Westmorly Court, the stately brick building on Bow St., had all the trappings of the most lavish dormitory in Adams House. With its dark oak paneling and diamond-leaded window panes, it was so luxurious that when Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904, called the building home, his housing costs were nearly double the price of tuition.
Though the interior has faded slightly with age, traces of Westmorly’s former opulence remain. When I pull open the curved doors to A entryway, I step into a red-carpeted lobby fit for a small metropolitan hotel. To my immediate right stands a gargantuan granite fireplace. It spans the entire wall from floor to ceiling, with a hearth deep enough to walk into and two pillars, thick as tree trunks, supporting its sides. Before the days of central heating, you could hurry in on a cold winter evening, take a fireside seat, and warm up before heading upstairs to bed.
But if you take more than a cursory glance, it becomes clear that something is off about this fireplace. The octagonal pillars are faux and oversized, too new and too bulky. They’re not solid stone but rather panels painted light gray, a slightly different shade than the granite behind them. Someone has tried to make them look as though they belong but didn’t quite succeed. I knock on one of the pillars. It’s hollow. What’s behind there?
After nearly a year of research and reporting, I would come to learn that what’s behind the panels are in fact the two original stone pillars, each adorned with three gargoyle-esque sculptures. The six figures crouch at the top of the pillars, impishly posed as if they’re holding up the mantel on their backs. But these aren’t your standard-fare Gothic grotesques — they’re racist caricatures. Little men with their proportions twisted and exaggerated, a heavy-handed rendering of “civilized” and “uncivilized” races. And they’ve been covered up.
Those panels weren’t always there.
In her senior year of college, Cory A. Ransom ’19 lived in Westmorly Court, and her route home would take her through the A-entryway lobby. She normally whisked right past the fireplace on her way to her room. But one day, as she lingered in the lobby to chat with a few friends, her eyes caught the sculptures, then in full view.
“I happened to look up, and I saw the — I guess it’s a very poor depiction of the African man, the savage,” Ransom recalls. “I remember taking pictures of it being like: ‘this is insane. It is insane.’”
Next to “the savage” was a figure ostensibly meant to represent an amalgamation of Indigenous cultures, wearing a large, feathered headdress and a ring in its protruding nose. Together, the trio of figures on the left pillar depicted an African, Indigenous, and Asian figure holding a club, a ball, and a stick respectively, as if they were participating in sport or war. In contrast, the right-hand pillar depicted figures with European features participating in learned activities; a monkish figure held an open book.
Ransom was taken aback. “I’ve walked by it a million times before,” she says, “never even noticing that there’s this blatantly racist image of how the people who built it saw me and saw my people.”
A handful of other Adams House residents had noticed the sculptures, too. Amelia Y. Goldberg ’19 took photos of the fireplace in October 2018 and brought up the issue with the Adams House faculty deans at the time, John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67 and Judith S. “Judy” Palfrey ’67, who both retired in 2021. Goldberg says the deans told her they knew about the fireplace, and it was “on their radar” to address.
By the time Westmorly residents returned from winter break in 2019, construction around the fireplace had begun. Two massive, hollow pillars — colored as if to mimic the granite, with architectural flourishes made to look like they belonged — were built to surround the sculptures.
Carmella Verrastro ’19, who lived in Westmorly that year, says that when she returned from winter break, “they had just plastered these weird columns over the statues.”
“I was like, wow, they’re really going to cover it up like that and not say anything about it?” she says.
Three years later, they still haven’t. Since spring 2019, the figures on the fireplace have been hidden behind semi-permanent walls, out of sight and out of mind. Harvard College and Adams House administrators have never formally, publicly acknowledged these racist sculptures, nor the fact that they were boarded up.
Administrators say it wasn’t the right time to draw students’ attention to the fireplace without a clear process in place to subsequently handle it; they were awaiting further guidance from several different committees across the University tasked with examining visual culture issues.
Nearly all of those committees have since completed their work, and all of their reports have recommended holding transparent conversations to confront the uglier aspects of Harvard’s past. But in the case of the racist sculptures, such conversations have yet to take place as administrators continue to dawdle. They seem committed to avoiding the subject instead, stonewalling curious students as well as my own reporting efforts.
This literal and figurative cover-up has garnered criticism from recent Adams alumni who want Harvard to practice the transparency it preaches — the right time to talk about the fireplace in Westmorly Court, these former residents say, is right now.
