Lost under papers, a history: The story of Yale’s desks

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There’s an impostor sitting in the president’s office.

But the fraud is not University President Richard Levin — it’s the desk he’s sitting behind.

When distinguished lawyer Francis Patrick Garvan 1897 and his wife donated the desk — part of the University’s 10,000-piece Mabel Brady Garvan Collection — Garvan said the desk was made by famed mid-18th century British furniture maker Thomas Chippendale. When he became president in 1993, Levin found the desk in his office, still on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery.

With its detailed wood and brasswork, the desk matches the master’s style so closely that even a furniture connoisseur like Garvan was convinced, and he made it his own personal desk. But Levin told WEEKEND that more recent scholarship suggests the fraudulent desk was made almost a century later than it appears.

“From Yale’s point of view, it’s nice because it’s the desk of Mr. Garvan, who gave Yale such a significant collection,” Levin said. “It’s not an original Chippendale, but it’s a beautiful piece of furniture with a lot of ornate decoration.”

He added that atop this “beautiful piece” sits “a great picture of my wife, Jane.”

Today, Levin’s desk is one of the only pieces of furniture still lent out by the Yale University Art Gallery, said John Gordon, an assistant curator of American decorative arts at the Gallery. In the past, University administrators and college masters also borrowed pieces from the collection, but the policy ended several years ago, and most pieces have been returned to the Art Gallery.

Still, the desks of Yale’s administrators and masters have stories of their own, though many histories are fractured and unverified.

Perhaps the most historically compelling desk at Yale belongs to Penelope Laurans, Master of Jonathan Edwards College and special advisor to President Levin.

The front-drop desk is believed to have belonged to Jonathan Edwards 1720 himself. His family donated the desk to the college centuries later, along with the Joseph Badger portraits of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, which also hang in the Jonathan Edwards master’s house.

The desk sits in the master’s house framed on three sides by a series of cupboards, which are also assumed to have belonged to Edwards, though Laurans said she was less sure about the cupboard’s origin.

“I do not use it as a desk, it is rather fragile — it is on display in the house, though,” Laurans said. “There are little cupboards built around the desk, and it is said that Jonathan Edwards kept his sermons in the cupboards.”

Lauran’s work desk sits in the college’s master’s office, inundated by a sea of papers. The desk has remained tied to the position since the tenure of Beekman Cannon, who served as college master from 1961 to 1974.

Many of Yale’s desks have been tied to one position or another, though sometimes their histories have been less clear. Yale College Dean Mary Miller’s desk originally belonged to Henry Wright, who served as Yale College dean from 1884-1909. Since then, it has been used by every subsequent person to hold the post.

The desk is a “partners desk,” with a table laid over two large blocks. It is the same style as the “Resolute” desk that currently occupies the White House Oval Office, but unlike President Obama’s desk, Miller’s desk features a number of cabinets that face towards the visitor. She said it was likely that it had been used by two people in the past, with a set of cabinets for each person.

Miller added that she found a small document scotch-taped into a desk drawer, detailing the desk’s history, and she said she sent the piece to Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives. But archivists said they didn’t recall receiving any such document, so the story has since been lost.

Other desks at Yale are much less noticeable. University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer’s desk sits in a corner of her Woodbridge office, far away from the table where Lorimer has most of her meetings.

“When I arrived back at Yale, the desk in my office was about the size of a small aircraft carrier and didn’t give an inviting feel,” Lorimer said. “I scavenged around and found in University storage this beautiful drop front desk that Bart Giamatti had used in the same office that is now mine.”

University Archivist Judith Schiff said that many desks, along with other furniture items, are stored at the University’s library shelving facility in Hamden, Connecticut. The same facility stores Yale’s non-circulating library collection.

Lorimer added that Giamatti was president when she first worked at Yale as an assistant to the general counsel and then as the University’s youngest deputy provost, so the desk brings back “warm memories” from her earlier time at Yale.

But it’s not just the desk that has a special meaning. H.W. Fowler’s “Modern English Use” sits on the top of Lorimer’s desk as a tribute to her first executive assistant, Kathy Perrone, who died suddenly in the late 1980s.

“She was the best editor and grammarian I have ever know, and this book reminds me of her,” Lorimer said.

The Mabel Brady Garvan Collection is part of the Yale University Art Gallery’s American Decorative Arts Collection, which has 18,000 pieces.

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