Longfellow House, Cambridge, Mass

The Longfellow House on Brattle Street in Cambridge, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2019:

This elegant Georgian-style mansion was built in 1759 as the home of John Vassall, a wealthy young man whose family owned a number of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Vassall was born in 1738, but his mother died just a year later, and his father died when he was only nine. As the only son, he inherited his father’s wealth, and he was subsequently raised by his grandfather Spencer Phips, the longtime lieutenant governor of colonial Massachusetts.

His inheritance had included 56 acres of land here in Cambridge, and he wasted little time in improving the property after coming of age. In 1759, at the age of 21, he had his father’s old house demolished, and he replaced it with this home here on Brattle Street, located about a half mile west of the center of Cambridge. Two years later, he married Elizabeth Oliver, whose brother Thomas later served as the colonial lieutenant governor. The couple went on to live here until 1774, and during this time they had seven children, one of whom died in infancy.

The Vassalls lived here at a time when slavery was still legal in Massachusetts. Although slavery was not widespread in the colony, it was not uncommon for wealthy families to have several enslaved domestic servants. In the case of the Vassalls, though, they had at least seven slaves living here at this house, which was an unusually large number for colonial Massachusetts. This reflected the significant wealth of the Vassall family, which itself was largely derived from enslaved labor on the family’s sugar plantations.

As both the grandson and brother-in-law of high-ranking royal officials, as well as being a wealthy landowner with holdings in other colonies, John Vassall remained loyal to the British crown in the years leading up to the American Revolution. However, as tensions escalated by the mid-1770s, the Vassalls decided to relocate to the relative safety of Boston, leaving their country estate here in Cambridge in the care of their slaves. They intended to return once the situation improved, but they ultimately evacuated Boston with the rest of the British fleet in March 1776. They made their way first to Halifax and then to England, where they continued to prosper despite having all of their Massachusetts property confiscated.

In the meantime, while the Vassalls were still residing in Boston, Cambridge became the main encampment of the Continental Army, thanks to its location directly across the Charles River from Boston. From here, the army laid siege to Boston, confining the British to what was, at the time, a geographically small seaport town on a narrow peninsula in the middle of the harbor. At the start of the siege in the spring of 1775, the colonial forces consisted primarily of local militia companies, but on June 14 the Continental Congress in Philadelphia established the Continental Army, and a day later Virginia delegate George Washington was appointed as its commander-in-chief.

Washington arrived in Cambridge on July 2, and he initially set up his headquarters at the Wadsworth House, which was the residence of the Harvard president. He stayed there for two weeks, but on July 16 he moved here to the vacated Vassall house. This move was likely motivated in part by the fact that, at the previous house, he had to share space with General Charles Lee, and also with the Harvard president. The Vassall house was also a quieter place, further from the town center and away from the main army encampments, and Washington may have also preferred it because, in part, it resembled his own home in Virginia. Like Mount Vernon, the house was situated on a large estate, surrounded by farmland tended by slaves, and it likewise offered a view of a major river, in this case the Charles River.

Whatever his reasons for choosing this house, the George Washington who arrived here in July 1775 was in many ways very different from the man who would ultimately come to be known as the father of his country. Although widely respected and celebrated with enthusiasm here in Cambridge, Washington was still a relatively young man at 43. Up to this point, his military career was limited to serving as a colonel in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War. His wartime service had been distinguished but not overly remarkable, yet by the summer of 1775 he was viewed by many patriots as the best choice to lead the newly-organized army.

This house served as Washington’s residence and headquarters throughout the rest of the siege of Boston, until after the British evacuated the town in March 1776. During this time, the house was a busy place, with Washington regularly receiving high-ranking officers and other important visitors. For a time, General Horatio Gates also lived here, and Martha Washington arrived here to live with her husband in December 1775. In addition, Washington’s councils of war were held here, probably in the dining room, which was apparently located in the front room on the right side of the house. These meetings were attended by his top generals, including such notable figures as Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam, and Nathanael Greene.

It was also here at this house that, in the fall of 1775, Washington received a poem written by Phillis Wheatley. A few years earlier, while still enslaved, she had become the first published African American poet in the American colonies. By 1775 she had gained her freedom, and she continued to write poems, many of which gave praise to notable public figures. In her poem to Washington, she described the conflict between Britain and the colonies, and wrote in glowing terms about Washington being “first and place and honours,” and “Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,” before concluding with four lines that foreshadowed his future as the leader of the new country:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.

Washington did not immediately respond to Wheatley, but in early 1776 he finally wrote back to her, praising her abilities by writing, “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” Then, in a rather remarkable offer for a southern slaveowner to extend to a recently-emancipated slave, Washington invited Wheatley to visit his headquarters, writing “If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.” Whether or not Wheatley actually visited him here is unknown; it is possible that she may have, but if so there are no surviving contemporary accounts of it.

During his time in Cambridge, Washington did not fight any major battles, although the idea of assaulting British-occupied Boston was a frequent topic of discussion here at his councils of war. In the end, though, the decisive move that ended the siege of Boston came on March 4, 1776, when the Continental Army, in the course of a single night, secretly fortified Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston.

