Behind the forest-green door on College Street, a lock of hair reputed to be Lord Byron’s is sealed in a vault; nearby, a series of priceless first editions — author: William Shakespeare — is carefully kept. To those who know what the green door conceals, the Elizabethan Club seems like an exclusive intellectual society with a penchant for secret meetings, expensive tea and manuscripts that could fill a Mastercard campaign. To enter this fellowship, you must be recommended by two current members and selected by a committee. But at a weekly open tea, anyone can enter the house on College Street.
Time seems to pause, then reverse itself, at the Club’s threshold. Ornate furniture and oils pulled from centuries past line the rooms and corridors of the two-story structure. Above a silver tea set and tray of cookies, the Queen herself frowns faintly as two members converse on a topic so modern as to seem sacrilegious: a weekend camping trip.
On the second floor, the Bard’s plays fill the wooden bookcases of two reading rooms, the Map Room and the Governors’ Room. Books written by past members fill a nook adjoining the Map Room and infuse a bit of modernity — their genres range from literary critique to science fiction. But the bathroom preserves an old-fashioned stuffiness. It boasts a fancy toilet with a string flush. And yet, peering closer, one wonders whether the reverence for things past has gone too far; the walls of the toilet are covered with quotes about the passage of time.
Out back, a tall wooden fence restrains the weedy and unkempt little plots of land bordering the Club’s garden. At one end, a marble bust of Shakespeare stares blindly ahead, surrounded by a miniature medieval hedge maze. Samuel Byrne ’09, a bona fide member, explains that the maze enclosing the bust is cared for by a group of alumni. For Samuel, comfortable among these slightly bizarre riches, the Club is simply a place where undergrads, grads, and professors can meet and discuss their common interests.
“It’s a great way to get to know professors” Byrne said. “It’s also just a nice, quiet place to relax and do work.”
Back inside the house, the vault itself is hidden behind an inconspicuous door. It is only open Fridays, when a librarian is available to answer questions about its cache of rare books and strange articles. Of the nearly 300 books there, 141 were donated by Alexander Smith Cochran, the Club’s founder, and the collection includes a copy of the 1604 Hamlet and the first four Shakespeare folios. Besides the lock of Byron’s hair, there is a letter from the Queen. There is also a snuff-box carved from a mulberry tree nurtured on Shakespeare’s land. It is, like everything else, a transplant.