On a tree-lined street in Boston, the president who would later have Marilyn Monroe breathlessly sing him Happy Birthday was born at home the afternoon of May 29, 1917. Here’s what to expect when you visit the JFK birthplace in Brookline, MA.
As soon as you step off the plane at Boston’s Logan International Airport, count the seconds until you see the first image of John F. Kennedy. I promise you, it won’t be long. And with good reason. Setting aside the two Presidents Adams born in the 18th century, there hasn’t been any other president from Boston. Okay, yes, the first President Bush was born in Boston, but he attended school in Connecticut and most Americans associate his family with Kennebunkport, Maine and the great state of Texas. Not Boston.
Back to the Kennedys…
Due to the many tragedies that have befallen them, it’s said that the Kennedy family is cursed. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to bury a child. As for Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the president’s mother, she buried four of her nine children.
In addition to John, she lost:
- Joseph (AKA Joe Jr.) – Her oldest son, Joe, was killed in action during World War II
- Kathleen (AKA Kick) – Rose’s second oldest daughter was killed in a plane crash in 1948
- Robert (AKA Bobby) – A second Kennedy son was assassinated in 1968
I absolutely cannot imagine what it was like for Rose Kennedy to lose Jack after his brutal assassination played out on a live, global stage. But it may have been part of Rose’s healing process to repurchase the family’s former home in 1966, a few years after JFK’s assassination. Rose spent a year lovingly restoring it to how it looked in 1917, the year President Kennedy was born, and then donated it to the National Park Service in 1969 on what would have been her son’s 52nd birthday.
So, if you’re one of the 300,000 people visiting the JFK Presidential Library and Museum this year, take an hour to also tour the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site.
Visiting the Kennedy Home is an Intimate Experience
Although it is a National Park Service (NPS) site, the JFK birthplace is located in the middle of a quaint residential neighborhood on Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. If it weren’t for the red, white, and blue bunting draped from the second story balcony or the flag-patterned fabric wrapped around the front porch pillars, the birthplace of America’s 35th president would otherwise blend into the tree-lined block of New England homes.
Built in 1909, JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, purchased the three-story, nine-room house for $6,500. After returning from their honeymoon, Joe and Rose moved into the home in 1914. The couple welcomed their first child, Joe, in July of the following year and their second son, Jack, in May 1917. After adding two daughters, Rosemary and Kathleen, to the family, the Kennedys moved to a larger home just a few blocks away in 1920.
Fun Fact: When the house was originally purchased by the Kennedy’s, it was painted forest green. Rose Kennedy hated the color and had it repainted to its current greyish-blue.
Sage Advice: To learn more about John F. Kennedy’s second boyhood home, a few blocks away at the corner of Abbotsford and Naples Roads, take the 45-minute, one-mile walking tour offered daily during the summer.
A home is a private place, so walking through anyone’s house feels like an intimate experience. In the case of the JFK birthplace, it is the second smallest historical site in the NPS’s portfolio, which further deepens the intimacy of the experience. While velvet ropes prevent you from entering the rooms, visitors are allowed to walk up to the cordons and gaze into the dining room, living room, kitchen, and bedrooms of the house where JFK was born, along with three of his siblings.
Fun Fact: Reinforcing John F. Kennedy’s birth in the home on May 29, 1917, all of the clocks at JFK’s birthplace are set to 3:00 pm, the time of his birth.
It's Only Open Seasonally
The JFK birthplace is only open May through October. And then, only Wednesdays through Sundays from 9:30 to 5:00. If your travels take you to Boston during the off-season, you may be able to tour the house by appointment. To ensure staff is available, it’s best to schedule your appointment at least two weeks in advance.
Photos Are Allowed
Sage Advice: Based on your Boston itinerary, you may be able to save money on the city’s top attractions (and skip the line) with the Boston CityPASS.
