Thursday, January 30, 2014

"...a party of great talent and little sense."

Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) and Sally Foster (1770-1836) were married in Boston in 1790. He was 25, she was 20, and were I the parent of either, I would have strongly urged delay. Back then, however, people grew up faster. By age 25, Otis had graduated from Harvard, joined the Massachusetts bar and fought in the Revolution. At the dewy age of 23 Otis delivered to the citizens of Boston a ceremonial oration celebrating Independence Day of 1788.

Had they lived in Manhattan today, Mr. & Mrs Otis would have been fixtures on the New York Social Diary. They were rich, sophisticated, well born, educated, attractive, influential, gregarious and lived at the pinnacle of Boston society which, according to many, is a nice place to be. Mr. Otis survived his wife by a dozen years, dying at the age of 83 in the beflagged house below, designed in 1806 by Charles Bulfinch and facing the Boston Common at 45 Beacon Street. It has, since 1958, been the home of the American Meteorological Society.

Before they moved to Beacon Street, the Otises lived in another fine house. Completed in 1801 and also designed by Bulfinch, it is seen below on its roomy lot at 85 Mt. Vernon Street in the middle of a former pasture once owned by the artist, John Singleton Copley. The so-called Mt. Vernon Proprietors, of whom Otis was one, bought the Copley land in 1795, then set about developing it into the most elite residential district in Boston, which by some lights it remains today. The elegant Otis house helped set the neighborhood's "ton." Once that was established, the direct park views from 45 Beacon apparently became irresistible to the peripatetic Otises, and after only 5 years on Mt. Vernon, they built another house. Beacon Street facing the Common is not a very restful location today, but Mt. Vernon remains tranquil, beautiful and unspoilt.

Before 85 Mt. Vernon, there was yet another Harrison Gray Otis House, also designed by Bulfinch, completed in 1796 and located at 141 Cambridge Street. Bowdoin Square, a block from Otis #1, was, when cows were still ruminating on Beacon Hill, the "ne plus ultra" of 18th century residential Boston. The present day view of Otis #1 below, looking down the slope of Hancock Street, is deceptively tranquil. It suggests, however, what the neighborhood must once have been like. Bowdoin Square today is a daunting intersection of 4-lane streets bordered by 12-story commercial buildings. The square and its environs had already begun a long (if slow to manifest) decline into commercialism even before Otis built his house. In 1793, the West Boston (now Longfellow) Bridge transformed sleepy Cambridge Street into a major thoroughfare over the Charles River, an event Otis failed to interpret as a death knell for the neighborhood.

Here's the original elevation for Otis #1, completed in 1796 from plans drawn by the famous Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844). Besides mansions, markets and the U.S Capitol Building in Washington D.C., the celebrated Bulfinch also designed the Massachusetts State House, completed in 1798 on another former Copley pasture up on Beacon Hill, a pasture which belonged to Harrison Gray Otis. At the time of the Statehouse construction, Otis was already a former U.S. district attorney, member of U.S. House of Representatives and director of the Boston branch of the Bank of the United States. The Copley family, convinced they'd been bamboozled by a plugged-in politico with inside information, informed Otis that he owed them additional sums. Did he pay? That would be a no.

After less than 5 years on Cambridge Street, the Otises removed themselves in 1801 to Mt. Vernon Street. Otis #1 then embarked on an increasingly topsy turvy career. Every other Bowdoin Square mansion would eventually be demolished, but 141 Cambridge soldiered on, first as a progressively less elegant private house, then as two separate houses for two separate owners who split the place in two. From 1834 to 1835 the building was reunited as Motts Patent Medicated Champoo Baths, a sort of spa for ladies who "labor under diseases or infirmities." The Boston "Daily Evening Transcript" threw not a lot of light on the subject, by noting that the "celebrated female physician," Mrs. Mott, provided "remedies popular in Europe and Asia (for the cure of) all of the Chronic Diseases, Wounds, Ulcers, Absesses...Gout, Rheumatism, Tic Doloroux, Cancers..." and, well, you get the picture. From 1854 until after the Civil War, despite a row of shops erected in front of it, 141 Cambridge was a rather nice boarding house. Then it degenerated into a not very nice boarding house, after which it became a downright seedy rooming house.

