Otis House: Living Witness to the Federal Period

Otis House

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The Otis House (1796), named for Harrison Gray Otis, is filled with memories of the Federal Period.  From one room to the next the furnishings speak as if America is still young and the Otises still live there with the kids.  Tour guide Judy Gansberg gives the house a voice and brings the residents, so long dead, to life as she points to new-looking yet antiquated objects and explains their uses.  One imagines Mrs. Otis caring for the children at the crib next to her bed in her upstairs bedroom.  Within the narrative, one hears running children threaten to disturb the guests in the elegant (with)drawing room (they had 11 kids by the end).  I visited on a recent freezing, gloomy Wednesday when the light was becoming dim, so I had no difficulty putting myself in place of someone walking through the big house at night with candles, or feeling his way in darkness like on those reality shows.

The tour includes a slideshow which shows the view of Beacon Hill out the front windows in 1796.  There were three peaks, and no one lived there because of the steep pitch.  No one is alive who remembers it.  But when you focus on the number of experiences, of births, deaths, marriage celebrations, cryings, laughing fits, of which the house has been the locus — by 1925 several hundred people had lived in that house — one feels the house may have imbibed some of this life and retained some opinions of America’s past.  It would remember Beacon Hill when it had the same look John Winthrop saw in 1630 (almost: the construction had just begun).  It would remember George Washington’s final year as president, and the Lincoln assassination (Imagine the reaction inside that day.  It was then a boarding house for women.  Perhaps some had a crush on the famous actor John Wilkes Booth who had recently performed nearby).  It would remember its retirement in 1925 when it finally became a museum.  The house was new in 1796.  But it feels new to me, or, rather, eloquent, and old.  Eloquence has eternal youth.  When you drive by it as a trolley tour guide, you don’t realize how much the bright colors of the carpeting and decor contrast with the staid exterior.

From the front windows, the house has for over two centuries gazed without blinking upon the changes in Beacon Hill.  Windows cover the front.  The house has three stories, so there are three rows of windows, like a triple-layer cake.  The windows are directly above and below each other in vertical columns, of which there are five.  So they’re arrayed like a tic-tac-toe box with 15 places.  The center bottom place is taken, however, by the front door, which is precisely Federal in style because it has fake columns (“pilasters”) on each side, and a window on top which is flat on the bottom where it touches the door, but rounded at the top like a half-moon.  Extremely common — nay, definitive — for the Federal style.  On the lower two floors each window is “six over six.”  That is, each window is a grid of three panes across, four high, but grouped in two sixes one atop the other.  The top floor has smaller windows, only “three over three.”  The perfect symmetry of the front face is definitive of Federal style (also of Georgian, from which Federal springs.  Federal is rather a classical spin on Georgian).  One thing is different here from other Federal houses. In the 19th Century the second floor windows are frequently much larger than those on the first floor to maximize sunlight.  You can see this on Beacon Street.  Like those old houses which face south over the Common, the Otis House also faces south, to grab the warming sun.  In the middle column among the five there is, as stated, the door on the bottom floor.  The center square of the frontal grid is occupied by a window with a rounded top and pilasters on the sides, and at the top floor there is another window, semicircular, like the one atop the door.  These are some of the chiefest features of Federal style.

Other examples of Federal Style in Boston are the two other Otis Houses, the State House, Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall, the Old West Church, Charles Street Meeting House, and St. Stephen’s Church.

These windows to the soul of the house have witnessed miraculous transformations, the memories of which have perhaps penetrated the materials.  In 1796, for example, the Mount Vernon Proprietors, of which Harrison was a principal, were taking down the hills and smoothing out Beacon Hill, the one chosen to remain and become a neighborhood.  This was the first step also in creating the famous landfill project that perhaps all tour guides must discuss now and then.  The Mount Vernon Proprietors were of course named after George Washington’s home in Virginia, and so is Mount Vernon Street, the wealthiest part of the Hill, where John Kerry lives.  Harrison was a leader of the nation, a leader of the Federalist Party which included Hamilton, Madison, Washington, and Adams, and he was a major real estate developer.  He was a congressman, senator, district attorney, and mayor of Boston.  By 1846 he was worth about 800,000 dollars, the equivalent of 5.6 billion (that’s a “B”) today.  The estate was administrated with the help of about seven servants, some of whom lived in the North End.  The Otis family would later occupy two more mansions on Beacon Hill; all three were designed by Charles Bulfinch.  Otis died in 1848.

