Lost Elegance

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Yet though ease had replaced splendor, the old house still had distinguished days ahead of it. Among the Eustis guests were John Quincy Adams, Aaron Burr, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. In June, 1825, Lafayette on the last stage of his American visit stayed the night there before going over to Charlestown the next morning to lay the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill monument. “I am the happiest man that ever lived,” Governor Eustis remarked as he set out to meet the old hero. His wife was more concerned with the catering arrangements.

For forty years after Governor Eustis’ death, his widow though in pinched circumstances continued to live at Shirley Place. Madame Eustis, she had taken to calling herself after her return from Holland, just as two generations before Lady Shirley had adopted that title by courtesy. The difference between the two is really the difference between the Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century aspects of the house.

After Lafayette had gone his room remained unchanged for the rest of Madame Eustis’ life. She outlasted all her contemporaries, living on until the close of the Civil War. Webster was her friend until he died and often used to visit her. In her later years she became a recluse, spending most of her time in the Lafayette room where during the war she knitted socks for Union soldiers. “I was born on the last day of the last week of the last month,” she used to like to tell an occasional visitor. “I am the last of everything.”

After her death Shirley Place fell into the crude hands of two Roxbury auctioneers who divided the land into small building lots. The house was moved thirty feet to make way for Shirley Street, and its interior was partitioned off into makeshift quarters for the poor immigrants who were spreading out then from the South End to Roxbury. So the house in its last stages became a verminous tenement, a warren for its lusterless inhabitants until, before the prospect of its complete disintegration, it was bought in 1913 by the newly formed Shirley House Association. The association, limited in money and scope, has patched it here and there. The walls still hold, and it is kept from the worst ravages of weather and the district children. A building inspector who condemned the structure a few years back was persuaded to relent, but there has been no real restoration. The interior is a rubble of plaster and splintered wood and abandoned pieces of Victorian furniture. A wooden fence surrounds the area like a potter’s field.

Yet in its ruin Shirley Place is a presence. Even if it is the grandeur of decay, the white pilasters in the afternoon sunshine are still regal. Here (one cannot help but think of him) Governor Shirley, that indefatigable man, planned his campaigns against the French. Here he and Franklin discussed the Stamp Act. Here he was finally carried out on his last journey with the crossed swords on his coffin. According to the legend, at least, young Washington looking out from the terrace across the bay to Dorchester Heights first realized the military importance of that strip of land. And in the bourgeois era of the Eustises, there are the wily Aaron Burr and the shadow of his passing, an aging Lafayette trying vainly to recapture something of the triumph of his youth, the hollow-eyed Calhoun who would have understood better the royalist Shirley, and Webster’s sonorous voice modulated to softness for an old woman knitting by the window of a musty room, the last of the last.

Rounding the corner from Dudley Street beyond the fortress-like Hugh O’Brien School one comes on the bulk of Shirley Place with a start. So hemmed in is it that one cannot even catch a glimpse of the cupola until one stands by the lamppost in front of the narrow lot. In this part of Roxbury, the light globes, still gas lit, are covered by protective wire netting. The house’s jerry-built foundations are high enough to contain the caretaker’s apartment that was installed by the association. But for his presence the place would have long since been torn to pieces by the gangs of the surrounding streets.

What is left of Harrison’s masterpiece is only a shell, outlined by the harsh parallels of clapboarding. On an October afternoon, without the mask of summer greenery, the old house is uncompromising in its decay. With sagging cornices, marred doorways, and murky half-shuttered windows, the mutilations of the Eustises have been compounded massively by time and neglect. It is hard to tell the front from the back except by counting pilasters. The old entrance now faces a wall.

This viceregal mansion in its empty isolation above the tangle of pigweed and burdock and tansy, this enduring phantom that has lasted two centuries will be lucky to survive another decade. Yet as one stands facing it in the long afternoon sunlight, the air quivering with the antiphonal sound of crickets, one senses again the continuity of the past. Shirley Place is not fussily antiquarian with a label nor does it have the contrived stateliness of Williamsburg. It is more actual than these, it has more the reality of an old oak that in its dying still remembers its youth.