From Lectern to Laboratory: A Walking Tour of Beacon Hill

Let’s imagine that the year is 1856, the year that Edward Pickering turned ten years old and was preparing to enter Boston Latin. He would be living with his family at 74 Mount Vernon Street, having moved there in 1849 from the family residence on Bowdoin Street behind the new state house. If we were to take a walk around Edward’s neighborhood in 1856, what would we see? How would it appear over a hundred-and-fifty-years ago? We begin our tour on the front steps of 74 Mount Vernon Street, Edward Pickering’s childhood home. The first things we notice are two townhouses—Numbers 87 and 89—across the street. Charles Bulfinch bought the lots from Harrison Gray Otis who lived next door at 85 Mount Vernon in a Federal-style mansion that Bulfinch designed for him. Like Otis, Mason, and other Mount Vernon Proprietors, Bulfinch intended to do a little speculating of his own: he’d buy two lots, put up two townhouses, live in one of them, and sell the other. It didn’t quite turn out that way however. Finding himself in financial trouble, Bulfinch sold the properties before they were completed.

From here, we turn left and head west along Mount Vernon Street in our circuit around Edward Pickering’s South Slope neighborhood. We don’t have to walk very far before we come to one of the residential gems of the city—Louisburg Square. Although called a “square,” a term that usually denotes a public space, Louisburg Square is a private area of exclusive residences fronting a rectangular green space between Mount Vernon and Pinckney Streets. Named after the 1745 military campaign led by Massachusetts’ militiaman William Pepperrell that destroyed the French-Canadian fortress of Louisburg on what is present-day Cape Breton Island, Louisburg Square was designed as a model of townhouse development in the mid-1820s, with most of the Greek-Revival townhouses lining either side of the tree-lined square completed between 1834 and 1844. Two lines of shoulder-to-shoulder, red brick townhouses face a fence-enclosed oval that bursts with greenery, thanks to the stewardship of the Louisburg Square Proprietors, which claims the distinction of being the nation’s first homeowners’ association.

Continuing past Louisburg Square, we take a left at Cedar Street. Like most of the streets in Beacon Hill’s South Slope neighborhood, Cedar Street is delightfully picturesque with its brick townhouses nestled together. Despite the density of the housing units, the architectural details still grab your eye: wooden shutters frame mullioned windows, iron grillwork outline faux balconies above entryways bordered by shallow keystones and wooden pilasters, flowerboxes cantilever from first-floor windows along tree-lined brick sidewalks, and of course there’s the occasional gas-lit streetlamp taken right out of a Dickens’ novel. Halfway down the block we stop at another attraction—Acorn Street. Although the narrow lane doesn’t add much to the menu of architectural items listed above, we pause nonetheless to take in the street paved with smooth river stones from the Charles River, made even smoother by years of foot and horse traffic. It’s not hard to imagine Edward Pickering as a youth meandering down the length of Acorn Street, stopping to admire the haphazard pattern made by the polished river stones.

After Acorn Street we come to the intersection of Cedar and Chestnut. The unassuming brick building on the northwest corner of the intersection contains one of the oldest music libraries of European chamber and symphonic music in the nation. It’s also where members of the Harvard Musical Association have held their weekly rehearsals since the group was founded in 1837. Now don’t let “Harvard” in the name throw you: founding members called the fledgling group the Harvard Musical Association because many of its members were Harvard trained, but not in the music department (it didn’t exist at the time).

After we linger a moment or two, we turn right and head east along historic Chestnut Street. It’s historic because, along with Mount Vernon Street, it was one of the earliest streets that the Mount Vernon Proprietors developed; it’s also charming with a direct view of the New State House. Like other Beacon Hill streets it’s punctuated with gas-lit streetlamps, cast-iron balcony railings, red brick facades, and brass doorknockers and foot-scrapers. More than that, it reflects the changing tastes and economic fortunes of the city. Between 1800 and 1807, the first houses built on Chestnut Street were freestanding mansion houses, typically four-story dwellings with side yard and carriage house and stable around back. This, after all, was the original intent of the Mount Vernon Proprietors: to build country estates for the wealthy overlooking the Charles River. That’s why you’ll find among the first mansions built homes for Harrison Gray Otis, Jonathan Mason, and Hepzibah Swan, all members of the Mount Vernon Proprietors. But construction halted after Thomas Jefferson signed the Embargo Act of 1807, which led to the War of 1812. As the economy began to recover after the war, home construction picked up. This wave of construction saw three significant changes: a preference for the three-story townhouse with gabled dormer rather than the four-story freestanding mansion, a shift away from Federal-style architecture to Greek Revival, and, perhaps most importantly, the growing importance of the housewright, a master carpenter who could both design and build houses. Several of these master builders put their stamp on Beacon Hill properties during this second wave of home construction, but none more than Cornelius Coolidge. In fact, by 1850 you could easily find residences designed and built by Coolidge & Company on Beacon, Mount Vernon, Chestnut, and Acorn Streets, as well as in Louisburg Square.18

The next intersection we encounter is at Chestnut and Spruce. Before taking a right onto Spruce Street however, let’s pause a moment and look across the street at Number 29A Chestnut Street. The townhouse occupying the lot is noteworthy for several reasons. It’s the site of the first Bulfinch house erected in Beacon Hill by the Mount Vernon Proprietors (although the original structure burned down within a year of its 1799 construction). Sixty-five years later its occupant was the great tragic actor Edwin Booth who was staying at 29A Chestnut as the guest of its owner when he received news that his brother, John Wilkes Booth, had assassinated President Lincoln. Shaken and unable to take the stage at Boston Theatre that night, where he was starring in The Iron Chest(ironically, a play about a murderer haunted by his misdeeds), Booth booked a private compartment on a midnight train bound for New York: it would be almost a year before the great tragedian would take the stage again.