“It was a surreal experience that something this grotesque was in the building I lived in,” Ransom says, reflecting on the sculptures. “The reminder that Harvard was never built for people like me to be there. It’s honestly really hard to find words.”
The entryway where the fireplace is located was built in 1902, four years after Westmorly Court first opened. Michael D. Weishan ’86, who maintains the historic Westmorly suite where FDR once lived, wrote that “Westmorly Hall of 1902 was newly built to house the newly rich.” Before Harvard established its house system, Westmorly was a private dormitory where only well-to-do students could afford to live.
The dorm was designed by the architectural firm Warren & Wetmore as an early project in their burgeoning partnership. The pair would go on to build even more palatial commissions, like Grand Central Station and the New York Yacht Club.
Crimson articles written in the dorm’s heyday — and even those published after Harvard purchased the building in 1920 — lauded its grandiose decor.
“Adams House is all things to all men,” a 1933 Crimson article read. “To the aesthete it is a gold-plated reconstruction of the glories that were Venice with a touch of Florentine, Aztec, Neo-Platonic, and Colonial influence.”
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article from 1937 described Westmorly as having all the “Pompeiian extravagance” of a social club: a private swimming pool, “exclusive squash courts,” liveried servants who attended to students’ electric push-bell calls or pressed their garments. It was a way of dormitory life that was distinctly white, male, and upper-class.
Decades later, Ransom says she was still “feeling the weight of being a Black woman at Harvard.” Race was “at the forefront” of her mind amid the affirmative action admissions trial in her senior year, and that burden, combined with the racist sculptures “hidden in plain sight” as she returned to her room each day, left her exhausted.
In this undated photo, a student uses the Westmorly fireplace, with its then-exposed sculptures, as a climbing wall.
Though they had all brought up their concerns about the fireplace to their deans, neither Ransom nor Verrastro nor Goldberg ever got a follow-up. But unbeknownst to them, Adams administrators had been privately deliberating about the fireplace since at least 2017, as a result of students’ complaints over the years. The faculty deans were working alongside the House Renewal Advisory Committee (HRAC), which dealt with issues related to the forthcoming Westmorly renovations, to figure out what to do with the fireplace.
Dean of Administration and Finance Sheila C. Thimba, the College’s liaison to this committee, was the only administrator willing to tell me on-record what the sculptures appear to depict. Thimba says the fireplace issue kept being raised by students within Adams House, and the Palfreys sought to address it toward the end of their tenure as faculty deans.
“They were saying they haven’t done anything about it, but they feel not great about never having done anything,” Thimba says. “We covered the fireplace as a temporary way of dealing with the issue.”
According to a 2019 email correspondence between administrators I obtained, house renewal architect Nathaniel F. R. Rogers ’05 was tasked with going to Columbia University, which holds many of Warren & Wetmore’s papers, to research the architects and their fireplace. He came up with little information on what the artist intended the figures to represent, according to the email. (Rogers and his firm, Beyer Blinder Belle, which is handling the ongoing renovation of Adams House, declined to comment, directing my inquiries back to a College spokesperson.)
“We were able to find some information, but not as much information as we would have liked,” former Faculty of Arts and Sciences Assistant Dean Merle Bicknell, who sat on the HRAC, tells me in an interview. In one of the emails between administrators, Bicknell expressed her reluctance to engage students before understanding more of the fireplace’s history.
I didn’t have any more luck — I enlisted a Columbia journalism student to visit the archive, and they confirmed it held only scant references to Westmorly Court. At other archives both at Harvard and around Boston, I couldn’t locate substantive information on the fireplace.
Regardless of the artist’s specific intentions, though, the sculptures are steeped in the context of the Gilded Age’s exclusive social values and are undeniably problematic by today’s standards.
“There were numerous such sculptures at other colleges and institutions in the era … that were intended to mark groups that needed civilization and elevation to full western civilization status,” George E. Thomas, who leads the Critical Conservation program at the Graduate School of Design, wrote in an email after reviewing photos of the fireplace sculptures.
Thimba says the HRAC and the Palfreys consulted Harvard faculty, art historians, and Adams House affiliates. Ultimately, she says, Adams affiliates decided that the figures should be removed.
“The house leadership team felt strongly that the figures in question were incompatible with the house’s longstanding ethos of inclusivity,” former Adams Resident Dean Adam Muri-Rosenthal wrote in an email. “Plans were put in place for the [figures’] removal.”
