A Short History of Boston's Beacon Hill

by Arlene Vadum

Photo of Beacon Hill Boston

Beacon Hill, one of the oldest and most picturesque neighborhoods in the United States, is a thriving residential community and a popular tourist destination, located just a short walk from Boston's theater district. This charming historic region, with its Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian architecture is known for its historical landmarks, and its many antique shops, boutiques, and fine eating and drinking establishments. The area, approximately one-half to three quarters of a mile square, is bounded by Cambridge Street on the north, Somerset Street on the east, Beacon Street on the south, and Storrow Drive on the west. The Massachusetts State House, with its magnificent gilded dome, is a prominent landmark on Beacon Street just across from the Boston Common, a popular park enjoyed by residents and tourists alike.

This beautiful English-style park once belonged to the Reverend William Blackstone, a reclusive clergyman, who was the first person to settle in Boston, and sole owner of Beacon Hill at that time. The name Boston Common comes from the land's original use as common pasture for horses and cattle. From the time of its settlement in 1630 until after the Revolutionary War, Beacon Hill remained pastoral having only a few country estates surrounded by pastures and orchards.

The building of the State House in 1795, on land purchased from John Singleton Copley, was the beginning of the physical and social transformation of the hill. That year, several wealthy Bostonians, including Charles Bulfinch, the famous architect who designed the State House, formed an association called the Mount Vernon Proprietors, to develop the area. The parcel of land now called Beacon Hill was originally known as Tri-mount or Tremont because of three peaks that graced its skyline. A beacon on one of the hills, then called Beacon Hill, was erected to warn neighboring communities of enemy danger. A monument behind the State House marks the original location of the beacon, which then was approximately 60 feet higher than its current elevation.

In the fifty years after the building of the State House, the three peaks were shorn off, one after another, so that residential housing could be built on flatter land and to create land where there was once water in Beacon Hill and other parts of the city. Three distinct regions, now known as the South Slope, the North Slope, and the Flat of the Hill, resulted from the development of the remaining area, the entirety of which is now called Beacon Hill.

Photo of Beacon Hill Boston

The Mount Vernon Proprietors planned and developed the South Slope, creating an elegant residential community suitable for the aristocratic residents, dubbed Boston Brahmins, who purchased them. Between 1800 and 1850, although a few stately free-standing mansions were built on the South Slope, most of the homes constructed during this period were adjoining brick row houses, with either flat or bow fronts, built in the Federal style popularized by Bulfinch, or Greek Revival Style homes, inspired by the interest in everything Greek that swept across America during the 19th century. Prominent on the South Slope are charming brick sidewalks, gaslights, some cobblestoned streets, homes with tall narrow windows, sometimes with purple glass, doors with elaborate brass knockers, wrought iron railings, flower boxes, and beautiful hidden gardens.

Over the years, most of the Boston Brahmins and other wealthy residents moved away from Beacon Hill, making new homes in the suburbs. Now many of the stately residences that they occupied have been converted to small apartments or condominiums for the prosperous professionals who live there and work close by. Since the area was legislated as a historic distinct in 1955, concerted efforts have been made to preserve the area's period architecture. A walk down one of the many picturesque streets on the South Slope can feel like one is being magically transported back in time to an earlier, more elegant, era.

In marked contrast to the rural feel of the South Slope in the days before the Revolutionary War, the North Slope of Beacon Hill was a seedy waterfront area, with an unsavory reputation, that was popular with British soldiers and sailors. Its thoroughfares were narrow streets, alleyways, and cul-de-sacs, which lacked the organized plan of the streets on the South Slope. At the turn of the 19th century, when the South Slope was being developed, many of the residents of the North Slope were African Americans who had escaped from slavery and who worked as domestic servants to the wealthy Brahmin families who lived within walking distance on the other side of the hill. The homes on the North Slope were mostly wooden buildings or small brick houses, very different from those on the South Slope. Some original buildings in this area were carriage houses for the affluent residents on the South Slope. The African Meeting House was the heart of religious and social life for residents of the community.

When slavery was banned in Massachusetts in 1783, the North Slope became a center for black and white abolitionists to meet and develop plans. In fact, the first abolitionist group in the country was established here in 1832 under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison. The North Slope became an important station on the Underground Railroad, the network of homes, churches, and other establishments where runaway slaves were hidden, fed, and clothed as they fled to freedom. The African Meeting House was an important destination for them and many residents of the North Slope were conductors on the railroad. Only two slaves who made it to Beacon Hill were returned to their owners and possibly thousands gained their freedom by finding their way here.

The Fugitive Slave Act, passed by the federal government in 1850, created a force of federal commissioners whose job was to find runaway slaves and return them to their owners. The law also made it illegal to help runaway slaves. Passage of this law created much resistance and helped to forge an alliance between like-minded blacks and whites on the North Slope to assist runaways and to foil those who were searching for them. Eventually, clergymen, politicians, and other wealthy citizens, even on the South Slope, were brought over to the cause.

When the Civil War began, it was at the African Meeting House that African Americans were recruited to form the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first black military regiment in the United States, which fought in the war. A memorial honoring these men stands on Boston Common near the State House. Other firsts for the neighborhood were the establishment in 1834 of the Abiel Smith School, the first public school in the country built to educate black students, and later the Old Phillips School, the first integrated school in America. The Phillips School was established in 1855, about a century before desegregation became the law of the land.

After the Civil War ended, the African-American population of Beacon Hill increased rapidly leading to overcrowding. Consequently, over time most of the black residents of the North Slope left the area for other communities in Boston and were replaced by Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, among others. The institutions that had served the black residents moved to their new neighborhoods, leaving only remnants of the once thriving African American community on the North Slope that can be seen on Beacon Hill's Black Heritage Trail.

About the same time, many of the original houses built on the North Slope had become dilapidated and were torn down, being replaced by tenements, apartment buildings, and rooming houses for the ever-increasing immigrant population. Over the years, buildings once serving the black community were converted to synagogues and schools for the region's growing Jewish population. In the middle of the 20th century, when historic buildings in the area were demolished to make way for an urban renewal project, many of the immigrant groups moved to other locations. The original dwellings, so important to the history of the region, were replaced by high-rise apartment buildings, spurring efforts among Beacon Hill residents to preserve those that remained. The North Slope finally was declared a historic district in 1963. Most of the historically important buildings that still stand in this neighborhood are now apartments and condominiums. The Old Phillips School is one, as is the Vilna Shul, built in 1919 by Jewish immigrants from Vilna, Lithuania, now home to the Boston Center for Jewish Heritage.

The last area to be developed in Beacon Hill is called The Flat of the Hill, a region stretching from Charles Street to Storrow Drive. Its main streets are Charles Street, which is named for the fact that the area was built on a portion of the Charles River, and Cambridge Street. The earth used to create the Flat of the Hill came from removing the peaks of Beacon Hill and filling in a portion of the Charles River with the earth that was excavated. The work was done by almost two hundred "pick and shovel men" and dozens of oxen to haul the earth to its final destinations.

From the start, Charles Street has been used for business as well as residential purposes. Early on, blacksmiths and other tradesmen plied their trades there. The stables and, later, garages for the Brahmins of the South Slope also were constructed there, but have now been converted to other uses. Today, Charles Street is the main commercial street on The Flat of the Hill, being famous especially for the wonderful antique shops lining the street, as well as for its many boutiques and restaurants catering to diverse interests and tastes. But Cambridge Street also is home to antique shops and other businesses. A trip to Boston would not be complete without spending a day exploring the numerous antique shops, filled with interesting and beautiful reminders of times past, and sampling the delectable foods available in the many restaurants in Beacon Hill's Flat of the Hill.

Other sites to visit in Beacon Hill include Louisburg Square, the most exclusive neighborhood on the South Slope, complete with its own gated private park; Acorn Street, only one block long with a cobblestoned road, reputed to the most photographed street in the country; the Otis House Museum, built in 1796, and the Nichols House Museum, built in 1804, which contain furnishing and artifacts typical of the period; the Boston Athenaeum, a private library holding a collection of historically important books and works of art; Holmes Alley that led runaway slaves to the safety of the African Meeting House; The Liberty Hotel, a luxurious hotel that was once a prison, located at the foot of Beacon Hill; and Cheers, the bar made famous in the television series of the same name.

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