Third Harrison Gray Otis House, Boston

The Third Harrison Gray Otis House, at 45 Beacon Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The house in 2017:

Harrison Gray Otis was a lawyer and politician, and one of the most prominent residents of Boston at the turn of the 19th century. Born in 1765 as a member of the prominent Otis family, he was a young boy when his uncle James became one of the leading anti-British patriots in the years leading up to the American Revolution. After graduating from Harvard in 1783, Harrison subsequently opened his law practice in Boston, and in 1796 he was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. That same year, he was elected to Congress, and served two terms from 1797 to 1801.

Otis would go on to serve in the state legislature from 1802 to 1817, and was elected to a term in the U.S. Senate from 1817 to 1822. A few years later, he finished his political career by serving as mayor of Boston from 1829 to 1832. However, despite his extensive political career, his greatest legacy in Boston has probably been his three houses on Beacon Hill, all of which are still standing today as some of the finest examples of residential Federal architecture in the country.

All three of his houses were designed by Charles Bulfinch, one of the nation’s most prominent architects of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first house, completed in 1796, was built on Cambridge Street, but Otis only lived here for a few years before moving in 1800, to another new house on Mount Vernon Street, near the top of Beacon Hill. He did not live there for very long either, though, because his third house, seen here on Beacon Street, was completed in 1808.

When the house was completed, Beacon Hill was just starting to be developed as an upscale neighborhood for Boston’s elite, and Otis’s house occupied one of the most desirable spots, directly across from Boston Common. Although most of the houses here are townhouses, his was originally built as a freestanding home, with gardens to the right and behind it, and a driveway to the left. The house itself is considered to have been one of Charles Bulfinch’s finest works, and Otis was evidently satisfied with it, because he lived here until his death 40 years later in 1848.

Otis’s political career peaked during the time that he lived here, and this house saw several distinguished guests, including James Monroe, who stayed here during a visit to Boston in 1817, as well as Senator Henry Clay. With Beacon Hill becoming the city’s most desirable and exclusive neighborhood, though, property values rose to the point where Otis could no longer justifying having large gardens around his house. So, in 1831 he sold a 25-foot wide section of his garden to his neighbor, David Sears, who built an addition to his own house. This granite townhouse, which can be partially seen on the far right, was built for his daughter Anna and her husband William Amory, who was a prominent textile manufacturer. Two years later, Otis filled in the gap between the two houses by building 44 Beacon Street, directly adjacent to his own house, for his daughter Sophia and her husband, Andrew Ritchie.

By the time Harrison Gray Otis died in 1848, his formerly freestanding home had been mostly incorporated into the streetscape of Beacon Street. The only remnant of the gardens that once surrounded his home is the driveway on the left, which leads to a carriage house in the backyard. A rarity in Beacon Hill, this driveway is the only break in an otherwise continuous row of houses on Beacon Street between Walnut and Spruce Streets. When the first photo was taken about 12 years after his death, the house and its surroundings had already assumed its present-day appearance, and there is hardly any difference despite being taken over 150 years apart.

When the first photo was taken, the house was owned by brothers Samuel and Edward Austin, both of whom were merchants. Neither brother ever married, and after Samuel’s death, Edward continued to live here for many years, until his own death in 1898 at the age of 95. The property changed hands several more times in the first half of the 20th century, and by 1940 it was owned by the Boy Scouts, who used it as offices until 1954. Since 1958, it has been owned by the American Meteorological Society, and it is used as the organization’s headquarters. During this time, the interior was significantly renovated, but the exterior of the house has remained well-preserved, and it still stands as one of the finest homes in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Aaron Bissell House, South Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 1891 Main Street in South Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Aaron Bissell, Jr. was a leading resident of East Windsor at the turn of the 19th century. At the time, the town included all of present-day South Windsor, and Bissell operated a tavern here in the village of East Windsor Hill. The tavern, which is no longer standing, was located just south of where these photos were taken, at the corner of Main Street and Ferry Lane. Along with running the tavern, Bissell was also involved in the local government, serving as town clerk from 1799 to 1825, as well as several terms in the state legislature.

