First Harrison Gray Otis House

First Harrison Gray Otis House

Charles Bulfinch, 1795–1796

Restoration: began in 1916 and continued intermittently

National Historic Landmark

This is the first of three grand houses Bulfinch designed between 1795 and 1805 for Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts senator, third mayor of Boston, and flamboyant socialite. The Federal design is based on the William Bingham house Bulfinch saw when he was in Philadelphia in 1789, a house that, in turn, was derived from one in London.

The elegant brick façade is symmetrically organized around the central bay containing entrance and stair hall. Above the entrance, which was added after 1801, is a Palladian window with pilasters, and on the third floor a lunette. Each story is defined by a brownstone stringcourse. The floor plan is arranged in the colonial manner with two rooms on each side of the central stair hall and the kitchen in an ell. Third-floor ceilings are exceedingly low, barely over 6 feet.

In the 1830s the house was used as a ladies’ Turkish bath. Then it became a patent medicine shop, followed by a ladies’ boardinghouse. It was in a terrible state by 1916, when restoration work was begun. In 1926 Cambridge Street was widened, forcing the house to be moved back 40 feet. The original expansive front terrace and carriage approach were reduced to barely enough room for the front steps.

The house is owned and operated as museum by Historic New England. Computer color analysis produced a bright palette of colors in their restoration. Bostonians accustomed to the somber faded tones were startled to see them replaced by vivid hues.

To learn more and for tour information, see: http://www.historicnewengland.org/historic-properties/homes/otis-house