Warren House

Beck-Warren House

United States Department of the Interior
National Park Service

National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet

Beck-Warren House
Cambridge, Middlesex County, MA

The Beck-Warren House, built in 1833 for Harvard Latin professor Charles Beck and owned from 1891 to 1899 by Sanskrit scholar Henry Clarke Warren, is a two-and-a-half story Greek Revival single-family dwelling with a five-bay, center entrance plan, double end wall chimneys and flanking one-and-a-half story wings set flush with the main block walls. The walls are sheathed in narrow clapboards, the foundation is of dressed granite, and the pedimented gable roof, which contains a half-round window on the façade elevation, is slate shingled.  A three-bay wide Greek Doric porch shields the entrance.  The main house is framed with wide Doric pilasters, while the flanking wings have broad, registered quoins at the corners.  A short, one-bay wide service ell occupies the center bay of the rear wall.  A two-story, hip-roofed porch of buff brick with Grueby tile screening and capitals, added in 1897, rises at the southeast rear corner.

The house presently stands within a densely developed complex of academic buildings just east of Harvard's main campus, Harvard Yard (NHL, 12/30/70; NRD, 12/14/87), in the block formed by Harvard, Quincy, Broadway and Prescott streets.  The house has been owned since 1899 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College, which has used the property as a philosophical library and, since the early 20th century, as the home of the Harvard English department.  (Since 1997, when the English department moved into the newly renovated Barker Center, the house has been occupied by the Committee on Degrees in Folklore & Mythology, Celtic Languages and Literatures, and Women's Studies; the latter of which was replaced in 2008 by offices of the Humanities Center.)  Beck-Warren House is contiguous to six academic buildings, five of which are individually listed on the National Register (Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 3/2/90; Dana-Palmer House, 5/19/86; Fogg Art Museum, 5/19/86; Harvard Union, now the Barker Center, altered in the mid-90s, 1/26/87.)  The sixth, the Faculty Club, was constructed in 1930 and altered in the 1960s.

The Beck-Warren House was moved 130' north of its original location in 1900 (but still within the boundaries of its original lot) to enable the construction of the Harvard Union (McKim, Mead & White, 1901; now the Barker Center).  Originally set on an 80,000 square foot parcel known as "Beck Park" for its extensive orchards and gardens, the house is now tightly bounded by later buildings, albeit within a well-kept setting of landscaped walkways and grounds.  A pencil-and-watercolor rendering of the house, probably executed around the mid-19th century, gives a sense of its original setting and appearance.

When Henry Warren purchased the house in 1891, portions of the interior were extensively remodeled for his use; although much of the exterior remained unchanged, some elements were altered in the then-popular Colonial Revival style.  Sashes, most of which are original, are narrow-muntin, six-over-six double-hung set in casings that are topped with simple projecting cornices, but some second-story sashes may have been replaced in kind (ca. 1891) in woods to match new interior treatments.  A box bay on the second story of the east wing and an east-facing shed-roofed dormer with a series of small, round-arched awning windows were added in the remodeling and, as the rendering of the house makes clear, the original main entrance was modified.

The present entrance treatment consists of a simple Greek Revival casing from which the wood-muntined transom and sidelights (shown in the rendering) and double-leaved doors were removed.  Elaborated lead fan- and sidelights were installed, along with two raised-panel doors in the Colonial Revival style.  A remarkably ornamental 19th-century exterior door survived in the basement of the house, but is no longer there; it featured paneling decorated with applied jig-sawn scrolls and anthemia.  While it appears to be too wide to have been one of the original pair of front entrance doors, the door is probably original to the house and may have been used in another location.

Another likely Colonial Revival-era alteration was the substitution of wide, registered quoins on the wings for the narrow cornerboards indicated in the rendering; those quoins are disproportionate to the otherwise lightly-scaled character of the wings.

