This is the first house that the Bostonian lawyer-turned policitican-turned property developer Harrison Gray Otis commissioned Charles Bulfinch to build him in Boston.
It was 1796 and Otis was 30.
Otis and his wife lived here for only 3-4 years. They left with 8 children for a bigger house, which also still survives.
After the Otis’ ownership the property housed a commercial medicated baths, became a boarding house, had a shopfront added and saw Victorian windows inserted.
Historic New England now owns the property and has conducted paint scrapes, historical research and has generally sought to return the property for the most part to how it would have appeared in 1796 or thereabouts. This has been part guesswork (using paintings of contemporaneous interiors from larger houses) and part a case of putting back any original contents they could find, such as a punch bowl that Otis, when mayor of Boston, would have kept in his office from which to offer visitors a drink.
What is most interesting about this house though is not what it shows us about 18th century houses of the Boston elite (which is does attempt in a very much ‘a restoration/recreation’ way) but its history – it stands 40ft further back then it originally did: in the 1920s the widening of Cambridge St threatened its existence but the Otis house’s value was recognised and while sacrificing the original basement (with later kitchens – the original was probably on the ground floor in the rear left corner, as evidenced by the existence of an open fire discovered during restoration) the house was picked up and moved backwards 40 feet.
Do ask the tour guide to show you the 1960s aerial photo of the surrounding land – pretty much only the Otis House and the then-mayor’s cousin’s house remained, all the tenements having been torn down in preparation for the great 1960s Boston rebuild.
When this house was built, elegant Boston was in its infancy and Bowidon Square was flanked on most sides by mansions such as the Otis House.
Think of Otis as part-Lord Burlington, part Earl of Carlisle. Like Burlington did with the West End of London, Otis bought great chunks of Beacon Hill from John Copley as one of the Mount Vernon Proprietors. The proprietors developed Beacon Hill, creating landfill in the Charles River as 60ft of the hill was shaved off the top. Otis was also a successful politician and as his stature and family grew, he needed a house befitting of his position.
History of the architecture of the first Otis house
A William Bingham house in Philadelphia may have inspired the house at Cambridge St, itself based on a London design. What we do know is that Bulfinch went to London and Italy and was familiar with the Adams’ work. The result is simple Federal architecture, standard form, naked of twirl or twizzle, perhaps befitting of a new country. The greatest fancy bit is a Venetian window to both front and rear of the first floor on the stairwell.
Notably all the rooms feed off the central hall (2 each side) and the property provided live-in accommodation for only three servants (maid, butler and man servant): the proximity of accommodation in Boston meant most of the servants would walk to work from their own properties.
Visitors enter via a walled courtyard at the side of the house, to visit the ground and first floor. The third floor is very short; ceilings are just over 6 feet tall and not open to the public.
The rear of the house is pushed flush with buildings behind and the property also provides offices and a very basic shop. The main entrance was added after 1801 and had been borded over – one side was missing but was recreated based on the surviving detail. There’s an introductory talk and then the guided tour of the house (documented helpfully with the photos below from Historic New England’s website).
I’d suggest you pop onto HNE’s website and take the tour but if I’m going to highlight one room it would be Dining Room because I’d never seen two details incorporated in the room before.
Firstly, tiny busts sit on the door frames. This was depicted in a watercolour that was the inspiration for the bright decor and furnishing of the room. The room isn’t the Otis house, but another Boston mansion of the period.
Secondly, there is a protective rug under the table to protect the imported carpet, which would have been very expensive because at the time of construction of the house the US has no domestic carpet making industry. How different it was over the pond in 1796!