Rescue came in 1916, when William Sumner Appleton (1874-1947), founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (forerunner of today's Historic New England), bought the house from Benoth Israel Sheltering Home and set about restoring it as SPNEA's new headquarters. In 1919, he bought the shops with the intention of pulling them down and restoring the front lawn. The project was hastened by the City of Boston's decision in 1925 to widen Cambridge Street, which made the continued existence of the shops moot. It also necessitated jacking the mansion off its original foundation and moving it 42 feet north.

The carefully restored Federal period interior of 141 Cambridge Street is a template for two centuries of colonial and colonial revival interiors in America.

On the east side of the center hall is a parlor and the owner's office. The view out the windows isn't what it was, but the room itself very much preserves the signature air of refinement that informs the best of late 18th and early 19th century American architecture.

On the north wall of the parlor is the door to Mr. Otis's office. The overmantel paneling is actually made of iron and conceals the owner's safe.

On the other side of the center hall is a dining room which connects to a serving pantry and kitchen in a north extension. My issue with old center hall houses, even beautiful ones like this, is the predictable and (lets face it) not very uninteresting floor plan.

The middle door in the image below opens onto a short corridor with the service stair on one side and the entrance to the original kitchen straight ahead.

Speaking of not interesting, there used to be 4 not interesting brick row houses on Lynde Street, directly behind and contiguous to Otis #1. When Cambridge Street was widened in 1925, two of them were demolished to make room for the relocated Otis house. What you're looking at below are the fragments of a late 18th century beehive oven, part of 141 Cambridge Street's original kitchen

Let's leave the kitchen the way entered it, and return to the main stair.

Gore Place, built in 1806 in nearby Waltham, is a very fine old mansion whose interior plan suffers from a careless intermingling of public and private spaces. The same thing is going on 141 Cambridge. Two major bedrooms, a dressing room and, of all things, the drawing room are all jumbled together on the second floor. This might have made sense in 1796, but later generations of sophisticated householders wouldn't have put up with it. Let's first visit Mrs. Otis's bedroom and adjoining dressing room, located on the east side of the second floor landing.

The drawing room, despite its inconvenient location, checks all the boxes under the category of "Why Federal Houses are Beautiful." It has fine proportions, high ceilings, a delicately carved mantel, mahogany doors with stylish mirrored insets, not to mention furniture that defines "delicacy made useful."

This gorgeous mahogany door connects the drawing room to a mysteriously un-purposed room. This in turn connects to the back stair hall, which leads to Mr. Otis's bedroom.

Harrison Gray Otis had a CV so heavy with honors it's a wonder it didn't sink. Besides a flourishing career in real estate, he was at various times a Massachusetts state representative, senator, speaker of the house, president of the senate and overseer of Harvard College. In 1969, his great-great grandson, Samuel Eliot Morison, published a book titled "1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist," in which, according to The New York Times, he described his "outgoing, beautifully mannered, socially inclined" ancestor's participation in the notorious Convention of 1815. I confess I had never heard of the notorious Convention of 1815 which, of all things, seriously debated a Federalist plan to take New England out of the Union. Morison describes Otis as a voice of caution in a "party of great talent and little sense," one whose end was hastened by said notorious convention. His bedroom is furnished as it would have appeared during 141 Cambridge's "better boarding house" period.

The pan at the foot of the bed is a primitive shower. You stand in the middle, are alternately soaped and doused with hot water, then step out into a large towel being held by your soaper/douser. Once you're dry, the s/d tips the pan and empties out the waste water through the spout on the right.

The back stair from the landing outside Mr. Otis's room leads up to a warren of small rooms and snaking hallways on the 3rd floor. There's been some repartitioning since Bulfinch's day, but it's hard to tell exactly when or where.

Another house down; it's time to go.

Fallout from the Hartford Convention of 1815 may have dealt a blow to the New England Federalists, but doesn't seem to have unduly damaged the career of Harrison Gray Otis. Between 1817 and 1822 he was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and in 1829 was elected mayor of Boston.

Would that I could connect 141 Cambridge Street to another Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917), a general in the Spanish American War and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Alas, I can't, which is a shame since General Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler were as colorful a pair of villains as you could possibly imagine. In 2009 a PBS documentary described how the two of them turned the L. A. Times into a blunt instrument for busting unions, warping elections, and turning water - or the lack thereof - into a weapon for California real estate speculation. The movie "Chinatown" was inspired by this crew. Unfortunately, they appear to have had no connection whatsoever to 141 Cambridge.

The Harrison Gray Otis House is a property of Historic New England, formerly known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. I actually like the old name better, but that's just me. The new one is much more practical; the link is; and the author thanks HNE for use of its vintage images.