First Harrison Gray Otis House

141 Cambridge St Bostonundefined

Bulfinch's Boston/First Harrison Gray Otis House
City of Boston Arts
Written By City of Boston Arts

The Mayor's Office of Arts + Culture for Boston. We foster the growth of the cultural community in Boston and promote participation in the arts.

In Charles Bulfinch's time, this area just west of Beacon Hill was known as Bowdoin Square, a fashionable residential neighborhood. Bulfinch and his friend Harrison Otis Gray grew up here and attended Harvard College together. By age 30, Otis was a prominent lawyer and early investor in Beacon Hill real estate. He asked Bulfinch to design a house for his family at this prestigious location on land acquired from Otis' father-in-law, William Foster. Completed in 1796, the house at 141 Cambridge (at the corner of Lynde Street, which now appears more like a driveway than a street) was the first of three houses that Charles Bulfinch designed for Otis and his family, and the last surviving Bowdoin Square mansion. After living here for only four years, the family moved to Mt. Vernon Street. Gray would later serve as Mayor of Boston and US Senator as a member of the Federalist party.

The First Otis House was one of the earliest properties acquired by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, founded in 1910. It was home to the SPNEA Conservation Center, which researched architectural preservation techniques under the leadership of Morgan W. Philips, considered one of the first professionals in the field. Now called Historic New England, the organization manages about 40 properties, has its headquarters here in the Otis House, and offers tours of the meticulously restored interiors. If you have ever dreamt of withdrawing to an actual withdrawing room, this tour may be for you.

Bulfinch's design was inspired by a house in Philadelphia owned by William Bingham, a prominent Pennsylvanian who served as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Bulfinch saw and drew the house while visiting Philadelphia on his way to President Washington's inauguration. That house, in turn, was inspired by the Hertford House in Manchester Square, London.

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After Otis and Bulfinch's time, Bowdoin Square became better known as a commercial district. Boston's West End continued to change over time, and by the early 20th century some considered it a slum. In the 1950s, over half of the neighborhood's buildings were leveled as part of a controversial urban renewal program. Fortunately, the First Otis House and Bulfinch's building at Massachusetts General Hospital survived.

While you are visiting a National Landmark, why not visit another one next door? The Old West Church at 131 Cambridge Street was completed in 1806 and designed by Asher Benjamin, another key figure in Federal and Greek Revival architecture. Benjamin was a Connecticut native and cited the Old State House at Hartford, designed by Bulfinch, as a major influence.

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