Backroads Boston: The Hidden History of Beacon Hill

Remnants of Boston’s History: A Walking Tour of Beacon Hill
Gas lamps lining the streets. Brass knockers on tall wooden doors. Boot scrapers perched outside townhouses. You may think this is a backdrop for Colonial times, but the year is 2016. This is Beacon Hill, Boston.

Beacon Hill is a certified U.S. National Historic Landmark District, with its famous brownstones dating back to the early nineteenth century. What was once grazing land for cows now stands as the homes of the wealthy and elite. They line the northern border of the present-day Boston Common.

Beacon Hill isknown as Boston’s most historic neighborhood, yet the best glimpses into the history it offers often go overlooked. It is the details, closely observed, that truly show Beacon Hill as a portal to the past.

So come along.

You can use the map below as a guide in navigating some of the historic remnants of Beacon Hill. Click each pin for more information on a site. Read under for more details and visuals on these lesser-known but important spots.

Bootscrapers – A Walk Down Manure Lane

West Cedar Street, Chestnut Street

You probably won’t notice them at first, but once you see them, they are impossible to ignore – the little iron fixtures along West Cedar and Chestnut. They come in quirky shapes and sizes, and stand along the entryways of old brownstones. They’re called bootscrapers, and they remind us of a time before automobiles. These bootscrapers were once used to scrape off dirt from peoples’ feet before entering homes. Before cars, horses were the way of transport – and they didn’t come without manure. Since no one wants to drag pieces of horse poo into a clean house, these bootscrapers helped resolve that issue. Some have lost a leg, but many still stand unharmed today.

 Sunflower Castle – An Artist’s Haven

130 Mount Vernon St.

When people think of Boston’s art scene, their minds gravitate toward the South End. But Beacon Hill was the center of a flourishing art scene during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. This red and yellow house off of busy Charles Street stands as a symbol of Beacon Hill’s role in the developing art world. It was once home to Gertrude Beals, a watercolor artist who used the third floor of the house as her painting studio. The nickname “Sunflower Castle” comes from the colorful carving of a sunflower on the exterior. This house can be yours today for a measly $4.6 million.

Vilna Shul – Original Prayer House of Eastern European Immigrants

18 Phillips St.

Aside from being breathtakingly beautiful, this synagogue is steeped in rich history. The Vilna Shul was built in 1919 by Jewish immigrants who came over from Vilna, Lithuania. The Shul came very close to being torn down more than once, but it still stands today. When paint covering the walls was peeled back in the building’s main room, a traditional decorative mural was revealed. It turns out these colorful interior murals are some of the only examples of pre-war Jewish mural art in the United States.

Charles Street Meeting House – Church of Change

70 Charles St.

It’s easy to overlook the Meeting House’s significance as you sip a latte and nibble a croissant in the cafe that now inhabits it, but the history of the Charles Street Meeting House is not to be forgotten. Built in 1807, the building was home to three different church congregations. Under its third owners, it served as a hotspot for abolitionist activity. Famous abolitionists who spoke here include Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. Today it stands among trendy clothing stores and business offices, but the legacy of the Charles Street Meeting House lives on as it is an official National Historic Site and part of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail.

Louisburg Square – Home to Little Women

10 Louisburg Square

Louisburg Square is arguably the most elite nook of Beacon Hill. Gorgeous brownstones circle a strip of greenery, and cobblestones serve as an alternative to pavement. Many flock to the Square for photos and a hopeful glimpse of Secretary of State John Kerry (who lives at No.19), but few recognize the history over at No. 10. House No. 10 in Louisburg Square was the final dwelling of Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic Bildungsroman novel, “Little Women.” The best-selling author moved to No. 10 in 1885 and lived here with her father,  transcendentalist Bronson Alcott.

African Meeting House – Oldest Black Church in the USA

8 Smith Court

Built in 1806, the African Meeting House was no stranger to the voices of leaders who changed the course of history. Abolitionists who led monumental movements came and spoke here, ranging from William Lloyd Garrison to Maria Stewart. Today, it remains the oldest standing black church in the United States and houses the Museum of African American History.

Dwelling of Former Mayor – The Last Carriage House

45 Beacon St.

Overlooking the Boston Common at 45 Beacon is a Federal style mansion that was once home toHarrison Gray Otis. Otis served as Boston’s third mayor from 1829 to 1832, and was also elected as Massachusetts State senator in 1817. He had three homes, but this particular one stands out because it features what is the sole extant carriage house in Beacon Hill. Aside from the lovely final-standing carriage house, the mansion itself holds a grand 37 rooms. That includes 10 bathrooms, 15 fireplaces, and a wine cellar. Otis lived here until his death in 1848.

 Gas lamps – Lighting the Way to Boston’s Past

throughout Beacon Hill

Starting down Charles Street, the attentive eye will notice features that separate Beacon Hill from its more modern neighbors of downtown Boston who have freshly paved roads, high-rises, and technological innovations. One of the historic emblems that stand proudly all throughout Beacon Hill and set it apart from the rest of an ever-changing Boston are gas lamps. These fire-lit gas lamps were used as a light source in a time before electric streetlights. Today, they add an old-time charm to the neighborhood,, which feels especially romantic during nighttime.

Old Fashioned Doorknockers – Reminding Us “Who’s There?”

throughout Beacon Hill

Growing up, you likely rang your pal’s doorbell when you arrived. Today, you probably shoot him or her a text saying you’re here. This kind of technology simply didn’t exist in the nineteenth century, so when you showed up to a home, you had to do that thing where you make a fist and pound it on the door. The residents of Beacon Hill kept it classy and had knockers installed on their front doors. Many of these doorknockers are still present, though mostly for the aesthetics rather than actual usage. They come in unique shapes and concepts, from lion heads to anchors to bald eagles. Despite winter’s cold love affair with Boston, these brass doorknockers have remained in good condition even after many years.

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