Feature: Mansion served both patriot, poet

By DAVE HASKELL  |  July 22, 2002 at 10:16 AM
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., July 18 (UPI) -- The surprising thing about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home is that George Washington slept there long before the famed 19th-century American poet.

Washington used the mansion for 10 months in 1775-1776 as his live-in headquarters as he struggled to organize the newly formed Continental Army to counter the British troops in Boston during the early days of the American Revolution.

"One wonders how many sleepless nights George Washington spent here" as he wrestled with the demands of command, said Donald Cann, a tour guide with the National Park Service, which oversees the historic house.

The three-story Georgian architecture-style structure is located a short walk (parking in the area is difficult) from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. It reopened to the public in June following three years of renovations.

As a young professor at Harvard College, Longfellow moved into the house as a boarder in 1837.

Despite his growing fame as perhaps the best loved of American poets, Longfellow reveled in the mansion's historic connections to the general who forced the British to abandon Boston without a fight in 1776.

He delighted in showing the house off to strangers who came knocking at his door, wanting to see the rooms where Washington had strategy sessions with his generals and where he slept.

It was in those same rooms that Longfellow later wrote many of his famous poems, including the classic but historically inaccurate "Paul Revere's Ride." Critics argue the poem gives Revere too much credit without recognizing the contributions of William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, two other patriots who rode out from Boston before the 1775 Battle of Lexington.

"Let's go back through time," tour guide Paul Blandford said, leading a group from the National Park Service visitors center through a door to the interior of the home.

"If only these walls could talk," Blandford remarked wistfully as he spoke of Revolutionary-era figures such as Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams and Benedict Arnold who came to confer with Washington, and of literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Julia Ward Howe who spent many hours there with Longfellow.

Frequently on the tour, Blandford delighted the visitors by reciting lines from Longfellow's poems, appropriate to the rich history of the house.

"The house is dripping with story and song," Blandford said, noting that Longfellow referred to his poems as songs.

The 12-room house was built in 1759 for Maj. John Vassall, a Tory sympathizer who fled with his family from the home in 1774 as tensions grew between colonials and the British.

During the Siege of Boston, in 1775, Washington took over the house as his headquarters. On Jan. 6, 1776, George and Martha Washington celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary there.

Longfellow lived in the house from 1837 until his death in 1882. Longfellow, whose first wife, Mary Storer Potter, died while on a trip to Europe in 1834, married Fanny Appleton in 1843. That's when his wealthy father-in-law, Nathan Appleton, bought the house for them as a wedding gift.

In a letter to her brother, Fanny wrote of her delight in living where Washington "dwelt in every room."

She described plans to preserve the house "with no desire, however, to change a feature of the old countenance which Washington has rendered sacred."

According to the Longfellow House Bulletin, a newsletter put out by the National Park Service and the Friends of the Longfellow House, Longfellow once said of his study:

"This was Washington's own private room; and where my writing desk now stands, there stood his table."

It was there that Longfellow became one of the first American writers to use native themes. He wrote about the American scene and landscape of the American Indian in the "Song of Hiawatha" and of American history and tradition in "Evangeline."

On his mother's side, Longfellow was descended from Plymouth Colony pioneers John and Priscilla Alden, whom he wrote about in "The Courtship of Miles Standish."

Fanny and Henry lived in the house for the rest of their lives and their five children grew up there -- Charles, Ernest, Alice, Edith, and Ann Allegra.

In his "The Children's Hour," the poet described the girls as "grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair." Alice, the oldest daughter, lived there until her death in 1928.

Longfellow's happy life in the house came to an end in 1861 when Fanny died of burns suffered when packages of her children's curls, which she was sealing with matches and wax, burst into flame. He also died in the house, 21 years later, at the age of 75.

The House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and was formally taken over by the National Park Service in 1972. It contains numerous 19th century American and European paintings and sculptures, Longfellow family antiques, a 10,000-volume library and more than a 500,000-item collection of original family papers.

Longfellow was the son of Stephen Longfellow and Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow. He was born Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine, where his three-story, federal-style boyhood home has also been renovated to give visitors an idea of what the house looked like in 1850. It is also a National Historic Landmark.

Longfellow left his mark in life, as he wrote in "A Psalm of Life":

"Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time."


(For more information, see the Web sites nsp.gov/long; eclecticesoterica.com/Longfellow)

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