Gibson House: The OG of Boston’s Back Bay

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts made the decision in 1856 to fill in a section of Boston Harbor, which previously was being used as a trash dump and was the source of many complaints due to it’s wretched stench & pests. The City used new steam engine technology to bring in fill from the local suburbs, and created the posh neighborhood that we know today as Boston’s Back Bay. Today, this affluent neighborhood is a “must-see” of any trip to Boston, and is known for it’s designer shopping and expensive eateries on Newbury Street. The Gibson House was one of the first mansions built in the Back Bay in 1859, and today is one of the only Victorian rowhouses remaining. It is a must-see, especially as it is one of the few museum houses opened year-round in Boston. Enjoy!

Historical Highlights

  • Both John Gardiner Gibson & Catherine Hammond met the “requirements” to be considered part of Boston’s elite, having both an eighteenth-century merchant ancestor and a nineteenth-century capitalist in the family – so their marriage in 1833 was well-received. John & Catherine lived in Cuba for their first two years of their marriage, tending to John’s sugar fortune. They both were ready to return to Boston in 1835, as Catherine pregnant with their son, and they moved to a home on Beacon Hill and summered in their nearby home in Nahant.
  • John & Catherine lived in their Beacon Hill home for many years. However, in 1838 John passed, leaving Catherine a widow. In 1859, Catherine decided the newly created Back Bay was the neighborhood for her and her son Charles, and purchased 137 Beacon Street for $3,696 (approximately $112,000 today). Catherine would stay in that home until her death at age 84 in 1888.
  • Charles Sr. was, by proxy, a mainstay in the Boston social scene and met his wife, Rosamond Warren through various social functions and a shared love of music. They were married in 1871 and moved into the home on in the Back Bay with Catherine, where they eventually had three children together: Mary Ethel (called Ethel by friends), Charles Jr. (called Charlie) and Rosamond (named after her mother).
  • Charles Sr. followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing to grow his fortune in the sugar and cotton trade. After 45 years of marriage to Rosamond, in 1916 Charles Sr. passed after battling an illness for two years.
  • Ethel lived at home until she was 38, very uncommon for that time frame, but did eventually marry Dr. Freeman Allen, a pioneer of anesthetics in 1911. She eventually moved back into the home and died there at the age of 65.
  • Rosamond married a distant cousin in 1916 and lived a few streets over with their one son, Warren. Warren was sadly killed on the USS Turner in 1914, and Rosamond remained nearby in their home until her death in 1945.
  • However, the legacy of the Gibson House is truly owed to Charles Jr., aka Charlie. As was typical of men of his social class and age, Charlie traveled and in doing so, found a passion for writing. He participated in what was known then as the “bohemian culture”, and was a gay man who never married or had a long term partner. He wrote travelogues, published his own poetry, and gave lectures often. One of his most well known travelogues was “Two Gentlemen of Touraine”, which he wrote after a trip to France and is considered a fictionalized account of his romantic relationship with Count Maurice Talvande.
  • In 1934, Charlie returned to 137 Beacon Street to care for his aging mother, who passed away that same year. He found himself living alone there, and decided to secure his legacy by preserving the home as it was and ensuring it would become a house museum. He returned certain rooms to their original Victorian-era glory, wrote scripts for future tour guides (which are still used today), and laid out how he wanted certain items to be displayed (including his desk, items on the kitchen shelves, and more). Without Charlie’s foresight, the Gibson House may have been a gem lost forever in the constant renovation and remodeling of today’s Back Bay.
  • Most recently, the Gibson House has been featured in the 2018 film Little Women, where the home was shown as the boarding house of Jo (showcasing the exterior and the gorgeous entryway) and the library played the role of a publishers office.

Favorite Spots

Front Entryway & Staircase

This is a truly spectacular entrance to a home. There will forever be something about a red carpet, gold adornments and dark, gorgeously carved trim. The wallpaper is absolutely stunning, original 1890’s Spanish leather wallpaper. It is so thick and luxurious, it looks almost 3D and is impossible to truly capture in photographs. And, once those front doors close it’s clear that you are in a different world – dark and rich. I would never guess that this welcome is awaiting you just steps from the busy Beacon Street sidewalk.

Music & Drawing Room

Located on the second floor, this room was designed with the simple goal of utterly astounding and impressing their guests. It is still home to the piano from 1890, which showcases original music handwritten by Charlie in 1922. It’s simply a gorgeously appointed room.

Charlie’s Study

Today this room is Charlie’s study, however it was originally Charlie’s bedroom. Once he decided that he was going to turn the home into a museum, he moved his bedroom upstairs and converted this into his study (which he did, in fact, use as a study for a time). He was very particular about the set up of this room, including the layout of items on his desk and his beloved pipe on the side table. The continuation of the dark, rich colors in this room make it easy to picture an after diner drink in front of a roaring fireplace on a chilly Boston night.

Laundry Room

The Gibson House has one of the most lavish laundry rooms I’ve ever seen, which looks a bit stark today but I’m sure there was much jealously among the staff who worked at other nearby homes. Not only did they have liquid gasoline powered irons (sounds so dangerous!), they also had a mechanical wringer to remove excess water from laundry (that they could use while looking out a window – gasp!) and – the crème de la crème – a room dedicated to hanging laundry to dry. There was a rule on Beacon Street that you could not hang your laundry outdoors to dry as it was “unsightly” (plus, there was so much pollution laundry would come back inside dirty), but the Gibson’s were so wealthy they could afford a separate room to hang their laundry. So chic!

Eye-Spy

  • Do not miss the original 1884 stove – I’ll never be able to understand how they made such fancy, over the top dinners on those ancient beasts!
  • Don’t miss the little hideaway for your feline friends in the music room – I would get one for my cat in a second if I didn’t think she’d be scared of it!
  • The ventilation shaft that runs thru the center of the house is nothing I’ve ever seen before – which of course they made pretty with the star patterns on the glass. These shafts were removed from all houses in the Back Bay as homes were renovated, as it’s easy to see how quickly they would assist in the spreading of fire throughout the home. I had never seen one before and loved finding it on each level we visited.
  • I’ve seen a lot of bell systems in historic homes (which were paging systems for the staff), but I had never seen a crank bell until the Gibson House!

Visiting Tips

  • The Gibson House is one of the very rare historic homes in Boston that is available to tour year-round, and likely the fall & winter are a better time to visit. The home was actually used as the Gibson’s winter home, as there is no ventilation come the humid Boston summers (the museum actually has to shut down if temps reach a certain degree on the second floor due to hazardous work conditions). So, make your plans to visit this winter!
  • There are also many other historic homes or places in Boston in the area to see, including the Omni Parker House, the Nichols House, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and more!
  • There are also a handful of tours to choose from, and honestly I’d love to go back and take the Queer Boston tour for another perspective on Charlie’s life.

Top Photos

Below are some of my favorite shots of the Gibson House but I’ll be sharing more on our Facebook & Instagram pages! Enjoy!

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