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The Hidden Treasures of Phelps House

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The Phelps House holds items passed down through many generations of head of schools.

For over 100 years, each Head of School has lived in Phelps House, a cozy home at 189 Main Street recognizable by its grand wooden door, overhanging balcony, and the occasional blue flag. As a result of its rich history, Phelps House has accumulated historical treasures within its walls.

Phelps House has two identical chairs from the late 1800s, on one of which George Washington sat in during his visit to Andover. Because there is speculation about which of the two chairs Washington actually sat on, visitors are encouraged to sit in both.

“[Madam Phillips] immediately covered the chair, and nobody sat on it until [Washington] died… If we were to pull all the upholstery out, underneath it says which one it is. But we haven’t done that, although I’m thinking now maybe we should,” said Head of School John Palfrey.

John Palfrey continued, “You can sit in both of them, and then you will have definitely sat in the chair that George Washington sat in. [George Washington] of course is a major figure in our history. He is now much more complicated, because of how he’d been a slave owner and so forth in our retelling, but at the time he was completely venerated.”

The so-called ‘George Washington chair’ is not the only indicator of Phelps House’s rich collection of Andover history. Built in 1812, Phelps House was originally meant to attract a professor of “Pulpit Eloquence” at the Andover Theological Society (ATS). Pulpit Eloquence, also known as homiletics, is the study of the art of writing and preaching sermons.

David Chase is a former resident of Phelps House and the husband of Barbara Landis Chase, fourteenth Head of School. According to David Chase, an ATS donor named William Bartlet originally built the house for a professor named Edward Dorr Griffin, who taught Pulpit Eloquence.

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In 1994, the house was renovated and designed to display aspects of the Academy’s hstory.

According to David Chase, Griffin was considered very difficult to work with and left Andover suddenly, much to the embarrassment of the faculty.

“In order to get the [professor that Bartlet] wanted, he offered to build whatever house this guy requested. And the man he chose was named Edward Dorr Griffin, and the reason Phelps house is so… much grander than any of the others… is because Edward Dorr Griffin had an enormous ego, thought great things of himself and decided, ‘Well, if I’m going to go to little old Andover out in the sticks, I’m going to have a wonderful house.’ And William Bartlet said, ‘You just tell him to get a design for the house and I’ll build it for you.’ And he did,” said David Chase.

Phelps House is also a birthplace of American literary and theological history books. In the backyard of Phelps House, there is a small teahouse off to the side of the lawn. According to David Chase, this teahouse was where Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, author of “The Gates Ajar,” wrote said novel, which would later become a massive success.

“Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who is today the most famous person to live at Phelps house… from the 1840s until the 1890s, she was brought up there. And she, in the 1860s, became a bestselling author, and the teahouse was her writing room,” said David Chase.

Additionally, early American theologians pursued their goals in Phelps House under the supervision of the ATS.

Calvinist initiatives and the largest Protestant missionary movement also began at Phelps House, according to David Chase. In addition, David Chase said that the “organized temperance movement,” which promoted moderation particularly around intoxicants, and the first religious newspapers in the U.S. were planned in Phelps House.

David Chase said, “So a whole bunch of things having to do with religion, old time religion, were hatched in that house.”

In addition to literary and theological history, Phelps House also contains several pieces of Andover’s own origin, such as a desk belonging to Samuel Phillips Jr., the founder of Andover. While the desk appears relatively normal, it houses a small, secret compartment in the back. When the middle drawer of the raised shelf is pulled back, a narrow space is revealed.

David Chase explained that the compartment may have been used by the Phillips family for reasons of commerce and business.

“That secret compartment is terrific. When that desk was made, and the Phillipses were a very wealthy family, they had lots of business going on, and where would they store documents? Well, in the desk. And if you had a document that was very private for one reason or another, like somebody’s IOU that you really wanted to safeguard, it would go into that secret compartment. It was sort of like your strongbox,” said David Chase.

When he lived in Phelps House, David Chase and Barbara Landis Chase decided to declare the bottom floor of their house “public space” by opening it up to the students, faculty, and staff of Andover. This tradition has been upheld by John Palfrey, who sees the top and bottom floors of the house as two spaces with entirely separate connotations.    

“When the house was renovated after Ms. Chase became the Head of School in 1994, we thought that it would make sense to try and use it as a place that presented, and to some degree, interpreted, the history of the Academy. So we searched around, found a lot of things that we thought belonged in the house, and presented that first floor in that way. The kids loved it, and the faculty were interested in it, the trustees loved it, so it worked, and the Palfreys have continued that tradition,” said David Chase.

John Palfrey said, “It’s really beautiful, but it is a little museumlike. So I sometimes think we live in a really nice apartment above a museum that functions sometimes like a nice restaurant… And you can see, one of the things that you could talk about doing writing about the treasures of Phelps House, I think the house itself is the main treasure.”

Jack Palfrey ’21, who grew up in the house, emphasized this point, stating that the age of the house not only creates a historic ambience, but also a museumlike quality. 

“I very much like living in the house. It’s over two hundred years old, which gives it a cool and historic feel. It has a few aspects that make it seem like a museum at times. I also like being in the center of campus,” said Jack Palfrey.

