The Otis House is the last surviving mansion in Beacon Hills’ Bowdoin Square neighborhood. Designed by Charles Bulfinch, the home first belonged to Boston’s prominent resident Harrison Gray Otis, a lawyer, Congressman, and mayor. The house on Cambridge Street is the first of three designed for Otis and his wife in their lifetime. The home features federal style proportions and detail. Visitors to the house, now a museum, will learn about Otis’s life, the federal era, and the building’s history.
The Otis family resided in the house for only five years, from
1796-1801, before moving into Beacon Hill. The house went through a
series of owners and functions, including a multi-family home, a medical
establishment, and a boarding house, before becoming the museum it is
Each of the homes that Otis built
were designed by famed architect Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch was also involved in the construction
of many other private dwellings in the Boston area and several churches. Among the many other creations in his portfolio,
Bulfinch is celebrated for the design of the Massachusetts State House and a memorial to the American Revolution
located on Beacon Hill.
The home’s original owner was a
wealthy, young lawyer and politician named Harrison Gray Otis. Otis grew up in Boston during the American
Revolution. He was only thirty years old
when he built the opulent home in Bowdoin Square. Bowdoin Square was the fashionable neighborhood
at the time, just far enough from downtown Boston to have a rural sensation.
He, his wife Sally, and their four children moved into the home after
construction was completed in 1796 but only stayed for five years. The house survives as the oldest standing
mansion in the prominent neighborhood.
Harrison Gray Otis was heavily
involved in Boston politics and became one of the leaders of the Federalist
Party. He served in the House of
Representatives, the Senate, as even one term as the Mayor of Boston
(1829-1831). As Mayor, he rejected the numerous
petitions of Southern leaders for him to quell the flow of antislavery
literature coming out of Boston. David
Walker’s Appeal (1829) and William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator
were popular during Otis’ tenure. Of
course, Otis had his own opinions about slavery. He wrote an article in the Boston Courier
in 1832 where he suggested that federal funds be appropriated to recolonize the
slaves in Africa. He and his wife loved
to entertain the guests in their lavishly furnished homes, including the one on
In 1916, over a century after the
Otis family left, the home was purchased by the Society for the Preservation of
New England Antiquities (the group is now called Historic New England). It was used as administrative offices for some
time. Later, the building underwent a
massive renovation. The old Federalist
charm and décor were returned to the home.
It is open for tours several days of the week, depending on the season. Tours generally last about one hour.