Otis House History
Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), a wealthy young lawyer who grew up during the American Revolution, built the Otis house in 1796. Otis was only thirty years old when he hired his friend, architect Charles Bulfinch, to design this elegant townhouse for himself, his wife Sally Foster Otis (1770-1836), and their four young children. Otis was elected to the United States House of Representatives when the family was living here. He went on to become a United States Senator in 1817, and then the third mayor of Boston in 1829. Mrs. Otis was a popular hostess: she, like her husband, loved city life and enjoyed entertaining their many friends and political acquaintances.
As a prominent citizen of Boston, Otis wanted to live in the most stylish neighborhood. In 1796, Bowdoin Square was a very respectable address. Surrounded by quiet hills and the Charles River, it was a peaceful, almost rural alternative to busy downtown Boston, but the commercial growth of the area happened quickly. Only four years after the Otises built their first house, they decided to move to Beacon Hill, which was fast becoming a very elegant place to live. Otis had a special interest in Beacon Hill. He was one of the “Mount Vernon Proprietors,” a group of real estate developers who owned the south slope of Beacon Hill, where the Massachusetts State House was located, and successfully transformed it from undeveloped pasture land into the grandest residential area in Boston. The Otises chose Bulfinch as the architect for their second house as well. The Otis family spent only five years in this house on Mount Vernon Street before having Bulfinch design them a third and final house. This one, on Beacon Street just down the hill from the State House, had a full view of the Boston Common and was two and a half times larger than the first Otis House.
Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) was one of the most important architects working in post-Revolutionary Boston. In addition to the three houses he designed for the Otis family, Bulfinch designed many houses, schools, and public buildings in New England, including the new Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. Later, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work on the design of the Capitol building.
Bulfinch’s design of the Otis House shows typical characteristics of the Federal style, including a heavy emphasis on symmetry, classical window shapes like fanlight windows, and the very fashionable Palladian windows on the second floor. The Otis House is an excellent example of a high-style home in the Federal era. Most houses built in Boston at this time were not nearly as large and grand as the Otis House.
After the Otises moved to the south slope of Beacon Hill in 1801, John Osborn, a paint merchant, and his family purchased the house. Harrison Gray Otis declared in a letter to his wife that the Osborns were “tickled” with the purchase. This was the second time that Osborn had been drawn to a building by Charles Bulfinch; in 1798 he owned a unit in Bulfinch’s Tontine Crescent.
In 1807, Osborn sold the property to Nehemiah Parsons and bought the Otises' second house on Mount Vernon Street. Parsons was a merchant whose place of business was on Long Wharf. However, in 1814, John Osborn repurchased the first Otis house, and his family occupied it until his death in 1819. At that time, a detailed inventory was taken that provides information on the furnishings and possessions in the house. Two mirrors believed to be in the house at this time are now on display in the Otis House dining room and parlor.
Catherine Osborn, John’s daughter, inherited the property from her father, but sold the house and many of its fine furnishings and fittings.
After the house was sold, the Otis House went into divided ownership. The eastern rooms of the house were sold to one owner; the stair hall, western rooms and rear ell to another owner, with the owner of the eastern half receiving permission to build a kitchen and entry in the angle of the ell. In the front of the house, small parcels of land were sold separately to a new owner. A strip of land twelve feet, six inches wide between the house and the lots sold was reserved for the use of the owners of the house. Provisions in the deed specified that nothing could be built in this space that would block light and air from the Otis House.
Many occupants lived in the house during these years. Information from Boston city directories tells us about some of the people, but there were probably many residents whose names did not find their way into official records. There is no information regarding which rooms within the house were occupied by certain residents. Residents during this time included Stillman Lothrop, a gilder and looking glass manufacturer, Samuel B. Doane, the owner and conductor of a sugar refinery, and Henry Jaques, the president of Tremont Bank, among others.
