Recently I had the opportunity to roam around a little closer to home than I usually do (practically my own neighborhood) with a docent led tour of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House on Brattle Street in Cambridge. Built in the late 17th century it is the second oldest house in Cambridge. The first being the Cooper-Frost-Austin House ca. 1681. I have known about the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House for years but had never been inside. What I learned on a tour of it was very interesting.
The first part of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, two rooms, were built by Richard Hooper in 1685. Hooper was a man of many “businesses” one of which had something to do with medicine. None of the businesses were very successful, when Richard died in 1690 his wife Elizabeth turned the house into a boarding house that served liquor. She died in 1701 in dire poverty, the house was empty of furnishings and the estate didn’t have money to give her a proper burial. The house sat empty and falling apart until years later their son Henry paid off the longstanding debts and built significant additions onto the house.
Through the centuries the house had a dozen owners; members of the Hooper, Lee, Nichols and White families all of which were prominent Cambridge and Boston families who improved the house by adding architectural ells to the main structure. In 1916 then owner Austin White contracted preservation architect Joseph Everett Chandler who restored the existing house and added on to it. The last owners were William Ralph Emerson and his wife Frances. Emerson was the Dean of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he and Frances built more rooms onto the house and documented its history. Needless to say that with all these owners and additions being done the house is a hodge-podge of architectural styles; First Period, Victorian and Colonial Revival, all of which blend together beautifully.
The two rooms from the original 1685 structure are the Bosphorus Room and the Naples Room upstairs. The Bosphorus Room is named for the Joseph Dufour et Cie wallpaper depicting the Bosphorus in Turkey. It is original to the period when the White family owned the house in 1856. The East Parlor and the room above it were a small house that was brought here and attached. Hearing that was an “aha” moment for me, it explained why nothing matched the other rooms and why the ceilings were lower.
Although none of the furnishings belonged to any of the owners what is there is of the different periods of the house. One prized piece of furniture (it certainly impressed me) in the East Parlor is the Franklin chair, ca. 1770, donated by Lois Lilley Howe. Benjamin Franklin gave the chair to Howe’s grandmother Martha Howard. In all the rooms are exhibits that categorize the history of Cambridge from pre-Revolutionary days to the city’s part in the American Revolution to the 19th and 20th centuries.
William and Frances Emerson were the last family to live in the house. When they died in 1957 they left the house to the Cambridge Historical Society. The society has done a wonderful job of restoring the property and holding onto its history.