83 Beals Street: Foundation of the Kennedys

The birthplace of John F. Kennedy at 83 Beals Street, Brookline, MA. Photo by Prithvi Tikhe / BU News Service.

By Prithvi G. Tikhe
Boston University News Service

The clocks are frozen in time at 83 Beals St. At 3 p.m. on May 29, 1917, a young family welcomed their second child in the master bedroom of their small, modest home.

John “Jack” Fitzgerald Kennedy, a bright, spirited boy filled with promise, was born.

Although 83 Beals St. is best known as the birthplace of the 35th president of the United States, the house better reflects the upbringing of the Kennedy children by their parents, Rose and Joseph, who prepared them for a compelling future.

“The house is more than a museum,” said Jim Roberts, a supervisory park ranger and tour leader. “It’s evocative of a time, a place and a family.”

In 1964, a year after President Kennedy’s assassination, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. Rose repurchased the house in 1966 and, working from memory, recreated the home’s 1917 appearance with Robert Luddington of the Jordan Marsh retail store. She then donated the house to the National Park Service, and in 1969, the site opened to the public. According to the National Park Service, about 29,000 people visited the house last year.

Joseph’s desire for privacy and a home of his own led him to the largely middle-class, streetcar suburb of Brookline, an early neighborhood of Boston, said Roberts. The Coolidge Corner community appealed to the Irish-Catholic newlyweds because it offered amenities such as a convenient walk to stores, close proximity to schools and St. Aiden’s Church, and an open neighborhood for their children to play.

The Kennedy’s purchased the quaint, modest, Colonial Revival house for $6,500 in 1914. The home, built in 1909, was the smallest single-family house at the end of Beals Street, with a vacant lot on one side and another across the street. Big, shady London Plane sycamore trees lined the sidewalks.

Today, an American flag wafts in the wind and a bronze plaque commemorating President Kennedy’s birthplace stands in the front lawn. The white two and a half story house has a square facade with a steep, pointed roof and a central entry door with paired windows on either side. White lace curtains drape the door and windows. Bushes line the path to the steps and lead to the patio. An original wooden bench sits to the right of the glass-paned door.

“The Kennedys lived in a house that people can relate to [and] Jack became the president; this makes him more human,” said Ken Liss, president of the Brookline Historical Society.

The family spent a lot of time together in the living room, or parlor, in the evenings. While the children played on the Persian carpets, Joseph sat on the red chair by the gate leg table reading the newspaper, and Rose Kennedy, sitting in the wing chair by the table opposite him, mended the boys’ knee stockings, Roberts said.

Copies of famous paintings from the Renaissance and maps of Europe adorn the walls of the parlor. The Kennedys valued reading, and the room exhibits selections from the 1917 National Geographic magazine series, books and a Literary Digest.

The original princess grand piano from The Ivers & Pond Piano Company, which sits by the south window of the room, was given to Rose by her uncles as a wedding gift.

The piano is an example the family’s appreciation for culture and reflects Rose’s own delight in playing the instrument, Roberts said. The children did not do well with piano lessons, however, and they argued that people wouldn’t want to listen to them play since they could hear the same songs on the radio.

Even though much of the living room furniture like the chairs, upholstery and magazine rack are reproductions, the room feels as if the Kennedys could walk in at any moment.

Luddington, 93, interior designer for the Kennedys for the past 60 years, spent between 1966 and 1969 with Rose recreating the home.

“She had a great memory and was a very detailed person,” he said. “She spent many, many hours being sure the home represented the time she lived there.”

Luddington recalls importing the hand-embroidered bedspreads with shamrocks, thistles and Irish symbols in the master bedroom from Ireland. Lace curtains, hanging light fixtures and kitchen equipment, like the stove and the sand soap sink, are also recreations from the era.

The dining room exhibits Rose’s original dining set, wedding china, silverware, a bowl with the monogrammed initials J.F.K. and teacups given to her by Sir Thomas Lipton.

“The Laughing Cavalier,” a Dutch print by painter Frans Hals, sets the tone in the dining room: a place for conversation and debate, something the children grew up to relish as adults.

A visitor from Saudi Arabia, Saleh Alomri, said he believes Rose thought of her children as future leaders because she engaged them in discussions ranging from history, politics, current events and religion at an early age.

“I honestly love the house,” said Alomri. “It’s an enriching experience to visit.”

As a sickly child, President Kennedy spent a lot of time reading in the nursery. Sitting on a chair by the original bassinette are two of Jack’s favorite books, “King Arthur and His Knights” and “Billy Whiskers and His Kids.”

Along the wall outside the nursery are pictures of the family’s achievements: Rose accepting her diploma from Dorchester High School from her father, Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald; Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., an assistant manager of the Quincy shipyard in World War I; Rose’s father and father-in-law appearing with President Woodrow Wilson.

While the house depicts the ambitions Rose and Joseph had for their children, 83 Beals St. is evidence of the ideals they instilled, not just during their early childhood, but throughout their lives.

“The home is a great example of showing that from a normal upbringing you can succeed and have great success in life,” Luddington said.

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