Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site | HOUSE HISTORY

Rear of the Longfellow House

Rear of the Longfellow House

The house that is now known as the Longfellow House was originally built in 1759 by John Vassall. It began as a 5,000-square-foot structure of Georgian design, an architectural style where everything is symmetrical. There are an equal number of windows on either side of the centered door, and the back and front of the house look the same, as do the two sides. At the time, the house sat on a 6.5-acre lot and had a nice view of the Charles River. Vassall eventually owned 97 acres of land in the area and was one of the largest landowners in Cambridge.

Model of the original house built by John Vassall

Model of the original house built by John Vassall

Vassall was a Loyalist, and in April 1775, he and his family fled to Boston where British troops could offer protection from the American Patriots who had been harassing him. With the house now empty, a militia general by the name of Glover occupied it, but he was asked to leave when George Washington arrived. Washington moved in on July 15, 1775, and used it as his headquarters during the Siege of Boston. This was an early conflict in the American Revolution in which the Patriots attempted to run the British out of Boston by cutting off their supplies. The siege began in July 1775 and lasted until the British finally left on March 17, 1776. The British had determined that Boston was of no strategic importance, plus it was too easy to get trapped, so they evacuated to Nova Scotia along with any civilian Loyalists who also wanted to leave. Washington departed the house on April 4th.

Vassall went to Nova Scotia and eventually returned to England, so he never even attempted to get his property back, and even if he did, being a Loyalist, he would have been out of luck. Confiscated Loyalist property was sold off by the new government, and in the case of the Vassall House, it was purchased in 1781 along with 140 acres by Nathaniel Tracy.

Tracy was a land speculator who purchased a number of properties in Cambridge. He eventually ran into financial problems and sold the estate to Thomas Russell in 1786. Russell in turn sold it in 1792 to Andrew Craigie, the second owner of any significance. It was Craigie who built the additions to the house, doubling its size (neighbors called it Craigie’s Castle). The current layout is pretty much as it was after the Craigie additions.

3D model of the Longfellow House with the Craigie additions (looking northeast from Brattle Street)

3D model of the Longfellow House with the Craigie additions (looking northeast from Brattle Street)

East side of the Longfellow House

East side of the Longfellow House

West side of the Longfellow House (view looking southeast)

West side of the Longfellow House (view looking southeast)

When Craigie died in 1819, he owned roughly 600 acres of property and was heavily in debt. His business dealings had become mixed up with his brother-in-law Bossenger Foster, so there was a legal battle over the property between Craigie’s wife, Elizabeth, and Foster’s children. Elizabeth was awarded the house and 95 acres along with her husband’s debts. She sold off most of the furniture, livestock, and farming tools, and also began taking in boarders, which she limited to only Harvard students and professors. One such professor was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow had been in Germany when his first wife, Mary, died following a miscarriage in November 1835. He returned to the United States and took a job as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard in December 1836. He first came across the Craigie House a few months later when visiting a friend who was renting a room there. He loved the house, and when he learned that his friend was moving out, he worked a deal with Elizabeth to become the new tenant in August 1837. His room was supposedly George Washington’s bedroom, and he got a great kick out of that. He always loved the history of the house as much as its grandeur.

When Elizabeth Craigie died in 1841, the estate was divided into thirds and went to various members of the Foster family, for she and her husband had no children of their own. The Fosters continued to use the house as a rental property, and Longfellow continued as a tenant. The land was further subdivided, and it was at this time up through the later part of the 1800s that Cambridge transitioned from being a town of farming estates to one of small residential lots with large single-family homes. When Longfellow died in 1882, other than the land directly in front of the house down to the Charles River, much of the surrounding area had been developed into residential neighborhoods.

Neighborhood surrounding the Longfellow House today

Neighborhood surrounding the Longfellow House today

On July 13, 1843, after a seven-year courtship, Longfellow married Frances “Fanny” Appleton, the daughter of a banker and factory owner. He had met the Appleton family in Switzerland after his first wife’s death. Later that fall, Fanny’s father purchased the house and five acres from the Fosters and gave it to the new couple as a wedding present. Fanny also persuaded him to buy an additional four acres of land between the house and the Charles River so that nobody else could build on it. Years later when Henry had his own money, he purchased the land on the other side of the river when he heard that a slaughterhouse was to be built, and then gave it to Harvard College.

