The beacon of Beacon Hill once stood just behind the current site of the Massachusetts State House, on the highest point in central Boston. The entire hill was once owned by William Blaxton, the first European settler of Boston, from 1625 to 1635, who eventually sold his land to the Puritans. The hill, and two other nearby hills, were substantially reduced in height to allow the development of housing in the area and to use the earth to create land by filling the Mill Pond, to the northeast.
Until the end of the 18th century, the south slope of Beacon Hill was a pasture owned by painter John Singleton Copley. He sold it to the Mount Vernon Proprietors, to which the architect Charles Bulfinch belonged. During the first quarter of the 19th century, Beacon Hill town houses designed by Bulfinch, Asher Benjamin, and others exhibited influences derived from England, France, and even the Far East. Elements drawn from Ancient Egypt, Greek, and Roman sources enlivened the brick and brownstone-trimmed facades of the Hill’s stylish mansions.
The south slope of Beacon Hill facing the Common was the socially desirable side in the 19th century. “Black” Beacon Hill was on the north slope. The two Hills were largely united on the subject of Abolition and Beacon Hill became one of the staunchest centers of the anti-slavery movement in America.
When development of the Back Bay district got underway, many residents moved to the more fashionable new enclave, which offered larger houses and wider streets. Beacon Hill started to decline and continued on its downward spiral until the second half of the 20th century. Beacon Hill was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1962 and in recent years it has once again become a very popular district, especially the south slope which attracted wealthy Bostonians.
This walking tour will begin in the Boston Common that fronts the southern border of Beacon Hill along, naturally, Beacon Street...
bounded by Beacon, Charles, Boylston, Tremont and Park streets
Boston Common is the oldest public park in the country, created in 1634 as a “cow pasture and training field” for common use. Cattle grazed here for 200 years, and the odd bull could look up every now and then to see the occasional public hanging that took place in the Common. The park is about 50 acres in size and is the anchor for the Emerald Necklace, the system of connected parks that visit many of Boston’s neighborhoods.
WALK TO THE CORNER OF BEACON STREET AND PARK STREET.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
entrance to Boston Common at Beacon Street across from the State House
Movie-goers will know Robert Gould Shaw’s from the award-winning Glory. The 26-year old Shaw emerged from a prominent white Boston family to lead the famous 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment recruited in the North to serve in the Civil War. The unit distinguished itself in leading a frontal assault across open beach on Battery Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. Colonel Shaw died along with scores of his men. The surviving veterans of the 54th and 55th regiments were among those present to listen to Booker T. Washington at for the memorial’s dedication in 1897, one of the finest works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the premier sculptor of the Gilded Age.
TURN RIGHT ON BEACON STREET.
10.5 Beacon Street
Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in America, founded in 1807 by the Anthology Club as a reading room and subscription library in rented rooms. Annual dues were $10 - at a time when that would represent about two weeks pay. The Athenæum moved into these digs in 1849, designed in a neo-Palladian style by artist and architect Edward Clarke Cabot using a distinctive gray sandstone. Visitors found a sculpture gallery when they walked in, the library was on the second floor and paintings hung on the third floor.
TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK DOWN BEACON STREET.
Chester Harding House
16 Beacon Street
This four-story Federal-style townhouse is a souvenir from 1808 when this was a residential neighborhood; it was constructed by real estate developer Thomas Fletcher. It managed to duck the wrecking ball while its commercial neighbors filled in around and above it. The house carries the name of Chester Harding into its third century; Harding was a sign painter in Pittsburgh who went on the road as an itinerant portrait painter and landed here in 1826. He stayed until 1830,honing his craft to the extent that most of America’s prominent men and women sat for Harding at one time or another. The house has become a National Historic Landmark, owned by the Boston Bar Association since 1962.
Massachusetts State House
24 Beacon Street
Boston-born Charles Bulfinch is usually regarded as the first native-born American to call himself an architect on his business card. He began work on the most outstanding public building in the young country in 1795 when he was 31 years old. Bulfinch had warmed up for the task by building the Connecticut State House which opened its doors in May of 1796 as the first state house in the union. Governor Samuel Adams and silversmith-turned-Revolutionary War-hero Paul Revere set the keystone for the Massachusetts State House on July 4, 1795 in a meadow on top of a steep hill, which until just recently had been John Hancock’s meadow. Bulfinch based his design on classically-flavored English buildings that resulted in an elevated projecting Corinthian portico. The ever industrious Revere would later be commissioned to top the wooden dome with rolled copper in 1802. The dome, which is topped with a pine cone that symbolizes Boston’s now long-gone timber industry, was gilded in 1874. The gold was re-applied in 1997 at the cost of $300,000.