In 1812, a few years after his daughter Sophia’s marriage to Eli Haskell, Bissell built the couple an elegant brick house, which is seen in the distant right of both photos. A year later, he built a nearly identical house for himself, which is seen here in the foreground. Both houses are excellent examples of Federal-style architecture, and they are built of brick, which was far less common than wood-frame homes during this era. The main front sections of the two homes are virtually identical, but additions over the years have changed the appearance of the rear of the houses.

Bissell lived here in this house until his death in 1834, and the property was then purchased by Increase Clapp, a blacksmith. He lived here for the next 25 years, until his death in 1859, and his son Carlos then inherited the house. By around the turn of the 20th century, the house was owned by Lewis Sperry, a lawyer and politician who served two terms in Congress, representing Connecticut’s first district in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1891 to 1895.

The first photo was taken about 15 years after Sperry’s death, and almost nothing has changed since then, except for the removal of the front porch. Both this house and the neighboring Haskell House are well-preserved, and they are two of the many fine 18th and early 19th century homes that line South Windsor’s Main Street. In 1986, both of these homes, along with the rest of he surrounding neighborhood, became part of the East Windsor Hill Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Martin Ellsworth House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 115 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Martin Ellsworth was the son of Oliver Ellsworth, one of Connecticut’s leading politicians of the late 18th century. In 1783 year that Martin was born, Ellsworth was one of the state’s representative to the Continental Congress, and he subsequently served as a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787, a Senator from 1789 to 1796, and as Chief Justice of the United States from 1796 to 1800. Martin grew up in his father’s house in Windsor, and like his father and his older brother, he attended Yale, graduating in 1801.

In 1807, Martin married Sophia Wolcott, and they moved into this newly-built house opposite the Palisado Green. The house appears to have been built as a wedding gift from Oliver Ellsworth, who died only a month after his son’s marriage. The newlyweds lived here for about 11 years, with Martin running a merchant business. During this time, he also served in the state militia, attaining the rank of major during the War of 1812. However, after the death of Martin’s mother Abigail in 1818, he and Sophia moved to the family homestead, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

After they moved, this house was sold to Dr. William S. Pierson, a physician who purchased the house after moving to here from Durham, Connecticut. Born in 1787, he was the great-great grandson of Abraham Pierson, one of the founders and the first rector of Yale. William himself graduated from Yale in 1808, and subsequently earned his M.D. from Dartmouth. He and his wife Nancy had nine children who grew up here in this house, and he practiced medicine here in Windsor for many years. He died in 1860, and Nancy died three years later.

William and Nancy’s oldest child was William S. Pierson, Jr. He was also a Yale graduate, and went on to become a lawyer. Like many other Connecticut residents of the era, he moved west and settled in Ohio, where he became a successful businessman and eventually the mayor of Sandusky, Ohio. During the Civil War, he was placed in command of a prisoner of war camp on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, eventually earning the rank of brevet brigadier general at the end of the war. After the war, though, he returned to Windsor and lived here at the family homestead, having inherited it after the death of his parents.

General Pierson died in 1879, and in 1923 his former house suffered serious damage from a fire. However, it was restored and in good condition by the time the first photo was taken a little over a decade later. The side porch on the left and the fence in the front yard have since been removed, but otherwise its appearance has changed very little in the past 80 years. Like the neighboring William Russell House, it was purchased by the First Church in the 1950s, and it continues to be owned by the church today. Both properties are also part of the Palisado Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thaddeus Leavitt Jr. House, Suffield, Connecticut

The house at 281 North Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

Thaddeus Leavitt, Jr. was the son of Thaddeus Leavitt, a prominent merchant and landowner whose own house was located just a short walk to the north of here. Unlike his father’s relatively plain, Colonial-era home, though, the younger Thaddeus’s house reflects the more ornate Federal-style architecture that had come into popularity in the late 1700s. The house was built around 1800, when Thaddeus was just 22 years old, and it is remarkably similar to the Gay Mansion, which was built across the street from here just five years earlier.

In 1801, shortly after the house was completed, Thaddeus married his wife, Jemima Loomis, and they went on to raise their four children here. Like his father, Thaddeus was a merchant with a store in Suffield, and he is also referred to in historic documents with the title of Colonel, so he probably served as an officer in the state militia. However, also like his father, he died relatively young, in 1828 at the age of 50. Jemima outlived him by nearly two decades, until her own death in 1846.

