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A Puzzling Provenance

Stephanie Reel and her desk. Is it a Hopkins heirloom?

Many old desks have a secret drawer, but each and every one of the 10 drawers and 16 pigeon-holes in Stephanie Reel’s 19th century mahogany kneehole desk holds a secret.

Did this impressive desk once belong to Johns Hopkins himself? Reel, the chief information officer of the University and vice president for information services for Johns Hopkins Medicine, likes to think so. She was told that it did when she acquired it in 1999. She enjoys calling it “the first data repository of The Johns Hopkins University.”

Reel has a photocopy of a document titled “Evergreen Furnishings Plan” with a picture of her desk attached to it. It says the desk had been stored in Evergreen’s Carriage House loft in 1987 and “belonged to Johns Hopkins.”

Reel keeps the desk in the conference room of her office in the old Eastern High School on 33rd Street. She maintains it as a totem, not for use. She displays a portrait of Johns Hopkins and his large, bold signature above the desk, along with a group portrait of the University’s first faculty. She also has a set of keys attached to an aged paper label that says “Johns Hopkins’ Desk.” But—a clue?—none of the keys fit the drawers in Reel’s desk.

The non-fitting keys only begin to scratch the surface of the mystery. The description of the desk’s original ownership in the “Evergreen Furnishings Plan” is based on a 1947 itemization of Evergreen holdings, which has apparently disappeared. Jacqueline O’Regan, the curator at Evergreen House, says she has no documentation that would authenticate the desk’s provenance.

O'Regan does, however, have copies of three letters written in 1928 to University officials noting the recent receipt of “the desk of Johns Hopkins” and other furniture from his former office at the now-defunct Merchants National Bank. One letter says this gift means the University now owns two desks formerly used by Mr. Hopkins. In fact, the University does presently own two Johns Hopkins desks with complete documentation. One is in President Bill Brody’s office; the other, at his residence, Nichols House on the Homewood campus.

O’Regan also has a grainy copy of an August 3, 1928, article from the Evening Sun featuring a photo of a grandfather clock and a desk, which does not dovetail with the facts at hand. According to the article, these items were among the Hopkins artifacts donated by Merchants Bank to the University. The desk in the photo, however, is neither the one in Brody's office, nor Nichols House, nor Reel’s office. No one knows what happened to the grandfather clock, either.

“With the rapid expansion of the campus over the years, and the frequent moves of offices from one building to another, furniture may very well have been moved and then lost track of,” says University archivist Jim Stimpert. “If someone inherited a piece of furniture and didn't know the heritage of the piece, they might not think before disposing of it, especially if it had fallen into disrepair.”

Samuel Hopkins, 91, a great-nephew of Johns Hopkins, says he cannot say for certain that the desk in Reel's office belonged to his great uncle, but added diplomatically that he presumes that Reel’s “Evergreen Furnishings Plan” is correct.

Stephanie Reel presumes so, too.

—Neil A. Grauer

A Grave Affair

’Twill be the day before Christmas. As has become traditional, a group of Johns Hopkins officials and employees will gather at the Green Mount Cemetery grave of the University’s founding benefactor to remember him on the anniversary of his death, Dec. 24, 1873.

Many attendees, including relatives of the bachelor Quaker banker and merchant, will put pennies on his tombstone. A former development director began that gesture some years ago when he placed coins on Hopkins’ grave for good luck before asking for a $1 million gift—which the prospective donor later gave.

 

 

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