- Historic Sites
Home to royal and republican governors, host to a century of great men, stately Shirley Place in Roxbury, Massachusetts, is falling into ruin
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
In addition to the failure of his own career, Shirley had lost two of his four sons in the war. John, the friend of Governor Morris of Pennsylvania, died of illness contracted in the Niagara campaign. William, Washington’s friend, was killed at the Monongahela (see page 58) while serving as Braddock’s secretary. Washington, who was one of Braddock’s aides-de-camp, later visited the Governor in Roxbury to give him the details of his son’s death. He was much taken with Shirley Place and later imitated some features of it at Mount Vernon. Of Governor Shirley himself he wrote: “His character and appearance has perfectly charmed me, as I think every word and every action discovers the gentleman and great politician”—the word politician not then having its modern pejorative connotation.
Two years after Shirley’s return to England he was given the insignificant appointment of governor of the Bahamas. Although he had earlier deeded Shirley Place to his son-in-law, Eliakim Hutchinson, he returned to spend his last years there and died in Roxbury in 1771. It was a time of crisis when the lines were being drawn between patriot and loyalist, and anti-English feeling was sharp. Nevertheless, Shirley’s death was proclaimed a day of general mourning in Boston. His body was conducted to King’s Chapel by the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and the crowds at his funeral showed the esteem in which he was still held and which even the approaching crisis could not dim.
Shirley’s house is symbolic of him, English in design and origin, yet set down in the American landscape. It is the kind of house a man builds for a lifetime, intending to die there. In style it is Dutch Palladian. The slanting roof and obvious chimneys are characteristic. Originally the exterior was faced with wooden blocks to simulate stone rustication. It was a device that Harrison had used earlier in his Redwood Library at Newport. Both the cupola and the roof are reminiscent of Coleshill. However the pilasters—ten on the west or main façade, four on the east facing the garden—are of later derivation.
The central feature of Shirley Place was the state reception room. One entered it through the double doors of the tessellated entrance hall. The great room rose two stories high to a domed ceiling of intricate plasterwork from which hung crystal candelabra. The walls and woodwork were painted a pale sea green and the tops of the interior pilasters supporting the ceiling arch were gilded.
On evenings when Governor Shirley received, the room became a court in miniature. There at the entrance were the marble busts of George II and Queen Caroline. Flanking the royal arms hung the Shirley portraits, and the entrance hall displayed relics of the Louisbourg expedition. As the evening advanced the frogged jackets of the musicians in the gallery became somewhat obscured by the lowering candle smoke, but on the floor level scarlet and gold and silver still sparkled. The Governor received the curtsies of the wives of that new-minted squirearchy of Vassalls and Hutchinsons and Brattles and Apthorps and Faneuils, who in a few more decades were to put their loyalty to the sterner test of exile. They passed in formal line, and as they moved under the flashing crystals their shadows projected through the arched Venetian window onto the terrace that looked out over the formal garden and the maze modeled after Hampton Court, while far off across the bay the wavering lights of Boston were strung like beads against the city’s hills.
The other rooms were subsidiary. To the left of the hall was a dining room, to the right a drawing room and family parlor. Stairs at the left of the entrance hall led inconspicuously to the second floor, where the Governor’s chamber on one side was separated by the musicians’ gallery from the guest bedchamber on the other. In addition there was a smaller room next to the guest chamber. This guest bedchamber was used by Washington in 1756 and in much altered circumstances by Lafayette seventy years later on his nostalgic return visit to America when he was entertained by the then owner Governor Eustis.
Eliakim Hutchinson, a loyalist of moderate views, died the year before the Revolution. However, because he was a justice and because in particular he had accepted the office of Mandamus Counsellor, he was set down in the black book of the Sons of Liberty. Not long after his death Shirley Place was confiscated. During the siege of Boston the house was used as a barrack by American troops and suffered the amount of casual wanton damage that might be expected. After the war it stood empty for some years until it was finally picked up on the cheap by a local Roxbury patriot. Then it passed through a variety of hands until finally in 1819 it was bought by Dr. William Eustis.
Dr. Eustis had been a surgeon in the Revolution. Later he entered local politics, moved on from the Massachusetts legislature to become a congressman, and in 1809 was appointed secretary of war. From 1814 to 1818 he was minister to the Netherlands, and in 1823 he became governor of Massachusetts. He died in 1825.
With his ownership Shirley Place had a second if more modest flowering. The house, then much out of repair, was remodeled to middle-class comfort and conformity. Clapboards replaced the rustication, porches were added at either end and gables to the roof. The dome of the fluted cupola was removed. The Venetian window lost its arch in becoming a mediocre doorway, and the other windows were shuttered. Inside, a grand staircase broke up the old state reception room which now, its function lost, became nothing more than an inner hall.