Kennedy, the Adamses and One More in Boston
AT least since Abraham Lincolns log cabin, Americans have looked for significance in the beginnings humble or patrician of their presidents. In the Boston area, opportunities for this kind of insight are unusually rich. Within about a dozen miles, its possible to see the birthplaces of all four presidents who were born in Massachusetts.
Naturally, you will know which four they were.
John F. Kennedy, of course. His familys imprint is heavy on the state from Hyannis to Boston and west. And the Adamses. John was the famous Massachusetts patriot, and yes, his son John Quincy was Massachusetts-born, too.
And then theres that fourth one.
But why start with him? To begin the presidential infancy tour, an easier first stop and first surprise is the Kennedy birthplace at 83 Beals Street in the quiet, tree-shaded suburb of Brookline. Visitors used to identifying the Kennedy name with riches will find instead a simple wood-frame house, painted green with yellow trim, projecting comfort, but not wealth. This was a genteel address in 1917, when the future president was born in an upstairs bedroom, but hardly an exclusive one.
Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy moved there as newlyweds in 1914, a couple on the way up. Although both came from well-off Boston political families, it was Joseph who was to make the real Kennedy fortune, as a banker, financier and investor. In John Kennedys childhood, his family did better and better as the years went by, prospering through the stock market crash of 1929 and gaining wealth during the Depression.
By the time John F. Kennedy was at Harvard, the family had large homes in the New York suburbs and in Hyannisport, and Joseph Kennedy was the American ambassador to Britain. The Kennedy clan might have easily believed that for them, almost anything was attainable.
On the 20-minute tour at the Brookline house, National Park Service rangers display the Kennedy family bassinet and a favorite childhood book of Johns called Billy Whiskers. A pamphlet gives directions for a walking tour that takes in St. Aidans Church, where the future president served as an altar boy.
Rangers also give driving directions to the more illuminating John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, about 15 minutes away on the grounds of the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Displays inside the gleaming white building sweep the visitor through Kennedys life, with special emphasis on its final, action-packed years and its abrupt end. Exhibits have a you are there impact, with the recorded voice of Kennedy everywhere and a marbled replica of White House corridors and offices.
Then, in a stark, black hallway, large white letters spell out a brief message: Nov. 22, 1963 the day of Kennedys assassination. Drumbeats sound, and pictures flash of a nation in mourning.
After this sobering excursion to the mid-20th century, its a relief to drive six miles to a sunny corner of the 18th, the small saltbox-style house, built in 1665, where John Adams, the second president, was born in 1735. Of the four presidents who started life in Massachusetts, he began most humbly, the son of a farmer.
Like Kennedy, and like his own son, John Quincy Adams, John Adams graduated from Harvard. But unlike either of them, he arrived there after a boyhood of milking cows and chopping wood. Later, he made a fair living as a farmer and a lawyer until going into politics with patriotic passion in the years just before the Revolution.
The house is nondescript, and so is the similar one about 75 yards away where John Quincy, oldest son of John and his beloved wife and intellectual companion, Abigail, was born in 1767. Both houses are now part of the Adams National Historic Site in Quincy. Though these plain houses show how simply the Adamses began, the most interesting part of the tour is the much grander family home referred to as the mansion, in Quincy, where John and Abigail moved in 1788. John Adams was the infant United States first ambassador to Britain then, and John Quincy, who had a remarkable facility for languages as well as his fathers prominence to build on, had already served as a diplomatic assistant in Russia. John and Abigail stayed at the house when they could, with interruptions in New York, Philadelphia and finally the brand-new White House as Adams moved from vice president to president. Later generations of Adamses lived in the Braintree house until the 1940s.
THE sweeping grounds give the house a parklike setting. Flowers that Abigail brought home from England still bloom; the boxwood bushes are more than 250 years old. The house and the Stone Library, built for John Quincy Adams, hold an astonishing 78,000 historical artifacts, including one of the few original copies of the Declaration of Independence.
Nearly everything in the house was used by the Adams family, a tour guide, Elizabeth Agati, explained, including John Adamss favorite chair, Abigails butter churn and White House china from both Adams administrations. The visitor can see the canopy bed in which Abigail died at 74 of typhoid fever, leaving John, overcome with grief, begging God to take him, too. (He died eight years later at 90.)
The library holds 14,000 books in the 13 languages that John Quincy Adams could read his diplomatic career continued in Prussia, the Netherlands and England. He also served in the House and the Senate and, as secretary of state under James Monroe, he had a major role in forming the Monroe Doctrine. The Adams site is awe-inspiring.
From there, its another short drive to the remaining Massachusetts presidential birthplace, at 173 Adams Street in Milton. It is privately owned and not open for tours a blue-gray house with green trim, larger and more impressive than the other birthplaces and partly obscured by landscaping. The future president who was born there in 1924 stayed about a year before his family moved to Connecticut. Although he returned to Massachusetts for prep school at Phillips Andover Academy, he went on to Yale, not Harvard.
Like John Quincy Adams, he had a father who paved the way politically, in his case, a United States senator. But, also like John Quincy, he built his own record of accomplishment, as a World War II bomber pilot, a businessman, a United States representative, an ambassador to the United Nations, the chief American diplomat in China, national chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of central intelligence, vice president and finally president.
He is, of course, George Herbert Walker Bush, or Bush 41, as his son, the current President Bush, likes to call him.
Texas likes to claim George H. W. Bush now. But a plaque outside the Milton house confirms it: he started in Massachusetts.
TO reach the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site (83 Beals Street, Brookline, Mass.; 617-566-7937; www.nps.gov/jofi) from Interstate 90, take the exit for Allston/Brighton/Cambridge. Merge onto Cambridge Street and at the second stoplight, turn left onto Harvard Street. Follow across major intersections with Brighton and Commonwealth Avenues and after several blocks, turn left onto Beals Street. The house is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from May 17 to Sept. 30. Admission is $3.
Follow the rangers directions to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Columbia Point, Boston; 617-514-1600; www.jfklibrary.org). The suggested route follows local streets to Route 93, where the library is a few exits away. The site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $10.
The Adams National Historical Park Visitor Center (1250 Hancock Street, Quincy; 617-770-1175; www.nps.gov/adam), including the birthplaces of both John Adams and John Quincy Adams, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 19 to Nov. 10. Admission is $5. From I-93 take Exit 7 to Route 3 south. Leave Route 3 at the first exit, Exit 18, Washington Street, and continue on Burgin Parkway. At the seventh set of traffic lights, turn right onto Dimmock Street. Drive one block and turn right onto Hancock Street.
To see the fourth presidential birthplace in Massachusetts, return to Burgin Parkway and turn right. After two-tenths of a mile, turn left onto Adams Street. Drive 1.7 miles and turn right onto Granite Avenue. Follow it immediately left at a fork and then quickly turn right back onto Adams Street. Follow it about a mile and a half to 173 Adams Street in Milton.