George Parkman House
33 Beacon Street
In 1849, George Parkman and John Webster were prominent doctors in Boston. Dr. Webster, known to live beyond his means as a medical professor, was in debt to Parkman, and when Parkman threatened to take legal action to collect this debt, he bludgeoned Parkman to death in the Massachusetts Medical College Building. Webster dismembered and attempted to incinerate the body. He was tried, found guilty and was hanged. Parkman’s widow moved into this building after the grisly incident passed. But Boston’s most sensational crime was not so easily forgotten.An article in the Boston Globe 35 years later discussed the possibility that Webster was placed in a harness, and was never hanged. A story is re-told about a sailor seeing Dr. Webster overseas long after his death sentence. Parkman’s heirs left the City of Boston a 5 million dollar trust fund for the maintenance of the Boston Common.
John Phillips House
Beacon Street at 1 Walnut Street
Charles Bulfinch designed this townhouse in 1804 as the home of John Phillips. Phillips was a Boston native and Harvard College graduate who became a public prosecutor in 1800 and spent two decades in the Massachusetts Senate while he lived here. In 1822 Phillips became the first mayor after Boston’s incorporation as a city but only spent a year in office before he died at the age of 52.
39-40 Beacon Street
Here is another National historic Landmark. In 1819 Waltham textile manufacturer Nathan Appleton and shipbuilding merchant Daniel Pinckney Parker bought the property, scuttled the existing house and hired Alexander Parris who designed this Greek Revival bowfront twin house. In 1843 celebrated poet and Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow married Appleton’s daughter Fanny in this house.
42-43 Beacon Street
America’s most esteemed Colonial portrait painter John Singleton Copley lived on this site until 1774. Before Alexander Parris went to work next door he created this beefy Federal-style house for David Sears, one of the town’s wealthiest merchants. It was a free-standing mansion at the time. As the block filled in the home doubled in size, becoming the town’s most expensive dwelling by the 1830s. In the 1860s Sears departed for Brookline where he was a major player in land development and the house was purchased by the Somerset Club.
Third Harrison Gray Otis House
45 Beacon Street
Harrison Gray Otis, a United States Senator, Boston’s third mayor, and real estate mogul, was Boston’s resident billionaire in the first half of the 19th century. In rapid succession Otis commandeered the construction of three of the city’s most splendidly ostentatious Federal-era houses, all designed by Charles Bulfinch and all still standing. Finished in 1808, Otis stayed in this one, widely regarded as the master architect’s finest residential work, until he died 40 years later.
William Hickling Prescott House
55 Beacon Street
Although Charles Bulfinch dominated the architecture of Beacon Hill, other prominent designers snuck a house in every now and then. This bowfront from 1808 is by Asher Benjamin who influence spread across the country with the publication of seven architectural handbooks and pattern books. The building boasts wrought iron railings, full-height wooden pilasters and an ornamental balustrade crowning the confection. It carries the name of William Hickling Prescott, regarded as the first American scientific historian, who resided here from 1845 to 1859.
King’s Chapel Parish House
64 Beacon Street
King’s Chapel was founded in 1686 and this Greek Revival bowfront from the pen of Ephraim Marsh joined the Boston Common streetscape in the 1820s. The two came together in the 1950s when the church purchased the property as a parish house.
84 Beacon Street
In the summer of 1981, NBC came to Boston looking for a bar. The network was developing a new sitcom set in a neighborhood pub and the producers thought that Boston had just the right mix of characters for the cast ― sports fanatics, stuffy intellectuals, colorful politicians, and the lunch-pail crowd. After an exhaustive search the scouting party lighted on the Bull and Finch Pub with its three steps down past diamond glass windows to the taproom. Within a few months, a replica of the Bull and Finch interior had been constructed in Hollywood. Shot mostly on Paramount’s Stage 25, Cheers went on the air in September 1982 and languished through its first season as one of the lowest-rated shows on television. But network executives persevered, kept Cheers on the schedule and it garnered a record-breaking 111 Emmy nominations, winning the award 26 times. As the show grew in popularity, so many fans made pilgrimages to the Bull and Finch that the bar changed its name to “Cheers.”
TURN RIGHT ON BRIMMER STREET.
Samuel Eliot Morison
44 Brimmer Street
Samuel Eliot Morison grew up in this house, constructed in the 1850s in the “horsey end of town.” He was Harvard educated and taught at the school for four decades where he became America’s foremost naval historian. After he won the first of two Pulitzer Prizes for Admiral of the Ocean Sea in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt tabbed him to write the definitive history of the United States Naval operation sin World War II. Morison, a Rear Admiral in the United States Naval Reserve, would go on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Church of the Advent
30 Brimmer Street at northeast corner of Mount Vernon Street
The Church of the Advent was born in 1844 from the then-11-year-old Oxford Movement, which called upon the Church of England to return to dial back its policies to its historic roots in the undivided Catholic Church. The English Gothic style church was designed by John Hubbard Sturgis and meticulously put together between 1875 and 1888.
