With spring rains and summer vacations coming up, restless children and out-of-town friends may need a few suggestions for interesting inside things to do. These lesser-known (and less-crowded) house museums in the Boston area promise engaging diversions. Guided tours allow visitors to peer into the lives of extraordinary Bostonians (and Cantabridgians) of the past three centuries. All are accessible by public transit.
The Shirley-Eustis House, Roxbury. Governor William Shirley's mansion, one of four remaining country houses in America built by British royal colonial governors, stands on a shady street in a 20th-century Boston neighborhood. In the 1750s, this was a rural Tory enclave, and the estate fronted the South Bay, the better to stay close to the British fleet. The property's grand scale reflects not only the royal governor's social status, but the spacious landscape that once rippled out in all directions. It took the governor an hour by carriage to reach Boston proper. Today, the three-story house, grounds, and carriage house spread out over a large city block known as Shirley Place. Though it represents only a fraction of the original estate, which sported a 250-foot-long ornamental canal, the property is still palatial in a middle-class neighborhood of quarter-acre lots.
The grounds are as delightful as the building's interior, making this a fine place to bring children. The Georgian-style house, its clapboards painted a regal yellow, overlooks a courtyard and soon, when the weather complies, a long greensward divided by a lush, re-created 18th-century garden of perennials and shrubs. (The garden was created by volunteers from the Community Outreach Group for Landscape Design, of the Landscape Institute at the Arnold Arboretum.) A copper-roofed gazebo sits at the far end of the grassy space, and an orchard and carriage house stand across a small street. Neighborhood families use the precious green space as a park, and, according to Andrea Taaffe, director of the museum, neighborhood children sled in the yard in winter.
After the Revolution, the state seized the estate when Shirley's Tory descendants fled, and an early China Trade sea captain bought it, followed by Massachusetts Governor William Eustis. The governor, who had been a surgeon in the Continental Army, entertained his former comrade in arms, the wildly popular Marquis de Lafayette, at this house in 1824. Eustis updated the building in the Federal style, and many exquisite details such as early wall coverings and patterns painted onto the wide, planked floors have remained intact or been restored since preservationists acquired the property in the early 1900s. A rich narrative chronicles the changes from Colonial America through the late 19th century on the guided tours.
Nichols House Museum, Beacon Hill. Near the corner of Joy and Mount Vernon streets, in the most Brahmin of blocks, the 1804 brick house doesn't stand out much from the outside, despite being attributed to high-style architect Charles Bulfinch. Inside, however, Nichols House rivals any of the neighboring Boston grande dames, as did its former owner, the landscape designer, author, and society suffragette Rose Standish Nichols. Nichols (1872-1960) inherited the home from her well-to-do parents. Richly furnished as Nichols left it, the house is now a capsule of an extraordinary and privileged life. Sculpture by her uncle Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of the most lauded artists of the 19th century, adorns a few rooms, as well as examples of Nichols's own carpentry and embroidery.
At a time when women of her station were expected only to marry well, she chose not to marry at all. Instead, she supported herself as a landscape gardener (the term that predated ''landscape architect"), designing gardens all over the country. She also wrote books on gardens that are still esteemed today. Nichols actively championed pacifism and women's rights with the likes of Jane Addams, traveling widely on behalf of these causes. She started a women's reading group that roved from house to house in her neighborhood, similar to today's book clubs.
The rooms of the four-story brick townhouse reflect Nichols's diverse interests, far-flung travels, and artistic taste. Tours feature a colorful description of Brahmin Boston society, complete with century-old gossip. This year, the house will celebrate its 200th anniversary with a series of public programs.
Longfellow National Historic Site. George Washington not only slept in this grande dame of a house, he took it over, along with its riverfront grounds, to use as his Revolutionary Army headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776. Set back from Brattle Street a few blocks west of Harvard Square, the property originally was the summer home of a British colonel, who built it in 1759. The romantic whiff of Revolutionary history, especially the association with Washington, was part of the home's appeal to the newlyweds Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Fanny Appleton Longfellow, who received it as a wedding present from the bride's father in 1843. (''We have decided to let Father purchase this grand old mansion if he will . . . how noble an inheritance this is where Washington dwelt in every room," Fanny wrote to her brother.) Longfellow, then a young Harvard professor, was already intimately familiar with the property and its history: By the time of his marriage, he had been a boarder there for six years.
Today, the yellow mansion is better known for its association with the Longfellows. Poems such as ''Evangeline" and ''The Song of Hiawatha" won Longfellow enormous fame during his lifetime, and other local literati frequented the Brattle Street house. The Longfellows assembled an extraordinary collection of art and antiques, including paintings from the Hudson River School and Japanese screens, which remain in the house. After Fanny died (of burns received when her dress caught fire), the poet roamed abroad before returning home to spend his remaining years in the mansion. After he died at home in 1882, his daughter Alice Longfellow, a founder of Radcliffe College, lived here until her death in 1928. It was Alice who commissioned two of America's earliest female landscape architects, Martha Brooks Hutcheson (in 1904-05) and Ellen Biddle Shipman (in 1923-1925) to restore the old family gardens on the property and add romantic Colonial Revival touches. The National Park Service, which owns the site, is rehabilitating the lush gardens.
Jane Roy Brown is a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts.