Inside the Architecture: Cooper-Frost-Austin House

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The oldest existing house in Cambridge was once owned by the same family for 250 years.

The Cooper-Frost-Austin house is located on Linnaean Street near Porter Square and looks like any other Colonial American house.  But this is the oldest existing house in Cambridge.  It is now owned by the nonprofit Historic New England, but was once owned by the same family for 250 years.

Samuel Cooper built the house in 1691 when he inherited the property from his father John Cooper, who came to Cambridge to be a deacon at the First Church of Cambridge.  Samuel built one of the first free standing “lean-to” houses.  A “lean-to” is a structure with rafters that lean against a stable wall.  This is most evident from the back of the house with the sloped roof.  

The house was left to Walter Cooper, Samuel’s son after his death.  In 1718, Walter added on to the house by building a chimney, a main lobby entrance, and giving the house five distinct rooms.  

When Walter died, he gave the west side of the house to his wife Martha Goddard.  The east side of the house was given to his son Walter Jr.  It was not unusual for houses to be divided like this during the 18th century.  

The house was then given to Gideon Frost.  He was the son of Hannah Cooper, who was the daughter of Samuel Cooper.  The Frost name continued its ownership when his daughters Martha and Sarah each inherited half the house.  

The Austin name comes into ownership when Martha’s husband Thomas Austin bought Sarah’s half of the house.  Thomas Austin built an enclosed porch and Federal style stairway and trim to the house.  He left the house to his daughter Susan, whose husband had changed his name to Richard Thomas Austin, keeping the Austin name in the home ownership.  

Susan left the house to a distant cousin Martha Frost Kuhn.  Kuhn sold the property to Historic New England in the early twentieth century.  At first, the house was used as a tea room and antique shop.  The interior was restored in 1930 and now acts as a museum to educate people on Colonial American life.  There is also a gift shop on the property whose profits go to furthering Colonial American education.  

Interior photos are not allowed, so curious people will have to make the visit to see for themselves the beauty of a structure that still stands after a little more than half century.  The last public tour for 2015 was held on October 3, but private tours can be held throughout the summer by appointment.  Admissions is very cheap and free to Cambridge residence.  

The Cooper-Frost-Austin house is located at 21 Linnaean Street Cambridge, MA 02138.   To learn more, visit them at www.historicnewengland.org or to schedule an appointment call 617-994-6669.