Where the President played Parcheesi

Climb the worn white marble steps to the second floor of the old Masonic Building on Northampton's Main Street, turn left around the wrought-iron elevator cage, and on a glass office door you can still read the name of the town's most famous lawyer -- Calvin Coolidge.

Here, wrote Coolidge, "I fully expected to become the kind of country lawyer I saw around me, spending my life in the profession, with perhaps a final place on the bench."

The law firm, Coolidge & Hemenway, no longer exists, but the door has been preserved. Through it went his secretary, Ernestine Perry, to personally deliver on foot checks for his bills. She performed this errand early each month, leaving, we are told, no debt unpaid.

Years later, Coolidge noted:

"I know very well what it means to awake in the night and realize that the rent is coming due, wondering where the money is coming from with which to pay it. The only way I know of escape from that constant tragedy is to keep running expenses low enough so that something may be saved to meet the day when earnings may be small."

"Coolidge's whole philosophy as President," Elwood Allen, Northampton's Coolidge buff, explains, "was economy --was very economical and succeeded with it.

"Mr. Coolidge was very popular in Washington. Do you realize that only once -- even in all the voting for Franklin Roosevelt -- only once did Roosevelt exceed him in the plurality?"

Elwood continues: "Of course, Roosevelt had a dynamic personality. Mr. Coolidge didn't.

"But Coolidge was dead honest. I know that when Coolidge said a thing, he meant it."

Mr. Allen lives around the corner from the former Coolidge office, on the third floor of the old wing of the Hotel Northampton. From his room in the center of town you can look across the street to the site of the office of Hammond & Field, where Coolidge read law. Next door to the hotel is the granite Hampshire County Courthouse where Coolidge was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar.

A short drive takes you to the Coolidge home at 21 Massasoit Street, one-half of a two-family he rented from 1906 until he returned to Northampton at the end of his presidency in 1929.

Nothing typifies the economy and simplicity of the man more than this frame house. Nothing contrasts quite so strikingly with the world of money and power that Coolidge came to move in.

Asked to nominate him for president in 1920, Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge declared in anger:

"Nominate a man who lives in a two-family house! Never!"

At the Massasoit Street home, Coolidge and his wife, Grace, raised their two boys, John and Calvin Jr., and led a relatively average middle-class American life during the early years of the century. It included little traveling or entertaining, and no car.

Coolidge wrote about this house:

"We liked the house where our children came to us and the neighbors who were so kind. When we could have had a more pretentious home we still clung to it. So long as I lived there, I could be independent and serve the public without ever thinking that I could not maintain my position if I lost my office."

Photographs tell the homey story today: the family playing Parcheesi in the living room, Calvin Jr. and his father working on a soapbox car, and the boys and their father draped in an American flag in the front yard, Thanksgiving, 1919.

Mrs. Coolidge liked to tell about an incident that occurred here not long after they were married. She had tried to duplicate the apple pie her mother-in-law used to make -- with little success.

When two of her friends stopped by, Mr. Coolidge recommended they try some of the pie.After they had eaten, he turned to them and asked, "Don't you think the road commissioner would be willing to pay my wife something for her recipe for pie crust?"

Elwood Allen speaks of Coolidge's deadpan humor:

"He was a very quiet man, but you know what somebody said to him one day? 'How is it you're so very quiet?' Coolidge answered, 'I've always been able to make enough noise to get what I want.'"

When Coolidge returned to the Massasoit Street house in 1929 he did not stay long. Disturbed by sightseers and reporters, he bought a large secluded, shingled house, called "The Beeches." It was somewhat removed from town and protected by gates and fence.

He was driven by limousine to his office every working day. In the afternoon he had the undisturbed freedom to walk the white collie Beauty and the red chow Tiny Tim.That house stands at the end of Hampton Terrace, still aloof yet gracious.

After Coolidge's death in 1933, his wife had a lovely brick home built on Washington Avenue, not far from Massasoit Street. She named it "Road Forks," and it sits pleasantly on a corner lot, attractively landscaped with rhododendrons.

The closest thing to a presidential library for Calvin Coolidge is Northampton's Calvin Coolidge Memorial Room at the Forbes Library on West Street. Portraits of him and his wife by Howard Chandler Christy dominate the room. His was under consideration for hanging in the White House by the Reagan administration.

Summing up his appreciation for Coolidge, Elwood Allen comments:

"There's this thing about Coolidge: The presidency had sunk to a new low under Harding. By his integrity Mr. coolidge restored the presidency to a nobler aspect. He was very humble himself, but he respected the office."

After choosing not to run again, Coolidge wrote:

"We draw our presidents from the people. It is a wholesome thing for them to return to the people. I came from them. I wish to be one of them again."

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