The iconic hillside neighborhood overlooking Boston Common is not the oldest neighborhood in Boston, but it is the largest enclave of surviving historic buildings in the city.
Beacon Hill was developed from 1790s to early 1800s, when the Back Bay was still a marsh and not yet even a gleam in a developer's eye. While other neighborhoods of Boston date to the 1600s, including Charlestown (1629), Upham's Corner in Dorchester (1631), and the North End (1630s), there are few surviving buildings from that era and the architectural fabric of those neighborhoods has changed considerably. As a result, Beacon Hill is perhaps the most uniformly historic.
Beacon Hill's narrow streets are lined with Federal and Greek Revival townhouses with historic gaslamps and brick sidewalks. Architecturally, the neighborhood is perhaps to Boston what the West Village is to New York City – a sprawling historic district that feels apart from the rest of the city.
Beacon Hill can be quite lively for both residents and tourists. The gilded dome of the State House and the Supreme Judicial Court, as well as Suffolk University and Emerson College. The shops and restaurants of Charles Street in one direction, and Newbury Street across the park, as well as the Theatre District. The neighborhood contains the Otis House Museum (built 1796), the Nichols House Museum (built 1804), and the Boston Athenaeum (1846).
Cultural history from Louisa May Alcott to Van Halen. Literary salons and publishing houses were founded here in the 19th century. Former residents include Louisa May Alcott, actor Edwin Booth (who founded the Players Club in Gramercy Park), architect Charles Bulfinch, John Cheever, John Singleton Copley, Michael Crichton, Robert Frost, Oliver Wendell Holmes (Jr. and Sr.), Julia Ward Howe, poet Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, David Lee Roth, George Santayana, Carly Simon, Anne Sexton, and actress Uma Thurman. Beacon Hill played a major role in the bohemian history of Boston, according to the Boston Globe.
The neighborhood was developed in three phases, which have different architectural character.
The South Slope was developed in the 1790's by the Mount Vernon Proprietors. This section is mostly Federal and Greek Revival brick rowhouses and freestanding mansions. It includes one of Boston's most prestigious addresses, Louisburg Square. The streets of the South Slope are spacious and laid out on an orderly grid, while the North Slope has a different charm from its narrow, winding streets.
When the South Slope was planned, the North End was still the address for most of the wealthy and powerful residents of Boston, and the Back Bay was still a submerged part of Boston Harbor.
The North Slope developed more gradually and organically than the South Slope's planned development. While the South Slope remained largely rural until after the Revolutionary War, the North Slope was an active waterfront, with taverns and brothels serving the merchants and sailors. Today, the narrow, winding streets, alleys, and cul-de-sacs are charming, and offer a vivid sense of how Boston might have felt two centuries ago. 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 area has since become equally as expensive as the South Slope.
In the 1950s, many historic buildings in the area were demolished for the 'urban renewal' of the West End and Government Center. The original dwellings, so important to the history of the region, were replaced by bland, high-rise apartments, spurring efforts among Beacon Hill residents to preserve those that remained. The North Slope was finally declared a historic district in 1963.
The Flat of the Hill originally was originally the mud flats of the Charles River, one of many Boston neighborhoods built on reclaimed land. This was the last section of Beacon Hill to be developed, and construction began in the early 1800s as the waterfront and marshes were gradually infilled to create more buildable land. This is why many of the 19th century waterfront landmarks, such as the Charles Street Meeting House, are far from the current shoreline. The buildings on Charles Street (named for the river on which it is built) contained street-level retail that became home to blacksmiths, shoemakers, stables and later, garages serving the affluent residents of the South Slope – today, these serve as destination restaurants, retail, and garages serving the affluent residents of the South Slope. Some things don't change.
The Beacon Hill Historic District (PDF). In 1955, the Beacon Hill Historic District became the first of its kind in Massachusetts, created to protect historic neighborhoods from misguided 'urban renewal' programs that advocated demolition. The South Slope received its protection in 1955, the Flat of the Hill in 1958, and North Slope in 1963. Several groups support these objectives, including the Beacon Hill Civic Association, the Boston Preservation Alliance, and the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission.
