Modern occupants of historic homes in Massachusetts are caretakers of the past

At the Widow Harris House in Brookline (top left), the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop (top right), and the Suffolk Resolves House in Milton (above), where Steve Kluskens works at a 200-year-old table, caretakers watch the property in exchange for reduced rent.
At the Widow Harris House in Brookline (top left), the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop (top right), and the Suffolk Resolves House in Milton (above), where Steve Kluskens works at a 200-year-old table, caretakers watch the property in exchange for reduced rent.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff (top left); Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff (top right); Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

One of the quirks of living in a house built more than 200 years ago — a house preserved as an example of architecture, and life, in the late 1700s — is making sure the detritus of modern existence doesn’t overrun history.

Elln Hagney and her 18-year-old daughter Thomasa live in Brookline’s Widow Harris House, built between 1772 and 1796 in what is now Larz Anderson Park. They do not own a microwave or a large-screen television or a sprawling leather sectional.

“The home looks as it would have looked in 1776,” said Hagney, who is also executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham. “We tried even with our furnishings to stay true to the character of the home. In the house, you won’t find lounge chairs, for instance.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The house does have electricity and a modern bathroom, and a kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, and sink. Although Hagney and her daughter are technically not allowed to have pets, the town allowed them one “mouse catcher” — a cat — to help lower the rodent population.

Even in the garden, Hagney and her daughter try to pay homage to the era of the house, which sits on town property and is managed by the Brookline Historical Society — no palm trees or yucca plants.

It is an arrangement played out in historic houses across the state, one that can benefit both caretakers, who pay little or no rent, and the groups that own the properties but have little money to pay for upkeep.

In Milton’s Suffolk Resolves House, Steve Kluskens walks past a letter from Thomas Hutchinson, a Colonial-era governor of Massachusetts, on his way to the kitchen every morning. When he types on his Macintosh laptop, it sits on a 200-year-old table, near an 1823 Springfield musket propped up against a wall.

As caretakers, Kluskens and his wife, Sheila Frazier, eat at a table beside a display of delicate dishes that were ordered from China in 1775. The house also holds a 1641 Bible written in classical Greek, a Jacobean oak chest more than 300 years old, and assorted dour portraits of prominent, but deceased, Milton residents.

Kluskens and Frazier, like other caretakers in historic houses, cannot change the house to fit their lives. They don’t remodel or paint or add media rooms. They must adapt themselves to fit in the house.

“It gives you a unique perspective on how short a life span is,” said Kluskens, who is also curator. “We’re just passing through this house.”

Kluskens and Frazier had previously been caretakers of another historic house in Milton, and moved into Suffolk Resolves almost two years ago. They pay a modest monthly rent to live in the house, named for the Suffolk Resolves, a forerunner of the Declaration of Independence believed to have been signed there in 1774. Paul Revere carried the document by horseback to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Kluskens and Frazier keep the house clean, host tours and other events at the house, and monitor the collection of the Milton Historical Society.

Their bedroom and the room where Kluskens works are usually not part of tours they conduct. But on other days, a few hints of modern life appear. The parlor holds both a pianoforte made in 1826 by Alpheus Babcock and a scratching post for their cat, Calli.

Historic New England used to arrange for caretakers to live at 24 of the organization’s properties, including the Lyman Estate in Waltham and the Otis House in Boston. But in recent years, the nonprofit decided to hire people to provide the upkeep that the caretakers had performed, such as mowing the lawn and shoveling snow.

“Quality control was always hard,” said Ben Haavik, team leader for property care at Historic New England. “For us, it was easier to separate out the tasks to make sure they were kept up to a standard we wanted.”

Now the group rents apartments in the historic homes at close to market value, and renters are generally not expected to do much more than watch over the property and respond to overnight alarms.

But in other historic houses, the caretaker tradition prevails.

Jesus MacLean and Camille Arbogast are curators and caretakers of the Edward Devotion House, which dates to around 1680, in Brookline.

Both MacLean and Arbogast, who moved in several years ago, are passionate about history and have worked at other historic homes.

Living in the Devotion House, one of the earliest surviving homes in the area, is an education.

Visitors often assume that the house’s ceilings are low because people were shorter a few hundred years ago, MacLean said. The house was built this way, he said, to allow the rooms to be heated more easily.

“I definitely learn something every day,” MacLean said.

The tenants of the Deane Winthrop House in Winthrop never know exactly when tourists may want to see the house, which has been continuously occupied since it was built in 1637.

They prefer at least 24 hours notice, so they can put away personal belongings from the wrong era.

“We don’t have very much in the line of modern stuff, although we do have a television,” said Barbara Harrison, who lives in the house with her sister, Patricia, the official caretaker. “Our dishes and knickknacks could not be neomodern.”

Harrison and her sister keep the house clean, conduct tours and host monthly dinner meetings. The house’s artifacts require much care, she said.

“There’s a lot of precautions and then just being mindful,” she said.

When they moved in about a year ago, Barbara Harrison said, she remembers being filled with questions about the house and its previous occupants. She looked at the rotisserie in the fireplace and wondered how long it took to cook a chicken.

She wondered about how Deane Winthrop, son of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, survived the deaths of four of his nine children.

“I say that I’m on an adventure,” Harrison said. “It’s an adventure kind of backwards in time. I get to see something that was part of our history and know why it’s like that.”

In Brookline, Hagney and her daughter can have friends over to the Widow Harris House, but they have to make sure the house and its belongings are protected.

“There are restrictions,” Hagney said. “I couldn’t throw a giant beer bash in my backyard.”

On July 4, Hagney often invites friends over and gives them a history lesson at the top of a nearby hill.

“What’s really cool is my house was lived in by a Minuteman after the Revolutionary War,” she said. “The top of the park was used as a lookout for the Continental Army during the Revolution.”

The house is not open to the public, but Hagney gives tours of the nearby Putterham School, built in 1768 and later moved to the park. She is the school’s curator.

“It’s also nice to know that when we do leave, the house will be there and it will be unchanged,” Hagney said.

“We’ll never drive by the house and have it torn down and a skyscraper built.”