Massachusetts: Boston Common and Beacon Hill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Boston Common is the oldest public open space in the United States. Beacon Hill includes the Massachusetts State House and historic residential areas that were home to some of Boston’s leading business, political, and cultural figures.

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Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau

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Boston, MA 02116-6501

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Boston Common and Beacon Hill form the historic heart of Boston, the capital of Massachusetts and the leading city of the New England region for more than 350 years. The Common has hardly changed in appearance since it was created in 1634, while the Beacon Hill area, a National Historic Landmark, includes some of the oldest and best-preserved residential streets in the country. Together they show how Boston developed from its foundation to the late nineteenth century, as its citizens, white and black, created a settlement in the European style on what had been the uninhabited peninsula of Shawmut.

Early History

The first person other than a Native American to settle on Shawmut was not a Puritan, as elsewhere in Massachusetts, but a priest of the Church of England, William Blackstone (or Blaxton). He arrived there in 1625 after the failure of a colony fifteen miles to the south, from which all the other settlers had returned to England. After five years of solitude he invited the Puritans living on the other side of the Charles River to abandon their disease-ridden settlement in favor of Shawmut, which they renamed Boston. In 1634 their town council paid Blackstone thirty English pounds, about one hundred fifty dollars, for his forty-five-acre pasture, which became Boston Common. Blackstone departed for Rhode Island, which was more tolerant than Massachusetts, though he returned in 1659 to find a wife.

The Common came to serve various purposes, as pasture for cows, as a training ground for the militia, and as a place of public executions. The public life of Boston centered on the Common throughout its first century, as the city’s population grew from three thousand in 1660 to seventeen thousand in 1740, and it became the largest settlement in the British colonies. British troops camped on the Common when they occupied Boston, beginning in 1768, and in 1775 they set out from it for Lexington and Concord, where the Revolutionary War began. During the War of 1812, all three of the Common’s main functions were combined when some cows were accidentally shot during a militia training session. Cows finally left the Common in 1830, and the Great Elm, where the hangings took place, was removed in 1876.

The Granary Burying Ground, separated from the rest of the Common, was started in 1660. The numerous Bostonians buried there, none of whose graves can now be located for certain, include the revolutionary leaders Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, the first American governor of Massachusetts John Hancock, and the five colonials shot by British troops in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Next to the burial ground is the Park Street Church, built in the style of Sir Christopher Wren and opened in 1810, from which William Lloyd Garrison began his campaign against slavery in 1829.

Beacon Hill

The Beacon Hill district lies directly to the north of the Common. Since 1955 the boundaries of the district have been defined as Beacon Street to the south, Cambridge Street to the north, Bowdoin Street to the east and the Charles River to the west. Two hundred years ago, however, the section between Charles Street and the modern waterfront, now known as the “Flat Side,” was all under the Charles River, and the remainder was the so-called Trimountain, a ridge running through the middle of the Shawmut peninsula. Its name derived from its three peaks, Pemberton or Cotton Hill, Beacon Hill, and Mount Vernon. Modern Beacon Hill consists of the remains of the whole Trimountain, and is itself divided into three areas: the Flat Side, the North Slope, and the South Slope.

The first of these, the area between the modern waterfront and Charles Street, was filled in with detritus from all three peaks as they were leveled for building in the 1790’s and 1800’s. Though there are some distinguished nineteenth century houses on the Flat Side–on Beacon, Brimmer, Lime, and Mount Vernon Streets–it is perhaps most notable for the bookstores, antique stores, restaurants, and bars lining Charles Street; the Charles Street Meeting House, where Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth spoke against slavery alongside such white abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison; and the Hatch Memorial Shell, a concert hall on the waterfront opened in 1928.

The North Slope, the area north of Pinckney Street, was made available for settlement by leveling Mount Vernon. On some maps Mount Vernon was marked as “Mount Whoredom.” While most of the Trimountain was unsettled and wild, from about 1725 onward the northern side was the site of brothels and taverns, offering entertainments not available elsewhere in Boston to sailors from ships on the Charles River. The area was officially cleared of brothels and taverns in 1823, but its character was already changing. After 1783, when slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts, it became the center of Boston’s free black community. One of the area’s oldest houses, built for two free black men, George Middleton and Louis Glapion, in 1795, still stands at 5 Pinckney Street.

