Rose Kennedy carefully curated the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site as a gift to the American people. The site preserves the President’s birthplace. After President Kennedy was assassinated, the Kennedy family repurchased the home in Brookline, restored it to its 1917 glory, and gave the home to the National Park Service.
The home is on a quiet residential street in Brookline, Massachusetts. The house is small in comparison to some on the street. The rangers described it as a starter house, although now it would fetch at least a million in Boston’s competitive real estate market. This was the first home that Joseph and Rose Kennedy lived in after their marriage. It was the suburbs. The street cars run to downtown Boston, so the family could enjoy the open space of Brookline and Joe could still get to work. When the Kennedys moved in, their house was the last on the street, with open lots for the children to play in. Now the neighborhood is fairly dense, but still has a somewhat suburban feel.
To visit the house, turn down the sidewalk into the backyard, and go down the backstairs into the basement where the small visitor center is located. It is a tight space packed with folding chairs where we watched an introductory movie, read a few small panels about the domestic staff that lived in the house, and contemplated buying a “KENNEDY-JOHNSON” bumper sticker for the car.
The only way to visit the inside of the house is on a tour. When we visited, the last ranger-led tour of the day was full, but an Open House style tour was still available. In general, I always to try to go on a ranger-led tour. They have the details and knowledge that can’t be matched by any self-guided tour. But the Open House tour is a little different than a regular self-guided tour. Each visitor is given a listening device and moves through the house on their own, but this tour (or tou-ah) is narrated by Rose Kennedy.
Before the tour began, we climbed up onto the front porch where one of the rangers gave an overview of the site and how it came to be part of the National Park system. When Kennedy became President, passers-by would stop in on the residents of the home. The City of Brookline had placed a marker indicating the home was Kennedy’s birthplace, and people wanted to stop and take a peek inside. After his assassination, people flocked to the home to mourn. The ranger showed us pictures of the street packed with people, and pictures of young girls crying on the first step. The crowds kept coming, and eventually the residents agreed to sell the home back to the Kennedys.
Rose Kennedy worked with a historical designer to restore the home to how it would have looked in 1917, when the President was born. She furnished the home with some of their original furniture, and family photos hang on the walls. The house has a surprising number of family heirlooms inside.
Mrs Kennedy’s tour starts on the first floor in the dining room, where the table is set with her wedding china. She and her husband expected the children to be informed on the political events of the day, and to be ready to provide and defend their opinions. On Sundays, they had to be ready to discuss religious teaching. The children were very young when the family lived here, so dinner time must have been quite rigorous. Near the window is a small table for Jack and his older brother Joe. The table setting on the children’s table includes two silver porringers, each one monogrammed with the boys’ initials. The boys also have silver napkin rings. Evidence that, while the house is modest, the Kennedy’s fortunes were not.
Upstairs is the Master Bedroom, where 3 of the 9 Kennedy children were born. “The President was born on the bed closest to the window, so the doctor could see,” says Mrs. Kennedy. The President was born at three in the afternoon. All the clocks in the house are stopped at that time. The Irish bedspreads embroidered with thistles and shamrocks that cover the beds were given to the Kennedy’s as a wedding gift by her parents. The six-month portraits of the children born in the house grace the wall over Mrs Kennedy’s dresser.
Adjoining the master bedroom is a small room that Mrs Kennedy used as an office. She had a little recipe box that she used to record the important events in her children’s lives. The ranger on duty showed us a copy of one of the health cards. On the card, Mrs. Kennedy recorded all the illnesses and issues her sickly son had contracted. The President survived whooping cough, measles, German measles, mumps and scarlet fever, although he was so ill from the scarlet fever that he was given last rites. Mrs Kennedy recommended that all mothers use such as system to keep track of their children’s health.
At the nursery, Mrs Kennedy pointed out the bassinet that had been in the family for years, and talked about the books that she selected for her children. She tried to limit her children’s reading to books that where recommended by the school, or that were otherwise highly recommended. Her mother bought the boys the story of Billy Whiskers (a goat) from a department store, which ended up being one of their favorites. Young Jack, who probably spent a lot of time in this room, recovering from illnesses, also loved the Tales of King Arthur.
Hanging on a little stand is a replica of the christening gown that all the Kennedy children and grandson John Jr. were baptized in. The gown was a gift from Joe Kennedy’s parents, and was made by Franciscan nuns in East Boston. Although I couldn’t quite make it out, the gown is covered in shamrocks.
The family quickly outgrew the home. There was a guest room, which was eventually converted into a children’s room. The eldest son, Joe Jr, was born in Hull, a nearby beach town. Jack was the second son, born in 1917. Sisters Rosemary and Kathleen were born in 1918 and 1920. They moved about a block away when Jack was four. Eventually the family moved to New York, but Rose returned to Boston to give birth. She wanted all her children to be Massachusetts born.
While the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site honors the home of a boy who would become President, there is more of Rose Kennedy here than Jack. Throughout the tour she talks about the hopes and dreams she had for her children, and how she helped shape them. She describes the art on the walls, and how she hoped her children would develop and appreciation of art. The children sang songs as she played the piano for them. She brought the children to mass daily. She read her children the approved books from the school. The children were expected to develop opinions and defend them at each dinner. The children were raised to be thinkers.
Touring the home reveals the rigorous childhood of the President and his siblings, some of whom had a major impact on the world. While the tour barely mentions the other children, the President’s siblings included two Senators, the Founder of the Special Olympics, two Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, and an ambassador to Ireland. The ambitions Rose Kennedy had for her children realized.