Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2005


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Who was Mary Harkness?

Who was Mary Harkness?
Gov. Wilbur Cross, Trustee; Mary Harkness; President Katherine Blunt; and President of Student Government, Harriet Webster ’35 at the dedication of Harkness House. / Photo: Connecticut College Archives

The heiress who gave the College its chapel and a residence hall was a woman of few words, but she made her mark nevertheless.

by Barbara Nagy

It must have seemed obvious: Of course Mary Stillman Harkness would speak at the January 1940 dedication of the chapel she was giving Connecticut College.
She had given the College a residence hall six years earlier and visited regularly when she stayed at her summer home on Long Island Sound in Waterford. Many times she had told President Katharine Blunt that it wasn’t right for students to be attending religious services in the gymnasium.

As the chapel went up, it became apparent how much the project meant to Mrs. Harkness. Her husband, Edward, negotiated a prime location on a slight rise just off the College Green. To design the chapel the Harknesses chose James Gamble Rogers, well known for his classic “collegiate Gothic” buildings at Yale, Northwestern and Columbia — almost all of them funded by Harkness philanthropy.

Mrs. Harkness dismissed Rogers’ suggestion that the steeple be made of wood to save money. It had to be stone. She chose the color for the seat cushions (plum) and approved samples of glass for the windows.

But when it came time for the dedication, Mrs. Harkness wanted to be silent. She firmly, if politely, declined President Blunt’s invitation to speak.

“You know it is so painful to me that it would quite ruin the whole occasion,” Mrs. Harkness wrote in a letter that is preserved in the College archives at Shain Library. “May I not merely present you with the key, and say nothing?”

The service was the evening of Sunday, Jan. 14, 1940. Mrs. Harkness was no doubt beaming, perhaps in the broad-brimmed hat and fur wrap she wore for the laying of the cornerstone 18 months earlier. She ceremoniously turned a key over to President Blunt — and said nothing. The Rev. Henry Sloane Coffin, a close friend of the Harkness family, delivered the sermon.

Sixty-five years later, Harkness Chapel is considered by architecture critics to be a Rogers masterpiece. The windows alone are significant not only for their craftsmanship but for being perhaps the last major commission of artist G. Owen Bonawit. They are modeled on stained glass Rogers had seen at Oxford.

But what gives the building its true significance is the story of the unassuming Harknesses: Mary Emma, granddaughter of a prosperous Mystic shipbuilder known for his support of such social causes as abolition and temperance, and Edward Stephen, the introverted heir to part of the original Standard Oil Co. fortune.

From the time of their marriage in 1904 until Edward’s death in 1940, the Harknesses gave an estimated $120 million to a variety of charities and causes, large and small. Edward, in particular, liked to use his wealth to finance social change. He advocated greater access to health care and thought it should be more efficiently managed. His biggest legacy was higher education: With several major gifts Harkness helped Yale and Harvard restructure their residence hall system into decentralized “colleges” that he thought would help students make friends and learn some of the social values that a university education had traditionally offered. It’s easy to imagine why Harkness, who had a hard time making friends as a Yale undergrad in the 1890s because of his shyness, thought the change would be an improvement.

Mary Harkness supported a variety of children’s causes, health care and higher education. Her gifts to Connecticut College totaled almost $540,000, incredible for the 1930s. Through several major gifts of cash and property Mrs. Harkness also helped found the Marine Historical Association — now Mystic Seaport — on property that had been owned, in part, by her grandfather. She donated millions in artwork and artifacts to various museums (including a Gutenberg Bible she gave Yale in honor of her mother-in-law, Anna Richardson Harkness).

The story of the Harknesses is all the more intriguing for the little that is known about them personally. They had no children and lived relatively quiet, reserved lives. Their summer home was in Waterford, not Newport. They didn’t entertain lavishly. Their furnishings were understated and tasteful. They appreciated beautiful things, from formal gardens to Egyptian vases. She was more outgoing than he was, but it was a rare occasion when either spoke publicly. By one account, Edward Harkness never gave an interview in his life.

It’s obvious from Harkness family papers and Connecticut College records that the couple worked closely on the design of the chapel as well as the residence hall. He represented her in legal and technical dealings with the College, architect and builder; she dictated the design and kept track of progress with President Blunt.

