The Making of the Longfellow National Historic Site:
A Preservation History

Prior to 1972 when the National Park Service formally assumed possession of the Longfellow home with its carriage house, grounds, and archives, family members had conscientiously and continuously preserved the House for ninety years, a quite unusual situation for a historic home.

Alice Longfellow, Henry’s oldest daughter, continued to live in the House after her father’s death in 1882. She and her brother and two sisters increasingly thought of the House as a memorial to be maintained as it was when their father had lived there. To that end, shortly after his death, the family donated property between the House and the Charles River to the city of Cambridge, and noted landscape architect Charles Eliot developed it into Longfellow Park.

But maintaining a historic home to share with the public was difficult. “I tried after your grandfather’s death having the house open every day,” Alice wrote to her nephew Harry Dana in 1913, “and nearly went crazy. Neither Abby nor I will ever try it again. Never.”
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That year the remaining children created the Longfellow House Trust. The Longfellow papers do not reveal who first suggested a trust for the House, but it was probably the lawyers Richard Henry Dana III and Joseph Thorp, the husbands of Longfellow’s daughters Edith and Annie respectively. The family sought to preserve the House as a memorial, in perpetuity for educational and inspirational purposes, to both the poet and its nine-month occupant George Washington and as a “specimen of the best Colonial architecture.”

The trust provided that Alice could remain in the House and that funds could be conveyed to a “corporation” or divided among the Longfellow heirs at the cessation of the trust. It also allowed certain possessions to be removed from the House (a painting then thought to be by Tintoretto was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts). The trust paid for all repairs, taxes, and insurance, while Alice paid $2500 annual rent and all other expenses. Following Alice’s death, any family member alive at the inception of the trust could live in the House. To ensure a family member remain in the House, Alice willed $6o,ooo to cover the annual rent for such a person.

Three trustees were to manage the Longfellow House Trust. Between 1913 and 1972, eight men held these positions, of which seven were friends and associates of the Longfellows and only one was a family member.

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Harry Dana took up residence in the House with Alice in 1917 and continued to live there after Alice’s death in 1928.

Passionate about the House and its contents, Harry convinced family members to change the provisions of the trust in 1919 so that the House would stay as it was when the poet had lived there, with its paintings and furniture unchanged. He offered tours to the public, and charged a small admission fee to help with costs.

“I trust you will soon cease to have any dread of those silent trustees, who certainly give me no concern," Alice had written to Harry in 1915. But his fears proved justified when in 1935 the trustees tried to “convey the premises to a corporation” following his arrest on a morals charge (of which he was acquitted a month later). After the trustees’ deal to transfer the House to Harvard fell through, they tried to interest Radcliffe in it as the president’s home, but the family members rallied behind Harry and blocked the transfer.

Harry’s cousin William Sumner Appleton badgered him to consider where the House would go when he died. As head of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), Appleton in 1946 asked Harry to “swing it our way, for we are the logical folk to look after it,” but he made no such deal.

Following Harry Dana's death in 1950, no family member chose to live in the House. The trust rented out rooms to family members and friends, and Thomas de Valcourt and Frank Buda managed the House, which was overseen by Anne Longfellow Thorp, the poet’s granddaughter.

Meanwhile, the trustees, in their search for a corporation, approached the National Park Service. The Park Service was not interested because, at the time, it did not include any site commemorating an author.

Ten years later after contacting SPNEA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the trustees returned to the NPS. This time the climate was right, and in 1962 the NPS conducted a field survey of the site and concluded that it met their standards for inclusion in the system. In 1969, Congressman Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. requested the NPS draft a bill establishing the site. In 1972 Congress authorized the Longfellow National Historic Site, and two years later the Park Service assumed management of the property.

“What is apparent,” wrote NPS historian Dwight Pitcaithley in 1986, “is that the Trust was a very early, very carefully crafted, and very private New England family effort to preserve the home of an internationally acclaimed American poet. Its success is a tribute to its creators which, as far as can be discerned, knew little if anything about the growing preservation movement and sought no counsel during their deliberations. The existence of the Trust and its longevity ensured that the house not a restored, refurnished, or otherwise recreated representation, but an original survivor of Washington’s brief occupancy and Longfellow’s extended one.


© 2004 Longfellow National Historic Site