The Tour Starts on the Front Porch
The ranger-guided tour at JFK’s birthplace begins on the front steps. Before crossing the threshold and stepping back in time to 1917, visitors are treated to photos and stories about the home, JFK’s time there as a child, and how the home ultimately became a National Historic Site.
Sights Included on a Tour of the JFK Birthplace
Touring JFK’s birthplace offers a unique glimpse into the early life of America’s 35th president. From the family dining room where lively discussions shaped a future president’s worldview to the nursery that cradled a newborn destined for greatness. Each room is preserved with care and tells a part of the Kennedy family’s story.
The Family Dinner Table
Moving into the home, the dining room is the first room on the left. Because the home was being turned into a museum in honor of her second son, Rose set the table formally with her wedding china. By the window is a kid-sized table where a young Joe, Jr. and a young Jack Kennedy ate their meals. While the family enjoyed lively discussions about current events, politics, and the sermon they heard at Sunday Mass, the meal was served by a uniformed maid.
Meals were served at a specific time every day, and Rose believed in punctuality. If you were late for soup, you got no soup. If you were late for salad, you got no salad. The one member of the Kennedy household who seemed to charm his way past the rules was John. He had a tendency to show up in time for dessert and later sweet talk the cook into feeding him some of the main meal in the kitchen after everyone had moved on from the dining room.
Fun Fact: The Kennedy children were randomly selected to say prayers before the meal.
This first room on the guided tour contains the most original artifacts. In addition to Rose’s wedding china, be sure to note the silver napkin rings and bowls on the kids’ table. They are engraved with Joe, Jr.’s and JFK’s initials, and suggest that POTUS #35 was literally born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
The Formal Living Room or Parlor
Across from the dining room is the living room. Or, as the Kennedys called it, the parlor. The family would gather here in the evening and spend time together. Mr. Kennedy would catch up on the news of the day by reading the paper while Mrs. Kennedy would read bedtime stories to the children.
At Christmastime, with a decorated tree illuminated behind her, Rose Kennedy would play carols on the piano while everyone sang along. Unfortunately for Rose, she wasn’t very successful in passing her love of piano on to her children. In protest to his mother’s request to practice piano, our ranger shared that a young JFK once exclaimed, “If people want to hear good piano music, they’ll listen to the radio!”
Fun Fact: Both the Persian rug and piano in the parlor are original pieces. Rose received the piano as a wedding gift from her uncles.
Climbing the Staircase to the Second Floor
To keep visitors from touching the delicate wallpaper lining the right side of the stairs, guests are asked to hold on to the railing as they ascend the stairs. Our ranger guide, Andrew, achieved 100% compliance by reminding our group that this may be the only chance in our lifetimes to touch something that a former president touched.
An Early 20th Century Bathroom
In the one bathroom we saw at JFK’s birthplace, a white clawfoot tub rests on a white honeycomb tile floor with a burgundy Greek key edge. Draped over the tub are monogrammed towels that must pre-date Rose’s marriage to Joe, because they are monogrammed with the initials REF for Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, her maiden name.
Upstairs Master Bedroom
Continuing down the hall, to the room with separate twin beds, is the master bedroom. While only about 20% of the furniture in JFK’s boyhood home is original, Rose’s bed, the one nearest to the window, is the bed in which the president was born. On the beds are Irish linen bedspreads with hand-embroidered shamrocks, thistles, and other Irish symbols that were a gift from Rose’s parents.
Sage Advice: Don’t miss the six-month-old baby photos of the four children born in the home framed on the wall in the master bedroom.
Someone in our group asked why Rose and Joe Kennedy had separate beds, especially as newlyweds. Our park ranger guide mentioned something about not being tempted by the flesh, or something like that. But since the couple ultimately had nine children, and Joe Sr. is rumored to have had a nine-year affair with his secretary, Janet Des Rosiers, I’m not so sure how well that worked.
