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Beyond Harrison Gray Otis


ABOVE This photograph, taken May 1, 1916, shortly before SPNEA purchased the Otis House, reveals a building that has witnessed dramatic change. With furnished rooms to let upstairs, a commercial laundry in the basement, and busy stores in the front terrace, the mansion shows the effects of the city's rapid expansion and population shifts in the early twentieth century.

BELOW While away in Philadelphia during January of 1800, Otis wrote Sally advising her to "procure a handsome set of bed and window curtains for your front chamber..."

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ABOVE Mrs. Mott featured this illustration of the Otis House, where she and her husband offered medicated "Champoo Baths," in her book, The Ladies' Medical Oracle.

BELOW A newly refurbished room at the Otis House depicts the chamber of Francis Merrick, who boarded with the Williams sisters in the 1860s, when the Otis House was a boarding house. The wallpaper is reproduced from a fragment rescued during the first restoration in 1916 by SPNEA founder William Sumner Appleton.

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ABOVE In Merrick's chamber, the lid of a wash stand opens to reveal shaving paraphernalia. Across the room, a metal tub is tucked discreetly beneath the bed.

BELOW The Otis House continues to play an integral role in Boston's daily life. Its handsome architecture enlivens the busy commercial street, while inside, refurbished museum rooms and new stories present a more complete history of the house and the evolving city around it.

Although SPNEA's Otis House is commonly identified with its first owner, the congressman and Boston mayor, Harrison Gray Otis, it has been home to more than a hundred other people since 1796. These are the residents who are not found in history books. Among them are Otis's wife, Sally, who raised her children and oversaw her husband's business affairs while her husband was away; Dr. and Mrs. Mott, who ran a medical clinic there in the 1830s and '40s; and Francis Merrick, who boarded at the house more than fifty years after the Otises had left. Extensive new research by SPNEA staff has uncovered the stories of these people, once overlooked or believed lost to history, and this information is now being introduced into the museum tour. Refurbished rooms and interpretive panels have been added to help tell these stories and present visitors with a fuller and richer history of the house.

In the decades following the American Revolution, the Boston neighborhood at the foot of Beacon Hill, called Bowdoin Square, was a prestigious residential district and a natural place for Harry and Sally Otis to settle. They engaged their longtime friend Charles Bulfinch, who had recently completed the design for the Massachusetts State House, to design their house. When it was finished, the house was considered "in point of elegance and situation not inferior to any Estate in Boston." Shortly after they moved in, Harry was elected to Congress and had to spend more than half of each year in Philadelphia. Sally, at home with four young children, ran the household, supervised the servants, and fulfilled social obligations. She also collected rent from real estate investments and kept her husband's account books. But a mere three years after moving in, the Otises began construction of another house in the newly fashionable development at the top of Beacon Hill, to which they moved in 1801.



ABOVE LEFT Photograph of the Harrison Gray Otis House exterior.

ABOVE RIGHT Sally Foster Otis. The museum tour incorporates information based on recently catalogued letters from Harry Otis to his wife, including their affectionate relationship and details of their daily lives.

The next owners were John Osborn, a paint merchant, and his wife, Catherine, also members of Boston's upper class. Like Otis, Osborn invested heavily in real estate. When Otis sold his second house a few years later, Osborn purchased that, too, and promptly moved in. In 1814, however, the Osborns moved back into the first Otis House, at which time they updated the interiors with bold new wallpapers and paints. Five years later, John Osborn died, and as required by law, a complete room-by-room inventory was taken to assess taxes. This inventory guided SPNEA's curators as they developed the furnishing plan for rooms reflecting the Otis and Osborn occupancy.

By 1820, Cambridge Street had become increasingly commercial and was no longer considered a desirable address for Boston's elite. Many of the mansions that once lined Bowdoin Square and Cambridge Street were being replaced by stores, churches, and hotels. Osborn's heirs decided to subdivide the land on which the house stood and sell off three small lots for storefronts on what had been the front terrace. They also divided the house into two separate dwellings, which became rental properties for years thereafter.

In 1833, the larger side of the house was leased by Dr. Richard and Mrs. Elizabeth Mott, "the celebrated female physician." The Motts operated the Otis House as a medical establishment for "invalid ladies and gentlemen with their wives," with Dr. Mott treating men and Mrs. Mott treating women and children. The Motts installed a "vapor bath," designed and patented by Dr. Mott, to treat ailments by the use of medicinal steam, and practiced what they called "European vegetable medicine."

In 1854, four unmarried sisters, the Misses Williams, rented the entire house and ran it as a genteel boarding house considered to be "first class in reputation and prices." They offered accommodations ranging from impressive suites to single rooms. The boarders, many of whom stayed for years, were "like a large family,"as one resident recalled. They took their meals together in the dining room and could relax and entertain their guests in the elegantly appointed parlor. Francis Merrick, a clerk at the Charlestown Navy Yard, boarded with the Williams sisters for seventeen years, living in the only single room on the second floor, which served as both sitting room and bed chamber. The remainder of the second floor was occupied by families like George Punchard, a newspaper editor, and his wife, Williamine, who had a suite of rooms in what had been the Otises' and Osborns' formal drawing room.

By the turn of the twentieth century, rapid urban growth brought change to the neighborhood, which had become a working-class district made up of Irish, Italian, and eastern European immigrants. Boarding houses, which through much of the nineteenth century had adhered to the rituals of respectability, now became lodging houses that rented single rooms to workers. Lodgers took all their meals at cafes or restaurants, came and went as they pleased, and moved frequently without building ties to a community. Occupations listed among the Otis House residents included a plumber, a mason, and a waitress.

Change came again in 1916, when SPNEA founder William Sumner Appleton acquired the Otis House as a home for his fledgling society. Appleton avidly set about collecting every scrap of information about the house that he could find. He sought out former residents, several of whom wrote to him describing their everyday lives as boarders. Appleton set about restoring the house to its original appearance, meticulously documenting every layer of evidence as it was uncovered. Wallpaper samples were painstakingly removed and saved in albums; photographs and notes were taken each time a nineteenth-century partition was removed. More than eighty years later, Appleton's early documentation has provided SPNEA staff with the evidence needed to reconstruct the stories and spaces of some of the house's lesser known occupants. Today, the museum tour begins with Harrison Gray Otis but looks beyond him in ever widening circles to include his family, servants, and neighborhood, the city in constant flux, and the many people who in subsequent years considered the Otis House their home.

-Peter Gittleman
Director of Interpretation & Education

Beyond Harrison Gray Otis