The Shirley-Eustis House was built in bucolic Roxbury in 1747 by William Shirley as his seasonal country estate. Shirley was Royal Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1741-1749 and 1753-1756. In 1756 he was also appointed, by King George II, Commander-in-Chief of all British and Colonial forces in North America following the death of General Edward Braddock.
Dubbed "Shirley Place” by later owner Caroline Langdon Eustis, it (along with the Wentworth House, the Propriety House and the Daniel Huger House) is one of only four original Colonial Governors’ residences still standing in the United States. It maintains important historic status not only for the significant events which took place within its walls but for the grandeur of its features. American Architecture Volume 1: 1607-1860 describes it as “the finest New England house of the later 1740’s” as well as “the most purely Palladian House in America to its date”. A four square frame structure topped by a cupola, the Shirley-Eustis House was among the first to apply giant pilasters for added stateliness.
Remodeled a few times during the Federal period, it is now a Georgian mansion in Federal dress. An American architectural treasure, its exterior exemplifies some of the best fabric of both the Colonial and Federal periods. In 1960 the Shirley-Eustis House was awarded the prestigious designation of National Historic Landmark. In 1991 its complete restoration won the coveted Boston Preservation Alliance award for the best-restored small-scale structure in the City of Boston.
One of a handful of Boston's national landmarks that pre-date 1750, the house spans an unusually long continuum of American history, serving as home to two distinguished Governors - one Royal Colonial, William Shirley, and one Democratic-Republican, William Eustis.
"Shirley Place" has also been occupied by, among others, the Massachusetts Sixth Foot Regiment when it served as a Revolutionary War barracks and hospital during the Siege of Boston from 1775 to 1776; as a refuge from the Haitian Revolution for Jean-Baptiste du Buc, counselor to Louis XVI of France; and as retirement home for Privateer Captain James Magee, an Irishman famous for capturing the British ship Countess. As the first Boston merchant to visit either Batavia or Canton, Magee acquired a fortune as a China trader. During the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries the Mansion served as tenement housing.
The story of the Shirley-Eustis House, from its origins to its present, is as unique, fascinating, and compelling as that of its illustrious owners and the Who’s Who of American Colonial and Federalist history who passed through its doors.
A product of social ambition, fame, power and fortune in the mid-18th century, it frequently received Benjamin Franklin as well as countless Boston and Cambridge A-listers. In the early 19th century William and Caroline Eustis returned it to the status and level of activity it had enjoyed during the Shirley years. They entertained lavishly. In 1824 they hosted the Marquis de Lafayette and held a major fete in his honor. Eustis visitors routinely included John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun.
After the widow Eustis’ death in 1865 the Mansion began a downward spiral. It was sold, its land subdivided and the house moved 60 feet. By 1900 it was a tenement falling quickly into disrepair. By the mid 20th century it was condemned and slated for demolition.
The dedication of the Shirley-Eustis House Association and the public led to the Mansion being restored by 1985. With the exception of the lost piazzas and verandas, the house now looks very much as it did in 1820. Although primarily evocative of the period of the Eustis residency, its furnishings and collections also include several pieces from the Shirley era.
In the 21st century Shirley Place serves as an increasingly important cultural resource for Boston as well as its Roxbury neighborhood.