Across from a twin bed in the nursery is a white wicker bassinet tied with a blue bow. Each of the nine Kennedy children (and some of the Kennedy grandchildren) slept in this bassinet as babies. Prominently displayed in front of the bassinet is a christening cap and gown. All of the Kennedy children, as well as JFK’s son, wore these family treasures to their baptisms. The gown was handmade by Franciscan nuns in East Boston, and the bonnet is covered with shamrocks.
Fun Fact: In the early 1900s, mothers rested at home for three weeks after giving birth. Because Rose wanted her children baptized as soon as possible, she didn’t attend JFK’s christening at Saint Aidan’s, the neighborhood church. In fact, she didn’t attend any of her nine children’s baptism.
Laid out on a white chair in front of the twin bed in the nursery are a few children’s books. Rose was always very careful to purchase books that were recommended at the children’s school or by a children’s bookshop. However, grandma Fitzgerald (Rose’s mom) bought one of Jack’s favorite books, Billy Whiskers, from a department store. Although Rose wasn’t necessarily fond of the book, like any good mother she read it over and over again to Joe and Jack who absolutely loved it.
Second Floor Hallway
There are several framed photos in the second floor hallway that the NPS ranger guiding your tour is sure to explain in great detail, including one of a young Rose Kennedy with Sir Thomas Lipton, the Scotch-Irishman behind the Lipton tea company and Joe Kennedy with President Woodrow Wilson.
Guest Room Turned Girls’ Room
The room down the hall from the nursery was originally a guest room. But after the arrival of daughters Kathleen and Rosemary, it was converted into a bedroom for the girls.
Rose used the small room connected to the master bedroom and next to the girls’ bedroom as an office. Or, as she called it, as a boudoir. Here she would track household expenses, write letters, and record details of the children’s lives on index cards as they grew. Each child had a card that tracked his or her height and weight, vaccinations, illnesses, and hospital stays. JFK’s index card is on the desk.
Sage Advice: If your visit to Boston also includes the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, look for another one of Rose’s wooden boxes there. It includes additional index cards capturing JFK’s boyhood milestones.
The Third Floor
Just outside Rose’s boudoir is a flight of stairs leading to the third floor of the Brookline home. When the Kennedy family lived in this home, the third floor was reserved for their live-in help, a French woman named Alice Michelin and an Irish woman named Mary O’Donahue. Because Rose couldn’t fully recall how that space looked back in 1917, she chose not to restore those rooms. Because the third floor is now office space for the NPS rangers who maintain the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, our ranger joked that “the help” still occupies the third floor.
The ranger-led tour of JFK’s birthplace ends in the kitchen. Although Rose said that the Kennedy family spent a lot of time in the dining room, most families today spend that time in the kitchen. Well, those families who don’t have every meal served to them by uniformed servants…
Perhaps it’s due to how much time I spend in my own kitchen, but I’m always intrigued by the kitchens of yesteryear. From the 18th century kitchen at George Washington’s Mount Vernon to the 19th century kitchen in JFK’s boyhood home, I’m in awe of the time, effort, and energy needed to prepare three meals a day for a large group of people without running water, a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, instant pot, or other modern conveniences. Then again, George Washington had slaves preparing all of his meals. And Rose Kennedy had servants.
Sitting on the stove of JFK’s boyhood home is a pot of Boston baked beans. The Kennedys had Boston baked beans for dinner on Saturday nights and ate the leftovers with brown bread the next morning for breakfast. In an audio recording by Rose Kennedy, at the end of the guided tour, she says, “We were very happy here and although we did not know about the days ahead, we were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future.”
It was the perfect way to end our visit to the national landmark she carefully recreated in honor of her slain son.
To Visit the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
Location: 83 Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts
Hours: 9:30 to 5:00, Wednesday through Sunday, between May and October
For the latest information, including special events at the JFK birthplace, visit the NPS website.
Have You Visited the JFK Birthplace in Brookline, MA?
Have you visited the house where President John F. Kennedy was born? What did you think? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
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