Other members of the Otis family include revolutionary orator James Otis Jr.; Elisha Otis, born in 1811, who founded Otis Elevator Company, and invented a device so that when the cable breaks the elevator car doesn’t just crash to the ground and kill everyone; and Amelia Earhart the flyer.

It’s in the tradition of New England literature to envision the living quality of a house, as in Poe’s “House of Usher,” and Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables of Salem, a city itself replete with Federal architecture, perhaps the largest sampling of it in the country.  If the Otis House were a living entity with a philosophy of its own, it would be a Roman.  Well, almost a Roman.  A “Roman American.”  It’s features are neoclassical (meaning copycatting the ancients of “classical” Greece and Rome), but even the symmetry characteristic of Georgian and of Federal architecture was not foreign to Rome (and especially Greece) with its fetish for geometrical patterns and ratios.  The Federal style of architecture ran from about 1783 to 1830.

Just as people display a flag to show pride in a cause or nation, so Americans displayed domes, columns, and windows in neoclassical style to show that America stood for the principles of Rome.  Latin itself was a standard part of the curriculum, for it was believed that the educated mind spoke the language of the Roman mind.  The founders believed the Constitution which defined the noble republic was itself an epitome of Roman principles – with a few tweaks to make power-balancing more robust.  A different philosophy would have produced a different architecture.  While many Federal structures are now vanished, Otis House yet stands for (believes in) republican principles.  The uncle of Harrison Otis, James Otis, is the one who expressed the most famous of these: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

Given their fetish for Rome, it’s amazing our senators don’t have to wear togas!  But, our leaders are in fact depicted in togas; for statues of respected Americans throughout the 19th Century continued to be depicted in togas, as a symbol of their (Roman) ideological legitimacy, i.e., that they believe in equality and law.  And it practically follows from the logic of history that there was a massive statue of George Washington in a toga in the Capitol Forum (whose construction was supervised by the same architect as the Otis House).  And there is a number of statues of important Americans in togas within a short walk of the Otis House, for example Horace Mann in front of the State House, and Josiah Quincy on School Street.

The architect of the Otis House, Charles Bulfinch, was born on the other side of Bowdoin Square from it.  Bulfinch supervised the construction of the Capitol Building in D.C.  And he designed three of the six state houses in New England, one of them just out the front windows of the Otis House, at the summit of Beacon Hill.  Bulfinch was a chief architect of the Federal Period.  But he was influenced by movements in England.  It was not Americans who began the obsession with classical philosophy.  The flag of classical infatuation had flown in Europe first, during the Renaissance, a “rebirth” of classical ideas.  So the Federal-Period flourishing of togas and palladian windows and fancy columns and domes was, in addition to freestanding pride in Rome, also a way for Americans to prove to Europe that they had arrived.  These statuary togati (statues depicting people in togas) were emblems of faith, like a dollar bill, or a license, things which empower the holder because of our faith in them as tokens in the game of society.  When a sculptor decked out a prominent American in Roman garb, this American, by the unwritten rules of the game, would already be authenticated in the mind of the (re)public.  To deck him thus symbolized the deep fact that he was already held to be a legitimate political entity – equivalent in greatness even to a British or a French leader!  There was a new boldness in America.  All this neoclassicism was among other things a method of standing up and claiming our adulthood as a nation.  No empire, French or British or Spanish, could push us around anymore.  And that’s final!  See the toga?

This national pride, and the newness of it, the groping for identity it entailed inspired the mission of one of America’s greatest writers: our own Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson’s concern with “self-reliance” and the “american scholar” argue passionately in the 1830s and 40s for an “original vision” for America.  Emerson argued against apologizing for what we are.  We are a country with our own identity and should not look to others for validation.  He was only expressing what had already come into full flower.  But he was giving it a powerful voice and putting it into more empowering words that it had previously experienced.  Personally, the essay “Self Reliance” is one of my favorite pieces of literature; I’ve read it dozens of times.  The Otis House marks the moment when America seized its identity and became an adult.

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