The Little House in Virginia Lee Burton’s book becomes forlorn when its pastoral town slowly becomes a city. How will it escape urban sprawl? Eventually, someone moves Little House back to a breezy pasture where it belongs. There’s no bad guy in the story. It’s about simple change.
Here’s the story in five pictures:
When you look at modern-day Middlesex Turnpike in Burlington, specifically the north end near Bedford, do you see a “Little House” stuck in the middle of it all?
That’s Kent Cottage, built in 1850 by Charlestown brewer John Kent and now sidelined by booming Burlington. It’s tucked into an ever-shrinking niche in the woods, losing a few inches of breathing room every year as Mother Nature slowly devours it with flora. There’s no bad guy in this story either. It’s about simple change.
Who was John Kent?
According to the book Historic Taverns of Boston by Gavin Nathan, Kent established Mystic Lake Brewery, near the current location of 40 Alford Street in Charlestown, around 1821. It evolved into a four-story brick building with a stone cellar. In 1860, William Van Nostrand bought a stake in Kent’s brewery and steadily expanded it until it found a hit product in P.B. Ale, which stood for “purest and best.”
It was considered Boston’s favorite beer at the time. From Nathan’s book: “In fact, it was so popular that less-reputable retailers would sell other beers on draft under the name P.B. Ale. The brewery later became known as Bunker Hill Brewery and thrived, gaining the title of America’s oldest continually-operated brewery until finally becoming a victim of the Massachusetts Prohibition in 1919.”
A customized walking cane belonging to Kent just sold for almost $800 at auction, so the name still carries some weight.
An architectural standout
Kent Cottage is Burlington’s only example of English country-style architecture and features a Jerkinhead “clipped-gable” roof. It stands right next to Middlesex Turnpike but pays it absolutely no heed, facing the other way in a bold testament to its tenure. There was no Turnpike to speak of in 1850. The front of the house stares blankly into woods just a few feet away. Those woods came nowhere near the front door in 1850. The house had a sprawling yard well into the 20th century, as you’ll see.
The faux window panes on the Turnpike side are actually wooden boards, a clever touch that makes the home look alive. But no sunlight has touched the inside of Kent Cottage for a long time.
Trouble in paradise
John Kent built the cottage for his second wife, an English woman whom he figured would love the English style. Curb appeal wasn’t enough, however. She left him shortly after moving in. John took off also, leaving his daughter Helene as the sole occupant until she died in 1897. She had an estate of $200,000 ($6M in today’s dollars) not including the house, but no known relatives to inherit it, so numerous churches and charities split it.
James and Mary Woods bought the place in 1899, according to the Fogelberg and Dunham chronicles of Burlington. The property changed hands several times in the early 1900s, and was home to a woman who spent lots of time sunbathing in various states of undress, according to several accounts. Small airplanes flying into an old airstrip near the current Mitre Field would sweep conspicuously low over Kent Cottage to take in the “scenery.” That sunbathing woman was likely Mildred C. (Bunce) Burns, known to her descendants as a vibrant, free spirit. She moved to Kent Cottage with her three boys in 1925 after divorcing Robert Burns of Melrose.
Why Kent Cottage? She thought her three sons, Bobby, Jimmy and Carl, could somehow benefit from country life in Burlington. Her hunch would prove correct.
A Pulitzer Prize-Winner grew up here
This country life proved fruitful indeed. Jimmy grew up to be known as James MacGregor Burns, the professor, speaker, political scientist and Pulitzer prize-winning author who rubbed shoulders with US presidents. His 1971 book “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom” won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for history and the National Book Award for nonfiction.
A tour of Kent Cottage by its sole survivor
All three Burns boys became fathers, but only Robert raised his children at Kent Cottage. His one surviving child is Alouette Iselin, a grief and trauma counselor in New Hampshire. She has lots of personal experience in those areas, unfortunately. Her two sisters, Tali and Clare, both died young due to a congenital heart defect. So did her mother. And so did her daughter.