There are books everywhere in Phelps House, something that John Palfrey describes as one of his favorite parts of every room. Both antique and modern books line the walls, including one especially unique book passed down to John Palfrey by his great-great grandfather and twenty-sixth President of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt.

“Just one thing I will show you are some of the books, just because they’re kind of fun. This room itself I think is really beautiful. Many of these books have been here for a long time and actually some of them are really quite boring. ‘The Art of School Management for the Nineteenth Century’ is actually not that interesting, but I’ve tried to read it.” said John Palfrey.

John Palfrey continued, “This particular book has been handed down in my family. This was Theodore Roosevelt’s, and then he gave it to his son, who was my great-grandfather. So my great-great-grandfather gave it to my great-grandfather, and he wrote in it; ‘Theodore Roosevelt Junior, now Theodore Roosevelt Senior, gives this, his favorite old Longfellow,’ it was a series of Longfellow books, ‘To Kermit Roosevelt… October 10th, 1901.’ So it’s kind of neat that you can see kind of a story of a family told through these books.”

In addition to Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s book, there are other Palfrey family relics in Phelps House. When John Palfrey was appointed Head of School, his parents found a piece of silver and presented it to him as a Christmas present.

“It says, ‘To John Gorham Palfrey from the family of John Phillips,’ and I think the year might have been June, was it 1828, maybe, or 1823. Anyway, it turns out that this particular John Gorham Palfrey went to [Phillips Exeter Academy] near the founding of the school and became very close to the Phillips family, and he was an abolitionist and a professor at Harvard and a congressman and so forth. Anyway, he stayed very connected to the Phillips family, so I thought this was very eerie, you know, in a way that our family would be connected to the Phillips right from the very beginning,” said John Palfrey.

Resting on top of the antique desk that belonged to Samuel Phillip Jr. is an engraved hammer. The hammer has been passed down to John Palfrey through seven generations.

“Most of the things I’ve described so far have been of the founding family of the school, but there are a few little connections to my own family. So this hammer… says something like ‘This hammer is the only object I possess, given to me by my mother.’ And it was from, there have been a lot of John Gorham Palfreys, and this was the first of the John Gorham Palfreys. And this is an item that has been passed down generation to generation. It’s the only thing that he got from his mother. So it’s kind of a sweet concept,” said John Palfrey.

John Palfrey explained that, while he has strived to maintain the historical integrity and importance of the house, the house has been updated for modern day needs.

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“I would say mostly, we have not done anything. We have mostly tried to keep it exactly as it is, in part because we want students to have the experience of what it might have been like close to 1812 when it was built,” said John Palfrey.

He continued, “We haven’t done a lot in that particular way… One thing we’ve done [is] in the back you can see we’ve put [up] solar panels… so [it] is not in the part of the house you necessarily would see… I also have an electric car, and I really like the idea of having solar panels that power an electric car.”

Jeffrey Kao ’19 says he appreciates Phelps House’s sense of community, especially as a participant of Pease House and John Palfrey’s annual milkshake tradition. Each year, members of Pease House join John Palfrey for milkshakes, conversation, and the card game “Apples to Apples.”

“I really enjoy [Phelps House’s] sunroom. I’d say that’s definitely my favorite room in his house because it’s set up for really nice, comfortable, relaxed conversation… My second favorite part is definitely, he’s got nice ceramic plates as decoration. I just find that really interesting because it adds a very nice zest,” said Kao.

Over the course of their residence at Phelps House, both John Palfrey and David Chase have added touches from their respective families and personalities. Currently in the house are several of John Palfrey’s personal mementos, as well as an allusion to his time at Exeter.

“[I like] these pictures with the Bushes, in part because they serve an Andover story, but in a two-day period, I got to fly down to [Dallas] and saw President George W. Bush [’64] at his presidential library, and he gave me a copy of a book he had written, and I then flew the next day to Houston… and then saw his father [President George H.W. Bush ’42] at his presidential office, and I can imagine there aren’t that many people in the world who have been able to meet two presidents in two days, both of whom went to the school,” said John Palfrey.

The Palfrey family has also added non-historical mementos to their home.

“This Dumbledore wand was a gift, when I first got this job, a good friend of mine sent it to me. So that has nothing to do with the history of the house, but it’s meant to be whimsical,” said John Palfrey.

One of David Chase’s favorite antiques in Phelps house is one of two grandfather clocks, located on a staircase landing and facing the front door.

“It’s an incredibly elaborate, inlaid clock of cases, and it’s attributed to a now-famous Massachusetts cabinet maker named Nathan Lombard,” David Chase said.

In spite of all the treasures in Phelps House, said that the house itself is still his favorite ‘treasure,’ according to David Chase.

David Chase said, “[The house] is an extraordinary place and has served the needs of the school and then earlier, the Andover Theological Seminary, for more than 200 years.”

He continued, “It was initially a bit of a scandal because it was so grand… Well, be that as it may, now, two centuries later, everyone in the [Andover] community gets to enjoy this beautiful house.”

Oct 12, 2018