Notable features of the original exterior include the plan of the house and its Doric entry, while the brick porch at the rear is the most exceptional exterior feature of the later construction phase.  The house's symmetrical rectangular plan, with a two-and-a-half story main block and subsidiary one-and-a-half story wings that occupy the full depth of the house, suggests a design usually intended for a country setting.  It is exceptional within the local context (there being no other examples of that plan in the city) and recalls the original siting of the house within park-like grounds.  Of equal note is the archaeologically-correct execution of the Doric portico, constructed at a time when vernacular interpretations of classical architecture were the norm in the quiet, semi-agrarian town that Cambridge was in the 1830s.

The 1897 rear porch stands two stories tall with an enclosed ground floor surmounted by a loggia with brick piers and glazed tile balustrades.  The loggia appears to have been designed to allow for some screened or glazed enclosure: the space can be heated and the pier capitals are cut back in a way that suggests that sash could be set between them.  The tiles, in a perforated oriental pattern, and lotus-leaf capitals have a blue-green glaze.  Designed by H. Langford Warren, founder of the Harvard School of Architecture in 1893 and a charter member of Boston's Society of Arts and Crafts, the porch was published in The Brickbuilder (November, 1897 and August, 1898) as an example of the Grueby Faience Company's work.  (Langford Warren was unrelated to Henry Warren.) 

The interior of the Beck-Warren House is exceptionally sophisticated, both because of the highly decorative nature of original and later features and of the uniquely-adapted finishes installed ca. 1891 for Henry Warren.  In plan, the house contains a central hallway running the depth of the building.  The main stair rises three stories on the west side.  There is no back stair at present, but 20th-century alterations for the offices that now occupy the building undoubtedly account for its removal. 

On the ground floor of the main block on the east side are a dining room with kitchen behind and, on the west side, a double parlor running the depth of the house.  There is a small anteroom at the rear of the center hallway in the projecting ell.  The wings each contain a pair of rooms.  It is likely that the second floor plan originally mimicked the first, with a full-depth double room on the west side above the parlor and a pair of rooms on the east side.

As altered by Warren, that plan was apparently extended so that the second story consisted of two large rooms running the depth of the house, with a bathroom at the rear of the center hall.  On the east side, the room was further enlarged by removing the ceiling, adding a dormer, and constructing a gallery at the third-floor level.  The half-stories above the wings contain several ancillary spaces.  The third floor consists of a series of closets (including one containing the cistern for the original plumbing) and small servants' rooms that ring the top of the stairs.  A door off the stairhall gives access to the east-side gallery.

Original surviving fabric is most evident on the west side of the first floor, where the double parlor and paired chambers (probably built as an office and library for Professor Beck) survive virtually intact, the only alteration being acoustical tile that has been applied to the ceiling of the parlor (and since removed in the 1995-97 renovations).  The parlor contains a particularly elegant Corinthian-columned archway at the room's center.  All of the windows in this section, as well as those in the house's original dining room on the east side of the ground floor and one window in the small anteroom at the rear of the hall, are set in splayed reveals with interior shutters.  Window and door casings throughout the house feature cornerblocks with carved rosettes, while virtually all of the original six-panel interior doors and their hardware survive.

Narrow modillion cornices crown all of the first floor walls, though in the entrance hall and dining room, additional mouldings appear to have been added ca. 1891 to make the cornices more robust.  In addition, the main stair was reworked ca. 1891 on all three floors in high-style Georgian Revival fashion with ballusters in three different spiral-turned patterns on each treat.  Narrow dadoes and original baseboards survive in several rooms, and, in the kitchen, tongue and groove panelling to the dado and an exposed brick chimney face recall that room's original function. One wall of the first-floor rear anteroom has marble wainscot, possibly indicating early use as a bathroom or pantry.  Early mantels and stove hardware include a blond European marble mantel in the northwest office, a lancet-arched gray marble mantel in the southwest office, and a pair of black marble mantels in the parlor.  The mantelpieces and chimney breasts in the dining room and southeast office are Colonial Revival replacements.

