Campus & Community

FDR slept here:

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Adams House triple boasts impressive history

Stephen Stromberg, Michael Donahue and Matthew
Sophomores Stephen Stromberg (left), Michael Donahue, and Matthew Ferrante in the common area of their new digs. They stand by a shrine to former occupant Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Much of the FDR memorabilia that decorated the room is now in Harvard archives. (Staff photo by Justin Ide)

The toilet runs, there’s graffiti on the windows, and a former resident left behind some belongings.

But to Matt Ferrante, Steve Stromberg, and Mike Donahue, all ’05, the quirks of their Adams House triple are minor inconveniences overshadowed by the spirit of one of the room’s first residents: a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A happy accident of a housing crunch, the historical digs are lodging students for the first – and possibly the last – time in many years.

“It was very exciting to get assigned to this room,” said Stromberg, a Democrat and self-described political junkie. “FDR is one of my heroes.”

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The suite, a generous trio of high-ceilinged rooms overlooking Bow Street, became available for student housing this summer, after Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles moved his offices from the rooms.

House co-master Sean Palfrey leapt at the opportunity to reclaim the suite for Adams House use. Palfrey himself has a Roosevelt connection: He is Theodore’s great-grandson, Franklin’s fourth cousin, and Eleanor’s second cousin.

“I can’t tell you that I haven’t lusted after that room,” he said.

An e-mail message went out in August offering the suite to sophomores; juniors and seniors had already been assigned rooms. While it was Stromberg’s enthusiasm that alerted the trio to the historic housing option, it may have been his roommates’ extracurricular interests that sealed the deal. Ferrante suspects that his and Donahue’s theatrical activities helped them beat out several others for the suite, which is across from the Adams House Pool Theater.

With an array of requisite electronics – TV and VCR, fridge, computers – supporting the students’ 21st century lifestyles, the suite maintains links to its most famous resident. A plaque on the common room wall commemorates Roosevelt’s four years, from 1900 to 1904, in residence. Ferrante has created a shrine surrounding the plaque. Images downloaded from the Internet portray Roosevelt with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at Yalta, a glamorous young Eleanor, and even a color-coded map of the United States showing which states elected him president.

And although much of the FDR memorabilia that decorated the room is now archived, the summertime renovation left behind a 1933 newspaper illustration of the election and a pencil-scribbled letter Roosevelt wrote shortly after his arrival in Cambridge.

“Dear Mama and Papa,” he wrote, “Last night I reached town successfully and on time.” The letter details Roosevelt’s hunt for housing, complete with a sketch of the suite’s layout and the rent – $400 – he paid for what at the time was a private dormitory on Cambridge’s “Gold Coast.”

Stephen Stromberg ’05 stands in the bathroom doorway, unchanged since the time of FDR, and explains that the toilet never stops running. (Staff photo by Justin Ide)

Perhaps the most tangible – and daily – connection between the current residents and the former U.S. president is also the most private. The suite’s bathroom retains its original fittings, with a marble sink, clawfoot tub, and pull-chain toilet serving as charming, if somewhat inconvenient, reminders of the room’s history.

“Mike flushed the toilet first, and he described it as a tornado jumping out of the bowl,” said Ferrante of the running commode with an overhead tank. “A little finesse is all you need. You just jiggle the chain,” he said, demonstrating his technique to stop the flow.

“The weirdest part of the toilet is knowing you’re sitting where FDR sat,” he added as Stromberg nodded in reverence.

“We channel FDR in the bathroom,” said Stromberg, only half-jokingly.

The current residents’ enthusiasm for the suite’s past is not lost on House Co-Master Palfrey. “What pleases me is the fact that the students appreciate it as much as they do and they’ve taken such good care of it. That’s as it should be,” he said. Still, if Harvard’s housing shortage eases in years to come, Adams House may reserve the rooms for visiting guests, not students, he said.

For Donahue, Ferrante, and Stromberg, living with the legacy of Roosevelt’s Harvard days goes beyond history to cast one of the past century’s most influential men in a fresh new light.

“We all know FDR as this world leader,” said Ferrante. “Here, you see him as a student, never having held office, not so different from us.”