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National Perspective | HISTORY

Once Again, the Adams Presidents Suffer a Slight

April 15, 1999|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUINCY, Mass. — Intent on learning about American democracy, a group of Soviet political scientists several years ago made a pilgrimage to a large granite church here. Descending to their destination in the building's cellar, they were stunned to find that the tombs of two of America's early presidents and their highly accomplished wives were the opposite of grand or majestic.

These were such important citizens, the scholars protested. And then it dawned on them, said Sheldon Bennett, pastor of the Unitarian parish known as the Church of the Presidents: "The founders of our country--the Adamses, in particular--were ordinary citizens."

Humble though it may be, today's ordinary citizens no longer have access to the burial site of John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams. At its busiest, the Adams crypt annually attracted about 6,000 visitors--most of whom failed to drop the requested $2 into a donation box. After running up a $26,000 debt from the visitors' program, the church reluctantly decided last week to close the crypt to the public.

"We are not wealthy people," said Bennett, a former physicist who presides over a congregation that dates to 1639. John Adams, the country's second president, was the fifth generation of his family to worship in the parish. His descendant, Henry Adams, wrote in his autobiography about staring from the rear of the church at the bald head of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president.

By that time, when John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine, took their places in pew 54, the current Greek Revival church was established as a Quincy landmark. The 170-year-old structure, built from stone from a quarry donated to the town by John and Abigail Adams, is the fourth building to occupy the site. The church is close to the big farmhouse where both presidents and many of their progeny resided. The Adams house remains a popular tourist destination.

Time and the parish's fading fortunes have taken their toll. The trusses that hold up the roof are crumbling. The roof leaks so badly that water pools near the Adams crypt. Repairs are expected to cost more than $700,000. In the meantime, metal braces crowd the worship area, prompting Bennett to title a recent sermon, "The Scaffolding of Our Lives."

The Adamses' modest graves lie in a stern stone row: two husbands, two wives. The name of its occupant is carved on the lid of each granite sarcophagus.

With his arm resting on the tomb of John Adams, Bennett said he lamented closing the crypt to the public. "It's important that particularly our children experience the reality of the founding values of our country, the people who lived then--the values they stood for, the sacrifices they made," he said. "It's one thing to read about it in books. Coming here provides an emotional connection with the personalities of these people and the values by which they lived in a way you can't experience from a book, a video or a lecture."

It was John Adams who wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, much of which was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. Adams chafed mightily in his role as George Washington's vice president, and his lifelong rivalry with Thomas Jefferson is legendary.

Though a key architect of the fledgling U.S. government, he was often overshadowed in history by the more aristocratic Jefferson, the more flamboyant Alexander Hamilton and the more eccentric Benjamin Franklin. A small resurgence in Adams scholarship is underway, however, and a book about Adams and Jefferson to be published next year by historian David McCullough is expected to revive public interest in Adams and his family.

Modern presidents--among them Nixon, Johnson and Reagan--are immortalized with splendid libraries and burial shrines. Even John Adams' contemporaries, Washington and Jefferson, have sedate resting spots on the grounds of their estates.

But at the Church of the Presidents, the stairs creak, the rug is threadbare and now--to add insult to injury--visitors are turned away.

"It's a shabby way to treat these presidents," Bennett said.

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