The single-block Acorn Street is thought to be the most photographed street in the United States. Historically, it was not a prestigious address – it was home to the coachmen and servants working in the nearby mansions. While parts of Boston have brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, there are very few surviving "cob" streets. We're gonna get technical for a moment: while cobblestones are evenly-cut granite blocks, a 'cob' is the Old English word for a rounded stone. Boston's soil was full of rocky cobs that were used in building stone walls, building foundations, and paving early roads. However, the uneven surfaces damaged wooden wheels, and were largely replaced by cobblestones in the 1800s. On Beacon Hill, 'cob streets' can be found on Acorn Street, Louisberg Square, and Mount Vernon Street.
Before the Civil War, Holmes Alley was used as a path by runaway slaves to the safety of the African Meeting House.
African Meeting House (46 Joy St.)
Peter Faneuil School (60 Joy St.) was built in 1910 and named for merchant Peter Faneuil (1700-1743), who built and donated Faneuil Hall to the city of Boston. There is a certain irony that Faneuil Hall, a building known as the 'Cradle of Liberty' was paid for by profits from the slave trade.
20 Garden St. former residence of physician Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses, one of the first medical publications in the United States written by an African American.
28 Grove Street (North Slope) was the former residence of Resident Rev. Leonard A. Grimes (1815-1873), prominent black clergyman. Born of free African-American parents in Leesburg, Virginia, he initially worked as a driver, owning several carriages and horses – and using his business as cover to transport runaway slaves to Washington, DC. He served two years in prison for helping a woman and her six children escape slavery; after prison, he became a minister and moved to Boston where he continued his abolitionist work with the Underground Railroad. He also successfully petitioned the governor of Massachusetts to allow black men to bear arms during the Civil War, and enlist on behalf of the Union. Grimes is also one of the men who bought the freedom of Anthony Burns after his arrest – the last person to be prosecuted in Massachusetts under the Fugitive Slave Act.
39 Hancock St. (North Slope) is the former residence of author Lois Lowry (b.1937) who has written over 30 children's books which have thoughtfully explored issues including the Holocaust, racism, and terminal illness. She has won two Newbery Medals, and is regarded as having written the first young adult dystopian novel, The Giver (1993).
58 Irving Street was the birthplace of abolitionist and senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874). On May 22, 1856, following a fiery speech against slavery, Sumner was assaulted on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina.
67 Joy St., former residence of physician Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), the first African-American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
81 Joy St. former residence of abolitionists Maria Stewart (1803-1879) and David Walker (1796-1830). Stewart's speeches were the first public talks by an American woman on politics and women's rights. In 1829, Walker published an abolitionist essay, "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World."
109 Myrtle St., former residence of abolitionist and author Lysander Spooner (1808-1887).
2 Phillips St. Designed by noted architect Asher Benjamin for housewright, merchant, and abolitionist John Coburn (1811-1873) c.1843. As a member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, he was arrested, tried, and acquitted for the 1851 rescue of the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins (c.1814-1875). Later in the 1850s, Coburn was co-founder and captain of the Massasoit Guards, a black military company.
Lewis and Harriet Hayden House (66 Phillips St.). Among the most visible and militant abolitionists on Beacon Hill, both Lewis (1811-1889) and Harriet Hayden (c.1820-1893) escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. They purchased this building and operated it as a boarding house and as a stop on the Underground Railroad from 1850-1860. John Brown (1800-1859) was a guest here, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was taken in to see how slaves on the run felt. Lewis recruited for the 54th regiment, the all-black regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw, and served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The couple left money to Harvard Medical School to establish a scholarship for African-American students.
83 Phillips St., former residence of John Swett Rock (1825-1866), who was both one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree, and the first black man to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. The abolitionist senator Charles Sumner introduced the motion for this to occur, and Rock was the first African-American to be received on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1865. He was a passionate abolitionist and civil rights leader, and his speeches were printed in William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator. When his doctors advised him to cut back on his workload as a doctor, he studied law and within a year, was admitted to the Massachusetts bar.