In the meantime, Thaddeus and Jemima’s oldest child, Jane, married Jonathan Hunt, a lawyer in Brattleboro, Vermont. He was the son of former Lieutenant Governor Jonathan Hunt, and he went on to have a successful political career of his own, serving in Congress from 1827 until his death from cholera in 1832. He was only 44 when he died, leaving Jane with five young children.

Three of these children, who were the grandsons of Thaddeus Leavitt Jr., would go on to achieve fame as artists in the second half of the 19th century. Their oldest, William Morris Hunt, studied art in Paris, and became a prominent painter in Boston until his death in 1879. Jane’s third son was Leavitt Hunt, a photographer whose work included some of the earliest known photographs of the Middle East, which were taken in the early 1850s. However,  probably the most notable of Thaddeus Leavitt’s descendants was Jane’s second son, Richard Morris Hunt. He was one of the leading American architects of the late 19th century, and was particularly well-known for designing a number of Gilded Age mansions, including The Breakers in Newport.

At some point, probably in the mid-19th century, Thaddeus Leavitt’s former mansion was renovated, bringing it in line with architectural tastes of the era. It took on a more Italianate-style appearance, with new features such as a cupola on the top of the house. The bay window on the left and the porches on the back part of the house were also probably added during this time, and they can be seen in the first photo, which was taken as part of a WPA survey to document historic architecture in Connecticut.

In the 80 years since the first photo was taken, the house has been restored to a more Federal-style appearance, including the removal of the cupola. The exterior is also painted plain white, as opposed to the multi-color paint scheme that is seen in the first photo. Along with the other nearby homes, it is now part of the Suffield Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Timothy Phelps House, Suffield, Connecticut

The house at 155 South Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:

This house was built in 1795 for Timothy Phelps and his wife Elizabeth. At the time, they had two young sons, Thaddeus and James, and they would later have a daughter, also named Elizabeth. The overall appearance of the house is similar to the traditional New England Colonial-style home, with a gabled roof and a symmetrical front facade, with four windows on the first floor and five on the second floor. However, the house is more ornate than the earlier Colonial homes, with classically-inspired elements such as the Palladian window above the door, cornices over the windows, and pilasters on the corners of the house.

Timothy Phelps died in 1836 at the age of 75, and Elizabeth died nine years later. Since then, the house has undergone some changes, including additions on the back. Probably the most noticeable change, though, is the metal roof, which was installed sometime before the first photo was taken. Overall, though, the house has retained its Federal-style architectural details, and it is one of many elegant 18th century homes in the center of Suffield. Along with the other surrounding homes, it is now part of the Suffield Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gay Mansion, Suffield, Connecticut

The house at 222 North Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, WPA Architectural Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

One of the finest 18th century homes in Suffield is the Gay Mansion, which was built in 1795 for Ebenezer King, Jr. He was a very wealthy man, with a net worth of reportedly over $100,000 (nearly $1.5 million today), and this is reflected in his Federal-style mansion. Around the same time that this house was built, King was an investor in the Suffield, Cuyahoga, & Big Beaver Land Company. This company, comprised of a number of other Suffield men, owned entire townships in the Western Reserve, a section of northern Ohio that was, at the time, claimed by Connecticut.

Unfortunately for King, he eventually lost much of his money, and had to sell his mansion in 1811. It was purchased by William Gay, a prominent lawyer and the son of Ebenezer Gay, who had been the longtime pastor of the Congregational church. Aside from his law practice, William Gay was also the postmaster of the town for 35 years, and for much of that time the post office was located here in his living room. After his death in 1844, two of his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, continued to live here. They never married, and after their deaths in the 1880s the house was inherited by the children of their sister Deborah.

The house remained in the Gay family for over 100 years, and by the start of the 20th century it was still filled with old family heirlooms and other antiques. It was even featured in a Good Housekeeping article in 1907, because of its extraordinary level of preservation on both the inside and outside. In 1916, it was sold to Daniel R. Kennedy, Jr., the pastor of the Congregational Church, and he was still living here a couple decades later when the first photo was taken. Very little has changed in the appearance of the house, and it is now owned by Suffield Academy and used as the residence of the headmaster.