Ready for another museum review? Instead of Presidential libraries, how about a Federalist mansion?
When I was in Boston on my recent research trip, a staff member at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which was closed over Labor Day weekend, suggested I fill one of my free days by visiting Gore Place in Waltham. I had never heard of it before, but I learned it was the country estate of Christopher Gore, former Governor of Massachusetts and also U.S. Senator. In addition to his political offices Gore ran a successful farm and was interested in new farming techniques. In fact some of the research I did at MHS involved “farm journals” kept at Gore’s farm, so I felt visiting the place would be a great way to see some of the subjects I was researching first-hand. On Saturday, August 30, I took the T and bus out to Waltham to take a look at Gore’s digs.
I came away very impressed. Gore Place turned out to be a palatial mansion that presented a very vivid snapshot in time of the early 19th century–especially the decade 1810-1820, which is exactly the period I’m studying. As country estate of a landed gentleman at the very top of American society in the 1810s, it struck me as sort of an American version of the lavish estates owned by English gentry–like the fictional “Darlington Hall” in Remains of the Day, my favorite movie (though a real estate called Dyrham Park was used to simulate the fictional place). This was intentional. Just looking at Gore Place it was obvious that Christopher Gore thought of himself as an aristocratic country gentleman in the English style, and he was very intent on living large.
Christopher Gore and his family typically lived part of the year in this Federalist-style mansion in Waltham, but they also had a residence in Boston.
First, a little bit about Gore himself. Christopher Gore was born to a well-to-do merchant family in Boston in 1758, and the central event of his life was undoubtedly the American Revolution. In fact the Revolution was how Gore made a lot of his vast fortune. After deciding to become a patriot–breaking with his family, some of whom were Loyalists–Gore, then a young lawyer, started buying up bonds and financial instruments issued by the newly independent states, which were often sold for far less than face value. After the Revolution the new United States government said it would honor these revolutionary instruments at face value, which made Gore a huge profit. He also began investing in infrastructure, such as bridges and canals, that he thought (correctly) the new nation would need. Though Gore and his wife purchased the Waltham farm and lived there beginning in 1786, a fire in 1799 destroyed many of the buildings then standing there. He decided to rebuild in grand style, and in 1806 the mansion and its extensive grounds were completed.
I toured Gore Place with a very knowledgeable curator. Sadly they wouldn’t let me take pictures inside the house, and it’s a shame, because it was beautiful. Many rooms have been restored to the way they looked in the 1810s, down to wallpaper that has been painstakingly recreated, sometimes from tiny scraps found during past renovations. Gore did much of his legal and business work in a small comfortable parlor with a brick fireplace–which in the 1810s housed a European-style tile stove–still marked with ancient scorching. The dining room has also been beautifully restored, with period-appropriate china and furniture actually owned by the Gore family. In this dining room the Gores entertained some pretty famous guests, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Daniel Webster and Rufus King (the last Federalist to serve in the U.S. Congress). The wallpaper in this room had flecks of mica in it that were designed to flash in the flickering light of a fireplace.
Produce is still grown on the Gore farm, and has been for the past two centuries. It was “organic farming” before the term existed.
The Gores’ bedroom was the highlight of the tour. Although the large four-poster bed dates (I was told) from the 1830s, no doubt Christopher and Rebecca Gore had a very ostentatious bed twenty years earlier with a canopy and the finest textiles one could afford in Massachusetts at that time. (Gore also invested in textile manufacturing). Next to the bed was a finely-carved wooden toilet set. This was a sort of cabinet with a folding lid, concealing a pewter chamber pot underneath. It may sound like a throwaway detail, but did you ever before think of what it would have been like if you had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night in 1815? Next to the bedroom was Rebecca Gore’s dressing room, complete with an 1810s-style dress laid out on a chair as if she would walk in and start dressing any moment. I believe Rebecca Gore died in the bedroom in 1834, probably in the bed I saw. Christopher died seven years earlier in Boston.
One thing the Gore mansion really brought home was the vast gulf between those at the top of the socioeconomic scale, like the Gores, and what we would today call “the 99%.” A house like this couldn’t function without a great deal of backbreaking labor by much less fortunate people. Somebody had to cook the food, churn the butter, mend Mrs. Gore’s clothes, clean the floors, and pour pee out of the nifty bedside toilet cabinet. In the house you can see some of the areas where these people lived and worked. In Massachusetts in 1810, of course, this was free labor; in the South, at estates like Jefferson’s Monticello, these jobs were held by slaves.
Somebody slap this chicken–it’s stuck.
The grounds at Gore Place were also very interesting. Part of the place still maintains a working farm, and produce, grown much the same way it has been for 200 years, is offered for sale at a popular farm stand on the property. There were also barnyard animals such as sheep, pigs and an extremely repetitive chicken I filmed. I would love to have bought some of the produce and cooked with it, but staying in a small rented room that wasn’t really feasible.
Gore Place is a model for how historical sites should be. Its preservation has been very robust and the reconstruction of the place to its 1810s appearance seems extremely accurate. The curators have taken care to acquire and show as many of the real belongings owned by the Gores, such as items of furniture, as possible. Thus it really does look the way it must have 200 years ago. The tour I went on, with two other visitors, was complete, informative, enjoyable and honest. The grounds of the place are magnificent and accessible; while I was there a large family with small children was picknicking there, and the kids played soccer on the endless field in front of the house. The working farm and produce stand is an added benefit. Indeed, I’ve seen few attempts to bring history to life with greater success than Gore Place.
If you’re in the Boston area, I highly recommend visiting the Gore estate. I’m very glad I went, and was able to see with my own eyes some of the history I’m studying.