The Longfellows never made any major additions to the house. For one, it was large enough, and at the beginning Henry barely had enough money to keep it up. But the main reason was because of its connection to George Washington—he wanted to preserve the house, not change it. The only significant modifications that were made were to the outbuildings, gardens, and trees.

As Longfellow grew in fame and fortune, he purchased more and more land. He wanted to preserve the view of the river and keep others from building near him, but he also wanted land to give to his children so they could build their own houses. He and Fanny had five children: Charles (1844-1893), Ernest (1845-1921), Alice (1850-1928), Edith (1853-1915), and Anne (1855-1934). Another daughter, Fanny, died a few months past her first birthday.

Tragedy struck on July 9, 1861. Fanny was working with hot wax when her dress caught on fire. By the time Henry could put out the flames, she was badly burned; she died the next morning. Their daughter Anne later said that it was not the candles that caused the fire, but a self-lighting match that fell on the floor and lit. Henry was also seriously injured while attempting to put out the flames. The beard he would become known for was grown because his face was so burned that he could no longer shave.

When Henry Longfellow died in 1882, his children first set out to preserve the view of the Charles River. His friends formed the Longfellow Memorial Association, and the children donated the land directly across the street, and then a few years later, a triangle of land between the river and Mt. Auburn Street. The Association used the land to create Longfellow Park, and this is still a green space today, though there is no longer a view of the river. The park is not part of Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, but it is just across the street for those who want to see it.

Longfellow Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Longfellow Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts

The centerpiece of the park is a memorial to Longfellow designed by Henry Bacon and sculpted by Daniel Chester French that consists of a bust of Longfellow in front of a sculpture that depicts six characters from his poems: Miles Standish, Sandalphon, the Village Blacksmith, the Spanish Student, Evangeline, and Hiawatha. The names are inscribed in the stone at the feet of each character. The memorial was dedicated in October 1914.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Memorial by Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Memorial by Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French

As for the Longfellow estate, the children divided it up among themselves. Except for his daughter Alice, those who had not already built a house on their lot commenced to doing so. Since Alice also never married, she remained living in the Longfellow House and took care of it, though the house was the property of all the children (Alice did have her inherited land as well).

In the years after Longfellow’s death, tours of the house were given, and the east porch, gardens, and lawn were rented for ceremonies such as college graduations to help pay for its maintenance. From 1930 until the house was finally donated to the National Park Service in 1972, the heirs agreed to rent rooms to families and students on a full-time basis, and it was always rentals that brought in most of the money.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, who was the son of Longfellow’s daughter Edith and Richard Henry Dana Jr., moved in with Alice and was living there at the time of her death in 1928 (he did pay rent to the estate). Afterwards, he continued to live in and manage the house until his death in 1950; he was the last Longfellow to live in the house. Frank Buda, the maintenance man since 1933, stayed on and took care of the house after Dana’s death.

In 1913, the children created the Indenture of Trust to preserve the house in perpetuity, or, as it was stated, until no children or grandchildren wanted to live in it, at which time the house would be sold or donated to an organization that would continue to maintain it. This time came when Henry died in 1950. The house still had renters, but the money was inadequate to maintain it. Thus, two years later talks began with the National Park Service about taking over. However, at that time there was no interest in creating a park dedicated to a writer. The New England Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and the National Trust for Historic Preservation were also contacted, but with no results. The house continued as a rental, and slowly deteriorated.

In 1962, the National Park Service was approached again, and this time it showed some interest. A field study was instigated and completed the following year. It was determined that such a historically significant house was indeed something that should become part of the National Park system. However, legal issues and the fact that such a park can only be created by Congress meant that it would take time—ten years in fact. It wasn’t until 1972 that the house and two acres were finally transferred to the National Park Service and the Longfellow National Historic Site was created (the name was changed to include a reference to George Washington in December 2010).

In 1973, a Historic Structures Report was carried out to determine what needed to be done to bring the house back to its former glory of 1928, the time of Alice’s death. There had been no changes to the house since then, so no additions would have to be removed. Restoration work was done between 1975 and 1976.

Today the Longfellow House is open to the public by guided tour only. Tours are held from late May through the end of October. See the Guided Tours web page here on National Park Planner for details.

Back to the Top


Last updated on September 29, 2021
Share this article