Sunday, August 3, 2014

Finding John Adams in Quincy

You can see Gilbert Stuart's magnificent portrait of John Adams at the 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was painted in 1823, when Adams was nearly 90.
They both reportedly had a terrific time, talking away through the sittings. 

When I finally finished David McCullough's John Adams a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated with a trip to Quincy to visit the houses where he and his family lived and died. For all my good-humored (I hope) gretzing about the length of the book, it was a genuine pleasure to read and I was riveted and deeply moved by the end. Even if we can't all be superb thinkers, lawyers, writers, patriots, and political leaders like Adams, we can still learn from his approach to loss and infirmity at the end of his life: He handled every trial of old age with grace, humility, and even joy, never losing his youthful enthusiasm for friends, nature, and good conversation..

We started our Adams tour of Quincy by parking directly in front of the United First Parish Church, also known as the Church of the Presidents, since John Adams helped to finance its construction and most of the granite came from the family quarry. Both he and his son John Quincy worshipped here with their families. The two presidents and their first ladies are buried in the simple but stately crypt below. It was very moving to rest my hand on Adams's plain granite sarcophagus after spending so many months reading about the living man — often in his own words or those of his contemporaries and almost always in vivid detail.

Before visiting the church, we had a quick and tasty lunch at the Fat Cat, a popular restaurant we knew from our first explorations of Quincy, a couple of years ago, when we fell in love with a Victorian house in the Wollaston neighborhood. (Although we still think about gorgeous, huge, affordable historic houses in Quincy, we've pretty much decided the city is too far for commuting to Cambridge for my husband and not walkable enough for me.) A mostly blue-collar town that's been struggling for a while, Quincy has been having an even harder time than usual since last spring, since their developer recently bailed on the ambitious $1.6 billion downtown redevelopment project the city had been planning for a few years. As with the famous Filene's hole, the developer backed out of the deal after starting enough demolition to leave a depressing hole and empty storefronts.

But the Adams Historical Park run by the National Parks Service, seems to be doing just fine. It includes three houses: the birthplaces of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, and the lovely country estate where they later lived, "Peace field." At the Visitor's Center in town, you can watch a documentary narrated by Laura Linney, who played Abigail Adams in the excellent PBS John Adams TV miniseries, which also features the voices of Tom Hanks and Paul Giamatti (who played John Adams in the miniseries). Then you take a trolley to the two birthplaces, which are only a stone's throw apart. After the guided tour, the trolley takes you to "Peace field," (also called "The Old House"), where John Adams died in 1826. His descendants continued to live there until 1946. The tour begins in the Stone Library, a splendid separate building dating from 1870, which holds the books and papers of both presidents and some other, illustrious family members, set in a formal garden. 

Here are my photos of "The Old House:"  

Click this link to see many photos of the interior. (No photography was allowed during the tour inside, of course.)

The house is elegant and beautiful, but less grand than many historic house museums. The Adams family was solidly middle-class, not wealthy. You can easily imagine generations of the family living there since it is full of their furniture and possessions, from John Adams's walking stick by the front door to the armchair where he collapsed before he died. I heard that his eyeglasses are still on the table by the chair, although our guide didn't point it out. It's good thing; I was already close to tears. He was a true hero, in his time and for now, and I can't think of a better one. And David McCullough's book will make you feel that you "know" him. Books don't get better than that.

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