History of these Halls: The legacy of Harrison Tweed

On April 17, 1959, the President of Sarah Lawrence, Harold Taylor, sent a letter to the 20 students living in Glen Washington House informing them that a ceremony would take place there on Tuesday, May 5 in order to name the house after Board of Trustees member, Harrison Tweed. He wrote them in the hopes that they could join in the festivities. Lloyd Garrison, Chairman of the Board, opened the event. “This is the first time I’ve ever brought a meeting to order with champagne glasses,” he announced.

Harold Taylor then presented a plaque bearing the inscription of the house’s new namesake. “It’s very heavy. I do not know whether I can stand up to this,” Tweed remarked as the plaque was handed to him. Contrary to his concern, however, in the eyes of his colleagues and the students, he did stand up to it.  Tweed was remembered as “a man of the world, educator, jurist, writer, sailor, and person of great character”. He was said to be a proponent of social justice and placed value in the education at Sarah Lawrence. He served as President of the American Law Institute, was former president of the American Bar Association, an overseer of Harvard College and former president of the Harvard Alumni association. He also worked to reform the courts in New York State following the Second World War. There was an award named after him, given still to local and state bar associations, to increase access to civil legal services as well as criminal defense services: Harrison Tweed Medallion, created by the American Law Institute.

Tweed was born in 1885. 18 years later, he nearly refused to go to Harvard Law School had his dad not bribed him with a polo pony, which Tweed then proceeded to take with him to university. Upon arrival, he studied with nothing short of determined diligence. Many years later he arrived on the Board of Trustees at Sarah Lawrence College, where his career led to the naming of Tweed House, a distinction that, in his words, made him very “proud and happy”.

Plans for buying the Tweed House first emerged on paper in 1954, during Tweed’s Board membership. At this time, the building was referred to solely as the Brost House, after Ray F. Brost, its owner at the time. After the College purchased it, it was dubbed Glen Washington House—a name marked by brevity as the house was renamed Tweed soon after in 1955. Originally, the residence was the solution to the pressing need to expand living facilities for students. Tweed House was seen as an investment for the future campus, and a place where at least 15 to 18 students could live during the coming year. For a short period of time, retrofitting Tweed in order to accommodate a faculty apartment was also an idea but, evenetually, the plans for student housing were realized. An old floor plan of the building shows various bedrooms, a living room, library, powder room, breakfast room, and a playroom and laundry room in the basement, among other spaces, thus enough room to admit the desired number of new students.

In addition, Ray Brost left most of the existing furniture to the College. This included a good number of rugs, oak desks, venetian blinds, a ping-pong table and a Coca Cola machine, among other items. Harold Taylor, president from 1945-1959, was a close friend of Tweed’s and wrote in one of his many letters to him, “It is a damn good house and there could be no better man anywhere whose name should be on a part of an American college. Bully for you! As ever. Signed, Harold Taylor”. Now, the former Brost house stands as a nod to Tweed for the years to come.

Tweed’s career at Sarah Lawrence began in 1940 when he was voted in as a member of the Board of Trustees, by a ten to one majority. He served as a member for 14 years, as Chairman for eight and spent a year as President of the College in 1959 (immediately before Esther Raushenbush accepted the job). He occupied many roles and weighed in on issues facing the campus at any given time. At the onset of his career at Sarah Lawrence, one issue facing the world at large, as well as the college, was the Second World War  and the political and economic climate surrounding it. Tweed’s response in partnering with faculty, students and administrators during this time came very early on in his time at Sarah Lawrence, and he handled it with clarity and focus. Constance Warren, president of the college from 1929-1945 wrote to Tweed in 1942 to discuss the situation.

“Dear Mr. Tweed, I want very much to have a chance to talk with you further about the specific things you think the College ought to do with regard to the war”.

At this time, students at the college were participating in training for pre-medical work, and laboratory assistance; they were studying mathematics and physics in order to enter one of the three-month courses offered at technical colleges, if they wished to work in aviation or munitions plants. A number of students were being fit for civil service examinations and for positions in Washington requiring economic and statistical training. Many were taking Red Cross First Aid and Air Raid Warden courses as well as automobile mechanics and nursing aid courses. Tweed corresponded frequently with Warren on these subjects. He also asked about the presence of a war committee of the students, saying that it would be interesting to hear from them. In addition, he sat on the Trustee War Committee “discussing possible changes due to war conditions”.

As these trials came early in his career, it seems they gave him the foundation upon which to build the rest of his time at the college. Tweed spent 25 years total at Sarah Lawrence.  He retired in 1965 and became an honorary trustee from 1965-1969, a time frame marked by frequent visits to the college as well as the people whom he had befriended there. Well into his retirement, parents would ask if he could put in a good word for their children’s admittance to the school and, though his official duties had ceased, he still did. He also continued to play a significant role in decisions there, despite his retirement. Though he could not always be on campus in person, his letters proved frequent whenever something new should go into effect at Sarah Lawrence. For example, in 1966, when the proposal came along to make Bates a space more central to activities, he was consulted by Raushenbush, President at the time. In this case his response was: “in general I am entirely sympathetic to the plan to move more activities to the vicinity of Bates, although, of course, it will introduce some difficulties for those who do not like walking uphill”.

Here, joke aside, he would often remind Rausenbush of the “wonderful job” she was doing in her presidential role. Thus, his humor and capacity for support was ever-present. Taylor was another figure with whom he joked endlessly. Their numerous letters, telegrams, correspondences of all sort stand as evidence for Tweed’s wit and commitment. One evening, both were guests at a dinner party given by Raushenbush. Taylor later told Tweed his impression of the evening. “I have never heard you in better form, nor have I ever seen anything better calculated to make everybody feel at home, to put them in the mood for celebrations, and to give that sharpness of wit to an evening”. This is one of many letters demonstrative of Tweed’s character. Tweed also gave a great deal of time to his family; he had three daughters and, during one summer, toured New England, camping in a trailer with the entire family. Other summers were spent in a similar manner, in castles in Ireland, or Austria. Towards the end of his life, his movement became more and more restricted, and he wrote to Rausenbush, in a letter dated 1967, “the going doesn’t get any easier”. Tweed passed away two years later.

Harrison Tweed was once described—at a Sarah Lawrence event in his honor—in terms of the weather: “when the barometer is falling, the Tweed spirits rise to face whatever bad weather is ahead”, an accurate summary of his contributions to Sarah Lawrence, as well as his overall demeanor.

by Svea Conrad '17
sconrad@gm.slc.edu

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