The second and third floors display fully the Colonial Revival alterations of the 1890s, though remnants of original fabric remain.  To a remarkable extent, the upper floors reflect the special needs of Henry Clarke Warren, disabled in early childhood with a severe spinal injury that left him virtually immobile for the rest of his life.  The second story was remodelled as a living suite of two large rooms, enabling Warren to reside principally on that floor.  These included a bed chamber on the west side and the double-height east chamber (sometimes described as Warren's dining room but more likely a library), plus bath and, after 1897, sunporch.

The west chamber is now divided into two rooms, but in Warren's remodelling was treated as a single large room.  The north and south walls are identically paneled in oak, with built-in bookcases and shallow closets.  Both chimneys have elaborate Georgian Revival mantels supported on scrolled consoles and are set within paneled overmantels and surrounds.  Warren also added a large skylight to the room that spans the partition which now divides it.

An original feature of the chamber are three cased beams detailed with Greek key mouldings on the lower face.  These span the width of the west room and intersect with the paneled overmantels, suggesting that the space may have been open in Professor Beck's tenure.  What is now the southwest room contains one of the unique features of the house: a space created by closing off the façade end of the stairhall and adding to it a raised platform that Warren used for a bed.  Heated with hot air registers, wired with a call bell for assistance, and indirectly lit by glazing fitted into the hall paneling and by the window of the second-story center bay (which was shielded from drafts with an inner window of patterned glass), the platform can be completely shut off from the chamber by pulling down an overhead tambour door.

On the east side, from what must have been two separate chambers, Warren created a large, oak-paneled room open to the roof and circle on the upper level by an arcaded gallery with a low balustrade of strapwork.  Lit by the east-facing dormer and, before the installation of a paneled partition at the north end (probably added when Harvard acquired the house), by pairs of windows on the north and south walls, the room also contains a large skylight, now covered over.  Also ornamenting the room are a pair of fireplaces set with glazed ceramic tile in Oriental motifs and sets of bookcases built into the endwalls.

A run of wide stairs on the east side of the room, now floored over, once communicated through a double door with the sunporch to the rear and with a small room in the upper level of the east wing, which was fitted with built-in aquariums. (It is likely that wide spaces such as the double door would have accommodated Warren's need to be carried up and down stairs, just as the size of the full-depth east and west rooms would have facilitated his movement within them.)

Also of note is the intact survival of Warren's ca. 1891 bath, tiled on the walls and ceiling with glazed white ceramic and on the floor with random brown tesserae.  The marble basin, overhead-tank toilet and bathtub are also original: the zinc tub fill one side of the room and contains a seat at one end and an overhead shower.  The porcelain toilet, of circular shape, is ornamented with a relief pattern depicting a basket of rushes and was originally embellished with gold leaf.  Adjacent to the toilet is a call bell, one of several extant on the second floor.

The second floor stairhall is paneled to plate-rail level with raised-field paneling with chrysanthemum-pattern anaglypta above.  The stair continues to the third level, terminating in a balustrade and spindle screen that circle the opening.  The stairhall, like the east and west chambers, contains a large skylight (now closed in) that would have provided natural lighting in the hallway.

Alterations to the major decorative and functional aspects of the house subsequent to Warren's ownership have been minimal.  Only the service areas of the ground floor, in the attics, and in the upper levels of the wings have been updated; those spaces have been converted to academic offices.

The Beck-Warren House is significant under criterion B of the National Register for its associations with two prominent 19th-century academic figures, Charles Beck, University Professor of Latin, and Henry Clarke Warren, a pioneering Sanskrit scholar.  It is significant under criterion C as an embodiment of the distinctive characteristics of the Greek Revival style with significant alterations in the Colonial Revival style.  It is also significant for the manner in which it was adapted for the use of a disabled owner, Henry Warren.  The Beck-Warren House possesses integrity of design, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.  Despite having been moved in 1900, the house also retains integrity of location, since it remains on its original lot.