The cannons on the hill made the British position in Boston untenable, forcing their commander, General William Howe, to choose between abandoning the town or risking a Bunker Hill-style assault on Dorchester Heights. He considered the latter option, and Washington was actually counting on this, as he hoped to attack Boston from Cambridge while the majority of Howe’s army was at Dorchester. However, Howe ultimately decided to evacuate Boston, and Washington allowed his fleet to sail away unharmed under the condition that the British not burn the town.

The British sailed away on March 17, on a day that is still celebrated in Boston as Evacuation Day. Washington remained here at his headquarters for the next few weeks, before leaving on April 4. He and his army would subsequently head south to New York City, to defend it from an anticipated attack by Howe’s army. The remainder of 1776 would prove to be a difficult time for Washington, who suffered a series of defeats in the late summer and fall. These were “the times that try men’s souls,” as Thomas Paine put it, and after his success here in Boston, Washington would not experience another major victory until Trenton in late December. Still, despite these difficulties, Washington maintained the respect of the majority of his soldiers, and his leadership would prove instrumental in the ultimate success of the American Revolution.

In the meantime, after Washington’s departure the house had several different owners in the late 18th century. Merchant Nathaniel Tracy owned it from 1781 to 1786, and then another merchant, Thomas Russell, owned it until 1791, It was then purchased by Andrew Craigie, a noted apothecary who had served as the first Apothecary General of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He married his wife Elizabeth in 1793, and he lived here until his death in 1819. During this time, he improved the house and the surrounding grounds, and he frequently held lavish parties here, with attendees such as Prince Edward, who was the father of Queen Victoria.

After Craigie’s death, his widow Elizabeth continued to live here for the rest of her life. In order to reduce her expenses, she took in boarders during much of this time. These included historian Jared Sparks, politician Edward Everett, and most notably, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was a 30-year-old Harvard professor when he moved into a room here in 1837, and he had recently been widowed after the death of his young wife Mary less than two years earlier.

At the time, Longfellow had barely begun his literary career. His first book, Outre-Mer, had been published in 1835, but it was here in this house that Longfellow would establish himself as one of the leading writers of 19th century America. His next major works, the novel Hyperion and poetry collection Voices of the Night, were written here, and were published in 1839. Around this time, he was courting Fanny Appleton, the daughter of prominent merchant Nathan Appleton. He and Fanny ultimately married in 1843, two years after the death of Elizabeth Craigie, and Appleton purchased the house from her heirs as a wedding gift for Longfellow.

Henry and Fanny Longfellow both lived here for the rest of their lives, and during this time they had six children, one of whom died young. He wrote most of his works here, including his famous epic poems Evangeline and The Song of Hiawatha, along with notable shorter poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Village Blacksmith.” However, this house was also the site of a tragedy when, in 1861, Fanny died from severe burns after her dress caught on fire. Henry was also badly burned while trying to extinguish the flames, and this resulted in him growing his famous beard in order to hide the scars on his face.

Because Longfellow was such a famous literary figure during his lifetime, he frequently received notable guests here at his house. He had a close friendship with Senator Charles Sumner, who was a frequent visitor here. Other prominent local visitors included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with foreigners such as British novelists Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, Swedish singer Jenny Lind, British actress Fanny Kemble, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, and Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. Dickens actually visited the house several times in November 1867 during his American tour, including for Thanksgiving dinner on November 28.

Longfellow died in 1882 at the age of 75, after having lived here for 45 years. The house would remain in his family for many more years, though, and his daughter Alice was still living here when the first photo was taken around the 1910s. She was 59 years old when the 1910 census was taken, and she was listed as living here alone except for three servants. Alice was involved in a number of philanthropic causes and historic preservation efforts, including working with other family members to establish the Longfellow House Trust, which preserved the family home and its contents.

The Longfellow House Trust continued to maintain the house long after Alice Longfellow’s death in 1928, and in 1962 the house was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Then, ten years later, the organization donated it to the National Park Service. The property became the Longfellow National Historic Site, and it has been open to visitors ever since, although in 2010 it was renamed the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Today, very little has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and it survives not only as an excellent example of colonial-era Georgian architecture, but also as an important connection to both George Washington and to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Wadsworth House, Cambridge, Mass

The Wadsworth House on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The house in 2016:

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The Wadsworth House is the second-oldest building at Harvard, after the nearby Massachusetts Hall. It was built in 1726 for college president Benjamin Wadsworth, who lived here until his death in 1737. For over a century, eight additional Harvard presidents lived here, with the last being Edward Everett, who was president here from 1846 to 1849, in the midst of a lengthy political career that included serving as a Congressman, Governor of Massachusetts, Ambassador to the United Kingdom, US Senator, and US Secretary of State.

However, the most prominent resident of this house was George Washington. It served as his first headquarters when he arrived in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army in July 1775, and he stayed here for two weeks before moving into the John Vassall House on Brattle Street.

