Roxbury Heritage State Park is a history-focused heritage park in the oldest part of town, centered on the site of the former John Eliot House. The state park preserves an excellent collection of 18th and 19th century buildings, many of which are open to visitors in costumed interpretation. It was closed for several years due to budget cuts but has been operating again since 2017. The property had previously hosted events including Halloween festivals, historical reenactments, and living history weekends.
The state park offers tours seasonally, ranging from daily to twice weekly depending on the season. There are self-guided tour booklets available at the visitor center. Visitors can see period furnishings and equipment, learn about household tasks performed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, explore different parts of the house, and interact with costumed interpreters who perform demonstrations of crafts and skills from earlier eras.
The grounds include gardens designed by the Olmsted Brothers of Boston, examples of which may be seen during springtime visits, as well as forests of oak and hickory trees, fields of farming implements, and stable where horses and oxen provided power for mills and farms. Other sites to visit include the adjacent Warren Mansion, Harvard Square with its iconic fountain, and the Old State House with its tower dating from the 1700s.
In 1662, English settler John Eliot built his house here along with a small farm fieldstone church (now destroyed). He and his family lived here until 1680 when they moved out to New England. Shortly thereafter, the house became home to one of Boston’s first Christian communities, with Eliot serving as pastor for some time. After his pastorate ended, the building served as a private residence until 1771 when it became a tavern known as the King’s Head Tavern. This establishment also housed a post office from 1775 through 1779 before becoming a private residence once more. Once again, it saw public life as a result of its role as a tourist attraction, as both owner and employee Hannah Mudgett ran it as a tavern/restaurant from 1840 through 1861.
During World War II, the property was owned by Robert Moffat who rented rooms to sailors at $15 per night plus food. A restaurant occupied the main portion of the house and offered traditional American cuisine. Sailors could play cards in the common room and there were even two bedrooms available if needed. At least one sailor apparently spent much of his shore leave in bed sleeping off his various activities. When he would wake up, he found that he couldn’t get back to sleep so he’d go outside and walk around the neighborhood. One evening, while walking, he fell asleep in front of the house and woke up with a start, thinking that someone was breaking into the house. He quickly realized that this was not the case; it was just another example of being too active during his stay.
Eventually, he asked the landlady what time it was and she replied, “It is now nine o’clock.” His response was, “Oh, I must be going!” and went back to his ship. She then called the police and reported him missing. However, because it was Friday, July 21, 1942, he had actually gone AWOL, deserting his Navy duties without permission. An intensive search began and soon after, his body was recovered from the Charles River. He died at age 53, having left behind a wife and three children.
Following the death of her husband, Mrs. Moffat sold the estate to a real estate development corporation which planned to raze the historic structure to construct condominiums and commercial space. To prevent this from happening, a group of concerned citizens bought the property, formed the nonprofit Friends of Old Roxbury, and set about to save the house and preserve the surrounding area. With help from architect Peter Kiewit, the state government, and others, the old mansion was saved from destruction, converted into a museum, and opened to the public in 1976. The following year, it received designation as a National Historic Landmark (#66000217). On November 5, 1981, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Roxbury Heritage State Park.