TURN RIGHT ON MOUNT VERNON STREET.
130 Mount Vernon Street
Charles Luce worked infused this 1840 house with early elements of the English garden-influenced Arts-and-Crafts style during an 1878 makeover. Frank Hill Smith, a celebrated artist and interior designer, lived here at the time and the local press was moved to gush over his efforts that his house was transformed into “the most attractive and picturesque in the city... there is nothing in New England in the least like it.”
TURN LEFT ON CHARLES STREET.
Charles Street Meeting House
70 Charles Street
This 1804 former church, designed by Asher Benjamin, was an important location in the abolitionist movement, with William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass addressing overflow crowds from its pulpit. The simple brick Federal-style building served several denominations and enters its third century of use as offices, a cafe and antique shops.
RETURN TO MOUNT VERNON STREET AND TURN LEFT.
off Mount Vernon Street, northside
Louisburg Square (pronounced “Lewis-burg”) is the address most associated with Boston wealth and privilege. Moguls still live here, as does former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry. The roomy brick Greek Revival houses were added to the square in the 1830s and many are still single-family homes. Author Louisa May Alcott lived at No. 10 for three years in the 1880s; William Dean Howells, literary critic and editor of the Atlantic Monthly, resided at No.16; and No. 20 was the home of Samuel Gray Ward, financier and a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. In 1852, Ward married famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind in this house. The “Swedish Nightingale” was given away by her manager and future famous circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
Stephenson Higginson House
87 Mount Vernon Street
These two lots were filled with adjoining Charles Bulfinch houses in 1805. Some evidence exists that he intended to live in one but financial reversals forced him to sell them both; No. 87 to Stephen Higginson, Jr., the father of abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson and No. 89 to David Humphreys, an aide de camp to George Washington in the Revolutionary War. No. 89 was replaced with a 20th century Colonial Revival house but the Higginson House stands and since 1955 it has been the home of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
Second Harrison Gray Otis House
85 Mount Vernon Street
The mortar on the bricks was barely dry on this 1802 mansion before Harrison Gray Otis had Charles Bulfinch at work designing him a third Beacon Hill home. This is a rare estate in the neighborhood and the cobblestone drive was featured as Steve McQueen’s driveway in The Thomas Crowne Affair.
TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK TOWARDS WILLOW STREET.
50-60 Mount Vernon Street
These one-story houses were once stables for the Charles Bulfinch-designed houses on Chestnut Street. By deed they could never be built higher than 13 feet.
TURN LEFT ON WILLOW STREET. TURN RIGHT ON ACORN STREET.
Modest red brick Federal-style townhouses along this narrow cobblestone lane compose one of Boston’s most photographed streets. Tradesmen and shopkeepers lived in the houses that were designed by Cornelius Coolidge in the 1820s. On the north side of the street are brick walls that enclose some of the “Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill” that have been put on display by the Beacon Hill Garden Club since 1929.
RETURN TO WILLOW STREET AND TURN RIGHT. TURN LEFT ON CHESTNUT STREET.
Francis Parkman House
50 Chestnut Street
Cornelius Coolidge designed many of the elegant Federal-style homes on this block in the 1820s. Francis Parkman, one of the greatest of 19th century historians and author of The Oregon Trail and many well-regarded other works, lived here from 1865 until his death in 1893. Parkman was also a respected horticulturist who was the first director of Boston’s Arnold Arboretum.
29A Chestnut Street
Charles Bulfinch designed this town house in 1800; it still retains its side garden. In 1865, this was the residence of Edwin Booth, then the most famous actor in America. Today history remembers only his brother John Wilkes after his killing of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1865.
13-15-17 Chestnut Street
These three houses were built in 1806 to the plans of Charles Bulfinch. Known as the Swan Houses, after the heiress, Hepzibah Swan, they were wedding gifts for her three daughters who married in 1806, 1807 and 1817. Julia Ward Howe lived here during the Civil War, shortly after she penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which appeared in print for the first time in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862.
TURN LEFT ON WALNUT STREET TO MOUNT VERNON STREET.
Nichols House Museum
55 Mount Vernon Street
Charles Bulfinch designed houses 51-57 for the Mason daughters in 1804. The architect would not recognize his work two hundred years later, save for the form of No. 55. In the 20th century it was later the home of landscape architect and peace activist Rose Standish Nichols, whose clients stretched across the globe. It lives on today as a house museum.
TURN RIGHT ONJOY STREET.
6 Joy Street
Alexander Parris created this house in 1824, decorating the facade with Greek Revival elements and an arresting wrought iron fence.
CONTINUE ON JOY STREET TO BOSTON COMMON AND THE BEGINNING OF THE TOUR.