Alouette wrote a song after Clare’s death. Click her photo to hear it.
This means Alouette is the world’s only remaining witness to life in Kent Cottage. She lived there from birth to age seven.
“I loved that house. When my grandmother [Mildred] bought it, it had been used as a retreat for a cab drivers’ union, and I understand that it was kind of a bachelor pad. Random cab drivers would show up late at night looking for a convivial place to stay, not realizing that it had changed hands.
“My family moved there when my mother was pregnant with me. Tali was 10 and Clare 12; I was born on Tali’s 11th birthday. My father built an addition adjoining the big stone house and moved us in. It had steam radiators in the bedrooms. One winter night my radiator froze and burst, so there was a skating rink on my floor when I got up in the morning. I of course was enchanted, my parents less so.
“There were 100 or so acres as I recall. My father planted 1,000 Scotch pines every year for 10 years, planning to sell them off as Christmas trees. He also planted an evergreen tree on the day I was born; it was always ‘Alouette’s tree’ but of course we couldn’t take it with us when we moved. Our nearest neighbor was a pig farm, within walking distance for a small child, and I would sometimes walk over to admire the piglets. I would sometimes walk in the Scotch pine forest, too. They were planted carefully in a grid, and the ground was carpeted with their dried needles so it was a soft place to walk. My father took care of all the yard work with a tractor that he built.
“My father loved horses, and there were several when he was young. There was an Irish Hunter by the name of Dick, and I have a photo of my father riding him in some sort of competition. There was a pony named Cyclone, who was a lot of trouble but entertaining. My father was a hunter, and he had a spaniel named Bootsie. My mother says I learned to walk by grabbing her fur and pulling myself to my feet. I remember her, but I must have been a toddler still when she died.
“My parents had a goat named Sammy, who was a typical goat. Once during a family photo shoot, while she was paying attention to the photographer, Sammy ate all the buttons off the front of her dress. My sister Tali wanted a horse, and my father found one at a junkyard (really). He named him Clutterbutt (don’t ask). He brought the horse home and fed him on plenty of oats for about six weeks until he stopped looking thin — but then the horse was so full of energy that nobody could ride him.
“I think my dad had to work with him quite a bit before my sister could manage him. Clutterbutt liked me and was protective of me, as if I were a colt. If I fell and hurt myself, he would come running from wherever he was when he heard me cry. My mother said that he would come and stick his head into the downstairs windows of the house and say hi, and when she came home with grocery bags, he would come and check them out.
“There was a screen porch with a stone floor and comfy chairs, and then you would go in the back door and the pantry and kitchen were to your left, and my grandparents’ study to the left.
“My grandmother had a lot of heavy old dark furniture, oak and leather, and oriental rugs, and the study walls were full of books. There was a phonograph always playing classical music. Next to that was a formal living room where we were not supposed to play, but Christmas festivities were held there. I remember it being light, with lots of windows and furniture upholstered in yellow and white. Then you could cross the entryway from the front door, and go into the dining room, which I remember being dark, with a huge dark dining table with chairs that were upholstered in leather and carved to look like thrones.
“My grandmother grew lots of flowers and would take me out on summer nights to smell the fragrance of the nicotiana. Near that was a rose garden, and I would follow her around as she tended the roses, picking off Japanese beetles and throwing them into a can of kerosene.
“There was a big staircase with a banister that invited sliding (again an activity that wasn’t allowed, but it happened). Someone told me that one of the toilets was black, and decorated inside with a painting of a peacock. I loved that house.”
The town remembers
Retired Burlington firefighter Wally DeCost remembers childhood fun with Tali and Clare. They would gather in the barn out back. Their father, Robert, would kill the lights and tell unsettling stories about missing eyeballs — while he passed around a bowl of peeled grapes. Wally remembers the girls’ squeals.
