February 03


Completed in 1860, the Gibson House stands virtually untouched as a historic house museum in Back Bay. In 2001, the National Park Service designated Gibson House as a National Historic Landmark. A unique and unspoiled single-family residence, it retains its kitchen, scullery, butler’s pantry, and water closets, as well as formal rooms and private quarters. Designed in the Italian Renaissance style by noted Boston architect Edward Clarke Cabot, the house is built of brownstone and red brick. The interiors are  filled with the Gibsons’ original furnishings — elegant wallpapers, imported carpets, an abundance of furniture, paintings, sculpture, photographs, silver, porcelain, curios, and other nineteenth-century family heirlooms. Visitors enjoy a glimpse into the lives of a well-to-do Boston family and its domestic staff.

The Gibson family story begins with the pioneering move of the widow Catherine Hammond Gibson and her son, Charles Hammond Gibson, from the top of Beacon Hill to the just-developing flats of the Back Bay. In the 1860s,
Back Bay was in the early stages of transformation from a malodorous marsh to the most fashionable residential neighborhood in the city. The manmade land of the Back Bay was the largest public works project of its time.

The Gibson House Museum exists because of the vision of Charles and Rosamond’s middle child, Charles Jr., a poet, travel writer, horticulturist, and colorful bon vivant. Charles was caught in a changing world, as families moved to the suburbs and left their townhouses to be converted into rooming houses, schools, and dormitories, As early as 1936, Charles Jr. decided to preserve his nineteenth-century townhouse as a museum. The furniture was roped off with gold cord, and guests were invited to sit on the stairs while sipping their tea or martinis (made from his own bathtub gin).

Charles Jr., the last of three generations to live in the house, died in 1954. The Gibson House was officially opened to the public as a museum in 1957.


The Gibson House offers an opportunity to see the service spaces in a virtually unchanged state. These include the kitchen, pantry, laundry room, and coal shed.

The kitchen was the center of the servants’ activities. Dominated by a cast-iron stove built into the west wall chimney, it was both the place of all food preparation and where the servants ate. The family’s meals were delivered to the dining room, directly above, via the dumbwaiter in the pantry.

Family members summoned servants by using a mechanical call-bell system, operated by wires and pulleys from the first- through fourth-floor rooms. This was replaced by an electrical system early in the twentieth century.

The coal shed is of particular interest in understanding domestic life in Victorian times. At one time, most houses of the Back Bay had sheds. Today, only a handful remain. The large coal bin, located at the end of the shed, had a door in the alley side that allowed delivery of coal for the furnace. Another coal bin held smaller pieces of coal for use in the stove and fireplaces.

The Gibson House is also notable for its intact mechanical systems. Although the original furnace was replaced in the late nineteenth century, much of the 1859 sheet-metal ductwork remains. Upstairs, you will see the air/light shaft that connects the second-floor hall to the roof. One of its functions was to assist the convection of warm air to the upper floors of the house.


Although the size and layout of the Gibson House are similar to other row houses in the Back Bay, the center entrance is not
typical, with its grand, sweeping staircase and large, ornate reception area leading to the formal dining room.

In the Gibsons’ time, a visitor would be greeted at the door by a female servant, who took the visitor’s calling card and delivered it to the desired family member. While waiting beneath the arches of the black-walnut arcade, the visitor would have time to observe impressive surroundings, including the “Japanese leather” wall covering, an embossed paper intended to resemble gilded leather. The Renaissance Revival–style hall displays fine bronze and porcelain furnishings. The elegant dining room has an array of fine china with a table set for a formal dinner.


The grand staircase curves upward from the entry hall to a second-floor hallway connecting the parlors. This floor was the principal entertaining area in the house, with two large rooms: the music room in the rear and the library in the front, each room having a ceiling height of thirteen feet and an oriel centered in its respective wall.

The music room was where guests were entertained in the evening. After dinner, the family would gather for conversation or an informal musicale. The library—a male domain—served as Charles Gibson, Sr.’s office. Men in Victorian times often conducted business from their homes in the afternoon.

Centered above the second-floor hallway is the ventilator shaft, which, according to historian Catherine Seiberling, is “one of the most stunning and unusual interior Victorian elements that remains at the Gibson House.” The chestnut-trimmed shaft, with frosted glass windows that open out at several locations on each of the upper floors, is a brilliant solution to naturally light the dark inner spaces of the house. In addition to lending natural light to the home’s interior, the shaft served as a conduit for warm air, generated by the ground-floor furnace, to rise to the upper floors. It may be the only such shaft remaining in the Back Bay; after Boston’s fire of 1872, construction of such shafts was outlawed. A three-light gasolier, now electrified, hangs at its center. There are two semi-circular window sashes covering the round opening. Here, one of them has been opened via a system of ropes and pulleys accessed from the third floor bathroom.


The third floor originally had two bedrooms connected by a bathroom and dressing room. The front room served as Charles Hammond Gibson, Sr.’s bedroom until his death in 1916. Charles Jr. redecorated the room and used it as his private study, where he sat at the desk between the windows and wrote his books and poetry.

Rosamond Gibson’s bedroom, the largest in the house, features a fourteen-piece bedroom set that was a wedding gift from her parents. The “mock bamboo” bedroom set is of bird’s-eye maple. This reflects the Japanese aesthetic that was popular in the late nineteenth century. Personal items and family portraits are on display.

The plumbing fixtures in the bathroom (toilet, tub, and sink) date from 1902. This floor of the house had cold running water in 1859; hot water would have been brought up by the servants. Plumbing has been extended and there is now a full bathroom on each floor above this one. This was not always the case. Initially, the water pressure was not sufficient to bring water higher than the third floor.

TEXT: Courtesy of http://www.thegibsonhouse.org