The elephant in the room at the Harvard Club is the elephant.
I mean that literally. There is a large elephant head jutting out from the wall of the Gordon Reading Room, an amazing space that is three stories tall.
A friend took me to the club recently for lunch and as we were entering the dining room he said: “make sure you don’t miss the elephant.”
It’s not something you miss. It’s been there since 1909 and while it isn’t a secret, the club doesn’t go out of the way to promote it on the Web site.
The Old Guard may like the elephant, but on balance it’s not going to help recruit new members. You don’t see animal heads on the wall at Zero Bond or Soho House.
A photo on the Web site shows a young, diverse crowd, which, based on my very limited one-day sample, seems aspirational.
I say this neither to bury nor praise the elephant. I don’t have a dog in this fight.
What is fascinating is how the elephant illustrates a challenge organizations, companies and institutions face: balancing the tension between tradition and the future.
The club has a large menagerie of animal trophies ranging from Cape buffalo to elk. There are also a large number of tapestries, rugs and oil paintings, the vast majority portraits of white men.
Those are visible links to almost 120 years of history. It’s a wonderful place to sit in a red leather armchair, discuss geopolitics and sip espresso.
But you don’t have to be Don Draper to realize animal trophies are a bit of a marketing liability in 2022.
The elephant wasn’t shot, as some assume, by Teddy Roosevelt. It was bagged by Thomas G. Sewall, an alumnus of the class of 1897, who later lived on a 45,000 acre ranch in Africa.
According to a post by club curator Mary Saunders, Sewall brought back animals including a lion, warthog, rhino horns and a cheetah. By 1960, the club’s collection included 50 trophies.
The elephant was shot before 1907. The animal was skinned in Africa, packed in preservatives and shipped to the world’s most famous taxidermist in London.
Saunders describes the process like this: “An armature was made, and covered with sculpted clay and plaster to define the wrinkles and musculature. The entire sculpture was cast and replaced with paper maché, sealed in shellac, over which the pliable hide was mounted.”
You realize it takes an extraordinary effort to preserve and mount an elephant head.
Much more effort than it takes to shoot the animal.
The architects McKim, Mead & White opposed hanging the elephant on the wall. They said it didn’t match the decor.
But there it stayed until 2015 when it was taken down for restoration.
One challenge: “taxidermists treating historic mounts are rare,” according to Saunders.
That explains why the club’s herd is gradually being culled as animal trophies deteriorate.
You can try to hold on to the past, but eventually the future arrives.
The Harvard Club is a complete male white
privilege anachronism. It was close to my corporate law department office. I dined there a few times, attended some lawyer events. Absolutely stultifying. Pretensions of London gentlemen’s clubs from another era. Even went to a wedding reception there once. Same for the Yale and Princeton clubs. In the early 2000’s there was a “strike” of sorts by Harvard Club employees. Not sure what happened but they were closed for a while. Sell the building, donate the profit to some worthy anti racism social justice effort to partially atone for last sins.