91 Revere St. former residence of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). As Max Liu notes in the Guardian, Lowell used his tremendous privilege to speak out on behalf of those who did not have the same advantages: "Lowell was consistently at odds with the US government, serving jail time as a conscientious objector during the second world war, rejecting an invitation to the White House in 1965 to protest Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy, speaking at the March on the Pentagon in 1967."
3 Smith Court is the former residence of abolitionist and author William Cooper Nell (1816-1874). Nell’s activism had its greatest impact in ending segregation in Boston’s public education system. This campaign began in 1840, and culminated with the Brown v. Board of Education (1954-55) decision. Nell also co-founded the Massasoit Guards, a black military company (1854), and successfully petitioned Boston to acknowledge African-American Revolutionary War hero Crispus Attucks.
There are a few North Slope houses closely associated with the Mount Vernon Proprietors, including several by pioneering architect Charles Bulfinch, himself a Proprietor. These include:
29A Chestnut St. was built by the Mount Vernon Proprietors in 1799.
16 Chestnut St. was built by Hepzibah Swan (1757-1825) in 1804-1805. Mrs. Swan bought out two of the original investors in the largest and most real estate venture in postwar Boston, becoming the only woman among the Proprietors. This house, as well as the three for her daughters at 13, 15, and 17 Chestnut Street, were all designed by Charles Bulfinch.
13, 15, 17 Chestnut St. were built by Hepzibah Swan (1757-1825) in 1804-1805 for her daughters. Designed by Charles Bulfinch.
Separately from these, this section of the neighborhood contains many notable residences:
Chester Harding House (16 Beacon St.), was home to the celebrated self-taught portrait painter Chester Harding (1792-1866) from 1826-1830. He painted the only portrait of frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820) during his life, and during the sitting asked him if he had ever been lost. Boone replied, "No, I can't say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days." This anecdote is often used in biographies of Daniel Boone. The building is now the Boston Bar Association.
21 Beacon St. In 1946, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) maintained a residence at 21 Beacon St. when he was running for Congress.
Site of Hancock Manor. The former estate of John Hancock (1737-1793) was located at 30 Beacon Street. Its land is now part of the grounds of the Massachusetts State House. While the building was demolished in 1864 for the State House expansion, the original red sandstone steps were bought the philanthropic Perkins family of Jamaica Plain and installed off of Moraine Street, by Jamaica Pond.
George Parkman House (33 Beacon St.). Designed by architect (and former privateer and smuggler) Guy Mannering. It became the basis for the Woodbourne neighborhood.
122 Bowdoin St.. In 1946, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) lived at apartment #36, and the headquarters for his congressional run. It remained his voting address for the rest of his life, even when he resided at the White House. He also maintained a residence at 21 Beacon Street.
18 Chestnut St. former residence of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose work is considered to have changed the course of modern poetry.
43 Chestnut St. was the former residence of poet, critic, and occasional lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (1787-1879). Despite having graduated Harvard, Dana felt the college smothered genius, and believed that the minds of poets were more insightful than the general community. He seldom practiced law.
50 Chestnut St. was designed by architect (and former privateer and smuggler) Cornelius Coolidge. Former residence of historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893), who also served as a professor of horticulture at Harvard. As a boy, his poor health led his parents to send him to live with his maternal grandfather, who owned 3,000-acres of wilderness in nearby Medford. They hoped a more rustic lifestyle would strengthen him. It did, and Parkman developed a love for nature that would inform his later research and writing. Indeed, he described his books as "the history of the American forest."
Louisburg Square (Protip: pronounced "Lewisburg") is regarded as one of the most prestigious addresses within Beacon Hill and indeed in all of Boston. Greek Revival townhouses from the 1840s surround a private park, analogous to Gramercy Park in New York City. The park and square are maintained by the Louisburg Square Proprietors. Notable residents of the square have included author Louisa May Alcott, architect Charles Bulfinch, painter John Singleton Copley, and Atlantic editor William Dean Howells. It is said to be built on the site of the residence of the 1600s recluse William Blackstone (or Blaxton, back when spelling was optional). He left Boston after the Puritans arrived, and co-founded a place called Rhode Island.
