John Hancock House, Boston

The John Hancock House on Beacon Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

The scene in 2017:


This grand mansion was built in the mid-1730s for Thomas Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant. At the time, Beacon Hill was on the outskirts of Boston, and this house was the westernmost one on Beacon Street. Here, Thomas and his wife Lydia created what amounted to a country estate, with gardens, orchards, and pastureland that extended up the southern slope of hill, and was directly across the street from Boston Common. Despite the pastoral setting, though, the was within easy walking distance of Boston’s wharves, where Hancock conducted his business. The house itself was built of granite, and was an outstanding example of Georgian architecture, complete with a balcony that offered sweeping views of Boston and the the surrounding harbor.

Thomas and Lydia had no children of their own, but in 1744 Thomas’s brother John died, and his seven-year-old son, also named John, moved to Boston and lived here in this house. After graduating from Boston Latin School in 1750 and Harvard College in 1754, John Hancock joined his uncle’s firm, eventually taking over the business after Thomas’s death in 1764. Along with the business, he also inherited his uncle’s estate here on Beacon Hill, and he went on to live here for the rest of his life.

John Hancock went on to become one of the most prominent Patriots in the years leading up to the American Revolution, and in 1774 he was elected as a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress. From 1775 to 1777, he served as the President of the Continental Congress, and it was in this capacity in 1776 that he famously signed the Declaration of Independence. Following his time in Congress, he briefly served in the war as a major general in the Massachusetts militia, and in 1780 he was elected as the first governor of Massachusetts. Widely popular, he easily won re-election every year until 1785, when he resigned due to ill health.

Later in 1785, James Bowdoin was elected as his successor, but his two years as governor were marked by a failing economy and a poor response to Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-1787. As a result, Hancock ran against him in the 1787 election and won easily, and he went on to win re-election every year until his death in 1793. During this time, he pardoned those involved in Shays’ Rebellion, and he was also an influential proponent of the U.S. Constitution, which was narrowly ratified by the state in 1788, probably thanks to his support. In the absence of an official governor’s mansion, Hancock’s house served that purpose well, and he received a number of distinguished visitors here, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1781 and George Washington in 1789.

By the time John Hancock died in 1793, this house was no longer at the outskirts of Boston, and Beacon Hill was in the process of being transformed into an exclusive neighborhood of elegant townhouses. Portions of the estate were steadily sold, including land to the east of the house, which became the site of the Massachusetts State House. Other parcels were sold for new homes, and by the early 19th century the house was surrounded by more modern homes. Hancock’s widow, Dorothy, had remarried in 1796, and she lived here in this house until 1816. The house remained in the family, though, with John Hancock’s nephew, also named John, owning the house until his death in 1859.

The first photo was taken sometime around the time when the younger John Hancock died, and it shows his granddaughter, Elizabeth Lowell Hancock Moriarty, standing on the second floor balcony. Despite being over a century old, the house still retained its stately elegance, and was recognized as an important landmark. There had been several different proposals for using the house, including the possibility of purchasing it as an official governor’s mansion. The family even offered the property to the state for the low price of $100,000, but many balked at the idea of such an expense, and the idea was dropped.

The property was finally sold in 1863, with the intention of redeveloping it with modern townhouses. The state was offered one last chance to move the house to a new location, but again there was significantly opposition to the $12,000 expense, and the historic house was ultimately demolished in the summer of 1863. Had it survived, the house would have become one of the city’s iconic Revolutionary War landmarks, on par with such places as the Old State House, the Paul Revere House, and Old North Church. Instead, though, its demolition did help to spur preservation movements for some of these other landmarks, including the Old South Meeting House, which survived similar redevelopment threats a decade later.

In 1865, two townhouses were built on the site of Hancock’s house. However, these houses did not last nearly as long as their predecessor, because in 1917 they were demolished to build a new wing of the Massachusetts State House. Since then, not much has changed. The 1798 state house, with its various additions over the years, remains in use as the state capitol building, and the surrounding Beacon Hill neighborhood is still home to many of Boston’s wealthy residents, nearly 300 years after Thomas Hancock first made his home here.

