All great stories need a place to begin, and President John F. Kennedy’s is no exception. His story began at his parents’ first home: 83 Beals Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, now best known as the JFK birthplace. Thanks to the efforts of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and the National Park Service, visitors today can tour the home, see the room where he was born, and learn about the life, legacy and service of our nation’s legendary 35th president. JFK was born on May 29, 1917, the second child of Rose and Joseph Kennedy. “Jack,” as he was called, spent the first three years of his life here on Beals Street before he and his rapidly growing family moved two blocks away. They were eager to stay close to the church, schools, and Brookline amenities that they’d grown accustomed to, but desperately needed more space. At times, there were 8 people sharing the one-bathroom Beals Street home – four children, two maids, and two parents. They lived in their second Brookline home for another seven years before moving to New York. After JFK’s assassination in 1963, Rose Kennedy bought back her family’s first home in 1966 and redecorated it as a house museum before turning it over to the National Park Service in 1969. Since then, it’s served as a monument to her son’s life, a testament to the family’s legacy, and the perfect place for visitors to take a peek into the early lives of a family so influential that some have referred to them as the closest thing to American royalty.A tour of the JFK birthplace begins on the front porch, where guests meet with an informative and enthusiastic tour guide, ready to share the stories of the home. The guide begins by talking about the children featured in several large photographs, setting the stage with stories of early Kennedy childhood and preparing guests to step back into 1917 Brookline. Moving through the door, visitors see where they would have been led if they were guests of Rose and Joe back in 1917. A cozy sitting room to the immediate right of the door is elegantly decorated with inviting furniture and heartwarming photos of the family. Early copies of National Geographic evoke the sense of a well-read family, and soft light from the window shines onto the grand piano that the Kennedy children were all taught to play. The tour guide uses the piano to tell an illustrative story about the competitive Kennedy spirit. Upon observing that his younger son was excelling in his music lessons while his eldest was not, Joe Kennedy told his wife that their eldest would have to be told to work harder – he shouldn’t be allowed to let his younger brother Jack outdo him.
Across the entryway is the dining room, where the Kennedy children were encouraged to have strong opinions and discuss current events and politics. Of course, the children would have been so young during their evenings in this house – young enough to sit at their own, separate, kids’ table for dinner. However, though their opinions may not have been as maturely-formed as they were in later years, the Kennedy family worked to foster their children’s sense of curiosity, individual thought, and political opinion as early as possible.
If the dining table appears uncharacteristically fancy for a home filled with young children, that’s because Rose Kennedy, while curating the house, set it with her wedding china for the National Park Service to display.Next on the JFK birthplace tour, visitors are led up the stairs to the second floor, where a door on the right leads to the master bedroom. This is where JFK and three of his siblings were born. Hanging over the bed closest to the window (where the doctor assisting with the Kennedys’ births would have had the most light) is a small motif of the Italian artist Raphael’s “Madonna of the Grand Duke.” The painting represents Rose and Joe’s commitment to their Catholic heritage and their efforts to teach their children that church and religion were not just for Sundays.Across the hall from the master bedroom is the nursery, where JFK would have spent most of his time in the house. Little Jack was often ill as a child, so he spent more time recovering in his childhood bedroom than most others would have. On a chair toward the front of the room are two of his favorite books that he first delighted in listening to, then delighted in reading for himself. One, Billy Whiskers’ Kids by Frances Trego Montgomery, is a story about a tenacious, trouble-making character who the young president grew to resemble in his adolescence, and the other, King Arthur and his Knights, is the story some have credited with sparking JFK’s love for the stage play Camelot.
Also in the room are the bassinet and christening gown used by all of the Kennedy children.
At the other end of the hallway, visitors see the guest bedroom where one or more of the children may have slept when the house began to get crowded, and Rose Kennedy’s office. She took the job of raising her children incredibly seriously and completed her daily motherly tasks with the precision and efficiency she would have given to any other career. Her copious notes and handwritten records give today’s historians a great deal of insight into what the Kennedys’ childhoods were like.
The last stop on the tour is downstairs in the kitchen, a site once bustling with the warming of baby bottles, the cooking of various meals, and preparation for entertaining guests. Old appliances lining the counter tops take visitors back to days gone by, while a special object on the Glenwood cookstove represents a tradition alive and well in New England homes still today.
After all, the Kennedys were New Englanders too – and they loved their Saturday night baked beans just as much as the rest of us. After the tour, guests are led to the basement where they have the option to watch an 18-minute film on the life and legacy of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Then, they can browse the gift shop for all their Kennedy memorabilia needs, or pick up books and brochures on various NPS sites. Tours of the JFK birthplace last about a half hour and admission is free. Don’t forget to check out some of the other important Kennedy-related historical sites (like Boston’s JFK Library and Museum and Rose F. Kennedy Greenway), or, if you’d rather spend the day in Brookline, read up on what to do to complete your day there.
Have you ever visited the JFK birthplace in Brookline?
The John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site. 83 Beals Street, Brookline, MA. 617-566-7937; nps.gov/jofi/index.htmThis post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.