Campus & Community

FDR slept here:

4 min read

Adams House triple boasts impressive history

Stephen Stromberg, Michael Donahue and Matthew
Harvard University sophomores Stephen Stromberg, Michael Donahue, and Matthew Ferrante (from left to right) live in U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's old Harvard room. Previously a professor's office, the room was opened for student housing this fall for the first time in more than 30 years. (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 housing 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.”

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 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 1900-1904, 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 U.S. showing which states elected him president.

Plaque in FDR's old dorm
Students who live in the room once occupied by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harvard College Class of 1904, have erected a small shrine to the former president. (Staff photo by Justin Ide)

And although much of the FDR memorabilia that decorated the room is now in archives, 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 per year — he paid for what at the time was a private dormitory on Cambridge’s “Gold Coast.”

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 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, who see this suite as just desserts for a freshman year spent in 1970s Canaday Hall, living with the legacy of Roosevelt’s Harvard days goes beyond history to cast one of the last 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.”