Sunday, June 16, 2024

Visitors on a ranger-led tour of the house during last summer. (Photo: Sam DiMatteo/National Park Service)

The Past and Present here unite
Beneath Time’s flowing tide,
Like footprints hidden by a brook,
But seen on either side.
– from “A Gleam of Sunshine” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1866)

Famed 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these words from his home at 105 Brattle St., West Cambridge, today the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. This 263-year-old house became a National Historic Site five decades years ago. “The Longfellow family had the foresight to preserve their home decades before it entered the National Park system,” superintendent Jason Newman said. “Over the past 50 years, dedicated National Park Service staff and community partners have transformed the site into a vibrant public space and unique example of historic preservation in action.”

Built in 1759 for the enslaver and sugar planter John Vassall, the Georgian house reflected its first owner’s immense wealth. When the Loyalist Vassalls fled Cambridge on the eve of the American Revolution, the people they once enslaved here – including a woman named Cuba and her family – began to carve out their freedom and build networks of activism.

Summer festival attendees on the lawn of the Longfellow House on July 13, 1980.
(Photo: National Park Service)

Gen. George Washington made the house his first major headquarters of the American Revolution from 1775-1776, making key decisions here that would shape his rise to national prominence. Nathan Appleton bought the home in 1843 as a wedding gift for his daughter, Fanny, and her husband Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The historic home inspired Longfellow as he built his literary career and cultivated a social circle that included writers, politicians and abolitionists. The next two generations of Longfellows made 105 Brattle St. not only their family home, but a hub of historic preservation, philanthropy and queer community.

In each era, the house’s histories continue to intersect. In 1855, Longfellow recorded a visit from “old Mr. Vassall, born a slave in this house in 1769.” This was 86-year-old Darby Vassall, son of Cuba, by then a lifelong abolitionist and community activist in the free Black community. Later, Longfellow’s daughter Alice worked to preserve Washington’s home and plantation, Mount Vernon. Today, descendants of Darby Vassall and Longfellow remain active stewards of their ancestors’ legacies.

Early preservation

The lower carrying timber of the site’s piazza roof was dry rotted on 1978 and had to be replaced.
(Photo: National Park Service)

The surviving children of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Ernest, Alice, Edith and Anne Allegra – established the Longfellow House Trust in 1913 to preserve their father’s home and legacy. Alice Longfellow had preserved and lived in the home for decades and strove to keep the furnishings as much as she remembered her father having left them. Though family members had different perspectives on how to manage the house and its contents, they shared a goal of preservation and memorialization. 

A local newspaper reported on the trust in 1915: “Craigie House is placed forever among the State’s public monuments to art and patriotism, and to celebrate equally one who pleaded for justice, humanity, and, particularly, the beautiful.”

National Park Service era

Anne Thorp, granddaughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Michael Gaffney, a former gardener at the Longfellows’ house, at the 1974 dedication ceremony for it becoming a National Historic Site. (Photo: Ellis Herwig)

An act of Congress on Oct. 9, 1972, established the Longfellow National Historic Site “to preserve [the Longfellow House] in public ownership for the benefit and inspiration of the people of the United States.” Not long after, the trust transferred the property to the National Park Service, helping to ensure its long-term preservation and public access.

The early years of NPS stewardship were a period of intensive study of the house, and marked the beginnings of a professional preservation and restoration effort. Significant restoration work of the home’s exterior woodwork was complete by 1979. The site got annual funding from 1993 to 2007 to support cataloging its archives, which contain the manuscript collections of the extended Longfellow family now available to researchers. Significant work cataloging and storing the site’s museum collection safely took place as well.

Archivist Kate Hanson Plass shelves a copy of Henry Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” held in the Longfellow House collections. (Photo: T Stop Productions/National Park Service)

Still, the house faced significant structural challenges. In 1998 it underwent a major, multifaceted renovation project with support from the Friends of Longfellow House. Then-superintendent Rolf Diamant called it the “most comprehensive preservation project of its kind since the Longfellow House was first constructed.” 

A restoration of the historic garden was completed in 2007, again with the Friends of the Longfellow House. Today, the garden is open year-round for public enjoyment.

The name was changed in 2010 to “Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters” in recognition of the house’s multifaceted history. Upcoming preservation projects include conserving the 15th century Nuremberg Chronicle leaves collected by Henry Longfellow, repairing porches and balustrades, and replacing roofs.

The next 50 years

Longfellow’s grandson, Harry Dana, wrote in 1917: “It seems impossible for anyone today to foresee all the possible opportunities of a hundred years from now. The best that can be done is to make the purpose clear, that of making the memorial as fitting a one as possible, and to let the method of fulfilling the purpose be settled by each age as it comes along.”

How can we best fulfill this purpose in the current age? Today, the site both embraces and digs beyond the traditional stories of Longfellow and Washington. “The 50th anniversary is an opportunity to bring fresh perspective to the stories,” site manager Chris Beagan said, “while committing to key lesser-known stories of the site including slavery and freedom-seeking, community activism, historic preservation and LGBTQ+ history.”

Volunteers work alongside staff in the home’s historic garden in 2021. (Photo: National Park Service)

New programming, research and partnerships will continue to create a more inclusive 105 Brattle St. “We aim to build on the Longfellow legacy by creating a place where diverse community members can come together and see their own histories honored,” lead ranger Beth Wasson said. Several initiatives have debuted during the anniversary year, including Deep Dive tours of the historic house. This summer, the site hosted its first Juneteenth Gathering, and 101 dedicated volunteers brought fresh life to the garden and archives.

The first Juneteenth Gathering at Longfellow House-Washington’s headquarters takes place last summer. (Photo: National Park Service)

Behind the scenes, initiatives continue to propel Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters as an enduring resource. In the past year, the site served more than 100 external researchers, including providing access through digitized material for people as distant as Japan, France and Australia. Research will commence this year for a special history study examining the Black history of the site, and a temporary exhibit gallery highlights objects from the collection not usually on view. 

We now have the honor of writing the next verse together. The Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site is open for tours Friday through Monday until Oct. 31, and will host a Thursday night Fall Lecture Series starting this week and running through Dec. 1. Please join us, and find your inspiration at 105 Brattle St.


About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name, a new look and a whole new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with one another – and weaving their knowledge together – by offering them the floor, the mic, the platform. We shed light where historical perspectives are needed. We listen to our community. We live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

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About Longfellow House

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site preserves the home of famed 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also Gen. George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston. Today the site embraces but digs beyond their stories to explore the history of slavery, acts of emancipation, American historical mythology, LGBTQ history, architecture and family life. This is its 50th year as a National Historic Site, and there are plans to celebrate the many achievements that have shaped the site into a dynamic community resource, tourist destination and center for scholarship. Staff will continue to peel back the layers of history for an even deeper understanding of 105 Brattle St.’s place in Cambridge history, in U.S. history and in world history and work to make the Longfellow House more welcoming and accessible to all. Visitors are invited to join in a fresh exploration of U.S. history through the arts, scholarship, stewardship and community.