The grand old Georgian mansion on Brattle Street in Cambridge has sheltered a soldier, a widow, a poet, a painter and a president. The poet and the president, both towering figures, gave the house its name, the Longfellow-Washington House.
The Longfellow-Washington House
It was built in 1759 by Maj. John Vassall, a Loyalist whose family fortune came from the labor of enslaved sugar workers in Jamaica. Vassall’s neighbors sympathized with his political beliefs, so people called Brattle Street Tory Row.
On the eve of the American Revolution, Vassall saw the writing on the wall and left town. Then when the Siege of Boston began, a regiment of sailors from Marblehead known as Glover’s Regiment billeted in the house. The regiment later evacuated the Continental Army after it lost the Battle of Long Island, saving it to fight another day. It would also ferry George Washington and the army across the Delaware River on Christmas Day in 1776. That, of course, resulted in a happy outcome (except for the captured Hessian soldiers).
The house, high on a hill overlooking the Charles River, caught George Washington’s attention when he arrived from Philadelphia to take charge of the army. But the Continental Army didn’t actually exist. The men had no tents, blankets, gunpowder or uniforms. Washington spent nine months in the house figuring out how to create an army and to keep it. Martha Washington joined him, bringing their enslaved servants, who also lived in the house—that is, after Washington had spruced up the place.
After the war, a speculator named Andrew Craigie bought the house. It sat on 150 acres, used for grazing livestock and growing crops. Carigie had fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill, treating the wounded, and won an appointment as the army’s apothecary general. After the war he began to buy up land, ultimately owning most of East Cambridge.
Craigie speculated in securities and real estate, and he liked to live large. In the end, he had to hide in the house on weekdays to avoid his creditors. He did emerge on Sunday, when the Massachusetts Blue Laws prohibited sheriff’s deputies from serving him with papers. He died broke, without a will.
But he left a widow, Elizabeth Craigie.
She had been a great beauty in her day. She loved Voltaire, cats and flowers. By the 1830s, she was a dyed-in-the-wool eccentric, always dressed in a turban and a slate-gray gown. She survived by taking in Harvard professors as boarders. Mrs. Craigie rented two large sunny rooms to a brilliant young language professor, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He loved the space.
The Longfellows Arrive
Longfellow then fell crazily in love with Fanny Appleton a Beacon Hill heiress, an artist and his intellectual equal. It took him years to win her over. After she finally agreed to marry him, her father bought them the splendid old mansion from Elizabeth Craigie’s estate. The Longfellows spent months renovating it, then moved in.
They had six children in the house and many famous visitors—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Julia Ward Howe. Henry quit teaching and wrote poetry, which made him one of the most famous people in the world. Strangers came to the door often, wanting to know if Washington had stayed there. They also asked if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived there now or if he was still alive. The poet graciously met with the unannounced visitors at the entry. He handed visitors cards he’d autographed and kept in a basket by the door.
The Longfellows’ friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., thought it the most perfectly happy household he knew. He feared any change would kill their joy.
Tragedy and Renewal
Holmes was right. Eighteen years after they married, Fanny was sealing an envelope with wax on a hot summer day. Her muslin dress ignited. Screaming, she ran into the study, where Henry had been napping. He tried to hug her to put out the flames, but she broke away. Then he picked up a small throw rug and tried to extinguish the fire.
Fanny died the next day. Henry, badly burned, couldn’t go to her funeral. He grew a beard to hide the scars on his face. And he grieved.
The Civil War had just broken out, and Henry soon had more pain to bear. His oldest son, Charley, enlisted in the Union Army and almost immediately fell grievously ill. Henry traveled to Washington to take care of him. Once recovered, Charley got shot in the back. Henry brought him back home to nurse him.
During that time, the troubled poet heard church bells on Christmas Day. He found in them a message that peace would come again to the nation. They inspired him to write the poem, ”Christmas Bells.” It’s now sung as the beloved Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Henry died in 1882, and his children lived in the Washington-Longfellow House until 1913. They then created a trust to preserve the house, and in 1973 they donated it to the National Park Service. For while it was one of the most visited historic sites in the country.
Five Things You’ll Remember from the Longfellow-Washington House
Henry wrote a hugely popular poem called “The Village Blacksmith.” It begins,
“Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands…
It referred to a smithy nearby on Brattle Street. The city of Cambridge cut down the tree when it widened the street.
Millions of schoolchildren had to learn at least part of the poem by heart. For Longfellow’s 72nd birthday, children of Cambridge paid to have an ornate chair made from the felled tree. As thanks, Longfellow wrote the poem “From My Armchair.” Every child who came and sat in the chair got a printed copy.
Fanny Longfellow supervised the interior decoration of the house, Henry handled the landscaping. He had a large formal garden shaped like a lyre in back of the house, importing trees from England. The lyre shape didn’t work, so he had it redesigned with a square surrounding a circle.
When his daughter Alice moved in to the house after her father’s death, she again redesigned it. She hired two women landscape architects, Martha Brookes Hutcheson and Ellen Biddle Shipman to create a Colonial Revival garden.
Charley was the Longfellows’ wild child, who spent his time and inheritance in adventurous travel. He lived in Japan for twenty months, buying the only house he ever owned in Yokohama, and he had a giant carp tattooed on his back.
During his travels, he sent trinkets, crafts, curios, artwork and photographs back home. Henry warned Charley about squandering his money on strange bronzes, but he loved the Japanese screens his son sent.
Andrew Vassall greatly expanded the house to 11,500 square feet. A hallway called the Blue Entry connects the newer part of the house with the old. It contains artwork and a massive bookcase that holds 75 volumes of Voltaire, which Henry bought from Elizabeth Craigie’s estate. A number of busts line the hallway, including three of Henry. Casually hanging on the wall is a framed sketch of Charles Dickens, signed by the author when he gave it to Henry Longfellow on a visit to the house.
Nearly every piece of furniture is original to the Longfellows, including the desk and armchair where Henry did most of his work. The Victorian furniture is typically ornate, fussy and very brown, the antithesis to today’s streamlined, monochromatic style. Maybe brown furniture will come back someday. If so, versions of the Longfellow chairs may show up at Ikea.
Longfellow-Washington House Neighborhood
On each side of the mansion sit two more grand dwellings, once owned by the Longfellows’ sons-in-law. Brattle Street itself features many historic and beautiful homes, including the colonial William Brattle House, the Shingle Style Mary Fiske Stoughton House and the modern Design Research store. One historian called Brattle Street not only one of the most beautiful but also one of the most historic streets in America.
Across from the Longfellow-Washington House, Longfellow Park provides plenty of space for the kids to run around in.
Just two blocks away you’ll find Harvard Square, the center of commerce for Harvard students and faculty and a historic district in its own right. Harvard and the Harvard Museums are nearby.
If you visit…
Brace yourself for parking challenges. There is metered on-street parking, but not much of it. You may prefer the parking garage at Harvard. If you live in Boston, just take the redline into Harvard Square and walk about two blocks down Brattle Street.
Admission is free, but the only way to get into the house is with a National Park Service tour, and you need reservations for that. Website: https://www.nps.gov/long/index.htm
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New England’s six presidents brought their regional culinary preferences to the White House, from John Adams’ Apple Pan Dowdy to Jckie Kennedy’s. Learn how to make these presidential favorites and find out what life was really like in the White House. Available in paperback or as an ebook from Amazon. (Click here.)
Images: Garden By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5093642. Longfellow-Washington House By Daderot at en.wikipedia – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here. Original uploader was Daderot at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2929917.