Southeast Chamber: Alice Longfellow's Study

Black and white image of room with table piled with books and chaise at center. Room with table piled with books and chaise at center.
Alice Longfellow's Study by Frank Cousins, 1917. Building and Grounds Photograph Collection (3008-2-12-1)
Alice Longfellow's Study, 2017. NPS Photo

This chamber at the front of the house has views south to the Charles River and east over the lawn. It is accessed by the front stairs, sharing the landing with the southwest chamber, and it connects via a small passage to the northeast chamber.

The paneling around the fireplace is original; the fireplace tiles include both Dutch tiles of Biblical scenes and Liverpool woodblock-printed tiles dating to 1761-70.




 
Framed print of portrait of Washington hanging above framed manuscript page and shelf of books
Washington's presence is reflected in this arrangement by Alice Longfellow of his portrait and a manuscript of her father's verse on the room where "the father of his country" dwelt

NPS Photo

Perhaps in This Very Room

Tradition holds that this room, along with the one behind it, served as George Washington's private chambers during his nine-month stay (July 1775 - April 1776) in the Vassall House. Some sixty years later, Henry Longfellow, then a professor at Harvard, rented the same two rooms from Elizabeth Craigie. He was prepared to believe this tradition, writing to his father:

I began yesterday [July 4] to read Washington's letters from Cambridge, as yesterday was the date of the first of them. He came to Cambridge July 2nd 1775; - took command of the army on the 3rd and wrote his first letter on the 4th. It will be very pleasant to read here in Headquarters, the letters he wrote sixty-six years ago, perhaps in this very room; certainly in this very house.

Thirty-four years later, Longfellow's daughter Edith carried out the same exercise during the centennial year of the Revolution. Evidently, she was even more convinced than her father of the truth of the Washington tradition:

My new interest and excitement is reading all about this summer 100 years ago in Sparks and Irving, and everyday I read the letters for that date written in this room and probably by this very window where I write by dear George!... And at night I sleep in his very room and see the moon over the river as he must have seen it,...It is grand to feel the presence of so great a man and lifts me up quite out of the present life.

Though documents do not confirm which room Washington slept in during his time in Cambridge, it is safe to say, as Longfellow did, that it was "certainly in this very house."

 

Bachelor Study

From 1837 to 1844, this room served as Henry Longfellow's study, and for much of that period, his dining room. He had the room furnished with a writing table, sofa, and a piano. Here, Longfellow enjoyed the society of the "Five of Clubs" - fellow literary young men Cornelius Conway Felton, Henry Cleveland, George Hillard, and Charles Sumner.

For the first year of their marriage, this was Henry and Fanny Longfellow's "library," as she called it in a letter: "the Library, you remember with its cozy fauteuils, heroic bust of Greene and goodly bookcases, topped by plaster worthies, its tiled fireplace, old-fashioned mirrors, etc. A few feminine changes alone have intruded, but it is mainly the same."

In 1844, the study was moved downstairs, a change which Henry Longfellow lamented: "Alas! The old study! now given up as a playroom to noisy Charley, whose feet incessantly patter over my head. Those were lovely days and nights, above there! The room is so full of associations..."

 
Group portrait of woman seated with six girls and one boy seated and standing around her
Hannah Davie and her students, including Edith and Annie Longfellow, c. 1863

Longfellow Family Photographs (3007-2-2-4-11)

Nursery and Schoolroom

As their family grew, the former study was adapted into a playroom, nursery, schoolroom, and bedroom for the children. It was from this "chamber above" the study that Longfellow described hearing "The patter of little feet" in his poem "The Children's Hour."

From 1861 to 1868, governess Hannah Davie used the room as a classroom for the Longfellow daughters and some of their friends.

Upon their return from a European Grand Tour in 1869, Edith and Annie, the youngest Longfellow children, transformed this room into their Colonial Revival-influenced bedroom.

 
Square glazed tile decorated with landscape scene in glaze
Arts and Crafts tile

NPS Photo

Progressive Era Study

Alice Longfellow began using the room as her study in the 1890s. The room is today furnished as Alice used it around 1912-17. She used a library table for her desk, as well as a secretary type desk and bookcase between the windows. Several upholstered chairs, a sofa, and a daybed provided comfortable places to relax or read.

Alice was an active member of the Society of Arts and Crafts, which promoted beautiful, well-made design of everyday objects. Her interest in the movement is evident in her decorative choices, including Arts and Crafts vases and a tile by Grueby.

Last updated: January 31, 2018

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