Perhaps the house’s most unusual occupants were the British-born Mrs. Mott, “the celebrated Female Physician,” and her husband, Dr. Mott, who operated the Otis House as a medical establishment for “invalid ladies, and gentlemen with their wives.” A notice in the Daily Evening Transcript stated:
“Dr. and Mrs. Mott…have taken, for a term of years, those spacious premises at the corner of Lynde and Cambridge streets, for the reception of ladies who labor under diseases or infirmities. No expense has been spared to make it replete with every comfort and convenience; every bed room will be furnished with medicated baths, suited to the case, if needed, and patients will be enabled to receive, at a minute’s notice medical assistance by night and day. Pledging themselves to keep the establishment select and to conduct it on principles to merit the patronage of the public.”
The treatment, as advertised in a sign on the façade of the Otis House, featured “champoo baths.” The sign is shown in a woodcut of the Otis House, which served as the frontispiece in Mrs. Mott’s book of 1834, Ladies’ Medical Oracle: or Mrs. Mott’s Advice to Young Females, Wives and Mothers. "Mott’s Patent Champoo Baths, and Systemic Vegetable Medicine, based on remedies popular in Europe and Asia," were said to cure “all of the Chronic Diseases, Wounds…Ulcers, Abscesses, internal and external, Gout, Rheumatism, Tic Doloroux, Cancers, Imposthumes, and other complaints of the human frame.”
Harriot Hunt was a young teacher living in the North End when she came to see the Motts about her sister, who was ill. The Motts visited Harriot’s sister, and then asked Harriot to work for them at their clinic. Eventually, Harriot, her mother, and her sister all lived at the Otis House.
The Motts apparently cured Harriot’s sister, and this inspired Harriot to study medicine. She went on to become one of the first female physicians in the country. She was the first woman known to have applied to Harvard Medical School, a popular lecturer on women’s health issues, and a leader in women’s suffrage. She considered herself wedded to her profession and even wore a ring to symbolize her devotion. She often courted controversy by delivering public lectures designed to teach women about their own health. Although first denied entry into Harvard, she was eventually admitted by the dean of the medical faculty, Oliver Wendell Holmes, but she never officially entered the school.
A nineteenth-century biography described Harriot Hunt’s career choice: “With no professional support…she launched from the safe harbor of domestic privacy and social protection upon an untried sea of responsibility and public scrutiny…” She even wrote an autobiography in 1856.
Mr. Mott passed away in 1835. After moving to New York City, then back to Boston, and then remarrying, Mrs. Mott passed away in 1848. Her daughter and son-in-law continued her business for a short time in New York.
In the years after Dr. and Mrs. Mott’s establishment, the Otis House again passed through a variety of owners and tenants. Oliver Cole, a bookkeeper at the Globe Bank; Allen Jones, a partner in the Shattuck & Jones fish store; and Epps Choate, a seller of carpets on Hanover Street, were a few of the known residents during this time.
By 1854, the house was owned by a man named Henry Wood, and was no longer divided into a multi-family home. The Misses Williams, four sisters named Lavina, Maria, Eliza, and Aroline, were listed as proprietors of a boarding house at 1 Lynde Street. According to a former boarder, Susan Thatcher, the eldest sister was “blind and helpless, but said to have been a most intelligent woman.” Miss Thatcher stayed at the house as a child with her mother when her father, an admiral, was at sea. She remembered that the boarding house was “first-class in reputation and prices. An old-fashioned boarding house, more like a large family. Governor John A. Andrew was a boarder when a young man with his family, also Cornelius N. Bliss, afterward a wealthy and prominent New Yorker.”
Genteel boarding houses, like the Otis House, provided a comfortable, respectable middle-class home-like setting. Boarders could expect to live in sizable, well-kept rooms furnished with their own or “house” furniture, to sit down to three home-cooked meals per day in the dining room, and to entertain their guests in a well-appointed communal parlor on the first floor. Keepers and boarders could establish stable, long-term relationships and serve as surrogate family members for one another.
Running a respectable boarding house could be a successful business for single women and widows. There were few options available to middle-class women who needed to support themselves; operating a boarding house was respectable because it allowed women to stay at home while earning a living.
By 1868, the sisters were no longer living at the Otis House, and a variety of other owners and proprietors ran boarding houses. During this time, the house’s clientele worked in ever more modest occupations, going from jobs such as clerk and librarian in the 1850s and 1860s to bookkeeper, black board manufacturer, and salesman in the 1870s to telegrapher, cutter, and machinist in the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, as the neighborhood became a crowded tenement district, the Otis House (the name still proudly proclaimed on a sign over the entrance door) became home to poorer and more transient people. A “Furnished Rooms to Let” sign in a 1916 photograph suggests the extent of the boarding house’s decline. By that time, a Mr. and Mrs. Bell leased the entire property from the owner and sublet individual rooms. Little is known about the last roomers.
The Otis House was on the verge of becoming a home for newly arrived Jewish immigrants, the Benoth Israel Sheltering Home, when William Sumner Appleton began negotiations to acquire it. A friend of Appleton’s persuaded the organization to sell the property to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now Historic New England.
Early in 1916, William Sumner Appleton identified the house as a building worth saving, and a suitable headquarters for his newly founded organization: “The house is a capacious brick mansion with a large central hall and two rooms on each side and another in the ell…the mantels (at least five or six of them) are very fine wooden ones with elaborate carved or applied decoration. They are the best I have seen in Boston and about as good as the best in Salem.”
Appleton set about immediately to document the house with measured drawings and photographs. By August 1, 1916, Appleton persuaded fifteen individuals to underwrite Historic New England’s purchase of the Otis House and provide funds to begin the repairs. As the funds were raised, Appleton began to restore the house. His extensive correspondence, many bills, estimates, and a few architectural drawings document the process. Though not an auspicious time to raise funds for the restoration because of the United States’ imminent entry into World War I, Appleton was constant in his appeals. It took until 1920 to secure the money and complete the repairs. During this time, floors were replaced, wallpapers were stripped and preserved, woodwork was repaired, and original windows, shutters, and plaster were repaired or replicated.
There was still a row of shops on the land between the Otis property and Cambridge Street, housing a cobbler, a barber, a plumber, and a laundry. The shops were purchased in 1919 with the intention of removing them.
Interrupting the restoration process, the Otis House received notice in 1925 that the city of Boston was going to widen Cambridge Street. The new lanes were planned to go directly through the front of the Otis House. The four c. 1840 row houses directly behind the Otis House, numbers 10, 12, 14, and 16 Lynde Street, were purchased. The two southernmost buildings (numbers 10 and 12) were demolished to make room for the relocated Otis House.
The Otis House was separated from its foundation, supported by steel beams, and rolled back on large wooden rolling pins. The house was rolled back from the street forty-two feet, eleven inches. The process took an entire week and resulted in the preservation of the original structure, as well as joining the 1796 house with the two surviving row houses behind.
A new foundation and cellar were designed by Little and Browne, Architects. The row houses were remodeled for office and library use, while most of the rest of the space was used as museum space.
Various restorations, repairs, and remodeling projects took place as the needs of the office, archive, and storage spaces changed throughout the twentieth century. The Otis House again escaped demolition in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the West End neighborhood bordering the property was razed as part of a Boston Redevelopment Authority urban renewal project.
Restoring the Otis House has been a slow and continual process. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, pioneering work in chemical paint analysis was done at the Otis House, which led to some surprising discoveries about Federal-era tastes. Using the results of this analysis, the Otis House has been restored to accurately reflect those tastes. In addition, fragments of original wallpaper were reproduced and hung, with finishing touches taken from sources such as inventories of similar houses and furnishings that appear in paintings of Federal-era homes. Most of the house now appears as it might have looked when the Otises lived here. In 2000, rooms were remodeled to tell the stories of Dr. and Mrs. Mott and the Williams sisters.
Over the years, the Otis House has changed to conform to the atmosphere of the neighborhood. From a large mansion in a wealthy neighborhood, to a clinic in an increasingly commercial area, to a boarding house in a working class district, the house has seen many trends come and go. Unlike most of its neighbors, however, the Otis House has withstood the changes even as buildings around it were torn down. Today it stands as a memorial to the Bowdoin Square and West End neighborhoods and the early history of Beacon Hill.