But according to Bicknell, the fireplace could not be carted off so easily, as its stone is structural to the building. A full removal would have to wait until Westmorly went under the knife in phase three of the Adams House renewal process. (With Randolph Hall renovations underway, Adams is still in phase two, after delays due to Covid-19.)
When asked about the long-term removal of the whole fireplace, Thimba says, “It’s been decided that it will need to be decided.”
For the meantime, the house renewal architects and the HRAC presented the Palfreys with a few alternatives. The particular blocks containing the sculptures could be sent to a museum and replaced with plain granite. The fireplace could be left as-is but contextualized with some sort of plaque nearby. It could also be obscured from view.
Opening up discussion on the fireplace was not something the committee was keen on, for fear of vandalism and subsequent disciplinary action, Thimba says. She was reminded of the 2016 case of a Yale employee who was fired for smashing a stained glass window that depicted enslaved people.
“This was on our minds, that the more attention brought to this and the more conversation is happening about there not being action around some of these issues, the more likely we would have an [Administrative] Board case come out of this where somebody has destroyed property and you’re in this ugly moment,” she says.
Keeping the fireplace intact and contextualizing the figures with a plaque or description was also not something Thimba felt was appropriate. After all, the architects didn’t have much archival material to reference, and a plaque would only attract more eyes to the fireplace.
“What would make it make sense to keep it and then drive additional attention to something that we were thinking, as a group, we would rather not draw attention to?” Thimba asks, rhetorically. “Well, if there’s a contingent of folks who walk by it and never notice it, we certainly don’t want them to notice it now, right?”
Shots of the left pillar’s statues, which are purported to caricature an African person and an Indigenous person, taken before the carvings were encased.
So the Palfreys decided to board up the fireplace pillars. According to Thimba, this was intended as a stopgap measure until they received more information on which to base a discussion. At the time, a number of committees were springing up around the University to address, at least in part, the problematic artifacts of Harvard history.
In an emailed statement, Judy Palfrey wrote that “we did not hold house wide meetings because we understood there were college-wide committees forming to look at all such objects and learn their provenance and meanings.” She added: “We felt that this process would be inclusive and would provide the kind of teachable material that we did not possess at the time.”
“Doing nothing is not really an option,” Thimba says, recollecting the decision-making process at the time. “We need to do something, but we can’t do something permanent yet … So let’s cover it and hope that by the time we need to make that permanent decision, the various committees and various panels that were supposed to speak to these questions would have given us some guidance about how to think about problematic art.”
But when that guidance did come, it seemed to indicate that covering up problematic imagery without public discussion — as the deans had already done in boarding up the fireplace pillars — might do more harm than good.
Judy Palfrey wrote in an emailed statement that at the time she and her husband decided to cover up the fireplace pillars, they were waiting for recommendations from three different committees: the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, the Working Group on Symbols and Spaces of Engagement, and the HRAC. Aaron M. Goldman, a spokesperson for the Dean of Students Office, wrote that Thimba was waiting for the same groups’ recommendations.
The Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging primarily set University-wide diversity and inclusion goals, rather than specific guidelines on campus art like the fireplace sculptures. Its final report only broadly recommended that the University’s public art should display “values of excellence, inclusion, and openness as well as [convey] how those aspirations both grow from but also transcend our history.”
Then came the College-specific Working Group on Symbols and Spaces of Engagement, which analyzed how such “symbols and spaces” affect the undergraduate learning environment. Its report concluded that artwork representing “‘exclusivist’ elements of Harvard’s past” are often found in spaces that students frequent, such as their residence halls. The report quoted one student who said, “It’s one thing to encounter these images in public spaces, and quite another to have to live with them in our own spaces.”
The chair of the working group, professor Ali S. Asani ’77, says that although the fireplace was not a focus of the group’s discussions, it came up as an example of a symbol that can cause harm, and working group members were divided on potential solutions.
The working group solicited students’ opinions on whether offensive symbols should be removed or contextualized in place. “There was a strong sense among students that the argument for retaining offensive symbols and artwork in residential spaces must be especially compelling to justify doing so,” their report concluded. “Many students feel that they should not have to live with seeing such artwork daily in a space that is supposed to be their home and sanctuary.”
Still, Asani says he believes that the Westmorly fireplace sculptures shouldn’t be removed outright.
“Works of art like that — they’re part of Harvard history,” Asani says. “You can’t erase the history; you need to acknowledge it.” He would like to see the offensive fireplace juxtaposed with a “counterpoint,” such as an audio tour that highlights the diversity of people who lived in the dorm.