“The ghost stories at Halloween were the best,” recalls Clare’s friend Shirley Skelton Purdy, who lived nearby and often biked over. “Mr. Burns was quite a storyteller, every year a different one. The stories took place on the second floor of the barn, which was perfect with its real cobwebs, spiders, field mice and bats! I have so many wonderful memories of times spend at that house. I thought of them as eccentric, fun-loving and devoted to their girls. Mounted on the staircase wall was a real tiger skin complete with the head, which Clare said her grandfather shot. Those eyes seemed to follow you everywhere!”
A Great Dane belonging to the Burns clan sometimes trotted all the way to Lexington Street, spooking some of the children, according to retired Burlington policeman Eugene Knowles. Eventually someone would call the Burns house and say, “He’s back again.” One of the Burns women, most likely Alouette’s mother Peggy, would arrive in a blue Buick convertible. “The dog would leap right over the door and into the back seat of the car,” Knowles recalls. But Peggy would throw him right back out onto the street, saying “Oh no you don’t. You walked here and you’re gonna walk all the way back.” And the dog would hang its head and follow the car all the way back to Kent Cottage.
Gary Drinkwater, the namesake of the high-end men’s clothing store in Cambridge, grew up on Corcoran Road not far from Kent Cottage. The stone house was a childhood wonder. “On a quiet country road, now Network Drive, loomed this regal stone building. It was nothing like the tract housing in the area.” His uncle would later marry Clare Burns. Like Alouette, Gary fondly remembers the long, long rows of coniferous trees planted from the house all the way to Bedford Street, the stretch where the Primrose School is today. To the right of that clearing, you can still observe some tall, skinny, uniform pines likely planted by Robert Burns.
Why the house is abandoned
In the early 1960s, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) set up shop across the street and bought 75 acres of the Burns property, including the house, for $250,000, according to historian Stewart Burns, James MacGregor Burns’ son. It was part of an expansion bid that never came to fruition. The Burnses moved to Williamstown, MA.
Jon Berry worked for RCA while the company owned the house. “They used the house for storage, and the higher-ups ruined that place,” he says. “All the woodwork, gas lamps, fireplace mantles and other things were stolen. I would like to see the inside when and if it gets restored.”
RCA was one of the country’s leading tech companies earlier in the century, but it started to falter in the 1970s. Among its missteps was a new home video format called capacitance electronic disc, basically a vinyl LP that functioned just like a music record — it even had grooves — but played videos instead of music. It never caught on. General Electric bought RCA and slowly sold off its assets.
Sun Microsystems later owned the property but sold to Nordblom and left town before making good on its redevelopment plan for Kent Cottage. And so, despite the tumult all around it, Burlington’s “Little House” remains untouched.
A fixer-upper, but workable
The property’s once-envied water features are now liabilities, falling directly into the dreaded “wetlands” category. Nevertheless, commercial use is possible. “There are wetlands,” says Conservation Administrator John Keeley, “but they are not so close that the site is unusable. The usable portion does not provide a lot of space for parking, so a high-traffic business would probably not work there.”
In 2016 the Planning Board and Conservation Commission did approve a renovation plan by EvoText, an educational software company, but the company backed out. “We had planned a space to allow for growth,” says EvoText cofounder Chris Robert, “but the cost went up and the need for space leveled off. So we are very sad we are not moving forward. The project was lovely. We felt the design respected the history of the building and our company’s philosophy at the same time.”
Here are the renderings. The plan called for replacing the addition, built when Alouette’s family joined her grandparents, with a two-story glass enclosure. But her favorite balcony apparently would have survived over the front door.
And here’s the technical EvoText site plan PDF
But what about residential use? It’s probably the better solution, says Peter Nordblom, whose company now owns the property. In 2021, a residential plan is going through town rigors. But there’s no neighborhood. Not another house in sight. Perhaps someone will come along and move it to sunnier pastures. Kent Cottage may seem unwieldy, but we’ve seen unwieldy houses moved before:
Adulthood hasn’t been a fairy tale for Kent Cottage or for Alouette Iselin, given the setbacks at every turn, but her childhood home remains a truly enchanting piece of property to her, something magical. “I thought of it as Sleeping Beauty’s castle.”