Psychologist William Runyan, PhD, toured down Irving Street in Cambridge, Mass., in October to see for himself if the rumors were true--whether a developer was really turning the former home of the founder of American psychology into luxury condominiums.

To his surprise, a fundraising Halloween party hosted by a real estate agent was in full swing at the spacious four-story house at 95 Irving St. Eager to see the grand library where William James wrote "Principles of Psychology," Runyan bought a ticket and took a self-guided tour.

"Just being in the house was an honor and a meaningful experience," says Runyan, who, at the time, tried to imagine how it looked sans fake cobwebs and orange party balloons. But the large dumpster outside and the gutted kitchen made the fate of the house startlingly clear--it's going condo.

Developer Jill Ruge bought the William James house in June 1999 from its most recent owner, psychologist William Estes, PhD, after Harvard University chose not to exercise its right of first refusal, which allows a buyer to purchase a home by matching another bid. And the Cambridge Historical Commission (CHC), which administers the city of Cambridge's historic districts, had approved Ruge's proposed changes to the house.

These events distressed Runyan, who was on sabbatical from the University of California, Berkeley, as a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, as well as neighbors of 95 Irving St. and some Harvard faculty. They'd all thought the house was a historic landmark because it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as one of Cambridge's historic homes, as indicated by a blue oval marker in front.

But the house had never been declared a historic landmark. According to the commission, the blue markers don't offer any protection from "inappropriate change." And the owner of any National Register property can make changes to the interior and exterior, provided those changes are privately funded.

Now a neighborhood coalition and other scholars are calling for the city to grant the house landmark status. That would give the Cambridge Historical Commission control over future changes to the house exterior. And while it looks like landmark status will happen this fall, that won't prevent the developer from moving forward with the condominium plan. [The developer would not grant an interview with the Monitor for this article.]

But Runyan is hopeful that something might be done. Through his research, he's found that other historic homes have suffered similar fates and been preserved years later. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello briefly became a silk farm after Jefferson's death in 1826 and was privately owned until it was purchased and preserved by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. Therefore, he won't discount the possibility that a group of scholars or preservationists might one day regain ownership of the house.

"My hope," says Runyan, "is that the house can still be preserved or restored as a museum, the residence of a distinguished scholar or a cultural site of some kind."

James's Elysium

Ruge supposedly intends to invest $1 million to renovate the house, a staggering figure compared with the $15,000 James spent to build the house in 1889--a sum that reportedly kept him awake nights, worrying.

James moved his family into the house during the fall of that year. Letters to friends and family are full of snippets about his fondness for the house, especially its grand library-study--which is 22 feet wide and 27 feet long with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. To his brother, novelist Henry James, William wrote, "At home I am in Elysium. I didn't know that material comfort could do a man such inward good."

At Irving Street, James completed "Principles of Psychology," "Varieties of Religious Experience," "Pragmatism," and other works that earned him recognition as a preeminent psychologist and philosopher. James hosted students such as Mary Calkins and Gertrude Stein, scholars such as Hermann von Helmholtz and Josiah Royce, and allowed graduate student Edward L. Thorndike to raise the infamous chickens he used to study animal intelligence in his basement.

James lived there until he died in 1910. James's wife lived at 95 Irving St. until her death in 1922, and members of the James family occupied the house through the late 1960s. After that, a Harvard University administrator occupied the house, and in 1979 William Estes bought the house with the provision that Harvard University had the right of first refusal to buy it when Estes wished to sell it.

Estes proudly considered his home an extension of the Harvard psychology department, which is housed in Harvard's William James Hall. Estes and his wife hosted parties for the department to welcome incoming psychology students, talk about James and explain the house's rich history.

"When Estes had the house, it was a valuable resource for the psychology department," says Sheldon White, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard who's been following the controversy about the house. "But when they were selling it, there wasn't much the department could do."

Harvard chose not to purchase the house mainly because Cambridge city restrictions won't allow the university to use a Cambridge residential property for an academic building, only for faculty housing.

"The university has tremendous space demands right now, and our focus is more on academic space needs," says Kathy Spiegelman, associate vice president for Harvard planning and real estate. "There wasn't any interest among the faculty to purchase the house, and when the value goes up and we don't have other faculty interested, we don't exercise the option to buy a property."

Estes, who is now a distinguished scholar in the psychology department at Indiana University at Bloomington, was unhappy with Harvard's decision to pass on buying the house.

"My wife and I were happy that the live role of the historic James house in the Cambridge academic community could continue for the 20 years of our ownership and are disappointed that Harvard has chosen not to help continue this tradition after our departure," says Estes.

A Cambridge landmark

Estes's former neighbors and psychology colleagues were also disappointed, but they weren't about to give up. In February, neighbors petitioned for the house to be declared a designated landmark, and concerned neighbors and scholars wrote letters to the Cambridge Historical Commission about the house. The neighbors group also contacted the The Boston Globe, which ran an article about the controversy in February.

The outpouring of concern prompted the Cambridge Historical Commission to initiate a one-year historical study on the house in March, which protects the house for up to one year while the commission conducts a historical and architectural review of it. CHC's executive director, Charles Sullivan, feels confident that the city will grant landmark status to the William James house.

"[Landmark status] will mean that any future alterations to the front would have to be approved by the Cambridge Historical Commission," says Sullivan. "We will also create guidelines for the future administration of the house as a landmark."

In the meantime, however, Ruge can move forward with changes that were approved before the historical study period was initiated, which include installing an elevator, adding a garage and building a porch off James's library.

Neighbors' concerns about Ruge's plans to change the exterior have led to several negotiations among Ruge, the neighbors and the Cambridge Historical Commission about the size and the architectural style of the planned additions.

Since negotiations began, Ruge has trimmed her plan of building two two-car garages to one two-car garage. In addition, she's interested in restoring original features of the house: James's descendants installed a black-and-white checked foyer floor that Ruge plans to replace with hardwood floors true to the original house, says Sullivan.

Runyan sees the impending landmark status and Ruge's preservation efforts as somewhat encouraging.

"William James is a central person in American psychology, philosophy and intellectual history, and the country is defined in part by how we handle such cultural legacies," says Runyan. "I feel that William James's life and work are important enough to make people want to preserve the home, and my guess is that still may happen."

Further Reading

For more information on Cambridge landmarks, historic districts and landmark status, visit the Cambridge Historical Commission's Web site at http://www.ci.cambridge.ma.us/~Historic/.