The Nichols House Museum offers an intimate look at turn-of-the-last-century domestic life on Beacon Hill in Boston.
By Aimee Tucker
Feb 15 2016
The brick Federal Nichols House is perfectly at home in one of America’s most charming “old money” neighborhoods, Beacon Hill.Photo Credit : courtesy of Nichols House Museum
The city of Boston has nine designated historic districts, but only one Beacon Hill. Sitting just north of Boston Common and the Public Garden, Beacon Hill’s tidy brick rowhouses, cobblestone streets, and gaslamps make it feel more like a period-movie set than real life. For the most part, though, the houses are still private residences. The Nichols House Museum on Mount Vernon Street (once described by former resident Henry James as “the only respectable street in America”) is a rare exception. A classic grand Federal with a view of the State House, it’s the only Beacon Hill townhouse open to the public.
With an 1804 design credited to noted architect Charles Bulfinch, this four-story house was bought by the Nichols family in 1885 and was home to eldest daughter Rose for 75 years. An accomplished landscape architect, author, suffragist, and peace activist, Rose was no wall-flower, yet she favored a more conservative approach when it came to interior decorating. As a result, few changes were made to the home’s original style over the years, which came in handy when the unmarried Rose planned for the house’s role as a museum following her death, which occurred in 1960.
“We all do things for more than one reason, but I like to fantasize that she saw what was happening in the neighborhood [leading up to] the ’60s and how people were beginning to chop these beautiful houses up into condos and apartments, and she knew that she didn’t want that,” says Victoria Glazomitsky, the museum’s executive director. “She knew that her family was special, and she wanted to leave a legacy.”
This included the home’s contents, a carefully edited collection of Oriental rugs, Flemish tapestries, 18th-century Italian paintings, works by famed 19th-century sculptor (and Nichols relative) Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and an especially lovely set of wooden chairs carved, caned, and cushioned by Rose herself.
Despite these treasures, however, the rooms still appear lived in, with books, handmade pillows, and what might be the most modest en-suite bathroom on Beacon Hill. Discretion was, after all, a Boston Brahmin virtue, as was Yankee thrift, which Rose exercised when she painted over the wall-paper in a second-floor parlor rather than pay to remove it.
The combined effect is deeply personal. “Some houses become historic houses because people band together after the fact to keep them as relics. Boston is full of houses like that,” Glazomitsky notes. “But this one is special in that context, because the decision was made ahead of time, and it’s the only historic house museum in Boston that was built at the turn of the 19th century and showcases the story of two generations of a family who lived here from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.” Not to mention its curator was a free-thinking, independent woman.
It’s a unique perspective that has helped contribute to the museum’s unofficial motto. “We like to think of it as ‘19th-century house, 20th-century family, 21st-century ideas,’” Glazomitsky recites with a smile. And stepping back onto the brick sidewalk of what is still Boston’s most beautiful historic neighborhood, we can’t help but feel that Rose would approve.
Nichols House Museum. 55 Mount Vernon St., Boston. 617-227-6993; nicholshousemuseum.org
See additional photos: Nichols House Museum | Photos