Wright house holds Webster's furniture, other antiques

by Kristen Grauer | 11/18/03 6:00am

Most Dartmouth students only know the President's house as the stately, red brick mansion across from Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity, where as freshmen, the President welcomed them to the school. Inside the buildings hallowed walls, however, the decorations and furniture represent the rich and unique history of Dartmouth and its presidents.

No matter the quantity or significance of the art and furniture in the President's House, it is still a home where the President and his family actually reside, not simply a museum.

"We are proud of everything here. There is a rumor that we don't really live here, but we really do, and we feel really comfortable here," James Wright said. I think this is a historic place on campus, and we very much respect the house and consider ourselves the caretakers, but at the same time it is our home; it is where we live."

The first president of Dartmouth, Eleazar Wheelock, arrived in Hanover in 1770. Wheelock originally resided in a log hut where Silsby Hall now stands. Due to the lack of water close by, he relocated in front of the current Thornton Hall and also built the first college building, a two-story structure which stood on the southeast corner of the Green. Throughout the years, presidents changed the location of their homes on campus eight more times before President Ernest Martin Hopkins erected the home on 1 Tuck Drive, where President and Susan Wright currently reside.

The current mansion was built in 1926, The original funding of $50,000 was a gift of Edward Tuck, class of 1862, but the house ended up costing a total of $112,500 to build. A small plaque near the main doorway of the home recognizes Edward Tuck's far-reaching benefactions. Built by architects Peabody, Wilson and Brown, the President's house was built in the Colonial Revival style, typical for that time.

In a senior thesis written on the history of the house by Stephen Brodheim '99, Brodheim writes that this choice of architectural style was significant because the Colonial Revival exterior of the house maintains social, political and ancestral traditions associated with the founding of the country, and College. Thus, the style of the home forges a spiritual link with the College's ancestors.

Susan Wright enthusiastically points out the symmetry between the front and the back of the house as another indication of the house's link to the past. Indeed, the back of the house is identical to the front and was once used as the front, the side to which visitors would come and inhabitants would leave. Even today, a path from the back of the house down to Tuck Drive remains, and it is for this reason also that the offical address of the house is 1 Tuck.

Spatially, the house is divided into two spheres, private and public. The living room, dining room, reception room and entrance hall form the formal ground floor suite, providing public space large enough to accommodate the variety of college functions that take place there; around the suite are rooms for leisure and outdoor living like a library, a porch, and brick garden terrace. College events also take place downstairs in the "function room."

When the house was under construction back in the 1920s, then President Ernest Martin Hopkins wanted it to be centrally located, and 1 Tuck Drive proved the best option. Halfway through its construction, however, the president wrote in a letter to Treasurer Halsey Edgerton that, "it seems perfectly clear to me now, as I see the thing actually in progress of development, that it was probably a mistake to have put the house in conjunction with Fraternity Row." These sentiments were due to the noise, music and lack of privacy that came with living so close to Frat Row.

President Wright does not find the location to be bothersome, however, and said, "By and large, we have some pretty good neighbors," and his wife added that "we would expect to have some noise living with students."

A sizable portion of the original furniture collection came from the estate of Anton A. Raven, a Dartmouth English professor who died in 1955. In 1994 Mrs. Berkeley Fairfax Jones left the sofa, which is thought to have belonged to the lawyer/statesman Daniel Webster, Class of 1801. A set of six Chippendale style side chairs also from his estate were given by Dr. Frederick Sanborn in 1969, and in the dining room stands a federal sideboard given by Mr. And Mrs. Bradley Dewey, Jr. The gifts were all a result of donors' fondness for the College.

Besides these gifts, the collection changes with each resident. Although each family has maintained the colonial and neoclassical style furniture, they have each left their own unique mark on the collection, adding and removing pieces to make the house better reflect their respective personalities.

Following in this tradition, the Wrights have made a sizeable contribution to the their home. They have integrated notable works in a wide variety of media by European and American artists, objects they acquired in Asia and works by contemporary artists.

The Hood Museum has loaned the Wrights much of the artwork on the walls, but a significant amount is also from the Wrights' personal collection. The darkly foreboding "Landscape" by Guardi hangs above the fireplace in the living room, but look to the opposite wall, and the mood of the room is completely reversed by the bright "Blue Harbor," by Paul Starrett Sample. Another fascinating work in the living room is the "Travertine" by Boghosian, a mixed media construction from rock north of Athens on loan to the Wrights from the Hood museum.

Susan Wright has a fascination with the East and has scattered artifacts from her travels there around the house, including a Chinese polo player in the living room and the tiny silver Chinamen on the dining room table, all of which add a unique and exotic touch.

The array of signed baseballs in President Wright's study complement the more formal works of art. Wright, who is according to his wife a huge Red Sox fan, has baseballs signed by Carlton Fisk, Bill Lee, Willie Mays, Luis Tiant and Minnie Minos.

The house is also filled with period and reproduction furniture. There is a sectioned dining room table with reeded saber legs, a chest of drawers with oval brasses and a handsome federal sideboard and a set of 12 chairs derived from Greek klismos, all of the Neoclassical style.

Furniture of the Colonial style includesthe Chippendale easy chair in second floor study, the Chippendale chest in the dining room and a remarkable set of Chippendale side chairs owned by Webster.

Each of the 14 side chairs in the dining room represents a specific Dartmouth President. Each seat is embroidered in needlepoint with images that commemorate one president of the college. Together, the seats tell the stories of the presidents of Dartmouth College and the history of Dartmouth College.

The Bennet Tyler chair is an example: as president, Tyler discontinued daily chapels and admitted the first black student, both of which are illustrated pictorially on his chair.

The seats for the first 12 chairs were designed by John Scotford, who served as the college designer, and embroidered in needlepoint by Christina Dickey (Mrs. John Sloan Dickey).

The Kemeny chair was designed by R. Alden Burt and worked by Eleanor Smith (Mrs. David P. Smith '35), and the McLaughlin chair by John Scotford and stitched by the Dickeys' daughters, Sylvia Dickey and Christina Stearns.

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