4 Louisburg Sq., former residence of William Dean Howells (1837-1920) while editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In 1860 Howells wrote Lincoln's campaign biography, Life Of Abraham Lincoln, and subsequently gained a consulship in Venice. In 1862, he married Elinor Mead, sister of sculptor Larkin Goldsmith Mead and architect William Rutherford Mead of the firm McKim, Mead, and White.
10 Louisburg Sq., former residence of educator Bronson Alcott, author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and family. The Alcott residence in Concord, Mass., Orchard House (399 Lexington Rd.) is a house museum.
19 Louisburg Sq., residence of John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry.
20 Louisburg Sq. is where opera singer and philanthropist Jenny Lind married pianist Otto Goldschmidt (1829-1907). Lind was the most celebrated singer of her day, known as "The Swedish Nightingale," and part of her story was told in the 2017 film, The Greatest Showman. She was concluding her tour of the United States, organized by consummate showman P.T. Barnum, and her banker, Samuel Howe (the brother of Julia Ward Howe) offered his house for the discreet wedding.
8 Mount Vernon St. Former residence of paper manufacturer Fiske Warren and his wife Gretchen Osgood Warren, a noted actress, poet, and singer whose ancestors included Anne Hutchinson and John Quincy Adams. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a hauntingly beautiful 1903 portrait by John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Fiske Warren and Her Daughter Rachel.
32 Mount Vernon St. was the former residence of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and his wife, abolitionist, suffragist, and author Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910). In 1862, she gained renown with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," (for which she was paid four dollars by The Atlantic), and President Lincoln reportedly cried when he read it. She was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in 1908.
41 Mount Vernon St. housed the Beacon Press, a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that published the Senator Mike Gravel edition of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Rather ironically, it was formerly home to the Watch and Ward Society, which focused on censoring books and performances, and popularized the term "Banned in Boston."
45–47 Mount Vernon St. was the site of Portia School of Law, founded in 1908 to provide legal education exclusively to women at a time when most institutions would not accept them as students. The school has expanded into the New England School of Law.
51 & 53 Mount Vernon St. was designed by architect Charles Bulfinch.
55 Mount Vernon St. Designed by Charles Bulfinch, home of Rose Standish Nichols (1872-1960), the noted landscape designer, author, and suffragist. She was encouraged to take up landscape design by her uncle, the celebrated sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The house is now the Nichols House Museum.
57 Mount Vernon St. Designed by Charles Bulfinch, and notable residents have included Daniel Webster and later Charles Francis Adams.
76 Mount Vernon St., former residence of writer Margaret Deland (1857-1945).
77 Mount Vernon St. was the former residence of noted artist Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904), who also designed book covers for Houghton Mifflin. Harvard magazine described her: "The notes she wrote with a quill pen, her style of dress—ostrich feathers, beaver bonnets, exuberant shades of silk and satin, unusual gems—even her exalted manner of speaking (to hide a slight impediment) reflected the ways she had joined her art and her life." Her house was the site of an annual competition dinner between Houghton Mifflin and The Atlantic Monthly Press, to see who had sold the most books each year. It now serves as the home of the bibliophile Club of Odd Volumes, whose members have included Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Winston Churchill visited in 1949.
Second Harrison Gray Otis House (85 Mount Vernon St.) designed by architect Charles Bulfinch and built 1800-1802, is the only freestanding mansion on Beacon Hill. Naturally, this belonged to Harrison Gray Otis, the lead partner of the Mount Vernon Proprietors which developed Beacon Hill.
87 Mount Vernon St. was designed by Charles Bulfinch.
88 Mount Vernon St. was the former residence of one of the most celebrated of American poets, Robert Frost (1874-1963).
102 Mount Vernon St. was the former residence of author Henry James (1843-1916). The Guardian had a moving description of his final days.
108 Mount Vernon St. Former residence of writer and artist Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), who is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Laozi. He is best known for his 1923 book, The Prophet.
