"We were incredibly close, all of us, through all our younger years and after. The Cape house was our base. Our whole lives were centered in this one place. It was all here — all the playing, all the enjoyment, all the fun. For me it still is. And always shall be."
— Senator Edward Kennedy in his memoir, True Compass
History of the Kennedy Cape House in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts
When Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy purchased the home at 50 Marchant Avenue in Hyannis Port on October 31, 1928, they could not have known the important place it would hold both to their family and to American history.
Few families have impacted American life in such far-reaching ways as the Kennedy family, and it all begins with nine siblings and two amazing parents. The home in Hyannis Port, described by Senator Kennedy as “the base,” is the place where values were taught, lessons were learned, characters were built, and history-making events took shape.
It is the place from which three United States Senators grew up, one of whom became President. It was home to the Kennedy sisters, who dedicated their lives to people with intellectual disabilities by founding the Special Olympics and the Very Special Arts. Their contributions through numerous charitable works have touched the lives of millions of Americans.
The Kennedy Compound
The history of the house dates back to 1904. Beulah A.B. Malcom had a 15-room, white clapboard house built at 50 Marchant Avenue in Hyannis Port, Mass. The site was about two and a half acres, with a lawn running down to Nantucket Sound.
The Kennedys rented the house for the summer for several years before purchasing it themselves. At time of the purchase the house, the family included seven of the Kennedys’ eventual nine children. Over the next two decades the house was remodeled and expanded to accommodate the growing family.
John F. Kennedy purchased a nearby home in 1956, and shortly thereafter his brother Robert also purchased a neighboring house. For a time Jean Kennedy Smith and her husband Stephen E. Smith owned a home in the neighborhood as well. This cluster of family residences became known as “The Kennedy Compound.” Eunice and Sargent Shriver owned a home nearby as well.
The Kennedy family became an integral part of the local community. They considered this area their home. In 1957, to honor eldest son Joseph P. Kennedy, killed in World War II, Mr. Kennedy donated $150,000 toward the construction of a skating center in Hyannis because, as he said in the letter dedicating the center, “Here, in this lovely and friendly area our son Joe and his brothers and sisters lived and laughed and grew through many sunny and happy days.” (The Fruitful Bough, 1965)
"One of the first things that I remember on arriving at your home was the regular noontime swims with you and Mr. Kennedy and all the children down at the Taggart’s pier. The children all looked forward to being with you and displaying their swimming and diving ability and how they improved. It was great fun when you and Mr. Kennedy would form a big circle with the older children and then Teddy, Jean and Bobby would swim first to the nearest them and gradually work up to the farthest away."
—Elizabeth Dunn Anderson, a governess writing a recollection about Mrs. Rose Kennedy in Grace Above Gold (1997)
As the children grew, they spent the summers learning to sail and swim in the waters of Hyannis Port. The competitive touch football games, made so famous in iconic family photos, were also a regular occurrence on the large lawn adjacent to the house.
When remembering his brother Joe Kennedy, John F. Kennedy wrote, “We would spend long hours throwing football with Bobby, swimming with Teddy, and teaching the younger girls how to sail.” Younger brother Teddy had his own memory of his big brother, when Joe threw him into the cold water during a sailing race. “I was scared to death practully. I then heard a splash and I felt his hand grab my shirt and then he lifted me into the boat. We continued the race and came in second.” (As We Remember Joe, 1945, with young Teddy’s uncorrected spelling.)
Their time learning these skills impacted them throughout their lives. Senator Edward Kennedy attributed to those swimming lessons his brother John’s survival in the water for days when his PT boat sunk during World War II. The competitive streaks that became ingrained in the family were evident during political fights in the years to come.
Growing up at the house, the children were also exposed to various leaders and dignitaries who came to visit Joseph Kennedy, who joined the Roosevelt Administration, first as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934 and then as head of the Maritime Commission in 1937. Prominent visitors joined the children’s friends as guests for dinner, and one frequent presence was Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston.
Political Life at the Cape
The house was also the site of major political decisions. In August 1945, John F. Kennedy, decided to run for the House of Representatives in 1946, the first of his six winning elections. In the spring of 1952, the family house was the site of meetings to plan JFK’s successful campaign for the Senate that year against the Republican incumbent, Henry Cabot Lodge. Political aides of JFK, like Larry O’Brien and Kenny O’Donnell were frequent guests. And in November 1956, John F. Kennedy, in consultation with his family, decided that he would seek the Presidency in 1960.
