Category Archives: Boston

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A European Palace of Art in the Heart of Boston

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is one of the most unique museums that I’ve ever been to.  And you should trust me because, as a history buff, I’ve been to a LOT of museums! You are, probably, most familiar with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from the art heist of 1993 when 13 pieces were stolen in a still unresolved crime.  Leaving mental scenes of movie-like robberies aside, if you’re ever in Boston, I strongly encourage you to visit in order to see not only the immense art collection but also to take in the incredible setting: a mock 15th century Venetian palace! Where else are you going to be able to see that in the United States?!

As you enter the museum, the first striking visual is the exceedingly gorgeous garden courtyard filled with blooming flowers and tropical plants surrounded by four walls that incorporate Gothic and Renaissance architectural structures.  The heavenly enclosure is most definitely a place to get your photo taken or to snap a selfie.

All of the magnificently decorated rooms of the three-floored palace surround the courtyard.  Each contains a fabulous array of paintings, tapestries, furniture, lighting fixtures, sculptures and other works of art from all around the globe.  Weaving in and out of rooms, you’ll discover treasure after treasure.  

After her father’s death in 1891, Isabella Stewart Gardner received a large inheritance and began  seriously collecting pieces of art. Working alongside an architect, she designed the current museum as a home in the style of a Venetian palace.  Many visitors believe that the building was disassembled in Italy and then moved, piece by piece, to Boston. In fact, the structure was constructed, in its current location, out of concrete and was crowned with a lofty glass roof held up by steel supports.  To give it a rich, historic feel, antique architectural elements were worked into the building. When it was finished, Gardner installed her art collection and opened her unique museum home to the public on January 1, 1903. Due to its location in the Fens district of Boston, it came to be known as Fenway Court.  Isabella welcomed many famous artists and intellectuals into her home, where they drew inspiration from the phenomenal surroundings. Today, the museum holds over 7,500 individual pieces of art, 1,500 rare books, and 7,000 archival objects that span the entire course of world history from ancient Rome and China to 19th century France.  Wow!

As you wander around the marvelous structure, you’ll encounter stately rooms full of imposing architectural and artistic pieces.  However, you’ll also come across more intimate spaces that are cordoned off so that only a limited number of people are allowed in at one time.  In those less monumental spaces, you’ll experience close encounters with the most iconic pieces of art, such as Whistler’s “Harmony in Blue and Silver”, Degas’ “Portrait of Josephine Gaujelin”, and Matisse’s “The Terrace, St. Tropez”.  The museum also contains many works by John Singer Sargent who was a frequent guest of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Perhaps, the most famous pieces in the collection are Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait”, Botticelli’s “Story of Lucretia”, Fra Angelico’s “Death and Assumption of the Virgin”, and Titian’s “Rape of Europa”. 

When Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, she left behind a large endowment and specific instructions that her home and collection be put on permanent display “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever”.  Thanks to her passion and generosity, we can continue to enjoy such incredible works of art today.

However, I need to be completely honest with you. I’m no art connoisseur. I know very little about the subject, and, believe it or not, I don’t usually spend too much time in art museums.  However, I found myself really taking my time when exploring the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I felt like, for a few hours, I had left Boston and been transported to Europe, where I was the guest of some historic noble family in their majestic Renaissance palace. I’ve never before visited a museum that evoked that kind of sentiment.  That’s why I believe the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is an exceptional artistic and historic experience for those visiting the city of Boston.   

Location

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located at 25 Evans Way in Boston, Massachusetts.

If you’re already in the city, the easiest way to get there is by public transportation. Take the Green Line of the MBTA (or the “T” as, we, Bostonians call it) to the Museum of Fine Arts stop. From there, click the link above to get walking directions.

If you’re driving in from outside of the city, click on the link above to get directions. If you’re visiting on a weekend, you may find metered parking spaces outside the museum. If not, I would advise parking in the nearby garage of the Simmons School of Management at 86 Avenue Louis Pasteur. The museum allows you to receive a discounted rate. See their website for more details.

The Royall House and the Only Slave Quarters in the Northern U.S.

When you hear about the history of enslaved Africans in the United States, you likely think about the lives of slaves on plantations in the American south. However, did you know that a slave-owning estate existed right outside of Boston, Massachusetts? The Isaac Royall House is the only historic home in the northern United States with surviving Royall Houseseparate slave quarters.   While slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1781, it was uncommon for a family to own more than one or two slaves. So how did the Royall family come to have 27 enslaved people on their estate in rural Medford? In 1736, after the possibility emerged of a slave revolt in Antigua, Isaac Royall, Sr., who was a sugar cane plantation owner there, moved his family and 27 enslaved Africans to a 636-acre estate and home that he purchased in Medford, which was then known as West Cambridge.   Upon his death in 1739, his son, Isaac Royal, Jr., inherited the Royall House and estate. To show off the family’s fortune, he proceeded to double the size of the house, create the two beautiful facades that you see today, and remodel the interior to turn the former farmhouse into an opulent Georgian mansion. Throughout the tour of the Royall House, I was amazed by the incredible wooden paneling and intricately carved, decorated archways, which are considered the best surviving examples from the period.   The historian in me was impressed that historic inventories of the home have been used to lavishly furnish the mansion with period appropriate antiques and artifacts so that visitors can see each room as it would have actually appeared during the time period.

