For more than 300 years the government of Boston has clustered in the area to the northeast of Boston Common. The first town hall was here, the first public school, the first burial...and so on. Where a colonial landmark has survived it often appears like a first-grader playing on the high school basketball team but these historic buildings manage to hold their own on the modern streetscape with the strength of their character.
This land all belonged to the first white European who settled here in 1622, William Blackstone. The Puritans set up their first hovels in 1630 across the river in Charlestown but quickly resettled here due to presence of a critical natural spring to provide drinking water.
The American Indians called the place “Shawmut” meaning “living waters” but the new arrivals named it Boston after a town back in England. This walking tour will begin in that northeast corner of the Boston Common to see what those settlers created...
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.
LEAVE THE NORTHEAST CORNER OF BOSTON COMMON AT THE INTERSECTION OF PARK STREET AND TREMONT STREET AND WALK NORTH ON TREMONT STREET.
Park Street Church
1 Park Street, at the northwest corner of Park and Tremont streets
Beginning in 1738 a large wooden storehouse designed to hold 12,000 bushels of grain as a precaution against crop failures occupied this lot. The old granary and its adjacent workhouse were razed to make way for this Christopher Wren-inspired church designed by English architect Peter Banner in 1810. The steeple/clock tower soars 217 feet above the street but even up there you could hear the fiery zeal of its Congregational preachers that earned the church the nickname of “Brimstone Corner.” Abolition leader William Lloyd Garrison gave his first speech against slavery here and the patriotic song America was first sung in the Park Street Church.
WALK DOWN HAMILTON PLACE, THE ALLEY ACROSS FROM PARK STREET CHURCH.
Old Music Hall/Opheum Theatre
end of Hamilton Place
Boston University’s college of music, the Handel and Haydn Society and the Boston Symphony Orchestra all got their start in the Old Music Hall, erected in 1852. In 1915 the building was extensively worked over and transformed into the city’s first cinema with a seating capacity of 2,000.
RETURN TO TREMONT STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Old Granary Burial Ground
The first burial here took place here in 1660 when the ground was part of the Boston Common. The tree-shaded sanctuary became the final resting place for many a Colonial rabble-rouser. Behind the Egyptian-style granite gateway rest Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Peter Faneuil, Robert Treat Paine, Benjamin Franklin’s parents and the five victims of the Boston Massacre. It is only the third oldest graveyard in town but takes a backseat to none in importance.
76 Tremont Street
This was the site of Boston’s second theater, opened in 1827. Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale,” performed here during her celebrated singing tour of America. The current office and church complex, covered in diamond-patterned stonework, carries a reminder of that temple at the top of its facade.
60 School Street, southeast corner of Tremont Street
Harvey D. Parker built the first guest house here in 1855 and eventually spread to five buildings. In 1926 when the Parker family sold the property those ancestral structures were all torn down and replaced with the current hotel. The kitchen at the Parker House has invented such iconic delicacies as the Massachusetts state dessert, Boston Cream Pie, and Parker House rolls. In addition to the luminaries that graced the hotel (John F. Kennedy held his bachelor party hear after he proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier at Table #40 in Parker’s Restaurant), famous employees found work in the back rooms - Ho Chi Minh worked in the kitchen and Malcolm X was a busboy.
58 Tremont Street
In the late 1600s, King James II ordered an Anglican church to be built in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans who fled England to escape the church of England, were none too happy about the edict and the governor was forced to appropriate a portion of the city’s oldest burial ground to erect a small wooden place of worship. Work on the current Georgian-style church of dark Quincy granite started in 1749 on plans drawn by Peter Harrison, an architect from Newport, Rhode Island. The Corinthian columns inside were each carved from a single tree; the exterior wooded columns are painted to resemble stone. The adjoining graveyard features bodies interred in 1630, months after Boston was settled. Although not studded with the graves of as many famous patriots as other city burial grounds, William Dawes, who rode with Paul Revere, John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, and Mary Chilton, the first Pilgrim to touch Plymouth Rock, were all laid to rest here.