Hezekiah Chaffee House, Windsor, Connecticut (2)

The Hezekiah Chaffee House at 108 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, on January 21, 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

The house in 2017:


The front side of this house was featured in a previous post, and this view here shows the back of the house, which has hardly changed in the past 80 years since the first photo was taken. The house is perhaps the finest example of 18th century architecture in Windsor, and it was originally built around 1765 for Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee, a prominent local physician. He lived here until his death in 1819, but the house itself remained in the family for another century.

In 1926, a little over a decade before the first photo was taken, the house became the Chaffee School, the girls-only counterpart to the nearby Loomis Institute. After the schools merged to form the current Loomis Chaffee School in 1970, the house was sold to the town of Windsor. It is now a museum, run by the Windsor Historical Society, and and it is a centerpiece of the Palisado Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Reverend William Russell House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 101 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:


William Russell, Jr. was born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1725. His father, also named William, was the pastor of the town’s church, and the younger William likewise entered the ministry. Like most of Connecticut’s other clergymen of the era, he attended Yale, graduating in 1745. He went on to work as a tutor at Yale for a few years, before coming to Windsor in 1751 to serve as pastor of the First Church. He was formally ordained in 1754, around the same time that he married his wife Abigail. A year later, they moved into this newly-built house, located directly opposite the Palisado Green at the center of town.

William and Abigail had four children, one of whom died in infancy. The youngest of the other three, Samuel, was only a few years old when his mother died in the 1760s. William subsequently remarried in 1770, to another woman who was also named Abigail, and they had one child, James, who died in infancy. In the meantime, William continued to serve as the pastor of the church until his death in April 1775, around the same time that the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. His son Samuel went on to serve in the war, and later moved to New York City. Here, he became a Colonel in the Army and a deputy commissary, and he also served as a state legislator.

Nearly 250 years after William Russell’s death, his house remains well-preserved, including the ornate doorway at the front of the house. Very little has changed in the 80 years since the first photo was taken, other than the building’s owner. After having been used as a private home for two centuries, it was purchased by the First Church in 1953, and was used as a parsonage. Although no longer used as a parsonage, it is still owned by the church, and it is part of the Palisado Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Phelps-Hatheway House, Suffield Connecticut (2)

The Phelps-Hatheway House on South Main Street in Suffield, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library.

The house in 2017:


This elegant Georgian-style home is a prominent architectural landmark in the Connecticut River Valley, and is one of the finest 18th century homes in the entire region. As mentioned in an earlier post, it was built sometime between the 1730s and 1761 for Abraham Burbank, and the house was later inherited by his son Shem. At the time, the house was much smaller, consisting of just the central portion. It had a gabled roof, and lacked the ornamentation that was later added. Shem was a merchant, as well as a captain in the state militia prior to the American Revolution. However, like many other wealthy merchants in the area, he was also a Tory, and sided with the British during the war. As a result, his business suffered, and in 1788 he had to sell the house.

The next owner of the house was Oliver Phelps, who, like Burbank, had been a merchant. However, unlike Burbank, he had been on the winning side of the American Revolution, serving as a deputy commissary for the Continental Army. He was originally from Granville, Massachusetts, and served in both houses of the Massachusetts legislature. He was also a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention in 1779-1780, and served on the Governor’s Council in 1786. At this point he was a wealthy man, and in 1788 he formed a partnership with Nathaniel Gorham, who had been one of the delegates to the US Constitutional Convention the year before. Together, they purchased six million acres of land in western New York for one million dollars, and that same year Phelps purchased this house from Shem Burbank.

Around 1794 set about expanding the house with a new wing on the right side, as well as adding ornamentation to the exterior. This brought the house up to architectural tastes of the late 18th century, and it also reflected his considerable wealth and social standing. Some of the remodeling was done by a young local architect, Asher Benjamin. About 21 years old at the time, he would go on to become one of the nation’s leading architects, and this house is his earliest known work. Phelps also had the interior decorated lavishly, including with imported French wallpaper that still covers the walls of the house today.

