In Brookline, a tribute to a president — shaped by his mother
BROOKLINE — Inside the home at 83 Beals St., Rose Kennedy wanted to show a moment frozen in time: A young family says hello to its second son, before the coming years swept the boy onto the world stage and into his place in American history.
The boy who would become President John F. Kennedy was born in this modest single-family home on May 29, 1917, in the second-floor master bedroom off to the right of the stairs. And for 50 years, the National Park Service has maintained the home in honor of the nation’s 35th president.
For James R. Roberts, a supervisory park ranger at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the home is really a tribute to the president’s mother, Rose.
“I often say this should be the Rose Kennedy National Historic Site, because she’s choosing to show us how her family lived, she’s showing us the entire family,” Roberts said.
The house is now celebrating what would have been President Kennedy’s 100th birthday on Memorial Day, as well as the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the house as a national historic site.
As part of a year-long program of festivities tied to the centennial, the historic site will host a celebration on Beals Street on Monday, May 29, starting at 9:30 a.m.
The house isn’t a museum, but Rose Kennedy helped choose the furnishings and decor that she felt described her years in the home, from 1914 to 1920. Last year, more than 25,000 visits were recorded there, according to the National Park Service.
Inside, the home is a view into part of the Kennedy family life that Rose wished to share. Along the wall outside the nursery used by her sons Joe and John are pictures of the family’s achievements: Rose accepting her diploma from Dorchester High School from her father, Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald; Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. as an assistant manager of Quincy’s shipyard in World War I; Rose’s father and father-in-law appearing with President Woodrow Wilson.
“Imagine, a little kid walking here and looking at these, thinking ‘Is that my path? Am I going to be a mayor, am I going to be a president?’’’ Roberts said of the photos.
The future Rose Kennedy was born in 1890, daughter of the former Mary Josephine Hannon and John F. Fitzgerald. As a young woman, she considered attending Wellesley College but instead studied at Catholic schools at her father’s insistence.
Rose Fitzgerald married Joseph Kennedy in 1914 and they made their first home in Brookline that same year, paying $6,500 for the house at 83 Beals St.
At the time, the area around Coolidge Corner saw massive expansion. A growing Catholic community had led to the establishment of St. Aidan’s Church a few years before the Kennedys arrived.
Several of the Kennedy children, including John, were baptized at that Brookline church, while John would later attend kindergarten through second grade at the public Edward Devotion School before moving on to private schools.
Ken Liss, president of the Brookline Historical Society, said the Kennedys represented a rise of a new Irish-American middle class — by the time the family left the home in 1920 for a larger house nearby, they also employed two live-in servants for household and child-care duties.
“I think the Kennedys in many ways represent the new growth in that part of Brookline,” said Liss.
The family’s first four children, including John, were born during their time on Beals Street. Later, when the home became a historic site, all of its clocks were set to 3 p.m. — when John Kennedy was born.
Rose Kennedy was 73 years old when her son John was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in downtown Dallas. By then, the Kennedy family hadn’t lived in Brookline for decades.
Before the president died, his birthplace was already a local draw — the town of Brookline erected a plaque there after President Kennedy took office.
Liss said the Kennedys’ old Beals Street home was a tangible link for locals that tied the town to the president.
“I think that someone who grew up there, walked those streets [and] became president of the United States, it just makes it more real,” Liss said.
After the president’s death, throngs of mourners gathered at the Beals Street house as news of the shooting spread, including members from Congregation Kehillath Israel, who walked from the nearby synagogue, said Rabbi William G. Hamilton. The synagogue, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, hosted Martin Luther King Jr. during a visit to Brookline, and John Kennedy spoke to voters from its steps.
“There was something very powerful about honoring the late president as he was ruthlessly taken from this world at the place where he mercifully came into this world,” said Hamilton, who became rabbi of the synagogue in 1995.
Within days of Kennedy’s death, there were calls to turn the home into a shrine, and in 1967, it was designated a national historic site.
It formally opened on what would have been the late president’s 52nd birthday in 1969, nearly a year after the assassination of Rose Kennedy’s seventh child, Robert.
Rose Kennedy had already lost her oldest son, Joe, during World War II, and her second daughter, Kathleen, in a 1948 plane crash. After her husband’s death in November of 1969, Rose and her first daughter, Rosemary, were the only family members left who had lived in that house.
“We were very happy here, and although we did not know about the days ahead, we were enthusiastic and optimistic about the future,” Rose Kennedy said in a recording that can be played at the house.
The house had changed owners several times from 1920 to 1966, when members of the Kennedy family bought it. When the house became a historic site, details of the home’s interior were reconstructed primarily from Rose Kennedy’s memories and the work of Robert Luddington, an interior designer who had worked for the family since the 1950s.
Luddington, now 92, said in an interview he remembers Rose Kennedy spending hours on the details of the house, such as the embroidered sheets imported from Ireland that had been placed on the beds in the master bedroom.
“It was always a delight working with Mrs. Kennedy. She was a perfectionist. She wanted everything to be done authentically and correctly,” Luddington said.
The historic site will host special events throughout the year. Among the speakers at the May 29 event will be a grandnephew of President Kennedy, US Representative Joseph Kennedy III. In a statement to the Globe, the congressman said John Kennedy believed Americans shared the ability to “push an imperfect country towards justice and progress.”
“When people of all colors, creeds and identities gather to celebrate this centennial, they will not only be honoring President Kennedy’s legacy, they will be living his vision for our country,” Kennedy said.
There will also be a celebration of Rose Kennedy’s birthday on July 22, and a commemoration of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, the anniversary of his assassination.
Roberts, the park ranger, said the house reflects the values Rose Kennedy wanted to imbue in her children, not just during their early childhood, but throughout their lives.
“It is her attempt to solidify her legacy herself, not through somebody else’s eyes,” Roberts said. “She is showing how she and her husband lived.”