Otis House: A Look into Life in Boston in 1796

lrg_dsc02944The Otis House is located on Cambridge Street in Boston, MA and was next up on my list to visit, as it closes for the season at the end of November. Plus, it was easy to get to and gave me an opportunity to walk around Boston for an afternoon, which is always a plus in my book.

One of the first things that stood out to me when I was researching a little bit about the house before my visit, was that I couldn’t imagine in my mind where it was located. I know it was nearby the State House & Beacon Hill, but the photos of it made it look like a standalone piece of history amongst newer buildings, and that is exactly what it is. The Old West Church is next door to it, but other than that, it looks like it was plopped in front of a Whole Foods and across from a strip of bars, restaurants & laundromats at the West side base of Beacon Hill. Come to find out, there is a reason why Otis house is the last surviving mansion in Bowdoin Square.

Historical Highlights

  • At the beginning of this property tour, our guide gave us a quick historical run down not only of the house, but also of the neighborhood, while giving us our protective shoe booties (yup – more on this under Visiting Tips below!). While she was chock full of information, one of the facts that really stuck with me is that during the Urban Renewal project in the 1950’s (and we all know how those projects typically go), this house was actually moved off it’s foundation back  40+ feet to make room for a wider Cambridge Street. The move took about a week, and the house remained in tact without many issues. However, the original basement is now located underneath Cambridge Street to never again see the light of day. Thankfully the Otis House had already been established as a historical home that needed to be protected from demolition, so moving the house was a much better option than the former.  I wonder what that  basement would look like today!
  • Harrison Gray Otis, the original owner, had his friend Charles Bulfinch design the house for himself & his wife, Sally Foster Otis, and it was built it 1796. There are actually three Otis Houses in Boston, all of which Harrison & Sally had Charles Bulfinch design. Unlike other prominent families in Boston, Harrison, Sally  and their eight plus children actually lived in each of these three houses over the years, however this Otis House on Cambridge Street was their first build, and is a shining example of the proportions, balance and detail of the Federal Style of architecture that was very popular during this time period.
  • As mentioned, the Otis Family moved into two other houses after living in this house on Cambridge Street for approximately four years, and after that the original Otis house went through many other uses including a genteel boarding house (in which one resident who lived there for over 20 years), and even played a role in the introduction of the mindset of “female physicians for female patients”.
  • The majority of the rooms in the Otis House that you see today are rooms that were meant solely for entertaining, as Harrison Gray Otis was a congressman, a real estate entrepreneur, and was eventually elected as the third Mayor Boston. So, with those prestigious appointments came lots of social commitments and Otis House was designed & built with that in mind.

My Favorite Spots 

The Dining Room 


I was so surprised by all the color found in this room! Yellow plays a major role in the design of the decor in this home, and this room was the start of that theme. Apparently yellow was supposed to aid in digestion, so was a perfect choice for this dining room. The addition of the regal red drapes, and the bright blue accents were really quite unexpected. The colorful wallpaper design with the border that went around the ceiling & doorways were intense, intricate geometric designs. One thing that struck me as soon as we walked in the fact that there was no grand chandelier over the dining room table as I may have expected, and then quickly realized there were no lighting fixtures at all. These rooms were to be lit by candlelight only – which obviously makes sense as it took until 1925 for fifty percent of American homes to have electricity, long after this home was built in 1796. I can only imagine how different the room must look bathed in candlelight.

The Office


This room was off another sitting room, and while being decidedly less ornate that the dining room, the details were still beautiful throughout. Apparently, while going thru restorations of this room, workes peeled off 11 layers of different wallpapers (which are on display in another room of the home) and what you see today is a reproduction of the original wallpaper from 1796 – which I actually quite liked for a home today. The coolest feature of this room? The hidden fire proof safe above the mantel.

Second Floor Entertaining Room


This room on the second floor, across from Sally’s bedroom, was used for more causal entertaining of guests. Yellow continued as a theme in this room as well, and was used as a space to take tea, play board games or entertain with music from a harp or piano. This room had more mirrors than any other in the house, which were used in darker spaces to help reflect candlelit and illuminate the space better. There is a beautiful yellow couch in this room, which was commissioned from a furniture maker in China, and took over two months to be shipped to the Otis’. Apparently Sally was not fond of the wait time (can’t say I blame her!) and instead had a local furniture maker create the  other chairs & tables you see in this room to match.

Boarding Room


While the majority of the house is restored to what it would have looked like while the Otis family resided there, there is one room that is kept to show what it would have looked like when the home operated as a boarding house for the majority of years between 1822 and the early 1900’s.

This boarding room certainly had more of a Victorian flare with the style of wallpaper, but had simple furnishings. Upon entering the room, one of the first things you notice is an odd,circular object on the floor which turns out to be an early (and simple) bathtub. With no running water in the house, you would have had to haul all of the hot water up to the second floor, which was quite labor intensive.  So ,this was a simple solution – you would stand or crouch in the middle of the circle with your one bucket of water, rinse yourself off and the circular basin would catch the water like a tub underneath you. What to do with the water afterwards? Easy. Toss it right out the second floor window, and you’re ready to move along with your day!

Eye Spy

My favorite details from the Otis House!

  • The intricate crown molding and decorative patterns within the front entryway – first impressions are so important!
  • The couch in the downstairs Parlor room, which had hidden drawers within the rounded arm rests
  • Sally Foster Otis’ bedroom, which had a beautiful canopy bed with (you guessed it!) yellow tapestry surrounding it and bright yellow curtains
  • Federalist architecture calls for strict proportions & balance, which was so crucial to this design that in both the downstairs Dining Room and the upstairs Entertaining Room, there are fake door ways; their sole purpose is provide balance against the two windows on the opposite side of the room
  • The last room you see on the tour is what would have been one of two kitchens (a dry and a wet kitchen, of course), however this room shows the process & elements that were found during the restoration process including the original brickwork of an oven and original wallpaper from 1797 & 1822
  • Upon entering the Dining Room, I noticed there was another piece of cloth covering the ornate rug – which I assumed was to protect the rug and/or keep visitors from getting too close to the dining room table that was set for dessert. However, this was a “crumb cloth” which would have been normal to have out at dinner time during the late 1700’s in order to protect the rug from spills and messy guests. I say we bring this idea back!

Visiting Tips

  • As mentioned above, one of the first things that happens upon entering is that you are asked to put on protective booties over you shoes in order to protect the rugs and other flooring throughout the home
  • There is no lighting inside the restored rooms (aside from the uplit lamps you can see in some of my photos) so I can only assume that as you get later in the day, especially after daylight savings time, it may be difficult to really see all the details – on the flip side, it may bring out another side of Otis’ House and give you more of a glimpse into life in 1796! On that same note, there is little heat, and therefore I assume no air conditioning, so just something to anticipate on the day you visit.
  • This is solely a guided tour with no opportunity to wander back through the rooms (although, I’m sure if I had asked I could have gone back to certain rooms); so, make sure to ask questions and take all the photos you want as you go!

Top Photos 

Here are some of my favorite photos from my visit – but there were so many to choose from! Make sure to follow The Historic New England Project on Instagram & Facebook, as more photos will be shared there regularly!


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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Teomi Cole says:

    What a grand house, love the hidden drawers in the pink sofa.
    Wonder what was kept in the draw for safe keepings ……


    1. Candice says:

      If I remember correctly, it would have been everyday items such as playing cards or knitting needles, something that the home owners would have done to pass the time but wanted to tuck away quickly when company arrived!


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