Asani’s report further identified a lack of a clear process for making decisions about house art and the visual culture of “the most trafficked spaces on campus” more generally. And when it comes to altering these heavily-populated spaces, the report says, “change cannot happen without transparency and a clear understanding of what is possible.”
Shortly after, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay announced an FAS-wide group that could formalize such a process — the Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage. The initiative aimed to determine not only which symbols ought to be displayed on campus but also how these decisions ought to be made.
This group was not cited by Judy Palfrey as one that would guide the ultimate fate of the Westmorly fireplace. However, Asani says the task force was in part a successor to his College-specific working group; Thimba, the HRAC liaison who dealt with the fireplace, was a task force member; and the task force’s chair, Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin Kelsey, confirms that the fireplace came up “in passing in a particular discussion” as an individual case to “help us think through the issues.”
“Many people expressed their concern about the values [the fireplace] represented. No conclusions for next steps were drawn,” wrote task force member Dan Byers, who is the director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
In an interview, Kelsey stresses the importance of holding open discussions before making decisions on pieces of art like the fireplace. “We’re going to have situations where some members of our community are going to want to keep the visual culture the way it is, some will want to contextualize it, some will want to replace it,” he says. “And it’s these conversations that are going to be essential for the community to have.”
The task force recommended following a standardized (if slightly generic) process: identifying stakeholders, holding discussions, and bringing in experts. It emphasized that this process should be transparent, and students should play an active role.
“We learned that what concerns our community is less the institution’s past than its willingness to share honest and inclusive accounts of it,” the report read.
Finally, Judy Palfrey told me they were waiting on a report from the HRAC to make long-term decisions regarding the fireplace — as did Thimba, who leads the HRAC. I asked Goldman, the Dean of Students Office spokesperson, to clarify what this report is or will be, to which he replied: “The House Renewal Advisory Committe[e] works closely with the House Renewal Executive Committee on various items related to each of the House Renewal projects.” He added that “there is not a publicly available report” from the HRAC.
But the reports that are publicly available, as well as the committee members who contributed to them, echo a similar sentiment — problematic art on campus ought to be discussed out in the open, and student voices in particular are essential in the decision-making process.
In the case of the Westmorly fireplace, however, these bureaucratic recommendations have failed to translate into action.
The Presidential Task Force had published its final report in early 2018, before the fireplace encasings even went up after the fall 2018 semester; Asani’s working group finished its work in early 2020; and Kelsey’s task force finalized its report in December 2021. In other words, report after report over the years has recommended transparent discussions about Harvard’s symbols and spaces in order to foster a more inclusive, historically conscious campus environment. Open acknowledgement of visual culture issues, they say, is a crucial first step. Yet Adams administrators and the HRAC remain unwilling to call public attention to the racist sculptures even today.
“I don’t feel comfortable opening up this question without knowing how we are going to work on it,” Thimba says.
When I ask her if she has any photos of the uncovered fireplace, Thimba says yes, but she won’t let me see them: “I’d rather not.”
At the end of our interview, she nudges me to “cast a wider net” on campus issues of race. There are many other things at Harvard I could be looking into instead, she suggests.
This wasn’t the only discouragement I faced as I tried to piece together the story of the Westmorly fireplace. None of the administrators I asked were willing to share sketches and photographs of the fireplace in their possession; despite my best efforts, I still don’t have clear photos of the “civilized” European figures on the right-hand pillar, only a verbal description from Thimba.
According to the email correspondence between administrators I obtained, Rogers — the house renewal architect — found an original sketch of the fireplace stored in the Harvard Planning Office archives, known as the Property Information Research Center. At PIRC, I requested to view a sketch of the A-entryway east lobby wall, where the fireplace stands. The request was denied.
“I forwarded your request to the building owner and they have decided to not release the materials,” a PIRC archivist wrote to me in an email.
Through my reporting, though, I obtained an architectural sketch of the fireplace with the exact same description as the one I requested from PIRC. I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) to find that the sculptures in the sketch were barely visible, much less racist — a drawing so innocuous overall that it hardly seemed worthwhile to keep from me.
When I initially asked the Palfreys about their role in handling the fireplace, Judy Palfrey did not respond, and Sean Palfrey declined to comment.
“That is a complex and sensitive issue that had our input early on but is now being handled at a Harvard Admin level,” Sean Palfrey wrote in an email. I asked him to clarify his involvement. In a follow-up, he wrote, “the whole thing is uncomfortable and we’re no longer directly involved, so I’d rather not comment.”
