by Randy Kennedy
When Franklin Pierce departed his Concord, N.H., law office for Washington, D.C., in the 1830s, he left behind his valuable tiger-maple desk and other large items, as his career as a Congressman, U.S. Senator and General in the Mexican-American War took him far from home, and ultimately to the White House. After being elected president in 1852, he gave the unique desk to a family friend, Charles Norton, who lived near his law office. The desk changed hands over the years, as a series of owners moved it to Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
This month, the desk from which the 14th U.S. President launched his early political career has made it back home to New Hampshire, donated to the university that bears the name of the only U.S. President from that state. Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., has received the desk as a gift from an alumnus who located the well-preserved secretariat tiger maple desk in an antique auction in Rhode Island in 2010.
Paul Rotondo, a Norwalk, Conn., entrepreneur and business consultant who attended then-Franklin Pierce College in the 1980s and his friend and colleague Janet Mastrondari won the stunning piece at auction. The Empire-style desk came with a documented provenance—which includes correspondences, newspaper articles, letters of authentication and other documentation confirming the desk’s authenticity.
“Attorney Janet Mastronardi, who specializes in antiques, called to let me know about the desk,” he says. She recalled that Rotondo had gone to Franklin Pierce and thought that he would be interested in the piece. “Being a beautiful unique piece that once belonged to our 14th President and was made locally in New Hampshire and was being sold with documentation authenticating its ownership,” he says his interest was piqued. “It was not only in great condition, but also included documentation that traced its prior ownership to President Pierce when he worked as an attorney.”
The collection of documents reveals much about the desk’s ownership; it was used in the office of a New Hampshire harness maker for many years, was later owned by a Leominster, Mass. family, and ultimately made its way south to Cranston, R.I., during the early 20th Century.
While the documents describe the desk as a local piece, built in the Concord area in the early 1830s, the identity of its builder remains a mystery. “What stands out about this piece is the quality of wood chosen for its construction,” notes Rotondo, who also consults in antique appraisal. “Typically, the furniture makers in those days would reserve the more ornate woods for special customers,” he said, “and the quality of the large amount of tiger maple selected for this particular desk shows that [Franklin Pierce] was a customer whom they valued highly.”
The wood selection of the desk is noted in an Aug. 22, 1971 newspaper column in The Providence Sunday Journal, which states that the large tiger and curly maple pieces used to make the desk “would probably be unobtainable today, and even when this desk was made had to be selected from the log and then painstakingly sliced out.”
The desk has found a home in the president’s office on campus at Franklin Pierce University, a private university founded in 1962, where it closely matches the design of the room. “It is already proving to be a great conversation piece,” says Dr. James F. Birge, the university’s president, “and we are very happy to have received it as a donation.”
Dr. Birge notes that Paul Rotondo was a history major during his student days. “We are thankful for his life-long appreciation of history and grateful that he helped return this unique piece to Franklin Pierce.” In the months ahead, he says, the desk will be moved to other parts of campus from time to time, including the lobby of Peterson Hall and perhaps eventually the university library. “It is really quite an impressive example of New Hampshire craftsmanship and U.S. history, and we would like everyone to be able to see it and reflect on its legacy and significance to our campus community.”
Photo 1: Franklin Pierce University President James F. Birge works alongside the desk formerly owned by New Hampshire born and University namesake President Franklin Pierce. Photo by Ryan E. Hulse ‘09 ‘11.
Photo 2: Friends of Franklin Pierce University donated an historic tiger-maple desk once belonging to President Franklin Pierce. L to r: President Birge, Janet Mastronardi and Paul Rotondo. Photo by Ryan E. Hulse ‘09 ‘11.