Generations of pride built on a brick foundation
Boston — Beacon Hill, a longtime cultural and literary mecca, is an area of singularly fine architecture where new buildings are few and far between, and where the sidewalks are made from bricks, old ones.
Should you plan to tour Beacon Hill here are the boundaries: Beacon to Arlington Street, and Hancock to the gold domed State House. The other side of the hill goes from Myrtle to Cambridge Streets, and is called "the Back Side." It is also referred to as "The Bohemian Side" of the hill and is in process of being renovated. Slicing through Beacon Hill is Charles Street, the main shopping area.
Building began on Beacon Hill in 1735. By 1815, the Greek Revival, Federal, and post-Federal brick houses were standing, with more to come. Key man in this plan was Charles Bulfinch, who designed the old portion of the State House. He was ifluenced by London's Regency period. A genius, he was a poor businessman, and at one point was put in the local debtor's prison, even though he was a member of Boston's City Council.
Magnificent large brick mansions took shape on Mount Vernon Street and on Pinckney Street. By 1830, Louisburg Square, which reminds one of the small squares in London's West End, was completed. Charles Street at that time was a residential strip, and its flat side, the area going to the Charles River, was given over to stables for the wealthy.
The wars we have fought affected Beacon Hill. The embargo on the eve of the War of 1812 hurt the traders. Then prosperity until the end of 1865 and a recession that produced an economy that disturbed Beacon Hill residents. By the end of World War I some of the hill families had started to move away from the area. In the 1929-33 depression era you could buy what is now a $250,000 mansion for a little as $4,000 to $5,000. After World War II more families quit the hill for estates on the Gold Coast, the North Shore of Greater Boston, stretching from Manchester to Gloucester.
But by 1955, the hill, like a phoenix, again cast off its lethargy. The Beacon hill Architectural Commission created the Historic Beacon Hill District, with John Codman as its chairman. This body still oversees the architectural preservation of the hill as a tangible reminder of the old days. It is backed up by the Beacon Hill Civic Association.
And here is the crux of the attitude on the hill. Mr. Codman, from a distinguished Boston family, said, "The newcomers who have moved to the hill (referring mainly to the people who have bought homes there) are more concerned and more conservative than the original owners." These newcomers, some of them in residence since the end of World War II, are a varied group, many of them professionals, and they come from as far away as Texas and the West Coast. They are proud of Beacon Hill. The exteriors and interiors of their homes point up this fact.
Here is an explanatory footnote to use in your foot tour. Unfortunately, most houses are not open to the public.
Mount Vernon Street: No. 59 was the home of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, author and editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Two doors up, No. 55, is Nichols House Museum. It is open at 1 o'clock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Admission, $1. Next door, No. 57, is the Charles Francis Adams House, lived in by Civil War ambassador to England, son of President John Quincy Adams, and father of Henry Adams, who wrote "The Education of Henry Adams," also "Chartres and Mont St. Michael." The Sears House at No. 85 is a Bulfinch design, its upper stories enlivened by four Corinthian Pilasters. No. 90 is still lived in by the Lee Family.
Louisburg Square: Noted residents have been William Dean Howells, author and editor of the Atlantic; Louisa May Alcott (after she became wealthy) and her father, Amos Bronson Alcott; Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, who was married from a house in the square.
Chestnut Street: To reach it, walk down short, narow Willow Street. By Frank the Tailor's shop, pause and take a look down slim, cobbled Acorn Street, with its narrow brick houses. Once this was called Kitchen Street, for these small mews-like houses were lived in by servants. Walk ahead and you are on the hillside of Chestnut Street. At No. 17 Chestnut is the magnificent home lived in by Julia Ward Howe, who wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic," later the residence of John Singer Sargent, the famous artist.
On this street look for the purple window-panes. Because of a chemical imperfection in their making in London, they turned their present color with an assist from the sun. At 29 1/2 Chestnut is the home of Shakespearan actor Edwin Booth. It is the only house on the street with a main entrance facing on the side, complete with small lawn and garden (Most of the houses have their gardens in the rear.). At No. 50 is the Francis Parkman House -- he was the historian -- built in 1824. You will note that some of the larger houses have wrought-iron balconies, as do other homes on the hill.
West Cedar Street: It tuns into Chestnut Street, and most of its houses, while elegant, are medium size. Go right. By the time you reach No. 63, once the home of author John Marquand ("The Late George Apley"), this street is not too attractive.
Pinckney Street: From the corner of Charles Street and running uphill, you pass some fine examples of late Federal architecture, but by the time you reach Revere Street the area disintegrates, although efforts are under way to restore this slice of land.
Lower Chestnut Street (and streets on either side of it): The old stables have been converted into studios, houses, apartments, antiques shops, decorators' salons. The rest of this particular area is Neo-Federal.
Charles Street: It gives purists a wrench to see some of the old mansions -- gems -- with shops at street level. However, Charles is lively, clean (except for some littering), and has a wide variety of specialized business places, also restaurants, expensive markets, and four florists. It's usually busy with lots of young people, a scattering of old-line family ladies shopping carefully, a stream of antiques shops. If you are doing a foot tour, you might as well eat here; there is everything from a snack to meal. The restaurants are all on a par, nothing too sensational in the way of cuisine.
Upper Beacon Street: Start at 10 1/2 Beacon Street, the Boston Athenaeum, which well may be said to be the country's outstanding private research library. It was from this library that Boston's Museum of Fine Arts was founded. The Athenaeum is open to one-time visitors. Check in at the front desk and inquire about the guided tour. It is also famous for its fine period paintings, sculpture, furniture, and objects d'art. Go a few yards to your left and enter the main part of the State House, built in 1795, probably Bulfinch's greatest work. Get a guide map from the information desk in the lobby and make a tour.
Opposite the front entrance of the State House is the St. Gaudens statue in relief of Colonel Shaw, his horse, and the black regiment he recruited and commanded during the Civil War.