Otis House Museum
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.
Backstory and Context
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 today.
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 Cambridge Street.
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.
Harrison Gray Otis House. Celebrate Boston. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.celebrateboston.com/museum/harrison-gray-otis-house.htm.
Otis, Harrison Gray. American National Biography Online. Accessed March 26, 2017. http://www.anb.org/articles/03/03-00368.html.
Gladstone, Shira. "Otis House: 100 Years of Historic New England's Ownership." Historic New England. Historic New England.