7-8 Park St., formerly the residences of John Amory Lowell and Abbott Lawrence – whose families established the industrial cities of Lowell and Lawrence, respectively. It is now home to the Union Club of Boston.
9 Park St. Former residence of Harvard professor George Ticknor (1812-1894).
4 Pinckney St.is the childhood residence of author and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), author of Walden and the essay "Civil Disobedience."
15 Pinckney St. was the site of Elizabeth Peabody's Kindergarten, the first public kindergarten in the United States. Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894) was one of the most prominent and influential women in Boston, and the United States, during her life. She had deep literary connections: she had studied Greek with the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her sister Sophia married Nathaniel Hawthorne, while her other sister married Horace Mann. She ran a bookstore on West Street until 1850, and was one of the first woman publishers in the United States.
16 Pinckney St. is the former residence of poet and essayist Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920). Her father was a Union Army general in the Civil War, and historians note her father's role in inspiring the ideal of chivalric heroism often found in her poetry.
20 Pinckney St. is the former residence of author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), who lived here when she was about 20 years old.
54 Pinckney St. is the former residence of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), who later married Sophia Peabody (1809-1871), one of the three prominent and influential Peabody sisters.
86 Pinckney St. former residence of abolitionist and state representative John J. Smith (1820-1906) from 1878-1893. His barbershop on the North Slope of Beacon Hill was part of the Underground Railroad, and during the Civil War, he recruited soldiers for the black regiments of Massachusetts. While in office, he hired Boston's first black police officer.
87 Pinckney St. is the former residence of literary critic and Harvard professor Francis Otto Matthiessen (1902-1950). Matthiessen's best-known book, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), discusses the flowering of literary culture in the middle of the American 19th century, with Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman.
105 Pinckney St. former residence of P.P.F. Degrand (1787-1855), a merchant who also published the Boston Weekly Report in the 1820s, employing Edgar Allan Poe as a reporter.
36 West Cedar St. is the former residence of Susan Paul (1809–1841) was an African-American abolitionist, a primary school teacher, and member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1835, she wrote the first biography of an African American published in the United States, the Memoir of James Jackson. James Jackson was one of Paul's students, who died at just six years of age.
43 West Cedar St. is the former residence of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Phillips Marquand (1893-1960), who satirized the New England upper class and their traditions. He spent adulthood trying to regain his place among the deeply rooted and financially comfortable that he felt he lost early in his life. The Harvard Crimson rejected him "because he does not know how to write,” and he was also rejected from all finals clubs. His misery there drove him to finish college in three years. Many of his novels featured characters based on himself or relatives from Newburyport, including Wickford Point, H.M Pullham, Esquire, and The Late George Apley. In 1941, he wrote about Boston: “Its past and its present make a more perfect unity, I believe, than has been achieved by any other city in America.”
70-75 Beacon Street, a cluster of houses with a continuous granite facade, built for in 1828 opposite the Boston Public Garden. They were designed by Asher Benjamin (1773–1845), an influential architect whose Practical House Carpenter was the pattern book used for many of the federal and Greek Revival houses throughout the United States. According to a Harvard text on Beacon Hill architecture, #72's facade is unchanged and #73 retains its original brass-work on the front door.
The Cheers bar (84 Beacon Street) was the prototype for the television show of the the same name.
44 Brimmer St. is the former residence of naval and maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976). Morison's books have won two Pulitzer Prizes and are notable for being not just meticulously researched but eminently accessible to a popular audience. According to Smithsonian magazine, the mantelpiece here came from the living room of Daniel Webster.
Eleanor Raymond House (112 Charles St.) This historic townhouse was purchased and renovated by Eleanor Raymond (1887-1989), a Wellesley alum and one of the first women architects in the United States. Through the suffragist movement, she met her life partner, Ethel B. Power, who became a longtime editor for House Beautiful magazine. Raymond renovated this townhouse for herself, Power, and a group of other women.
90 Chestnut St. was designed by the Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), regarded as one of the first interior designers in the United States. His own residence, Beauport, is now a house museum.
