On a residential, tree-lined street in a Boston suburb, visitors can step back in time and experience John F. Kennedy’s birthplace. Operated by the U.S. National Park Service, a visit to Kennedy’s first home gives tourists an insight into the foundations of some of his beliefs as well as an understanding of how a political dynasty began. The Kennedys lived at this home from 1914 to 1920, until the house became too small for the growing family.
Open from May to October, tourists will initially be surprised at the small size of the Kennedy family’s first home. While the street today is filled with residences and trees, when the Kennedys moved here, their house was at the end of the block and the trees were just seedlings. Thirty minute free guided tours are given by a ranger, who begins by asking tourists what they remember about President John F. Kennedy. Tour groups are small (no more than nine people are allowed per tour—the house won’t fit many more!) and our group remembered everything from the Cuban missile crisis to the 1963 assassination to public service to Camelot.
Inside the house, visitors will be surprised to hear that the Kennedy children were treated as mini-adults and it was expected at the dinner table that the children be able to discuss politics, religion, art and history as examples. It sounded like a rigid upbringing. The children were also instructed in the importance of public service. Their mother, Rose Kennedy, emphasized from St. Luke that “For those who much is given, much is expected”.
In the living room, guests will see a grand piano, as the Kennedy children were given lessons as their mother was a gifted pianist. Unfortunately, this skill was not passed on to the children who argued with their mother that they shouldn’t need to take lessons as they heard better performers on the radio.
In the kitchen, tourists will hear a tape recorded by Rose Kennedy about life at the home as well as a description of the weekly Saturday night dinner of baked beans.
Upstairs, visitors will see Kennedy’s nursery as well as one bathroom (at its maximum, eight people were living in the house before moving), which for its time was a luxury, as many Americans were still using outhouses. Guests to the home may notice that all clocks are set to 3 p.m. as the house has been decorated to match the style of the time of John F. Kennedy’s birth at 3 p.m. on May 29, 1917.
Rose Kennedy bought the house again in 1966, recognizing the historical significance of the home, deeding it to the National Park Service in 1969. Using her memory from roughly 50 years ago, she tried to recreate the same wall paper and furnishings of the home when Kennedy was born. Interestingly, she still owned some of the furniture from the original house but had problems recreating rooms like the kitchen, as she was not a cook (the servants used the kitchen). The attic was not redecorated as when the Kennedys lived here in 1917, the servants lived in the attic and Mrs. Kennedy didn’t know what was in the servants’ quarters. I found it amazing that she tried to create a house purely from memory of five decades past, which I think would be nearly impossible to do.
Included at the house is a small visitors’ center, which is not to be missed. On Rose Kennedy’s 100th birthday, the family created a twenty minute film, “A Life to Remember”, which is shown at the center, and narrated by Senator Ted Kennedy. It’s hard to believe that three of her children became U.S. Senators as well as one U.S. President. The film is emotional as several of the large Kennedy family died at fairly young ages from tragic circumstances.
Also at the visitors’ center is a guest book for tourists to write about what they remember from November 22, 1963. Several entries were moving from guests who remembered their teachers crying that the President had been shot. I found it hard to read posts from all over the world from people describing what they remember about that day.
The rangers at the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site are passionate about their jobs and do a great job explaining U.S. history in the early 1960s. While this house is a little difficult to find (I took the subway—C line—to Coolidge Corner and walked), for visitors to the Boston area, this house gives guests an understanding of what drove the Kennedys’ beliefs and how important the concept of service was to the family. This tour is an excellent find for history buffs everywhere.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
83 Beals Street
Brookline, Massachusetts 02446