Like any year, 2013 saw a number of milestone anniversaries, a few of which involved books (Pride and Prejudice – 200 years), speeches (I Have a Dream – 50 years, Gettysburg Address – 150 years), poetry/translation (Eneados – 500 years), and the anniversary that only I seem to be celebrating: the literary debut of the scone in Eneados.
Then there was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which revisited the shock of that day, stirred memories, and touched many people, even those of us who were not alive on November 22, 1963. The front page of the Boston Globe this past Friday reproduced the original front page from 50 years ago, with a headline that still resonates today.
Among the places that honored the anniversary was JFK’s birthplace at 83 Beals Street in Brookline. Normally closed for the winter, the JFK birthplace reopened for the weekend to also commemorate the National Day of Mourning on November 25, 1963, when thousands of people gathered outside the house, a private residence at the time, to pay tribute to JFK. In 1966 JFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy, repurchased the house, and in 1967 it was established as a National Historic Site, opening to the public in 1969 as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site.
Just outside Boston near Coolidge Corner, the house is located in a tree-lined, residential neighborhood. There is a sign at the end of the street pointing towards the house, but for the next quarter of a mile, there are no other indications that a presidential birthplace is nearby. Then the flag pole comes into view.
The house was restored by Rose Kennedy, who lived there after her 1914 marriage to Joseph P. Kennedy. In 1920, the family moved to a larger house a few blocks away. JFK was born on the afternoon of May 29, 1917, and the clocks within the house are all set to 3:00, the time of his birth.
Only about 19% of the objects inside were originally used by the Kennedy family when they lived here, so the house is not really a museum of Kennedy artifacts but instead reproduces what family life would have been like in the home during the first three years of JFK’s life. Both Joe and Rose Kennedy came from well-known political families, and life in this house reflected their status as upper middle class. With the images of Kennedy wealth and privilege that we know today, seeing that JFK’s early years were defined by comfort rather than opulence can be surprising.
The house has three floors and a basement. The two servants lived on the top floor, which today holds staff offices and is not open to the public. The basement has been converted to a gift shop with some additional photographs on display. A tour of the house visits the first and second floors, and the rooms themselves are gated off and can be viewed only from the hallways. Especially on the second floor, being limited to the narrow hallway leaves an impression that the house is small, and since there were four children by 1920, it is understandable why the family had to move to a larger house. I had visited the house a couple of times over the years and decided to see it again Saturday morning.
Most tours are led by a National Park Service ranger. The knowledgeable rangers describe the origins of the house as a historic site, share stories about life for the Kennedy’s during JFK’s first three years, and talk about the significance of many of the objects in the house.
Among the objects which would have been in the house when JFK lived there, highlights include the bed where Rose Kennedy gave birth (closest to the window), the children’s bassinet, and Rose Kennedy’s piano. (Dorene was not with me, so I had to take photos.)
The dining room is on the first floor immediately on the left when you enter the house. Of all the rooms, it holds the most original objects. Several pieces of furniture, china, and silver would have been used in the house. The china and some of the silver pieces were wedding presents, including the teapot displayed on the buffet/sideboard in the photo at the bottom. Not surprisingly, Rose Kennedy was a tea drinker. The small table in the photo on the left was where JFK and his older brother Joe sat, with JFK’s original porringer on the left. Here is the view from left to right of the dining room.
The house is now closed for the winter and will not reopen until May. Visit their website for more information. While there is an opportunity to view a film in the basement about JFK, this is not the primary site for learning about the president’s life. The house instead is a simple, quiet place that offers a glimpse into JFK’s early years and the origins of his legacy.