John F. Kennedy National Historic Site
Visited: July 28, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 320 of 353
WHAT IS IT?
Birthplace, on May 19, 1917, and boyhood home of our 35th president, John F. (Jack) Kennedy. The Site is a memoriam designed and dedicated by JFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy, consisting almost entirely of items used by her president son during his childhood.
From the outside, it looks just like any other house on the block: front porch, narrow width, two stories and mildly charming if it were not for Boston's high housing costs. We digress.
From the inside, the layout probably looks just like any other house on the block. The difference is that the furnishings are all Kennedy originals. Rose retrieved them from basements and relatives for the sole purpose of reconstructing the House exactly as she had remembered it while living there with young Jack. These included many of Jack's personal items, books, outfits, silverware and baby stuff.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
Jack's birth, his sickly youth, his crowded house and stern but loving parental hands serve as the backdrop to the larger story told by Rose and the National Park Service. It is the story of early 20th-century immigrants, of hard work, of getting your children ahead in life and ultimately of the American dream.
83 Beals Street, the House location, would always be a starter house. Its one bathroom and cramped quarters would never be enough for the burgeoning family. Success was their destiny. A president of the United States would rise from these comfortable but meager Catholic means, would rise as surely as if all the Sibyls of antiquity had guaranteed it.
That success actually occurred is an afterthought. The existence of the dream and the immigrant's hope in America's promise is the point. The Site elicits the unmistakable aura of the Robert DeNiro section of Godfather Part II: the brood of children, the stoic wife, the nostalgic innocence, the quiet yearning for power, the masculine competition and the neighborhood feel.
When the Site opened in 1969 it was the primary Kennedy memorial. Tens of thousands flocked here to pay tribute to the slain president. Such is not the case today. The JFK Presidential Library and Museum opened in 1979 and quickly supplanted the Brookline House as Boston's most popular Kennedy attraction. The House's lack of visitors must account for its limited hours and operating schedule.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
The Site is open only from Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. In addition the House closes its doors to visitors from October through April. Winter must last a long time in Boston. Plan your visit accordingly.
JFK's boyhood home is located in Brookline, Mass. about four miles west of Boston's downtown Freedom Trail attractions. The closest subway (The T) stop is the Green T Coolidge Corner Station. From the bustling Coolidge Corner commercial intersection it is a half-mile walk to JFK NHS.
From Coolidge Corner, walk northwest along Harvard Avenue for two blocks until you reach Beals Street. Turn right. It is green and on the right side. Beals Street is still a residential area. Our stroll was witnessed by dozens of denizens lounging on their front porches. The Park literature warns against driving here but we saw plenty of open street parking places in front of the House.
The Site's Visitor Center, Bookstore and Film viewing area all share space in the House's basement. There is little room to house a large Kennedy-related book selection. If it is a Kennedy book you want, you should not have a problem finding one in any Boston or Cambridge bookstore.
$3 per person, free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
Two of us and at least three Rangers. In addition, a guided Ranger tour of the House leaves every half hour.
JFK's boyhood home tour is subdued. The colors are muted, the memories are poignant and the scale is small. This is a mother remembering her son's youth. The tour guide's stories give little hint of the violent touch football games, the fraternal competition and the cutthroat politics. Instead we see and hear about dinner table discussions, JFK's communion dress, Jack and Joe Jr.'s tiny adjunct dining room table, the formative years, bassinets and Rose's desire for a bigger house.
The tour portrays Joe Sr. as an absent but defining hand, working endlessly but molding the character and dreams of his children by proxy. Joe Sr. had no time for the little stuff and this tour is all about the little stuff. The tragedy that would come remains an unsaid anchor that fuels the sad retellings.
The last room of the tour, the kitchen, is accompanied by a recording of Rose's memories. The tour once consisted entirely of her talking which is now ironically limited to the room into which she legendarily never set foot. Her cracking but prideful voice, while not sad, stirs emotions of loss. The House and the tour still belong to Rose.
The JFK NHS is among the most personal and voyeuristic National Park Sites. There is no detachment from the past. All the artifacts were used by the Kennedy's and all the stories are from Rose. There is no talk of JFK's public life and no historical conclusions. Just family portraits and stories. We enjoyed our time and our tour guide but lacked the personal attachment necessary to fully appreciate Kennedy's youth.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Only the most fervent Kennedy worshippers should travel here; that means practically everyone in Massachusetts and a good portion of those who grew up in the 60's. Boston offers too many other stellar visitor attractions (including the JFK Presidential Library Museum) for us to fully endorse a trip out to Brookline.