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Lost Elegance

July 2024
9min read

Home to royal and republican governors, host to a century of great men, stately Shirley Place in Roxbury, Massachusetts, is falling into ruin

The Mansion is what the children of the district call it, knowing nothing of its history. It stands narrowly on its once rural hill, as it has these 200 years, in a peripheral Boston slum where the tide of middle-class respectability ebbed two generations ago. Roxbury, between Uphams Corner and the Dudley Street terminal, is not the place where one would expect to find a royal governor’s residence. There is a mean anonymity to these encroaching streets. However many people may live out their lives here, a visitor is apt to feel that the outer world will never hear of them. The houses press in on each other, solid mansard-roofed houses of the Seventies and Eighties that were once decent, if never fashionable, rackrent three-deckers built for the swarming immigrants.

Shirley Street dips down sharply beyond the mansion. Where the sea once flooded across the salt marshes is now a filled area taken up by an abandoned brewery and the enveloping three-deckers and the Shirley Café on the corner, Framed in the perspective of a few hardwoods beyond chimneys and television masts, the upswept line of Washington’s old fortifications cuts the horizon at Dorchester Heights, although the intervening bay is hidden.

Gray is Roxbury’s prevailing color, broken by the pastel dinginess of brick and the singular blueness of the sky that seems to draw something of its quality from the invisible sea. In the autumn before the frost a few fenced gardens in front of the scrimshaw-gabled lodging houses are oddly bright with yellow and orange marigolds and borders of salvia. But mostly the tramped lots are untended. Here is one of the thickest population areas of the city, yet it gives the impression of lifelessness as one walks through it.

Shirley Place, perched on makeshift foundations, looks a stranded hulk, a survival from a past that has no meaning here. Yet in its marred elegance it still maintains the form of an age of sensibility and proportion. Compared to the English country houses of the day, to Belton House and to Roger Pratt’s Coleshill, which it resembles most, it is small. In the old country it would have been overshadowed. Among the New England colonies it was unique. Beside it Boston’s Old State House and Faneuil Hall are naïve, and Bulfinch’s later classical State House amateurish. Only the interior of King’s Chapel can compare in architectural sophistication. The latter was designed by Peter Harrison, that émigré master of the Palladian style, and the cornerstone was laid by his friend Governor Shirley. Although the evidence is deductive rather than documentary, Harrison may also have been the architect of Shirley Place.

That house was the embodiment of royalty. When Governor Shirley planned it he had other thoughts in mind than mercantile display. There is none of the bourgeois opulence gloating in its own comfort which is found in the Federalist houses of Beacon Hill, but viceregal splendor, formal and aloof, the seal of the royal presence across the Atlantic.

William Shirley was the most attractive figure among the eleven royal governors of Massachusetts, a man of energy, capacity, and charm. As governor he was popular, succeeding and preceding unpopularity. His ingenious mind planned and organized the expedition against that constant threat to New England, the French naval base at Louisbourg. The storming of the fortress by New England militiamen was one of the proudest feats of Colonial arms, memorialized still in Boston’s Louisburg Square.

Shirley’s attitude towards America was an enlightened one. He was a king’s man, yet he never lost sight of the interests of the colony he administered. Although he had his difficulties with the Massachusetts General Court, particularly in the matter of paper currency, his relations with the local legislators were friendly and co-operative. Without seeming arbitrary he tried to maintain a policy of firmness with a tactful consideration of local interests. The men of the Massachusetts assembly liked and respected him.

Shirley came to Boston in 1731 as a poor lawyer of good family. He had two assets, his own ability and the friendship of the Duke of Newcastle. Without the latter he would not have become governor; without the former he would never have made a success of the office. His restless mind needed the nourishment of constant activity. After the fall of Louisbourg, he became more and more occupied with military affairs. He organized the New England detachments for joint action with Braddock, and he himself took command of the abortive expedition against Niagara. This middle-aged lawyer turned soldier developed a remarkable grasp of the art of war. Finally appointed a major general, he became after Braddock’s death commander of all British and Colonial forces in North America. However his position was soon undermined by intrigue and he was superseded by the incompetent Earl of Loudon. In his friend Franklin’s opinion Shirley was infinitely the more capable commander. Unjustly blamed by Loudon for the fall of the fort at Oswego in 1756, Shirley was recalled to London.

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.

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.

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