Although no longer the home of the Harvard president, the Wadsworth House is still part of the campus and is used for offices. Over the years there have been some additions to the side and back, but overall the nearly 300 year old building remains an excellent example of early 18th century Georgian architecture.

Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass

Looking west toward Harvard Square on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Harvard Square in 2016:

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The first photo was taken only a few years before the Red Line opened. At the time, people traveling from Cambridge to Boston had to use the streetcars, as shown here. In the distance on the left side of the photo, passengers are boarding a trolley whose destination is “Subway Park Street,” and the trolley to the right of it is presumably heading outbound from Park Street, on the way to its destination at Mount Auburn. This route was replaced in 1912 by the much faster Red Line subway, which originally ran from Park Street to here at Harvard Square, and a station entrance was built in the middle of the square. The station also included a streetcar tunnel that allowed passengers to easily transfer between the subway and the trolleys; this tunnel was later modified for buses and is still in use as the Harvard Bus Tunnel.

As for the buildings at Harvard Square, very little is left from the turn of the century. None of the buildings in the first photo have survived, with most being demolished in the early 20th century to build the current Colonial Revival buildings. Most of the businesses themselves are long gone, except for the Harvard Cooperative Society. Originally located in the Greek Revival-style building in the center of the photo, this bookstore was founded in 1882 as a cooperative for Harvard students. Now commonly known as The Coop, the bookstore is still in operation in a different building on the same spot, and serves students at both Harvard and MIT. Otherwise, the only landmark remaining from the first photo is the gate on the far right side, which connects the square to Harvard Yard.

Christ Church, Cambridge, Mass

Christ Church on Garden Street in Cambridge, on October 25, 1929. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leon Abdalian Collection.

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The church in 2016:

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This church, which is also visible in the previous post, is the oldest existing church building in Cambridge. It was completed in 1761 and designed by Peter Harrison, who was the first formally trained architect to work in the future United States. It is one of only a few existing buildings that he definitely designed, along with King’s Chapel in Boston and several others in Newport, Rhode Island. Like King’s Chapel, and unlike most colonial New England churches, Christ Church was Anglican, and was intended to serve the town’s small but wealthy Anglican population along with students at nearby Harvard. Early in the American Revolution, Cambridge served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston. Many of the Anglicans here were Loyalists who fled the city, and the church closed for several years. However, George and Martha Washington, who were Anglicans themselves, did attend a service here in 1775.

The building reopened in 1790, and along with the Washingtons, the church has seen a number of other distinguished visitors. In 1879, Harvard student Theodore Roosevelt taught Sunday School here until a new pastor asked him to stop, because he was Dutch Reformed rather than Episcopalian. Nearly a century later, the church was more accommodating to Martin Luther King, Jr., who held a press conference here after Harvard refused to allow him to use one of their buildings.

Aside from an 1857 expansion to accommodate its growing congregation, the church has remained true to Harrison’s original design, and over 250 years later it is still in use as an Episcopalian church. Because of its historical and architectural significance, it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest level of recognition on the National Register of Historic Places.

Old Burying Ground, Cambridge, Mass

The Old Burying Ground in Cambridge, across from Harvard Yard, around 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The cemetery in 2016:

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Cambridge was first settled in 1631, just a year after Boston, at a location a little further up the Charles River from Boston. Originally given the creative name of Newe Towne, the settlement centered around the Harvard Square area, and this was the town’s only cemetery for nearly 200 years. The first burials here date back  to around 1635, but headstones were not common at the time, so the oldest one still standing is dated 1653.

Most of the headstones here are from the late 17th and 18th centuries, with very few after the early 19th century. Because it was the town’s only cemetery, the burials here represent people from all classes and walks of life. Some of the prominent citizens have more elaborate monuments, such as the table stone in the foreground, which marks the grave of Colonel John Vassall, who died in 1747.

Today, the historic gravestone remains essentially unchanged since the first photo was taken some 117 years ago. In the background is Christ Church, one of two churches that borders the cemetery on either end. It was built in 1760, and although partially hidden by trees in the 2016 scene, it is still standing as one of the few surviving works of prominent colonial architect Peter Harrison.

Matthews Hall, Cambridge, Mass

Matthews Hall at Harvard University, probably around 1872-1890. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The building in 2016:

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The Gothic architecture of Matthews Hall is very different from the Georgian style of the neighboring Massachusetts Hall, which is some 150 years older. However, they both contribute to the appearance of the Old Yard at Harvard Yard, which includes a variety of historic 18th and 19th century buildings. Matthews Hall was one of the first buildings designed by Boston architectural firm Peabody & Stearns, and it was completed in 1872 as a dormitory, named for its benefactor, Nathan Matthews.

Today, Matthews Hall is still a dormitory, and like the others at Harvard Yard it is a freshman-only dorm. Over the years it has housed a wide range of notable students, including newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, Nobel laureate physicist Philip Warren Anderson, Senator Chuck Schumer, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, and actor Matt Damon.