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Otis House August 1, 2012

Posted by flashbuzzer in History.
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I recently visited the Otis House in Boston. This museum focuses on a house in Bowdoin Square and its surprising adaptability over a 200-year period.

Here are three nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Harrison Gray Otis and his wife, Sally, were the first owners of the Otis House. Harrison Otis held many prominent political offices, including that of Mayor of Boston; he served in both houses of the Massachusetts state legislature, and he even had a stint in the U.S. Senate. He was also quite skilled with the pianoforte and was an amateur composer. Sally Otis was a prominent Boston socialite who was known for hosting elaborate parties that were praised throughout the city. She was also quite skilled with the harp and had eleven children.

2. Bowdoin Square underwent a radical transformation after the Otis House was built in the late 1700s. The three hills that marked the Boston skyline at that time – Beacon Hill, Pemberton Hill and Mount Vernon – were reduced in height; thankfully Tremont Street commemorates their former grandeur. Cambridge Street itself has been widened several times over the past 200 years; at one point the Otis House was moved back about 40 feet from the street. The surrounding neighborhood evolved from a quiet, upper-class residential area to a bustling commercial zone with many working-class residents; this stemmed from the construction of the West Boston Bridge, which connected Boston and Cambridge.

3. The noted architect, Charles Bulfinch, designed the Otis House. Bulfinch was influenced by the Federal style of architecture and imbued its characteristic symmetry in the house. For example, each of the windows in the dining room and the drawing room was directly opposed by a matching door; in fact, several false doors were installed for this purpose. Interestingly, one aspect of Bulfinch’s design – where second-floor windows extended to the floor – was modified by Harrison Otis.

The museum contains a neat collection of period-era furniture, and the museum staff made a reasonable effort to replicate its original configuration. The tour guide was also extremely informative and friendly; I particularly enjoyed the questions that the other visitors posed, including one query that allowed the tour guide to explain the 18th-century perception of a hot water reservoir.

While I don’t have any quibbles at this time, I should offer two tidbits. First, if one only plans on going on the house tour, one should inform the staff of that preference when purchasing tickets; the website doesn’t state that a separate walking tour of Beacon Hill commences after the house tour. Second, the staff mandates that visitors wear shoe coverings to minimize damage to the carpets; this is especially important on snowy days.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend it to history buffs and those who happen to be wandering around Beacon Hill and/or Bowdoin Square.

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