Royall House

The brick structure is the “out kitchen”, or summer kitchen, while the attached wooden structure, on the right, is the slave quarters.

As part of his continued renovations of the Royall House, in around 1760, Isaac Royall, Jr., also expanded the “out kitchen”, or summer kitchen, building to create the two-floored slave quarters that remain today.  Having 27 enslaved Africans made the Royalls the largest slave-owning family in Massachusetts.  Unlike the plantations of the antebellum south, the estate was not a cash crop farm.  Instead, Isaac Royall, Jr., continued to grow the family’s wealth through the slave trade, the operation of his sugar cane plantation in Antigua, and the ownership and leasing of property throughout Massachusetts.  In fact, the town of Royalston, Massachusetts, is named after him since he founded it by a land grant in 1765.

Royall House

The intricately-carved Georgian arches are considered to be the best existing examples in the country.

On the over 600-acre Royall House and Estate, the enslaved people performed various duties including farming (to produce food for the family and workers only), cooking, cleaning, and serving in the household. Not all of the slaves would have resided in the building referred to as the slave quarters; many would have lived and slept wherever they worked, such as in the kitchen, in the barns, or in work rooms in the main house.   Possessing so many slaves, allowed the Royalls to have a sumptuous lifestyle, but their luck changed with the events leading up to the American Royall HouseRevolutionary War.

The Royall Family were Loyalists, meaning that their loyalties lay with Britain, not with the American patriots who desired independence.  As a result, several days before the Battles of Lexington and Concord (that began the American Revolution), the Royall Family fled their Medford home to Boston.   Since Boston and the surrounding area was a hotbed of patriot activity and anti-British sentiment, Royalists were harassed and attacked; so many feared for their lives. So, like many other Royalists, the Royall family boarded a ship bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they knew they would be safe, since Canada was part of the British Empire. The Royalls never returned to their Medford estate, and for a while, the Royall House lay abandoned.  Little is known about the fate of the enslaved people. Likely, they would have remained on the estate, as any traveling Africans would have raised suspicions among the local community.

Royall House

The Marble Chamber, or master bedroom, supposedly used by George Washington

During the early months of the American Revolutionary War, officers of the Continental Army used the the Royall House as a type of headquarters, and General George Washington supposedly interrogated several British Royall Housesoldiers in the master bedroom, known as the Marble Chamber.   After the war, Washington’s secretary lived in the mansion, and, later, it became a boarding house. The estate was eventually returned to the heirs of the Royall family who sold it in 1806.  A significant portion of the profit was donated to Harvard University to fund the creation of Harvard Law School.  In fact, the seal of Harvard Law School bears three shafts of wheat that were copied from from the Royall Family Crest in order to commemorate their endowment of the school.  However, in 2015, protests from Harvard students and members of the local community erupted over the use of a slave-owning family’s crest on the school’s seal.   The university formed a committee to evaluate the issue, and Harvard Law School decided to retire the use of the shield.

Royall House

Rear view of the slave quarters and summer kitchen

After its sale to a series of other families, the former Royall House continued to be occupied until 1861, when the last owner died without an heir, causing the property to gradually fall into disrepair.   However, in 1908, the Daughters of the American Revolution raised the necessary funds to renovate the home and open it as a museum.  Later, in 1962, the Royal House Association formed and began operating the museum, offering public tours, events, and educational programs for school children.

The Royall House is such a unique historic home, and I thoroughly enjoyed my tour.  Learning about the history of the home was absolutely fascinating and seeing the original lavish interiors, which have been carefully curated with sumptuous period furnishings, was a feast for the eyes.  I highly encourage you and your family to visit the Royall House and Slave Quarters to learn about the rich history of the family who lived on the estate and about the little-known lives of enslaved Africans in the northern part of the United States.

Clue Live Boston! A Sleuth Murder Mystery Scavenger Hunt

On a Friday night, we’re racing through the streets of Boston trying to gather evidence and interrogate witnesses to find out who killed Mr. Body in what room and with that weapon. Sound familiar? If you love mysteries or the game and movie Clue, then you’ll love Clue Live Boston: the Sleuth Murder Mystery Scavenger Hunt!

 

My friends and I, who composed a team, had two hours to figure out clues to locations, around Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market in downtown Boston, where we could find and interrogate characters from the board game and movie Clue. By completing their challenges, they revealed critical information to help solve the whodunit. Working together was an absolute must and time was of the essence. After all, were competing against other teams to solve the mystery! We received bonus clues for taking pictures of legendary and lesser known landmarks, monuments, and statues. We were even can able to bribe Clue characters, to reveal additional information, and other teams, to see what they had learned!

 

Will it be Miss Scarlett in the kitchen with the wrench, or Professor Plumb in the conservatory with the revolver? Clue Live Boston is a fast-paced, family friendly, and utterly enjoyable evening in which you and your friends get to play detective and immerse yourself in the game and movie. Do you have what it takes to solve the mystery?

 

The Sleuth Murder Mystery Scavenger Hunt (Clue Live Boston) is a production of Head First Events. To find out more information and purchase tickets, visit their website by clicking here.

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