Making a Museum

Mysteries revealed and remaining at Milton’s Eustis Estate

By Pamela Ellertson | Photography by Jack Foley

The theme song from Downton Abbey is almost audible driving up the serpentine gravel road leading to the front doors of the Eustis Estate in Milton, an architectural gem from the late 1800s period known as the Gilded Age. Thanks to the efforts of the preservation organization Historic New England, the doors of the stone and brick mansion will open to the public for the first time this spring.

Three generations of the Eustis family called the 18,000-square-foot estate home. In 2012, the most recent descendants decided it was time to sell. Historic New England realized that the structure and its 80 acres of land, situated at the base of the Blue Hills, posed a unique opportunity.

“It filled an architectural gap for us,” says Peter Gittleman, team leader for the visitor experience at the estate. “We were not strong in the late 19th century (architecture) and now we are.”

The heritage organization, which owns 36 other historical properties in New England, raised over $7 million in donations to purchase the estate. Its architect was William Ralph Emerson, the fourth cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist poet. Gittleman describes the home’s value to the population it serves as “a remarkable example of architecture, landscape and interior design.”

When the home opens to the public in mid-May, visitors will be able to visit one of four gallery spaces created in the home during its renovation for public use. The first exhibition will be, “Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love from Historic New England,” featuring jewelry dating from the 1750s to the present. None of the Eustis family jewelry, however, will be part of the exhibition.

The interior design of the 1878 home could be described as a feast for the eyes. Nearly every available surface—from fireplace hearths and mantels to walls and ceilings—is either carved, stenciled or etched. Most of the designs depict scenes from nature. They were created by an army of artisans at the top of their fields during a design period at the end of the 1800s known as the aesthetic movement, which sought to elevate the status of all objects to works of art. The design philosophy was, according to Gittleman, “Why leave something simple when it can be decorative?”

The fireplace in the wood-paneled parlor is a perfect example of this. It is framed by a wood mantel festooned with carved wildflowers. The hearth is comprised of Spanish tiles decorated with various leaf motifs painted in sky blues, burnt oranges and emerald greens. One can speculate that when 30-year-old William Ellery Channing Eustis and his 28-year-old wife, Edith Hemenway Eustis, moved into the house in 1879 with their 1-year-old twin boys, they were attempting to guarantee that the family would have a warm refuge in the fireplace alcove—especially considering they went to the extra effort to install hot water pipes under the tiles. A sense of warmth is further evoked when looking up at the ceiling mural directly above the fireplace, which depicts a group of trees painted from the perspective of someone lying beneath fruit-laden branches.

Research fellows for Historic New England and other organizations will work in a study center that will be located in the estate’s Tolkienesque stone gatehouse on Canton Avenue. They will seek to identify the fruit tree species depicted in the mural, find out who the artisans were and what daily life was like for them and the family, six house staff and 10 field workers at the estate. Answering all these questions and more results in “a good 50-year project,” says Gittleman.

Two years of researching the home’s story through oral histories and historical documents has already revealed a trove of information, says Elyse Werling, curatorial and interpretive planning assistant at the estate. Luck also played a role in revealing different chapters of the mansion’s story. For example, an electrician came across some old graffiti while working in the attic. Two of the workmen left their mark in bold brushstrokes in the attic’s rafters. Along with the date, September 1, 1883, they signed their names and the name of their employer, L. Haberstroh and Son, an illustrious decorative painting firm located in Boston at the time.

Had the painters been working on the myriad murals and hand-painted tiles throughout the house since construction began five years earlier? Maybe. Only more research will tell.

An even more perplexing question for Gittleman is how the young newlywed couple would know to hire them. “At the time, the interior finishes were cutting edge, very sophisticated and forward-looking,” says Gittleman. Both Werling and Gittleman think it’s highly likely that Edith’s mother, Mary Hemenway, played an important role in those decisions as she provided the couple with the money for the home’s construction and interior design, in addition to most of the land for the estate.

Historic New England is hoping that visitors may help uncover more of the details regarding the estate’s history. “Once we have people coming here, we anticipate new stories and resources will help us fill in some of the gaps,” says Gittleman.

The estate will host small group tours and opportunities for self-guided exploration with kiosks and iPads available so people will be able to look up exactly what interests them. For those preferring a hard copy, the home’s library will be stocked with books devoted to relevant subjects like period architecture and New England history. Although, it may take visitors a second or even third visit before they find the time to peruse the library resource room in a home where there is so much to see.

The Eustis Estate opens to the public on May 17. A special exhibit, titled “Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love from Historic New England,” will be displayed through January 7, 2018. Admission to the exhibition is included in the $15 price to tour the estate.


Eustis Estate

1424 Canton Avenue, Milton



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