I traveled to Boston last week for family events and carved out some time to do a little historical sightseeing. Usually we visit for Thanksgiving when all the sites are closed for winter, so I was beyond giddy to finally check these activities off my bucket list. Seriously, I was like a kid on Christmas Eve. The National Park Service doesn’t allow indoor pictures, so I was only able to snap a few outdoor shots. But other than that, they are doing a fantastic job and the tour was really well organized and informative.
You start at the birthplace of John Adams.
Next, you go to the house John and Abigail moved into once they married. This house is also the birthplace of John Quincy Adams. This house has slightly more refined rooms and more modern fireplaces. But it is still very much an eighteenth-century farmhouse with all its quirks and charms. There were a couple of thoughts that came to mind. These houses are super close together. Each had acres of land behind them in long, rectangular lots to take advantage of access to the old road that ran from Boston to Plymouth. That would be nice if you like your neighbors, but could make things tricky if you don’t like your mother-in-law. Just saying. Also, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine returned to this home after living in Europe for many years. Louisa Catherine apparently disliked Quincy (and this old five-bedroom farmhouse) after the fancy European cities of her childhood. It must have been quite an adjustment.
Next, was the Peacefield House where John and Abigail lived from 1788 to their deaths. This house was noticeably fancier. The paneled parlor, elegant dining room, and larger bedrooms are a distinct step up.
After John’s term as president, John and Abigail returned to Quincy and completed an addition with a beautiful living room, office, and bedrooms. Charles Francis Adams added a final addition for servants’ quarters. There were a few things that struck me about the house. The house was in the family until 1948 when they gave it to the NPS. So all of the furniture, art, china, etc. are family items and so much is original to John & Abigail and John Quincy & Louisa Catherine. I cannot believe that so many items survived and how much care and attention this family paid to their legacy and history. It’s really extraordinary. Second, I loved that they didn’t try and return to the house to its 1815 status. The layered, loved feel comes through and it feels like a home. A fancy home, but a home nonetheless.
The last stop was the library Charles Francis built for John Quincy Adams’ books.
This library is the stuff nerd dreams are made of. I walked in and cried. Not exaggerating. I wanted so badly to take pictures inside, but I also felt obligated to be respectful. So here is the picture online.
My only complaint about the entire tour is that I wanted time at the end to wander around the gardens and they kind of rushed us back to the trolley. But it looked like the most idyllic spot.
On our ride back, I thought a lot about our visit. What kept clanking around my brain was how different the house felt from the presidential houses in Virginia. I think there are a couple of reasons for this comparison. First, Washington was wealthier than John Adams and there is more land preserved (or bought back) at Washington and Jefferson’s historic homes. So Washington’s home is grander and more opulent. I also visited the Longfellow House in Cambridge, which was built by the Vassall family in the 1759. I will write about this house in a separate post, but the house felt similar to Mt. Vernon or even Monticello in terms of size and layout.
Second, Massachusetts culture and society was just a bit different. In some ways, this makes a ton of sense. Massachusetts winters were a serious factor. The ceilings are lower and the rooms tended to be a bit smaller in Massachusetts. But before central heating, this configuration made a lot of sense. In the middle of a cold, Massachusetts winter, you didn’t want the heat to escape up through a tall ceiling. But there was also a different expectation about the grandeur and hospitality in Massachusetts and Virginia and how you would welcome guests. The Massachusetts elite welcomed guests and family and often hosted people in their homes for extended visits, just like the Virginia planters.
So the Adams house felt different than other homes I’ve visited. The Adams lived full-time at this house and the home was built for winters. Slightly lower ceilings, cozier rooms. The room also feels like less of an intentional display of wealth and prestige – because they simply had less tangible wealth to display. They definitely wanted nice things, but it felt like the comfort of the home was the first priority – then the image that was presented to the public.
I’m still thinking through these arguments and I haven’t visited many New England elite homes – so that’s something I need to do more of before I could make an assertive argument. But the visit really gave me good food for thought and I loved the experience.