Originally posted Winter 2008.
I first learned about Beacon Hill from Kevin Murphy’s book, “The American Townhouse,” although the area is probably most known as the location of the bar “Cheers.” This past summer I got the opportunity to visit this quaint neighborhood, nestled in the Back Bay area of Boston. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and perfect for walking around the area.
I began my journey at Boston Common. This grassy area is the oldest public park in America and dates from 1633.
From the Common, I headed through the Boston Public Garden which is not only stunning, but also free. The garden was created in 1837, the first botanical garden in America, and since 1859 it’s been a public space. The grounds, 24 acres, are immaculately cared for and breathtaking. A unique feature of this garden is the Swan Boats that glide, human assisted, across the small lake within the garden. There are real swans to be see as well but they are not as obliging to passengers. I would have loved to spend more time exploring but Beacon Hill was calling.
As I continued, the beautiful displays of nature in the garden gave way to beautiful displays of architecture and the looming hill before me. Beacon Hill is indeed a hill, and a steep one. Comfortable shoes are recommended.
It’s clear to see that this is a rather exclusive neighborhood of pristinely preserved homes but Beacon Hill’s history encompasses all walks of life. Initially, Beacon Hill was owned by one person, William Blaxton and indeed had a beacon on it. As time passed, the area of Beacon Hill became three main sections; the South Slope, the North Slope, and the Flat of the Hill. Each has a unique history. The first area to be developed was the South Slope, during the late 18th Century. Residents of this area were later referred to as Brahmins, and represented the wealthiest Boston families. Plots in this area were large and laid out with careful planning.
The North Slope developed more akin to a more typical 19th Century urban style with housing popping up where ever it fit, with narrow alleys and curved streets. Early residents included former slaves, sailors, and artists, the opposite society of the South Slope. Later in the 19th Century, this area attracted a large amount of European immigrants who turned many of the homes into tenements.
The Flat of the Hill was not geographically part of the hill since it was under the Charles River. Once the area was filled, craftsmen such as blacksmiths, cobblers, and livery people settled here. Residents of the South Slope built their garages there, which are now converted carriage houses and residences.
The nature of this development means there is a wide variety of architectural styles represented in this area. The presence of affluent people helped with it’s preservation so it’s a real treasure of historical architecture. There are examples of Federal/Adams, Greek Revival, and Victorian row houses as well as creative conversions of commercial properties like carriages houses and stables. The area is kept intact because the entire community is subject to strict rules about construction and renovation. Residents take great pride in their homes, which occupy tree lined streets. Details like gas lamps, ornate doors and surrounds, cornice molding, and window boxes are plentiful.
One of my favorite features is the recessed doors on many homes which create an intimate feel. On the tree lined streets, Federal and Victorian, side by side, look very cohesive. As I explored more, finding little secret streets and alleys here and there, I noticed how quiet it was. This is where people live and Beacon Hill only has about 10,000 residents.
Once I descended the Hill, I explored Charles Street. Charles Street is a lively thoroughfare, full of unique stores selling antiques and books, and cozy restaurants and cafes. The architecture is quite lovely here as well. I visited some shops and with great restraint, I did not purchase anything although temptation surrounded me.
Like most neighborhoods in large cities, Beacon Hill enjoys all the amenities of large city living such as ample public transportation opportunities and a quick commute into the business centers of the city. Additionally, Beacon Hill is an established neighborhood with a strong community. People looking to move to Beacon Hill can expect to pay around $400,000 for a two bedroom apartment and over one million for a full house. Famous residents of Beacon Hill, currently and previously, include Louisa May Alcott, Robert Frost, John Hancock, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, David Lee Roth, Carly Simon, Daniel Webster and Uma Thurman.