Sunflower Castle (130 Mt Vernon St.) was built in 1840. In the 1860s, it was home to interior designer and artist Frank Hill Smith (1842-1904), who painted the ceiling frescoes in the Massachusetts State House. In 1878, Charles Luce renovated the house in the Queen Anne style, which drew inspiration from Elizabeth and Jacobean English buildings. In 1904, artist Gertrude Beals Bourne (1868-1962) and her husband moved here. Her work has been shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Her husband, Frank Bourne, raised funds to save Asher Benjamin's Charles Street Meeting House from demolition, enabling it to be moved when Charles Street was widened.
Charles Street is the primary retail corridor for the Flat of the Hill, known for restaurants, boutiques, and antique shops.
Beacon Hill has several subway stops at the edges of the neighborhood, and several more within walking distance.
At the northwest corner of the neighborhood is a Red Line station (Charles St./MGH), a Blue Line station (Bowdoin) at the northeast corner, blue and green lines (at Government Center), and red and green lines (at Park Street station).
Beacon Hill is on the Shawmut Peninsula of Boston, with Back Bay to the west, Boston Common to the south, West End to the north, and Government Center and Downtown Crossing to the east.
Beacon Hill is almost 109 acres bounded by Cambridge Street on the north, Beacon and Park streets on the south, Storrow Drive on the west, and Somerset and Tremont streets on the east.
The neighborhood is divided into three sections: the North Slope, South Slope, and Flat of the Hill.
In the 1630s, when most of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still clustered at a settlement in Charlestown, Beacon Hill was owned by a wealthy hermit with sheep, books, and no patience for the Puritans.
Presaging the affluence, education, and religion of the later Brahmin residents, the first owner and resident of Beacon Hill was an Anglican priest with extensive real estate holdings. William Blackstone (1595-1675) – or, sometimes Blaxton, because spelling was optional back then – was the first person to settle in today's Boston, and he was the owner, and sole resident, of the land which became known as Beacon Hill.
An alumnus of Cambridge University, Blackstone emigrated to America in 1623, as a chaplain for the Robert Gorges expedition which arrived in Weymouth. While most of his fellow travelers returned to England in 1625, he became the first European to settle in Boston, living alone on what became Boston Common and Beacon Hill.
The Puritans landed in nearby Charlestown four years later, in 1629. After they had problems finding potable water, Blackstone invited them to settle on his land in Boston in 1630. However, he soon tired of the Puritan's intolerance and moved 35 miles south, becoming the first settler of Rhode Island in 1635, a year before the colony was established by Roger Williams. He is considered to be the pioneer clergyman of the Episcopal church in the United States, and remembered in the name of the Blackstone River, among many other places.
After Beacon Hill, Blackstone settled in the Lonsdale area of Cumberland, Rhode Island, on a site now occupied by the Ann & Hope mill. He called his home 'Study Hill' and was said to have the largest library in the colonies at the time. However, his house and library were burned during King Philip's War, around 1675.
From Sentry Hill to Beacon Hill. Before it became known as Beacon Hill, the elevation was known as 'Sentry Hill.' The beacon for which it was named was not a reference to the first governor John Winthrop's lines, who famously called Boston a "shining city on the hill," a reference to Jerusalem and a declaration of the original settlers' intent to build a utopian Christian colony. As history turned out, the early Bostonians largely leveled that hill, and the actual beacon was a bucket of tar atop a flagpole, a crude signal that could be lit and would be visible in event of an emergency.
Remained rural until after the Revolution. From the settlement of Boston in 1630 to the American Revolution, Beacon Hill remained pastoral, with only a few country estates surrounded by pastures and orchards. The erection of the State House in 1795 began the physical and social transformation of Beacon Hill. After the Revolution, John Hancock donated – or sold, as there are conflicting stories – part of his estate to make room for the western addition to the State House.
One of the other early estates on Beacon Hill belonged to the society painter John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), who owned 18 acres on the south slope which he used as farmland and as pasture for his cows. A wealthy and loyal Tory, he fled Boston for London after the Revolution.