Both Mary and Edward grew up in families that valued social responsibility and underwrote such causes as legal aid for the poor and higher education for women and African Americans. Edward was a professional philanthropist: He oversaw the family foundation — the Commonwealth Fund — created by his mother to manage Harkness wealth and research requests for grants.

Mary was wealthy, too, thanks to gifts from her father, prominent New York lawyer Thomas E. Stillman. When he died in a car accident in 1906, Mary and her three sisters inherited his fortune as well as their mother’s wealth from the Greenman family’s Mystic business.

Mary and Edward met in the Berkshires the summer of 1903; she was drawn by his quiet and sincere manner. “Here was a man whom I could trust,” she recalled later. She said she regarded his wealth as “a responsibility, and, in some respects a handicap against a normal private life.”

A front-page article in the New York Times the day after their wedding in November 1904 offers a glimpse into life in the Stillman household. Mary’s beloved childhood nanny, who appears to have been a former slave named Celia, showed up at the front door of the family mansion unannounced. In the back of her farm wagon was a special gift: a barrel of apples and a huge pumpkin — the biggest in all of New Jersey, Celia proclaimed. Mary’s father welcomed Celia and had the servants move aside some of the more costly gifts to make way for the apples and pumpkin. Celia was ushered upstairs to watch “Missy” dress for the wedding.

Mary was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but every summer the Stillmans returned to Mystic for an extended stay with her mother’s family, the Greenmans. Thomas Stillman Greenman, the youngest of three brothers who were partners in George Greenman & Co., built the family’s Greek revival home on Greenmanville Avenue in 1842, the year he married Charlotte Rogers of Waterford. Today the house is open to the public and used for exhibit space by the Seaport.

The visits to bucolic Mystic must have been an adventure for Mary and her three sisters. Their grandparents’ house was furnished in mid-Victorian style with heavy furniture, Brussels carpets and bric-a-brac brought back from around the world by captains of the ships made in the Greenman yard.

Greenman was an independent thinker, a liberal Republican with high moral standards and broad business interests. He was an abolitionist and a reformer, an evangelical Seventh Day Baptist known around town as someone willing to help the less unfortunate. Greenman also enjoyed tinkering, and held several manufacturing patents. His company had diversified its holdings after the Civil War, when shipbuilding surged briefly and then declined. The last Greenman ship was launched in 1878.

Thomas Greenman and Charlotte Rogers had five children. Elizabeth, Mary’s mother, was the only one to survive to adulthood. In 1865 she married Thomas Stillman, a New Yorker whose father had been born in Westerly, R.I. and was probably a distant cousin of the Greenmans. The couple moved to Brooklyn two years later. Thomas Stillman had started life in modest circumstances. His father, a civil and mechanical engineer, died when a boiler on a river steamer exploded in New Orleans. Thomas was 13. He put himself through Colgate University, apprenticed as a law clerk and worked his way up to a partnership in a Manhattan firm.

Elizabeth, Mary’s mother was quiet, calm and steady, with an unwavering faith in God.

After the death of her parents, Mary inherited the family home in Mystic and continued to spend summers there until she and Edward bought their Waterford mansion, Eolia, named for the Greek god of the winds. The Harknesses’ friend, architect “Gamble” Rogers, bought property nearby and developed the Black Point area of Niantic into a colony of summer homes. One of his sons, coincidentally, married a Connecticut College alumna: Henrietta Owens ’28. When Mrs. Harkness died in 1950 she willed the Waterford property to the state of Connecticut. It is now open to the public as a state park.

In January 1940, two weeks after the consecration of Harkness Chapel, Edward died of complications from an intestinal ailment. He was 66. Mary was soon supervising the publication of a biography of his life. In it, she said her partnership with Edward worked well because they balanced each other. Her quick, intuitive judgment and ready sense of humor blended perfectly with his serious, orderly thinking.

It’s easy to imagine Mary Harkness learned her judgment from her grandfather, inherited her sense of humor and adventure from her father, and got her faith from her mother. But who could have predicted she would have the life she did? Nothing in life is certain, Mary Harkness knew.

“I am glad that you are so pleased with the Chapel,” she wrote President Blunt in letter dated Dec. 20, 1939, one of a series in which Mrs. Harkness muses about declining health, the role of religion in the lives of college students, and the ominous events in Europe that fall. “It is always a lottery to know just how things are going to turn out.”

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