In an interview about the visual culture task force he led, Kelsey said he remembered little from the brief discussions the group had about the Westmorly fireplace in particular. When Kelsey was pressed further about the racist sculptures, FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane said she would cut the discussion short if the line of questioning continued.
When I followed up via email to ask when the FAS began assembling the visual culture task force Kelsey led, Dane declined to answer further questions for the story.
With the exception of Thimba, all current Dean of Students Office administrators and all current Adams House administrators I contacted have either not responded to or declined my interview requests. All members of the House Renewal Advisory Committee except Thimba and Bicknell, who is now retired, either declined to comment or did not respond to my inquiries. Associate Dean for Inclusion and Belonging Alta Mauro and Associate Dean of Students Lauren E. Brandt declined to comment. Current Adams House faculty deans Salmaan A. Keshavjee and Mercedes C. Becerra ’91 did not respond to a request for comment. Adams House Building Manager Jorge P. Teixeira and House Administrator Matthew Burke declined to comment. And none of the Adams House race relations tutors whom I reached out to — including one who lives in the suite immediately next to the racist fireplace — responded to inquiries for this piece.
Thimba says that the decision to board up the fireplace sculptures was in part motivated by a desire to protect Adams residents.
“I fear that drawing a lot of attention to this particular thing is going to actually silence the people who actually have to live with it,” she says.
But “no matter the intention, covering up a harmful symbol, whether in the public square or in a dormitory, without acknowledgement, public process, or dialogue often leads to further confusion,” wrote Paul M. Farber, whom I consulted about the handling of the fireplace. He is the director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based studio that examines the history and impact of public art.
Asked if they could recall anything about the Westmorly A-entryway fireplace, dozens of former Adams residents from 2019 or earlier couldn’t remember a fireplace at all. The few who did confirmed, unsurprisingly, that there was no public acknowledgement or discussion surrounding it.
Verrastro remembers her frustration with the silence that resulted from this lack of attention.
“I was so mad because they didn’t acknowledge it. They didn’t put a statement out or anything,” she says. “We kept pictures of the statue[s] because we were like, ‘no one is ever going to believe us.’”
Because she took a gap semester, Verrastro stayed for the fall term after her senior spring. By then, what little talk there was about the fireplace, which had primarily taken place among Westmorly A-entryway seniors, had all but evaporated.
“We need to have these conversations,” she says. “As a person of color, there’s a lot of things at [this] institution that remind you that it wasn’t made for you … so it was hard when they didn’t recognize that.”
Farber, the director of the Monument Lab, wrote that without timely acknowledgement of “a wound” such as this one, the onus of discussion often ends up burdening students like Verrastro: “the efforts to narrate and counter such harmful and toxic depictions fall back on those who are most impacted and raise the concerns in the first place.”
Ransom says she still has mixed feelings about how the fireplace was handled.
“It felt like slapping a Band-Aid on it. Like it was an issue they didn’t want to have to touch,” she says. “I’m happy they did the bare minimum in covering it, but the damage was already done. I knew it’s under there.”
To Ransom, the renovations are an opportunity to uproot the racism that is quite literally structural to Harvard.
“We just have to keep covering things because it’s built in,” she says. “To undo it you’ll have to break down the entire thing. Deconstruct it, kind of like what they’re going to do when they remodel Westmorly.”
House renewal discussions on Westmorly Court will likely resume by December, with the hope of breaking ground on renovations in June 2023. The fate of the fireplace is anyone’s guess — from my interview with Thimba, it was unclear what either the HRAC or Adams House’s new faculty deans, Keshavjee and Becerra, plan to do with it. Thimba says she has yet to have a thorough briefing with the new deans about the issue.
Each time I walk past the Westmorly fireplace, I pause to let my gaze linger. I imagine myself seeing past the panels, straight through to the figures on the other side.
When you’ve stared at the structure for as long as I have, you start to notice the little details: the decorative swirls on the cast-iron shield over the firebox; the stone floor streaked and smudged by years of footsteps and soot; the inner panel of the left pillar that’s cracked ever so slightly ajar, practically daring you to move it and take a peek.
And one more thing. On the wall above the mantel, directly above the racist sculptures and the fake pillars that were built to conceal them, hangs the Harvard crest — a giant red shield inscribed with the word “VERITAS.”
— Felicia He and Sophia S. Liang contributed reporting.