Historic New England is a historic preservation organization in the Northeast United States. Previously known as the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), it has 37 house museums and 1,284 acres of farmland and landscapes in five New England states. The houses vary in date, architecture, and style. One Historic New England property is Beauport in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Gloucester (pronounced Glaw-ster) is a coastal city known for fishing and other maritime heritage, like the seascape painter Fitz Henry Lane.
Beauport is seasonally opened and offers guided tours. I visited last September on a gorgeous, sunny day! Located in a private neighborhood, it is most easily accessible by car. Visitors drive through stone pillars at the start of Eastern Point Boulevard and travel another half mile to the house. It was a little disconcerting to drive into a neighborhood marked “private” but there are signs advertising for Beauport, so I knew it was the right way. After parking in their lot, I walked across the street to the gatehouse where I was greeted by staff. Pre-COVID-19, I signed up for a tour then and there, but they currently ask for advance reservations. Guided tours are the only way to view the house; they last roughly an hour and go off at certain times (currently every 30 minutes, but check their website for the most updated info).
The guided tour takes visitors through the history of the house, and tells about the owner(s), the housekeeper, and the many interesting guests who visited. Beauport was the home of Henry “Harry” Davis Sleeper (1878-1934). After Sleeper passed away in 1934, it was purchased by Mrs. Helena Woolworth McCann, and the home is also known as the Sleeper-McCann House. McCann made only a few small changes and also kept on Sleeper’s housekeeper, Mary Landergan Wonson. Wonson worked for Mrs. McCann until McCann died in 1938, and then stayed on as the mansion’s first site manager until her own death in the 1950s. Therefore, the house museum really maintains Sleeper’s intentions.
When I visited, it was just my husband and me on the tour. Our tour guide was a wealth of knowledge and able to answer all of our questions and more. We were fascinated by the house and first owner! Sleeper’s collection of colored glass, folk art, porcelain, and other “curiosities” fill the house. Every room is unique!
Sleeper was one of the first professional interior designers in the United States; his clients included Isabella Stewart Gardner, Joan Crawford, and Henry Francis du Pont. He was gay, and never married or had children. Sleeper selected the location for his summer home after visiting a friend in the same neighborhood. He began building in 1908 with architect Halfdan M. Hanson (1884-1952). The property overlooks Gloucester’s harbor, and the name “Beauport” is adopted from the explorer Samuel de Champlain’s name for the harbor, “Le Beau Port,” or “beautiful port” in French. Many of the rooms have a gorgeous waterview.
The house started out as a small cottage, but Sleeper continued to expand and utilized his additions as showrooms for prospective clients. He would often build rooms around themes, objects, or even salvaged pieces of older homes, such as the China Trade Room with Chinese wallpaper reportedly owned by Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. As someone who studies the American Revolution, I was very excited to see a Robert Morris connection in the house!
Each room provides an entirely different aesthetic and experience for the visitor. Hearing the history and inspiration for each space is fascinating, and Sleeper’s personal life plays a heavy role in the decisions. One room, the Pine Kitchen or Pembroke Room, was created after the death of his mother. The doors and paneling came from his mother’s family home, which dates back to the seventeenth century. It was one of Sleeper’s favorite rooms, and many of his clients copied elements in their own homes.
Another space impacted by Sleeper’s life is the Octagon Room, influenced by his time in France. Sleeper served as the director of the American Field Service in Paris, which fundraised for American ambulance drivers during World War I, and he received several awards for his service. The Octagon Room is also known as the “Souvenir de France” as it was utilized to display his collection of red-painted tinware that he acquired in France.
The house is roughly 14,2000 square feet. It is so large that the regular tour only shows 30 of the rooms! If you want to see every space, they offer a “Nooks and Crannies” tour once a month that visits every room and also explores the passageways and closets.
After touring the house, save some time to walk around the grounds! The gardens were also shaped over the years by Sleeper, and the current landscape is restored to look as it did in the late 1920s/early 1930s. There are even cute post carvings with animals such as squirrels. Overall, Beauport is certainly worth a visit, if not more than one to really delve into all the details!
Location: 75 Eastern Point Boulevard, Gloucester, Mass. 01930
Opening Times: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, July – October, Tours every half hour, 11 AM – 3 PM, (Current conditions with COVID-19, Advance tickets required)
Admission: $20 adults, $17 seniors, $8 students and children, Free for Historic New England members
Parking: Lot is across the street from the house
Public Transportation: MBTA commuter rail to Gloucester; however, Beauport is located 3.6 miles from the station. The Cape Ann Transportation Authority red line stops at the entrance of the Eastern Point neighborhood and then Beauport is .5 miles on the right. Taxi and rideshare service are also options.
Accessibility: Beauport does not have accessible ramps, elevators, or chair lifts. A large amount of standing and some walking is required; seating is available. Visitors with limited mobility can possibly tour the first floor of the house and the grounds. Service animals are welcome. Two restrooms are available, and both are accessible to people with disabilities.
Health and Safety: As of writing this article in September 2020, Historic New England has health and safety protocols in place due to COVID-19. Visitors must wear a mask as soon as they exit their vehicle and maintain six feet social distancing. The organization provides hand sanitizer, has enhanced cleaning measures, and has altered the tour to maximize social distancing. Advance reservations are required to limit tours to 4 people.
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MaryKate Smolenski is a former tour guide and current research fellow for the Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History and Anthropology from George Washington University and her master’s degree in History and Museum Studies from Tufts University. Her area of study in history is the British Atlantic and female Loyalists. She loves exploring museums, learning more about history and art, and travelling; she and her husband also run a travel blog called the Traveling Tour Guide.