syme came into my office and said, “I have worked much harder than I had to.” In past years he and I had sometimes talked about Thucydides, and I thought it would be interesting to hear the greatest of living Roman historians (Syme) talk on the greatest of Greek historians (Thucydides). So we had a party here, Sir Ronald talked, on Thucydides, and it was memorable.1 Syme was also the main speaker at the only big dinner we ever had in the library, with caterers and champagne, to celebrate the publication in 1962 of Articles on Antiquity in Festschriften…An Index. The idea of such an index had come to me from Robert Pierpont Blake, also a (senior) student of Ferguson’s, and was carried out by Miss Dorothy Rounds, who assembled no fewer than 35,000 entries. The Harvard Press published it, and it sold out in a little over a year.

In these fine surroundings scholarship has been made happy and vital as it can only be in a fine home. Student parties with mulled wine (the wine is my wife’s production) and jolly fires in the great fireplace have always made the house seem to be at its happiest. When the archaeologists of America convened in Boston one December, we had a huge cocktail party. Alas, no learned papers could be read, it was not really a mental occasion, but instead was featured by a triumph of atrocious New England weather. Dismounting from cars, arrivals crossed an improvised bridge to reach the sidewalk.

Another visitor has been George Goold. Goold had important things to say; Goold talked on Homer, and it is pleasant to realize that one of the great recent pronouncements on Homer was Goold’s talk originally given in this house.2 Homer must never be far from us. It is a curious and impressive fact that the very first productions of European literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are in several valid senses the best productions of European literature. European literature started at the peak and has never done so well again. Of course there were reasons for this, but they belong perhaps in some other talk, not today’s.

Another aspect of life in the house has been the Cambridge Historical Society’s handling of its precious bequest. The first great task concerned the two fine French wallpapers. Knowing my friendship with Edward Waldo Forbes (who was William Emerson’s roommate in college), the Society asked me to investigate the possibilities of restoration. Downstairs the paper was dirty and flaking. Upstairs it was largely black with dirt, and some scenes were missing. Throughout one whole winter, the great expert conservator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, William Young, with his two assistants, Florence Whitmore and the late John Harrington, worked every Saturday in the house. What a happy time!— and what extraordinary scholarly care with every detail. The downstairs paper pictures Les Rives du Bosphore; much of the detail is realistic, none is wildly fanciful. The upstairs paper, called the Bay of Naples, is a series of spectaculars. In restoring it, Mr. Young and his staff journeyed to the Wallingford Mansion in Kennebunk, Maine, where another set exists, and made copies of scenes, or parts of scenes, then missing in our house. One of these scenes, the dance, was altogether gone. The late Alfred Kidder (that dear and jovial colleague) once told me that it was last known about 1900, being used as home plate in a ball game down by the river. All the subtleties of first-rate French draftsmanship and coloring were beautifully reproduced by the experts. There is no flaw. William Young and company even created a cloud scene, not in the original, to go over the fireplace. If clouds could be placed and dated, I am sure these clouds would be identified as genuine French clouds of the 1840s.

Another great undertaking was less showy and in a way more humble. The Society learned that the house’s foundations needed attention, as indeed they did. Another scholarly person, Donald Muirhead, was put in charge, and a metal shield was laid over the foundations throughout, guaranteed to blockade the insects. This fine work had no direct relation to the occupants, and the credit goes wholly to the Society; but I had several talks with Mr. Muirhead, always with the impression that no more knowledgeable and devoted expert could easily be imagined. The work resulted in almost no cracks anywhere, no subsidence of the structure of the house.

But the house owes even more to a third remarkable person, Abbott Lowell Cummings, the head of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. It was he who from the earliest days of our stay here gave most generously of his time and his unequalled knowledge, his quick understanding, and his fine taste. He initiated the exploration of the closet in the dining room; he perceived at once that there was something behind it—another closet—and that the second closet was built into the original great fireplace of the house. Cummings was much with us, and it was he who taught us nearly all we know about how the house, built about 1690, was constructed; how it grew; how its appointments might best be arranged.

I record here that my friend and associate Richard H. Howland of Washington, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was the one who first made out the fundamentals of the architectural history of the house.

When, way back, we Dows moved into the house, we had help from that best of all interior decorators, Miss Mary Elizabeth Ladd. But it was mere luck that our furniture, hardly any of it intrinsically valuable, fitted the house, especially the library. In the dining room, the sideboard only is ours. In the Naples Room, the various pieces that stand about there, so undecided what they want to do or be, obscuring the fine paper, belong to the Society. Just about everything else in the house is ours, and will go when we go, except the Washington Allston portrait and in the middle of the library the great black desk, like a coffin, complete with handles, for which, when it arrived, the Society could find no other place. But we were pleased that the Prince George tapestry, on the east bookcases, looked so well. It has a remarkable history, worked out for the first time, from this very example, by Dia Philippides.3 It comes from Crete, around A.D. 1900, and she helped collect other examples.

But the important thing about the library is the room itself, really an Archaistic masterpiece, the creation of the Boston architect Joseph Everett Chandler in 1916, and I daresay his finest work.4 One day a rather strict antiquarian lady was brought to the house. Her verdicts were not all favorable, and when she first stood in the door of the library she called out, “My, things have been done here.” Then, after a moment, when nobody had said anything, she added, “But it is sort of pleasant.” Today will be the last chance for most of you to see it, and if anyone wishes to do so after this meeting, I’ll give them a quick tour of the Knossos painting, the Blake books, the Coptic fabric (when will you see another fabric 1300 years old?) and whatever else.

  1. See his “Thucydides,” Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962): 39-56.
  2. Published as “The Nature of Homeric Composition,” Illinois Classical Studies 2 (1977): 1-34.
  3. Dia M. L. Philippides, “A Tapestry of Cretan Liberation,” Studies Presented to Sterling Dow on His Eightieth Birthday, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, Monograph 10 (Durham, N.C., 1984), pp. 239-42 and Plate 12.
  4. See Chandler’s article, “The Judge Joseph Lee House, Cambridge, Massachusetts,” House Beautiful 51 (Feb. 1922): 108-10, 146.—Ed.