During this time, Phelps also continued his land speculation, purchasing vast tracts of land in present-day Ohio, Georgia, West Virginia, and northern Maine. By 1800, he was, according to some sources, the largest private landowner in the country, but this ultimately led to his downfall when land values dropped. Deeply in debt, he sold his house in 1802 and moved to Canandaigua, New York, which had been part of his initial land purchase in 1788. He served a term in Congress from 1803 to 1805, but his financial troubles continued, and he died in debtor’s prison in 1809.

Apparently undeterred by the financial ruin of its two previous owners, Asahel Hatheway purchased the house from Phelps in 1802. He had grown up at his parents’ house just a little south of here, and studied theology at Yale. After graduation, he briefly worked as a pastor, but then returned to Suffield, where he became a farmer and a merchant, along with serving as a church deacon and a justice of the peace. He married his wife Anna in 1778, and they had six children together. Anna died in 1807, only about five years after moving into this house, but Asahel continued living here until his death in 1828, at the age of 89.

The house was inherited by his son, Asahel, Jr. Like his father, the younger Asahel had graduated from Yale, and became a merchant in New York City before returning to Suffield in 1812. He and his wife Nancy had six children, and he died in 1829 at the age of 49, just a year after his father’s death. His daughter Louise, who was only a few years old when he died, became the third generation of Hatheways to own the house. She never married, and lived here for the rest of her life, until her death in 1910. The 250th anniversary book of Suffield, published a decade later, describes how “her stately dignity and gracious but firm refusal to open her home to any but a few intimates imparted to the old mansion an air of mystery.”

Louise was the last living descendant of Asahel Hatheway, Sr., and after her death many of the family heirlooms were donated to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The house is now owned by Connecticut Landmarks, a preservation organization that maintains several historic houses in the state. Both the exterior and interior have been remarkably well-preserved, and the house is open to the public for tours. Even older than the house itself, though, is the massive sycamore tree on the left side of both photos. It is approximately 300 years old, predating the house by several decades, and aside from the loss of a large limb it has not changed much in the 80 years since the first photo was taken.

Jonathan Ellsworth House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 336 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, in August 1938. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

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This house is one of the finest Georgian homes in Windsor, and was built in 1784 for Jonathan Ellsworth. They were a prominent family in 18th century Windsor, and one of his relatives was Oliver Ellsworth, the third Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, who lived a little further north of here on Palisado Avenue. Jonathan Ellsworth’s house would remain in his family for many years, and by the mid-19th century it was owned by William H. Ellsworth, who lived here with his wife Emily and their four children: William, Horace, Elizabeth, and Clara. Horace would later inherit the house, and owned it until his death in 1934, exactly 150 years after the house was built.

The first photo was taken only four years after Horace’s death, and it shows the alterations that had happened to the house over the years. It had lost many of its original Georgian details, and he WPA architectural survey, which was completed around the same time, noted that it was only in “fair” condition. However, in the 1960s it was restored to its former grandeur, with features such as historically appropriate windows, the scroll pediment over the door, the lintels over the first floor windows, and the quoins on the corners of the house. It is an excellent surviving example of an 18th century home in Windsor, and it is a contributing property in the Palisado Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Elijah Mather, Jr. House, Windsor, Connecticut

The house at 248 Palisado Avenue in Windsor, around 1935-1942. Image courtesy of the Connecticut State Library, WPA Architectural Survey Collection.

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The house in 2017:

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Elijah Mather, Jr. was born in 1768, and grew up right next door to here. He was the oldest son of Elijah Mather, Sr. and Mary Strong, and in 1790 he married Jerusha Roberts. Following their marriage, the couple moved into this newly-built house next to Elijah’s parents’ house, and they raised four children here before his death in 1798 at the age of 29. More than two centuries later, the appearance of the house is still largely the same as it was when he lived here. Architecturally, it is a fairly typical design for 18th century New England homes, and has changed little since the first photo was taken some 80 years ago. Like the neighboring home where Elijah’s parents lived, the house is a contributing property in the Palisado Avenue Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.