Inside the Otis House

Otis House, May 4, 2010

Have you noticed the Otis House as you’ve walked past on Cambridge Street? I’ve walked by this building innumerable times, and finally went in last week. The house is beautiful inside, but even more interesting was the look into the past that it offers visitors. Built in 1796 by Harrison Gray Otis and wife Sally Foster Otis by their (later kinda famous!) architect friend Charles Bullfinch, this house was originally in a quiet and green neighborhood populated by some of the richest people in the city. The view out the front windows was up the wild and green Beacon Hill, which was completely undeveloped at the time!

With the building of the Longfellow Bridge, this area became a thouroughfare for people coming from Cambridge and west of the city, and with the increased traffic came increased noise and bustle. The Otis’s noticed the change, and together with a groups of other prominent men, joined in developing the south side of Beacon Hill as a new desirable neighborhood for those with means, and were among the first to decamp there. They lived on Mount Vernon Street, and then later on Beacon Street (now the Meterological Society), all buildings designed by Bullfinch.

Portrait of Harrison Gray Otis

Harrison Otis was not only a developer but also an extremely successful politician, with stints in the US Senate, as the president of the Massachusetts Senate, and as the third governor of Boston. His wife Sally (to whom he apparently wrote huge amounts of romantic letters that “would make you blush” – love that) was smart and lively, and the two often entertained. Their home was a showcase of their wealth and good taste, and everything in the public areas was chosen to make the right impression. They even had a settee from China, which was the height of expensive and fashionable home decor! (Kind of ironic – so many items in American homes today are made in China!)

Withdrawing room in Otis House

The bold colors, wall treatments, and curtains were inspired by Bullfinch’s trip to Pompeii, and there are Neo-classical details everywhere. It was so fascinating to see all the global influences that the rich were inspired by in Boston all those years ago!

Dining Room at Otis House

When the Otis’s moved out, the house underwent several manifestations, as a alternative medicine spa (!) and later as a boarding house. The tour also includes information on what the surrounding area was like at those times, and I feel like I gained a lot of knowledge on the history of Boston, and in particular Beacon Hill and the West End. It was also the first house purchased by Historic New England, and they went through a huge amount of work to protect it and restore it (including picking it up and moving it 40 feet back when Cambridge Street was enlarged!). It was all so fascinating. I definitely recommend popping in sometime, plus it is FREE for all Boston residents!

Otis House. 141 Cambridge Street. Tours free from Historic New England member and Boston residents; otherwise $10 adults, $9 seniors, $5 students. Find out more on their website.

Images Courtesy of Historic New England.

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