Warren House: Charles Beck

Criterion B
Charles Beck (1798-1866)

Charles Beck, born in Heidelberg and holder of a doctor of philosophy degree from Tübingen, emigrated from Germany in 1824 with Charles Follen, the prominent Unitarian minister, both of whom became refugees from their native country for their liberal political beliefs.  Beck lived first in Northampton, where he taught gymnastics at the Round Hill School established by historian George Bancroft, became a U.S. citizen, and married Louisa Augusta Henshaw (1799-1830), youngest daughter of Judge Samuel and Madam Martha Hunt Henshaw, prominent landholders in Northampton.

In 1831, Beck married his wife's older sister, Theresa Henshaw Phillips (1791-1863), the widow of a Boston wholesale hardware merchant, Edward Phillips (1782-1826), and in 1832 was called to be University Professor of Latin at Harvard.  In 1833, the house at 12 Quincy Street was constructed for Beck and his second wife, their daughter, Anna Louisa Beck Möring (1833-1891), and Mrs. Beck's two children, Edward Bromfield Phillips (1825-1848) and Theresa Henshaw Phillips (1827-1856; baptized Miriam Mason Phillips, Miss Phillips changed her name ca. 1847).

Beck held his academic post for 19 years, resigning in 1850 to pursue private business interests.  A vice-president of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Beck later received an honorary doctor of laws degree (1865) from Harvard.  From 1850 to his death, Beck was extremely active in local political and business life, serving as a president of the Cambridge Savings Bank and as a representative to the General Court in 1862 and 1864.  As a devoted supporter of both the abolition and Unionist causes, Beck founded and drilled with a private volunteer militia, the Twelfth Unattached Company.  An ardent horseman, Beck died March 19, 1866, following a stroke that occurred while he was riding with his daughter and the Harvard riding master.  Stores in Cambridge were closed during the time of his funeral, at which Harvard President Thomas Hill and Cambridge Mayor J. Warren Merrill were pallbearers.

Beck was part of a first wave of German scholars at Harvard who helped to introduce a pedagogy that became a critical component of curriculum reforms achieved under President Charles W. Eliot (1869-1909), who instituted modern liberal arts and science educational standards unknown in early 19th-century Harvard.  Beck's entry in the Dictionary of American Biography states:

"… though he lacked something of the constructive imagination which the truly great scholar must possess [, h]e was one of those who introduced into the United States the scholarship of Germany, which made the teaching of the classics more alive … and he must be included among those whose influence led the ambitious young American scholars of the two following generations to study in German universities."

Beck was also memorialized in a noteworthy building constructed by his daughter, Anna Möring, in 1876.  Beck Hall (N. J. Bradlee, architect; demolished 1940), located on a triangular portion of the family's property at the intersection of Harvard and Quincy Streets and Massachusetts Avenue, was a four-story brick Victorian Gothic building constructed as Harvard Square's first luxury private dormitory.  The cynosure of elegance, Beck Hall housed the wealthiest of Harvard's students and spawned the construction of a bevy of similarly luxurious private dormitories, popular until the university's undergraduate housing policy changed to forbid off-campus living (see Harvard Square NR District, 7/27/88).

A curious feature of the house frequently mentioned in accounts of its architecture is the presence of a "secret room" between the first and second floors.  The room, a few feet high, is accessed through a trapdoor in the second-story hall floor.  It appears to occupy space in the headroom above the first floor basement stairwell and communicates with the basement via an enclosed shaft with a metal spike ladder that runs alongside the basement staircase (probably removed during the renovation of the house and the installation of a kitchenette in the rear central hallway in 1995-97). Workmen uncovered the room in the 1940s. It was said to have been carpeted, hung with drapes, and contained a metal bed and small bureau.  Hardware on the trapdoor seems contemporary with the 1890s finishes of the second and third floors but the date and function of the room are unexplained.  

Apocryphal accounts link Professor Beck's fervent abolitionist beliefs to the room, asserting it to be an underground railway stop.  Without further research into Beck's associations with the abolition movement or a closer examination of the materials and construction of the room, it is impossible to determine its antecedents.