TURN RIGHT ON SCHOOL STREET.
Benjamin Franklin statue
Old City Hall courtyard
Boston native Benjamin Franklin’s many achievements chronicled on bronze tablets here all took place somewhere else, yet he still rated the first commemorative statue erected in the city, executed in bronze by Richard Greenough. Nearby is a mosaic marking the location of America’s first public school, the Boston Latin School that opened its doors in 1635. Franklin attended classes there as did Cotton Mather and Samuel Adams. Josiah Quincy, Boston’s second mayor, stands across the courtyard.
Old City Hall
45 School Street
The Boston government and 32 mayors spent more than 100 years in this building, from 1865 until 1969. French-trained architect Arthur Gillman contributed the exuberant Second Empire-style design, highlighted by a substantial lantern dome, and Gridley James Fox Bryant, a master of granite, executed the building in white Concord stone. Its government service ended, Old City Hall now hosts corporate and civic offices, and, naturally, a French restaurant.
TURN AROUND AND CROSS TREMONT STREET AS SCHOOL STREET BECOMES BEACON STREET. TURN RIGHT ON SOMERSET STREET.
John Adams Courthouse
This is not one of the myriad of historic Boston shrines associated with patriot and second United States President John Adams; the French Second Empire house of justice was birthed in 1893 as the Suffolk County Courthouse and didn’t take on the John Adams name until 2002. George Asa Clough, Boston’s first city architect, designed the block-swallowing structure.
TURN RIGHT ON CAMBRIDGE STREET AND CROSS ONTO CITY HALL PLAZA.
Boston City Hall
City Hall Plaza
In the 1960s Boston City Hall popularized the harsh New Brutalist style for government buildings which uses casts hulking forms of concrete, which is left rough-faced The building won awards and made the reputation of architects Gerhardt Kallman, Noel McKinnell and Edward Knowles but not the hearts of Bostonians. Recently city officials have proposed selling the land and moving the government.
TURN LEFT ON COURT STREET.
1 Court Street
This is the second tallest masonry building in the world with load-bearing walls, which are nine-foot thick at the base. It was the tallest office building in town when it was completed in 1889, although several church steeples soared higher. The architects were George Foster Shepley, Charles Hercules Rutan, and Charles Allerton Coolidge who filled the facade with bold Romanesque arches in the manner of their mentor Henry Hobson Richardson, the most influential American designer of the post-Civil War era who died at the age of 47 in 1886 and whose work they carried on. The moneyman was Frederick Lothrop Ames, Jr., using proceeds from the family shovel business.
Old State House
State Street at Washington Street
This was the site of Boston’s first marketplace, replaced with the city’s grandest colonial building in 1713. In 1770 a dispute over a barber bill escalated into a riot in front of the State House and when it was over five men lay dead in the street, to be propagandized by anti-British agitators as the “Boston Massacre.” On July 18, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time from the second floor balcony. The gilded lion and unicorn that adorn the landmark building are replicas; the originals were torn down and burned in 1776. A landmark the town of Boston was slow to appreciate - the government moved out of the Old State House in the 1830s and after a short stint as City Hall was slated to be torn down in 1880. After the city of Chicago attempted to purchase it as a tourist attraction, a group of insulted Boston citizens saved it.
WALK SOUTH ON WASHINGTON STREET.
276-278 Washington Street
This land was where Puritan Governor John Winthrop built his second house; hence the name when this early steel-frame skyscraper was raised two centuries later in 1893. The ancient bend in Spring Lane and Water Street dictated the gentle curving form of the Winthrop Building. Architects Clarence Howard Blackall and George F. Newton, who had a very brief coupling, injected their classical facade with egg-and-dart moldings.