African Americans and Abolitionists

In 1832 William Lloyd Garrison launched the New England Anti-Slavery Society at the African Meeting House in Smith Court, on Joy Street, which had been built in 1806. It is now the oldest remaining black church building in the United States and houses a museum of African American history. In 1834 the black community also opened the Abiel Smith School, nearby on Joy Street, which lasted until the state banned segregated education in 1855, though the building still stands. Also still to be seen is the home, at 66 Phillips Street, of Lewis and Harriet Hayden, who took part in the Underground Railroad network of abolitionists offering aid and shelter to fugitive slaves as they made their way to freedom in Canada.

However, the neighborhood was never exclusively black. In the 1790’s Cambridge Street, to the north of Joy Street, attracted some of Boston’s elite, including lawyer and politician Harrison Gray Otis, who had the first of his three houses (number 141) built next to the site of the Old West Church, burned down by the British in 1775 and not rebuilt until 1806. The interior of Otis’s house has been restored to its early nineteenth century splendor and, like the church, is open to the public. Noteworthy buildings on Pinckney Street, which marks the division between the North and South Slopes, include number 20, where novelist Louisa May Alcott and her family lived until they moved up the social scale to Louisburg Square; number 54, where Nathaniel Hawthorne lived from 1839 to 1842; and number 62, the home of George Hillard, who was in charge of seeking out fugitive slaves at the same time as his wife, presumably without his knowledge, was offering them shelter in a secret attic room.

The South Slope of Beacon Hill was created when the top of Pemberton Hill was replaced by Pemberton Square and the original Beacon Hill became an open space–now the parking lot–next to the Massachusetts State House. (The original Beacon Hill derived its name from the beacons set up on its top, though never lit, in 1634, when the town was threatened by Native Americans, then in 1768, as a symbolic gesture against the British.)

The State House

The State House was the key to the Trimountain’s destruction and the transformation of the South Slope into the wealthiest neighborhood in nineteenth century Boston. In 1795 the city bought what had been John Hancock’s pasture, near the top of Beacon Hill, as the site for the new State House. (Hancock’s mansion remained, to the west of the State House, until it was knocked down in 1863.) The building was designed by Charles Bulfinch and opened in 1798, in front of a sixty-foot column, commemorating the Revolution, which Bulfinch had also designed. From 1807 to 1810 the area was the subject of litigation between the city, which believed it was common land, and the heirs of John Hancock, who wanted to dig it up for gravel. The heirs won the case, demolished Bulfinch’s column, and scooped off the top of the hill to provide nearly fifty acres of landfill in the bay. A copy of the column has since been placed in the parking lot.

The State House that visitors see today is much larger than Bulfinch’s building and perhaps, since gold leaf was applied to the dome between 1861 and 1874, more impressive too. A major extension designed by Charles Brigham was opened in 1895, one hundred years after the laying of the foundation stone, to accommodate the House of Representatives and its famous wooden model of a codfish, leaving the Bulfinch front, still distinguishable by its red bricks, to the Senate. Its chambers share the third floor with the Executive Chamber, the headquarters of the governor and the council, which are not open to the public.

The Great Hall on the second floor was added as recently as 1990 and is now the culmination of walks from the visitors’ entrance through the Doric Hall, with its columns and its memorials to John Hancock, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln; the Nurses’ Hall, with its statue of a Civil War nurse and its paintings of historic events in Massachusetts history; and the Hall of Flags, which honors the soldiers of Massachusetts. The historic documents displayed in the Archives Museum, which is also inside the State House, include the colonial charter granted by King Charles I and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the oldest written constitution still in effect anywhere in the world.