On Election Night 1960 and the day after, many members of the family stayed at the house as they gathered to follow returns and then celebrate JFK’s victory. The well-known post victory family photo, with President-elect and Mrs. Kennedy, his parents, siblings, and their spouses, was taken in the living room of the house.
Throughout the summer in 1961, on weekends, JFK’s helicopter would land on the lawn after he flew in to nearby Otis Air Force base. That summer he stayed at his own house, and met with Administration officials there. But in 1962 and 1963, seeking greater privacy, JFK rented homes on Squaw Island, a half mile away, where his youngest brother, Edward M. Kennedy, had a home. Visitors like Averell Harriman came to report on negotiations that produced the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The National Security Council met at Squaw Island in 1963.
In July 1982, the house became the main residence of Senator Edward Kennedy. A few months later, he gathered ten family members, including nieces, nephews, and his own three children, for a meeting to talk about whether he should run for President again in 1984. They held the meeting on the day after Thanksgiving next door at President Kennedy’s old house, and he was persuaded not to run, but rather to make the Senate his life. His children were the most decisive voice. In December 1985, he decided not to run in 1988 and assembled staffers and associates at the house to tell them and to make arrangements to tell the country.
He still used the house in connection with his Senate duties, making it a command center in the summer of 1987 as he prepared for hearings on the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and in the summer of 2005 as he prepared for hearings on the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. But it was largely a place of respite, where he sailed, relaxed, and entertained, delighting in showing visitors the historic pictures that crowd the walls, and the theater from which, as a boy, he was ushered off to bed when the movie action turned romantic. Governors, Senators, President Clinton, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and a series of Irish Prime ministers were among his guests. Some came for events, but many came just to talk in the morning and sail in the afternoon. Members of the extended Kennedy family returned every Thanksgiving.
In a rare formal function at the house, on September 23, 2008, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile presented Senator Kennedy with her nation’s Order of Merit, a human rights award for his support of democracy in Chile.
Dark Days on the Cape
Sadly, the Kennedy family has weathered tragedies both public and private. It was September 1939 when the war changed the Kennedys’ lives dramatically. Joseph P. Kennedy was serving as ambassador in London, doubtful about Britain’s chances, when war broke out. He promptly sent his wife and children home, to the house on the Cape and their other homes in Bronxville and Palm Beach. Then on Sunday afternoon, August 13, 1944, two priests came to the Cape house to tell Joe and Rose that their eldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a Navy pilot, had been killed in action.
Their second son, John F. Kennedy was on hand, recuperating after heroism in the Pacific. To cheer the other children up, he took them out sailing that afternoon. Nearly four years later, most of the family gathered again at the house after receiving the news that Kathleen Kennedy Hartington, the Kennedys’ fourth child, had died in a plane crash in France.
On November 22, 1963, Senator Edward Kennedy and his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, flew up to Hyannis Port from Washington to tell their father that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
Several years later at the house, on November 16, 1969, Joseph P. Kennedy, 81, died. His beloved wife Rose lived to be 104, passing away also in the home on January 22, 1995.
On May 17, 2008, Senator Kennedy was in his beloved Cape house when he felt the effects of what would be later diagnosed as a malignant brain tumor. On June 2 he underwent surgery at the Duke University Medical Center and returned home to the Cape to recuperate. Later that summer he worked at the house on the speech he would deliver at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, saying Barack Obama as President “will close the book on the old politics” and lead a “renewal for our nation.”
On August 25, 2009, in the home where it all began, Senator Kennedy died at the age of 77.
"There is nothing half so pleasant as coming home again."
—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster (American poet and editor)
The Kennedy family has been coming home to Hyannis Port since the early 1920’s and continues to, to this day. The house on 50 Marchant Avenue has been the site of numerous family weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations. Most recently, Senator Kennedy’s son, Patrick was married in the summer of 2011 at the house.
In fulfilling his mother’s wishes that the home be preserved and open to the public in some way, Senator Kennedy made preparations for the donation of the house to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. His widow Vicki Kennedy gifted the home to the Institute in December 2011.