Historic homes in New England provide groups with authentic and unexpected encounters with the past.

Historic New England

Historic New England welcomes visitors to historic properties in five states.

Peter Gittleman, team leader, visitor experience, at Historic New England, said private tours allow groups to arrange a completely customized experience. For example, a group could tour the 1774 Sarah Orne Jewett House in Berwick, Maine — where the author spent much of her life — and then have tea and discuss her books.

New England historic homes
Fireplace wall, bedroom, Sarah Orne Jewett House, Berwick, Maine
Credit: Courtesy of Historic New England

At the Lyman Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, open year-round, book guided tours of the mansion with some of the oldest greenhouses in the United States, which are still operational. Dining can be arranged in the mansion’s elegant ballroom.

Historic New England bundles several of its properties in a tour. Moreover, everything from a general-interest tour to a reception to a specialty tour on flowers, fine art or furnishings is possible. Nooks and crannies tours are popular with groups.

“I hope groups learn something new and surprising and have a great time,” Gittleman said. “There’s a lot to surprise people here in New England.” For instance, although the abolitionist movement against slavery began in New England, slavery was present in the region.

“We want people to understand that history is complicated and nuanced and not a pageant,” Gittleman said.

In fall 2021, Historic New England launched Recovering New England’s Voices, an initiative to take a more inclusive approach to sharing the region’s history. Research scholars are uncovering community stories that represent all perspectives and will focus on the lives of immigrants, racialized and indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ+ people and others.

Recovering New England’s Voices is a 20- to 30-year initiative that will fundamentally change the stories the organization tells at its sites, Gittleman said.

John Brown House Museum

Located in Providence, Rhode Island, the John Brown House Museum is part of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Brown, an influential 18th-century merchant, statesman, privateer and trad- er of enslaved peoples, built the home as a status symbol of his wealth and power. The home is interpreted as it stood in Brown’s time, with period rooms staged with historic decorative artifacts. Visitors are invited to engage with themes like trade, industry, slavery, servitude, illness and politics.

John Brown House Museum, Providence, R.I.
Credit: Rhode Island Historical Society

Tour groups can opt for self-guided audio tours or a narrative-based tour by a trained docent, said Erika Holshoe, the museum’s manager of operations and interpretation. “Tours last an hour and encourage visitors to engage with history through questioning the spaces they stand in and the world of Rhode Island in the 18th century,” she said.

Holshoe said many groups find the Sally Gallery to be the most impactful. The gallery explores the Brown family’s third attempt to participate in the transatlantic slave trade on the ship Sally. The ship’s first voyage was considered to be a failure as a result of massive deaths among the enslaved persons onboard and an uprising against their captors. All Brown brothers except John became abolitionists after the horrors of this journey, causing political division in the Brown family. “A dark but important story, the Sally Gallery honors those present on the voyage and encourages visitors to engage with a difficult history and consider its legacy,” Holshoe said.

New England historic homes
Docent-led tour, John Brown House Museum, Providence, R.I.
Credit: Rhode Island Historical Society

The museum aims to give visitors new nuggets of knowledge of what life was like for Rhode Islanders in the 1700s. “Though the house is filled with gorgeous historic architecture, furniture and decorative arts, visitors should be prepared to encounter difficult histories in the home,” Holshoe said. “We encourage all visitors to explore the museum with an open mind and to be respectful of the experiences of others.”

Main image: Lyman Estate, Waltham, Mass.; Credit: Historic New England