A House Rises Again in Boston, Massachusetts

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The Otis House Museum is filled with history of how a neighborhood can rise and fall over centuries. Originally built in 1796 and designed by Charles Bulfinch for lawyer and politician Harrison Gray Otis and his family, this home was once a centerpiece of Boston’s elite in Bowdoin Square.

Admission to the museum is well worth the price of $8.00 as visitors will experience the history of changes in both Boston’s West End and Beacon Hill. The guided tour, which runs roughly 30 minutes, begins with a slide show of the changes in the Otis House over the centuries. This home was the first house of Harrison Otis before moving to Beacon Hill. Bowdoin Square was originally “the” address in Boston but now just the Otis House, as well as the neighboring Old West Church, remains. The name Bowdoin now only exists as a subway stop. Time passes and it was hard to hear how such a historic home declined and almost didn’t survive. The Otis House went from being prime real estate to a shared house to a “medicated shampoo spa” to finally a boarding house before being rescued as a museum. This home even survived the widening of Cambridge Street (the house had to be physically moved back forty-two feet, losing a basement in the process) as well as the removal of most of the West End neighborhood during the 1950s.

Visitors to the Otis House will be loaned a pair of cloth blue booties to walk on the delicate floors and carpets. If visiting in the winter, the house is not heated so tourists need to come prepared. Unfortunately, interior photography is not permitted. Guides are extremely enthusiastic and as visitor numbers are small, this museum is highly worth a visit.

Many of the rooms in the home are painted in a bright canary yellow, which is almost too yellow for my taste. It is unknown why the Otis family liked yellow so much but it could be the coloring added light to the dark candlelit winters. Furniture of the period was made to be easily moved, as for instance, if one room had more light at a certain time of year, furniture would be relocated to that room.

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The parlors, bedrooms and dining room are filled with antiques and have been restored to resemble what the house looked like when the Otis family lived there. The setup is a little unusual as the drawing room and Mrs. Otis’s bedroom are across from each other on the same floor. In the late 1700s, today’s concept of privacy and some rooms being off limits did not exist. In “confinement” during pregnancy, Mrs. Otis might meet close friends in her bedroom.

The dining room is covered on the floor with a protective crumb cloth because of the expensive carpet. During the Revolutionary War period, the United States did not have a textile mill and carpets had to be imported at outrageous costs. It was kind of funny that such an elegant room has a big cloth covering most of the carpet. It almost looked like construction work was being done on the floor.

The entry hall is impressive and our guide mentioned that the entry room itself was much larger than the average Bostonian was living in during the late 1700s. Under the hall stairs, visitors will see fire buckets with the owners’ names on the buckets, as if a neighbor had a fire, it was expected that all neighbors bring their buckets and help.

Otis House Museum, 1796

Otis House Museum, 1796

A sample boarding room is also included on the tour, as well as an example of a spa room when the house served as a medicated spa. I actually found the spa room to be sad with the cold blue colors and thinking of how the house declined.

We learn from history and the Otis House Museum is a key part of Boston’s past. Visitors can imagine life in the late 1700s and early 1800s, visualizing the opulence that was once Boston’s Bowdoin Square. This museum is a both a find and a pleasure.

Otis House Museum
141 Cambridge Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02114
(617)994-5920

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