Twenty years later, unable to return to Boston, Copley sold his Beacon Hill estate to the Mount Vernon Proprietors led by Harrison Gray Otis, perhaps the first syndicate of American real estate developers. The Proprietors made the pretense of doing Copley a favor, and telling him that the price they were offering was fair for his agricultural land. However, Otis had been appointed to the committee to select a site for the State House; scandal ensued when it was discovered he was also involved in the purchase of the newly valuable land, which would benefit from its proximity to the State House. When Copley learned about the State House project and Otis' role in it, he sent his son John Singleton Copley, Jr., then at the beginning of his brilliant legal career, to Boston in 1796 seeking to annul the sale. However, the courts upheld the sale.
Mount Vernon Proprietors. That syndicate was the Mount Vernon Proprietors, formed in 1795 and regarded as the first organized real estate syndicate in the United States. With their acquisition of Copley's estate, they developed the south slope of Beacon Hill into the most desirable residential neighborhood in Boston, and established a model by which much of America's land was developed. The Proprietors were led by Harrison Gray Otis, and included other prominent early Bostonians, including Charles Ward Apthorp, Charles Bulfinch, Dr. Benjamin Joy, Henry Jackson, William Scollay, and Hepzibah Swan.
The neighborhood was developed by Boston's leading families for other leading families, and it became known as an enclave of the 'Boston Brahmin,' a phrase coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in an 1860 Atlantic article called "The Brahmin Caste of New England," and Notre Dame historian James Turner has noted, "the Brahmin class of Boston ... is the closest thing to an American aristocracy."
As an aside, one of the Proprietors, Charles Bulfinch, is regarded as one of the first architects in the United States. In addition to designing many of the houses on Beacon Hill, he designed the State House (and later, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC), and on the side, served as Boston's Chief of Police.
At the time, the Copley estate was the largest land transaction of its kind in Boston. The Copley estate included Mt Vernon Street, Louisburg Square, down Pinckney Street to the Charles River, along the shoreline to Beacon Street, and up Beacon Street to Walnut Street, which connects with Mt. Vernon Street. They began laying out streets in 1799, intentionally with limited access from the less desirable North Slope, which at the time was referred to as “Mt. Whoredom”. It would be thirty years before Louisburg Square and the land west of it was laid out for development.
Boston was originally known as Tremont or Trimount, for the three hills - Beacon, Pemberton, and Mount Vernon. The Proprietors cut almost 60 feet from Mount Vernon and Beacon Hill – reducing it to half its height – and used the stone and dirt to increase their buildable land by filling in the waterfront area that is now Charles Street and the Flat of the Hill.
The Proprietors initially planned and developed several estate-sized lots – with freestanding mansions, stables, and gardens – along 85-89 Mount Vernon Street. However, they realized they could make more money developing dense blocks of rowhouses. Between 1800 and 1850, most of the residences were flat-front or bowfront townhouses in either the Federal or Greek Revival styles.
Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Beacon Hill was one of the staunchest centers of the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War. When slavery was banned in Massachusetts in 1783, the North Slope became a center for black and white abolitionists to meet and develop plans. When the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, making it illegal to help runaway slaves, it created considerable support for abolitionists. Many residents of the North Slope were conductors on the Underground Railroad, the network of homes, churches, and other establishments which hid, fed, and clothed runaway slaves as they fled to freedom. Thousands gained their freedom by making their way here.
The African Meeting House was built in 1806, and became a center for abolitionists and a stop on the Underground Railroad where Frederick Douglas lectured there, and William Lloyd Garrison formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society there in 1832, and when the Civil War began, African American soldiers formed the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first black military regiment in the United States. A memorial honoring these men stands on Boston Common near the State House.
In 1834, the neighborhood became home to the Abiel Smith School, the first public school in the country built to educate black students, in 1855 the Old Phillips School, the first integrated school in America – a century before the country was desegregated.
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.
The Flat of the Hill was the last part of the neighborhood to be developed. Th
in Beacon Hill is called The Flat of the Hill, 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.