Leary’s old house brings flashbacks aplenty

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / April 5, 2010

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NEWTON — Baby boomers Ruth and David Housman say they never took LSD, but they have seen its effects.

As a psychiatric social worker, she has seen how “a lot of people’s minds were totally wrecked’’ by the drug. And as an 18-year-old college student living in Cambridge, he endured daily visits from strange neighbors who dropped tabs of the new hallucinogen every morning.

Yet despite their aversion, the Housmans have for years been immersed in their own LSD trip of sorts.

Since 1983, they have lived in a lavender three-story Georgian Revival on Homer Street in Newton that was rented in the early ’60s by the late Timothy Leary, the onetime Harvard faculty member notorious for turning on the counterculture to the mind-blowing potential of psychedelic drugs.

How a clinical experiment began to unravel into an extended bacchanalia in an unlikely suburban home is recounted in a new book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America,’’ by Don Lattin.

The Housmans have been amused by tales of their home’s former tenants since they first learned about them, a week after moving into the home.

David Housman, a geneticist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was walking his dog when he struck up a conversation with a neighbor with a brogue.

When Housman pointed to his new house, the man said cheerfully, “Oh, the LSD king lived there,’’ and referred to him as “Timmy O’Leary.’’

The old porch still had charred floorboards where Leary’s roommates and visitors lighted ill-advised bon fires. When the Harvard faculty member who had rented to Leary returned from a yearlong sabbatical, he was distressed to find the walls covered with painted slogans and some of the furniture was in the fireplace.The faculty member quickly booted Leary out and sold the house.

Despite the home’s checkered history, including a period when it was operated as a rooming house in the 1970s, the Housmans fell in love with the place when they were looking to move their two children into the Newton school district.

“I walked in and just knew,’’ Ruth said on a recent morning while sitting in her kitchen. She loved the house’s fine details — the leaded-glass windows, the fleur-de-lis tiles inside the fireplace — originally ordered by a wealthy bicycle manufacturer, who built it in the 1890s.

“There’s an incredible amount of charm,’’ she said. “It was obvious that somebody loved this house.’’

Former neighbor Larry Tafe, a retired corporate lawyer now living in South Harwich, bought his Newton house in 1972 and raised his nine children there. When he moved in, he said, the previous owners told him about the chain-link fence they had erected between the two driveways.

“They’d come home and Leary and his pals would be floating around their yard after being off in space,’’ Tafe said.

Warner and Carolyn Slack have lived across the street from the former Leary house since 1970. Warner’s brother Charles is a former Harvard colleague of Leary’s who wrote a book called “Timothy Leary, the Madness of the Sixties and Me.’’

Carolyn Slack remembers the doctor’s family that bought the house from Leary’s landlord. “They told a lot of stories about the damage to the house from these huge parties,’’ she said.

“I think they put a hole in the floor so the incense could go from the first floor to the second.’’

Though the shenanigans at the house on Homer Street were the talk of the neighborhood long after Leary and his entourage moved on, a certain kind of history was undoubtedly made here.

Religious scholar Huston Smith said he took his first acid trip in the house after deciding that Leary’s claims for the spiritual benefits of the drug were worth investigating.

The writer William Burroughs reportedly lived in the house at one point during Leary’s year at the address, as did poet Peter Orlovsky.

Leary died in 1996 at age 75. Ruth Housman once wrote to him, she said, but got no reply.

Showing a visitor around the Homer Street house, each room painted a vivid color of its own, she joked about LSD leaking from the walls.

She said there were still numbers on the bedroom doors from the rooming house period when her family first moved in.

When the Housmans moved in, some of the upstairs walls were covered in hopelessly outdated ’60s-era wallpaper, which Ruth felt compelled to remove. The wallpaper, she said, featured groovy slogans.

Whether they included Leary’s mantra — “turn on, tune in, drop out’’ — she can’t quite recall.

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