We now head down Spruce Street toward the Common. Our first stop is a narrow alley on our right. It’s original name, Kitchen Street, tells us that it was a service entrance for the mansions fronting Beacon and Chestnut Streets (as were most of the small lanes and alleys running east and west). Although Spruce Street was not a service alley per se, it’s a fairly nondescript street displaying the solid brick sidewalls of large multistory buildings facing Chestnut and Beacon Streets. It is at Beacon Street that our view widens, with Boston Common unfolding before us. Before turning left and heading east along Beacon Street to admire the architectural gems lining the north side of the street, let’s think about what lies on the south side of the street—Boston Common.

I’m looking at a lithograph created by James Kidder in 1829.19It’s a view of the New State House from the point of view of the Common. The viewer standing on the far side of the Common pauses to look up at the state capitol sitting majestically atop Beacon Hill. The large, imposing structure dominates the few buildings that surround it, most notably Hancock Manor, which is dwarfed by its almost temple-like next-door neighbor. Passers-by stroll along tree-lined paths beneath an expansive cloud-filled sky aglow in the late afternoon sun. There’s something else worth noting: in the lower left-hand corner of the lithograph several cows gather beneath a large shade tree.

The idea of a municipal green space was a European invention, brought to the New World by early English settlers. Although the land set aside was not necessarily owned in common (the title was often held by a large land-holder or municipality), local residents—“commoners”—had access to the land for reasons of labor and leisure. Boston Common was no different. From the outset it served a variety of interests, both public and private: couples took afternoon strolls along tree-lined malls, children played in eroded battlements left over from British occupation, workers dug clay and gravel and removed stones for building purposes, local militias drilled in lockstep, women gathered to wash clothes, men gathered to converse (and, occasionally, to duel), officials staged well-attended public executions, and cows grazed leisurely beneath the spreading arms of towering elm trees, which confirms what Michael Rawson, author of Eden on the Charles, notes: “In Boston Common’s first two hundred years, there were few kinds of activities that it had not accommodated at one time or another.”20

By the early nineteenth century, however, most of these activities either had been banned or had been moved to another part of Boston (this included the municipal buildings at the eastern end of the Common, which included an almshouse, prison, workhouse, and granary). The most contentious debate, however, involved banning cows from the Common. The grazing of cows on commonly held land had been a cherished right of Boston’s earliest denizens. The city’s selectmen understood this, but they also understood their responsibility to protect the city’s pastureland from overgrazing in order to preserve the Common for its many other purposes. As such, over the years they restricted residents to the grazing of one milk cow per family from early spring to fall (while levying a tax for the privilege of doing so), while banning horses, sheep, goats, and “dry” or non-dairy producing cattle.

By 1830, however, the area surrounding the Common had become a prime location for high-end residential development and new homeowners began calling for an outright ban on all diary cows grazing on the Common. Although many Bostonians protested the loss of this long-held right, in the end they could not fight the power and influence of Boston’s upper-class families who were steadily moving into homes that fronted the Common along Beacon, Park, and Tremont Streets. Ironically, the man behind the expulsion of the cows from the Common was none other than lawyer-turned-land-speculator-turned-politician Harrison Gray Otis, who at the time was serving as Boston’s third mayor and living in a lavish mansion overlooking the Common.

Although it’s easy to imagine Edward Pickering walking through the winding paths of the Common on a sunny afternoon, it’s just as easy to imagine him trundling along Beacon Street, stick in hand, rattling it along the ornamental cast-iron fence that encloses the Common. To get an on-the-ground view of such a scene, let’s study an engraving by John Andrew, a Boston engraver who supplied images to the publisher Ticknor and Fields before opening his own firm, John Andrew & Son. The engraving, created between 1846 and 1849, is a panoramic view of Beacon Street looking west titled A View of Beacon Street, Boston.21On the left-hand side of the engraving sinewy trees tower above the tall, handsome fence that encloses the Common. On the right-hand side of the image a line of single-family dwellings—some freestanding, others clustered together—face the Common. Given the proper attire of the people on the street the scene appears to take place on a Sunday afternoon: stylishly-dressed couples cross the cobblestone street on their way to the Common; four-wheeled horse carts ferry cheery-eyed occupants from one place to another; boys in Sunday suits accompany stone-faced adults down the wide brick sidewalk; and nearby men with ivory-tipped walking sticks chat amicably with each other. It’s a bucolic, pastoral scene: a scene much different from the seedy wharf district near the city center.

 

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