The front of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, now administered by the Maine Historical Society, on Congress Street in Portland just off Monument Square. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Visitors to Portland taking in the city’s Arts District can compare notes with the beloved 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) by stopping by his former home on Congress Street.

“Most visitors want to see the inside of the home to see where he wrote and the surroundings that inspired him,” said John Babin, visitor services manager at the Maine Historical Society house museum – the state’s first, opening in 1902.

The public is welcome to enjoy the garden behind the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

Open daily May through October, the National Historic Landmark has guided tours at noon and 1 p.m. and is self-guided otherwise. Admission includes changing exhibits in the society’s adjoining museum. “Holding Up the Sky: Wabanaki People, Culture, History & Art,” runs until Feb. 1. “Power of Potential: Photographs of the 1925 National Business and Professional Women’s Convention,” held in Portland that year, concludes Aug. 25. A small Colonial Revival garden in the building’s rear is free and open to the public in season.

Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, a Revolutionary War general who commanded Maine’s forces, built the spacious brick residence with a full-length central hall in 1786. His store was also on the 1.5-acre homestead at the community’s edge. According to the society’s website, what was the city’s first “wholly brick home” is now “the oldest standing structure” on the Portland peninsula. The poet’s parents, Zilpah and Stephen Longfellow, a lawyer, raised eight children here and added the second story in 1815 after a fire destroyed the roof.

Henry used the home as a base while traveling in Europe and teaching at his alma mater, Bowdoin College. Moving on to a professorship at Harvard, he married and raised his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their mansion, Craigie House, was preserved by the family and is a National Historic Site and seasonal museum. The Cambridge Longfellows often visited the Portland home.

Anne Longfellow Pierce, the poet’s sister and the last Longfellow resident, left the building and its contents to the society to use as a memorial museum. Nearly everything visitors see belonged to the Wadsworth/Longfellow clan. In 2002, the museum’s centennial celebrated a restoration and “reinterpretation” of the residence as it was in the 1850s, when Anne made stylish updates and her brother’s career was at its peak. Family stories engage visitors, not merely fine furnishings and art.

The striking master bedroom was restored as Zilpah redid it in 1826, with French wallpaper depicting climbing roses on a trellis that seems to pop from the walls. Often kept home because of health issues, she loved the outdoor vibe, which contrasts yet complements the red and yellow canopy bed coverings – their classical Pompeian design includes the same small rose. The dining room/sitting room archway holds Stephen’s large glass-front secretary. In the same space where he met clients, the younger members of this cultured, civically engaged and supportive family came with their satchels and slates to study.

Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast.

The master bedroom with French wallpaper depicting climbing roses on a trellis. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

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