Also in 1795, anticipating the impact that the opening of the State House would have, Bulfinch joined a group of developers, the Mount Vernon Proprietors, who bought eighteen and a half acres lower down the ridge from the agent of artist John Singleton Copley, who was absent in England. The rising status of the neighbourhood they created can be gauged by the increasing magnificence of the three houses that Bulfinch designed for Harrison Gray Otis, his fellow proprietor. Otis moved from his North Slope house to a more expensive house at 85 Mount Vernon Street (made newly famous when it featured in the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair and in the television series Banacek) and then to his still more expensive final home at 45 Beacon Street. Here he kept a punch bowl always filled for his guests, ate paté de foie gras every morning, and wore clothes trimmed with gold.

The Boston Brahmins

The land that Bulfinch, Otis, and their colleagues bought lies under the narrow tree-lined streets to the west of the State House. Here lived the so-called Boston Brahmins–the Lowells, the Cabots, the Lodges, and others–who could trace their family trees back to the English settlers and who had come to dominate commerce, banking, law, and medicine in the city. At various times in the nineteenth century the inhabitants also included Julia Ward Howe, the writer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord . . . ”), at 32 Mount Vernon Street and at 13 Chestnut Street; the historian and novelist Henry Adams, who spent his childhood at 57 Mount Vernon Street; Louisa May Alcott (again) at 10 Louisburg Square; Francis Parkman, author of The California and Oregon Trail, at 50 Chestnut Street; and Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, at 43 Chestnut Street.

Beacon Street, running along the northern side of the Common, stands out as perhaps the most exclusive street in this exclusive district. Its oldest houses, those built before 1825, can be distinguished by the presence of purple panes in their windows, the result of the action of sunlight on manganese oxide in the glass. Its leading institution was the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807 by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others as a gentlemen’s club. Its Italian Renaissance-style interior, containing such treasures as books that belonged to George Washington and paintings by Gilbert Stuart and John Singer Sargent, is now open to the public. Beacon Street’s former residents include Robert Gould Shaw, who became famous not for reading or writing books but as the white commanding officer of the black troops of the Fifty fourth Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. Their heroism is commemorated in the Shaw Monument, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, which stands opposite the State House. (The regiment is also the subject of the 1989 film Glory.)

The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the decline of the manufacturing base of Boston and Massachusetts as the Southern states, with lower wages and taxes, rose from the disaster of the Civil War. The end of the era when a homogeneous Boston elite could isolate itself on the South Slope, away from the newer ethnic groups of the city, can be symbolized by two events that took place in 1897: the dedication of the Shaw Monument and the opening of the first subway in the United States, to take streetcars under the Common. The first station, now a National Historic Landmark, is on Park Street, which passes along the eastern side of the Common to the State House.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Beacon Hill’s integrity as a historic area was threatened in 1947 by a plan to replace its brick sidewalks. After a group of women from West Cedar Street sat down on them to obstruct the plan, public opinion swung in favor of preservation. Beacon Hill has been protected as a historic district of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1955 and as a National Historic Landmark since 1963, so that the external appearance of buildings in the district cannot be inappropriately altered. The Beacon Hill Architectural Commission enforces the rules, forbidding, for example, unsuitable colors for front doors, and maintaining the permanent gas lighting of the streets.

While Boston Common and Beacon Hill are protected as important parts of the city’s history, and of the nation’s, they are more than merely open-air museum exhibits. The Common is still a busy park where people talk, play, and rest as they did 350 years ago, Beacon Hill remains an attractive residential district though most of the “Brahmins” have moved away, and political business is carried on as usual in the State House. If William Blackstone could return again to Boston he would find solitude impossible to maintain.

For Further Information
  • Amory, Cleveland. The Proper Bostonians. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1947. Vividly evokes the lives and opinions of the Beacon Hill “Brahmins,” from Harrison Gray Otis through to influential figures still living when Amory wrote the book.
  • Cooper, Jason. Historic Boston. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke, 1999. Descriptions of the places where Boston’s patriots lived, worked, battled, and argued against British rule. Includes the Massachusetts State House, Faneuil Hall, and the Old North Church.
  • Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964. The title poem of this collection is a moving meditation on the Shaw Monument and the Common, past and present. It can also be found in many anthologies of modern American verse.
  • Whitehill, Walter Muir. Boston: A Topographical History. 3d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Outlines the development of the Common, Beacon Hill, and other historic districts of the city. Illustrated with many fascinating contemporary maps and prints.
Categories: History