Third Harrison Gray Otis House

Third Harrison Gray Otis House

Charles Bulfinch, 1805–1808

Harrison Gray Otis built three notable houses, all designed by Charles Bulfinch. Remarkably, all three are still standing today. This house in the Federal style was the last and largest of the three, and Mr. Otis remained here until his death in 1848. At the age of eighty, despite forty years of gout, he was said to breakfast on pâté de foie gras. Each afternoon ten gallons of punch were consumed from the Lowestoft bowl hospitably placed on the stair landing for those en route to the drawing room upstairs.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the Boston historian, wrote: “My great-grandmother, Emily Marshall Otis, died in childbirth in 1836. Her children, Emily, my grandmother, Mary, who became Mrs. Alexander H. Stevens, and George (a childhood friend of Henry Adams), then lived in their grandfather Otis’s mansion at 45 Beacon Street, where they were brought up under the care of a widowed aunt. My grandmother assured me that there was no plumbing of any description in that great house; all water had to be brought in from a well in the yard. She, Mary, and George were marched to the Tremont House once a week for a tub bath.” Bathtubs were prohibited in Boston as late as 1842 because medical authorities said cockroaches lived in dirty water and died in fresh water; thus, bathwater was considered a menace.

The house was built on a foundation of stone taken from a neighboring powder house. The four-story façade is organized into five bays, and a portico with pairs of Ionic fluted columns defines the center entrance. The ground floor originally had recessed brick arches, like most Bulfinch houses. The tall triple-hung second-floor windows are ornamented with classical lintels supported on console brackets and with Chinese fretwork balconies, also used in the second Otis house at 85 Mount Vernon Street. A cobblestone courtyard leads to the carriage house, which is joined to the main house by a large servants’ ell.

When the house was built, it was surrounded by English gardens and the Common on three sides, with the courtyard on the fourth. The Blue Hills were visible across Back Bay, which came to within 200 yards of the front door. These surroundings were lost in 1831, when Otis built a house for his daughter. The new house stood in his garden directly to the east and wrapped around his former bow window on the second floor.

The building is owned and occupied by the American Meteorological Society. The interior has been altered, but the exterior is largely intact.