In his day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) epitomized the terms “superstar” or “A-list celebrity.” Everyone who was anyone visited the poet at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his was the most photographed, painted, interviewed and written about family in America. Everyone knew his children’s names; schoolchildren celebrated his birthday. Fanny Longfellow was the first woman in America to be given anesthesia during childbirth. When Longfellow died, the country observed a national day of mourning.
But when his new father in law gave Henry and Fanny what was then called the Craigie House as a wedding gift, they were elated, not because it was the finest house in the neighborhood (it was), but because George and Martha Washington had lived there for nine months. Long before the Colonial Revival, Longfellow celebrated America’s colonial history and that of its native population in his rhythmic, gentle poetry. He and his family took great pride in their home’s role as Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War.
John Vassall, a wealthy loyalist who was forced to flee to Boston and British protection in 1774, built the house in 1759. After the war it belonged to Andrew Craigie, the Revolutionary War’s Apothecary General. He added the side porches and expanded the back. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first rented rooms here in 1837; when he married Fanny Appleton in 1843, she wrote, “…we are full of plans and projects with no desire, however, to change a feature of the old countenance which Washington has rendered scared.”
Their personality-driven reverence for the structure guaranteed that the Georgian paneling and other original millwork would survive. Today the large, neoclassical rooms are layered compositions with elements ranging from the mid-18thcentury to the early 20th. Chinese wallpaper that must have hung here when Washington used the room still hangs under the parlor’s 1844 paper; gasoliers Henry and Fanny bought in 1843 still illuminate. They were electrified in 1923, when her friend, Thomas Edison, finally talked oldest daughter Alice into it. Victorian marble surrounds English and Dutch fireplace tiles installed in 1759. 1840s Gothic pelmets crown Georgian windows.
Henry and Fanny collected Early American furniture; a set of seven Adam Haines chairs are among the house’s prized furnishings. Cherished, too, is the lacquered furniture son Charles brought home from Japan in 1874, the small painting Alfred Bierstadt created for his guest of honor at a dinner party for Longfellow, the Morris and Company tiles lining a bathroom installed in the early 20thcentury. This house is an American treasure, full of the public and personal effects of wealthy, artistic people who documented their lives.
Longfellow’s descendants lived here until the 1980s, but in 1913 his children began to open the house to the public and to plan its future as a museum. A National Park Service property, it sees 50 to 60,000 visitors a year. Some come to see the decorative arts, some are students of history, and still others simply wander in on a summer day. Although Longfellow is not the cultural icon that he once was, many know phrases from Longfellow’s poetry by heart.