Old Corner Bookstore
285 Washington Street, northwest corner of School Street
This was the site of a roomy home owned by William Hutchinson, whose wife Anne was banished from Boston in the 1630s for religious heresy, her sin being the preaching that God had revealed to her who among the colonists were pious and who were not. The Hutchinson home was destroyed by fire in 1711 and in 1718 an apothecary named Thomas Crease built this handsome house of rose brick under a spreading gambrel roof. The building later became the headquarters of the influential publishing firm of William Davis Ticknor and James Thomas Fields, evolving into Boston’s literary center in the process. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe all gathered here.
Old South Meeting House
310 Washington Street
Old South Church from 1729 was the town’s largest meeting space, a place where disgruntled revolutionaries rallied before the Boston Tea Party and where the community commemorated The Boston Massacre. In 1776 the British gutted the brick church and put it to use as a stable. The steeple rises 183 feet above the street and the clock keeps time with the same mechanism that it was installed with in 1776. In 1869, the congregation planned to sell Old South to developers but local luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, and Wendell Phillips raised their voices in protest and the church became the first building in the United States to be preserved as a piece of American history.
Boston Post Building
Washington Street off 17 Milk Street
This building occupies the site of Benjamin Franklin’s birthplace, which stood until 1810 when it was destroyed by fire. This building was an early effort from Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns, Jr. in 1874 on their way to becoming two of America’s best Victorian-era architects. The history-savvy designers incorporated a bust of Franklin, made to resemble stone, into the elaborate cast-iron facade. The Boston Post, that was the most popular daily newspaper in New England for over a hundred years, took up residence in the building. The Post was founded in November 1831 by Boston businessmen Charles G. Greene and William Beals and published until 1956.
Boston Transcript Building
322-328 Washington Street
The Transcript was an evening paper founded in 1830 by Henry Dutton and James Wentworth, who were, at that time, the official state printers of Massachusetts. With the Post next door and several book publishers down the block this was Boston’s equivalent of New York City’s Newspaper Row or London’s Fleet Street. The original Transcript building perished in the Great Fire of 1872 and this granite structure with mansard roof and decorative corner quoins replaced it the next year.
TURN RIGHT ON BROMFIELD STREET.
20-30 Bromfield Street
The Great Fire of 1872 destroyed much of downtown Boston’s building stock so these Boston Granite Style commercial buildings are a rarity. They date to 1848.
RETURN TO WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
426 Washington Street
William Filene began his journey to Boston retailing legend in 1881; this flagship opened on September 3, 1912. Daniel Burnham, one of the fathers of the modern skyscraper, was called in from Chicago to design the new department store and he took his Italian Renaissance creation right to the limit of the Boston height limit in effect at the time - 125 feet. An astounding 715,000 people visited the new store in its first week of operation - slightly more than the population of Boston at the time. Considered to be the first “off-price” store in the world, a subway station connected Filene’s directly to the transit system. Such events as “The Running of the Brides” where women raced to tables of marked-down bridal gowns garnered world-wide attention for the store.
TURN RIGHT ON WINTER STREET. TURN LEFT ON WINTER PLACE.
3 Winter Place
In the mid-1800s Winter Place was a lane of attractive rowhouses. In 1875 Louis Ober opened a restaurant here, next door would be an eatery owned by Frank Locke. In 1901 Emil Camus took over management of both and fused the names and properties together by breaking through the adjoining wall. Camus, who ran it until 1939, is credited with establishing the classic Locke-Ober menu -- an American culinary document that showcased both native and international favorites like oyster stew, lobster Newburg, sweetbreads a la Financiere, Wiener schnitzel, Boston scrod and Indian pudding. In 1986 Locke-Ober was named to Nation’s Restaurant’s Fine Dining Hall of Fame, the second of 11 Boston-area restaurants (out of 220 nationwide) so honored.
RETURN TO WINTER STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
138 Tremont Street near Winter Street
St. Paul’s was founded in 1819, the third Episcopalian parish in town but the first founded by Americans. The Greek temple form selected by architects Alexander Parris and Solomon Willard for the meetinghouse was more often found on banks that churches. Two centuries later the Ionic portico of Potomac sandstone and gray granite looks much as it ever has.
CROSS THE STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN BOSTON COMMON.