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.

Third Harrison Gray Otis House, Boston

The Third Harrison Gray Otis House, at 45 Beacon Street in Boston, around 1860. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The house in 2017:


Harrison Gray Otis was a lawyer and politician, and one of the most prominent residents of Boston at the turn of the 19th century. Born in 1765 as a member of the prominent Otis family, he was a young boy when his uncle James became one of the leading anti-British patriots in the years leading up to the American Revolution. After graduating from Harvard in 1783, Harrison subsequently opened his law practice in Boston, and in 1796 he was appointed as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. That same year, he was elected to Congress, and served two terms from 1797 to 1801.

Otis would go on to serve in the state legislature from 1802 to 1817, and was elected to a term in the U.S. Senate from 1817 to 1822. A few years later, he finished his political career by serving as mayor of Boston from 1829 to 1832. However, despite his extensive political career, his greatest legacy in Boston has probably been his three houses on Beacon Hill, all of which are still standing today as some of the finest examples of residential Federal architecture in the country.

All three of his houses were designed by Charles Bulfinch, one of the nation’s most prominent architects of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first house, completed in 1796, was built on Cambridge Street, but Otis only lived here for a few years before moving in 1800, to another new house on Mount Vernon Street, near the top of Beacon Hill. He did not live there for very long either, though, because his third house, seen here on Beacon Street, was completed in 1808.

When the house was completed, Beacon Hill was just starting to be developed as an upscale neighborhood for Boston’s elite, and Otis’s house occupied one of the most desirable spots, directly across from Boston Common. Although most of the houses here are townhouses, his was originally built as a freestanding home, with gardens to the right and behind it, and a driveway to the left. The house itself is considered to have been one of Charles Bulfinch’s finest works, and Otis was evidently satisfied with it, because he lived here until his death 40 years later in 1848.

Otis’s political career peaked during the time that he lived here, and this house saw several distinguished guests, including James Monroe, who stayed here during a visit to Boston in 1817, as well as Senator Henry Clay. With Beacon Hill becoming the city’s most desirable and exclusive neighborhood, though, property values rose to the point where Otis could no longer justifying having large gardens around his house. So, in 1831 he sold a 25-foot wide section of his garden to his neighbor, David Sears, who built an addition to his own house. This granite townhouse, which can be partially seen on the far right, was built for his daughter Anna and her husband William Amory, who was a prominent textile manufacturer. Two years later, Otis filled in the gap between the two houses by building 44 Beacon Street, directly adjacent to his own house, for his daughter Sophia and her husband, Andrew Ritchie.

By the time Harrison Gray Otis died in 1848, his formerly freestanding home had been mostly incorporated into the streetscape of Beacon Street. The only remnant of the gardens that once surrounded his home is the driveway on the left, which leads to a carriage house in the backyard. A rarity in Beacon Hill, this driveway is the only break in an otherwise continuous row of houses on Beacon Street between Walnut and Spruce Streets. When the first photo was taken about 12 years after his death, the house and its surroundings had already assumed its present-day appearance, and there is hardly any difference despite being taken over 150 years apart.

When the first photo was taken, the house was owned by brothers Samuel and Edward Austin, both of whom were merchants. Neither brother ever married, and after Samuel’s death, Edward continued to live here for many years, until his own death in 1898 at the age of 95. The property changed hands several more times in the first half of the 20th century, and by 1940 it was owned by the Boy Scouts, who used it as offices until 1954. Since 1958, it has been owned by the American Meteorological Society, and it is used as the organization’s headquarters. During this time, the interior was significantly renovated, but the exterior of the house has remained well-preserved, and it still stands as one of the finest homes in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Beacon Hill Reservoir, Boston

The reservoir atop Beacon Hill in Boston, around 1860. Image taken by Josiah Johnson Hawes, courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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Long before the Wachusett and Quabbin Reservoirs, Boston’s municipal water supply was Lake Cochituate, a reservoir in Natick, Framingham, and Wayland. The project began in 1845, and it included not only creating the artificial lake, but also building a 14-mile long aqueduct that fed this stone reservoir atop Beacon Hill, just behind the Massachusetts State House. From here, the water was distributed throughout the city, using the hill’s elevation to carry the water downhill through the pipes. It occupied the majority of the block between Hancock, Derne, Temple, and Mt. Vernon Streets, and it had a capacity of over 2.6 million gallons.

The structure’s cornerstone laying ceremony in 1847 included a time capsule, which contained several publications and two silver plates, perhaps in the hope that, like the great Roman aqueducts in Europe, this public water supply structure would last for thousands of years. However, as it turned out, it lasted for less than 40. It closed by about 1880, and around three years later it was demolished to build a large expansion of the Massachusetts State House, which now occupies the site where this reservoir once stood.

Charles Street Meeting House, Boston (2)

Looking north on Charles Street toward the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston, around 1889. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The scene in 2015:

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As mentioned in the previous post, this historic church was built in 1807 as the Third Baptist Church. It played a major role in the abolitionist movement in Boston, and it was later the home to the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church from 1876 until 1939. It was converted into offices in the early 1980s, but from the exterior it looks essentially the same as it did over 125 years ago. It is one of the 15 landmarks that comprises the Boston African American National Historic Site on Beacon Hill.  The buildings beyond it on Charles Street haven’t changed much, either. They date back to the second half of the 19th century, and like so many other buildings in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, they have been well-preserved over the years.

Charles Street Meeting House, Boston (1)

The Charles Street Meeting House, at the corner of Charles and Mt. Vernon Streets in Boston, around 1889. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The church in 2015:

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This historic church in the Beacon Hill neighborhood was built in 1807 as the Third Baptist Church. It was designed by Asher Benjamin, a New England native who was one of the leading American architects of the Federal era, and at the time it was located right along the waterfront. The building hasn’t moved in the past two centuries, but the shoreline has; Charles Street once ran along the Charles River at the western edge of the city, but after widespread landfill projects in the 19th century the church is now a considerable distance from the water.

Prior to the Civil War, this church was prominent in Boston’s abolitionist movement, and it hosted speakers such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Sojourner Truth. After the war, though, the congregation declined, and merged with the First Baptist Church by 1876. The building was sold to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became the Charles Street A.M.E. Church.

When the first photo was taken around 1889, the A.M.E. Church still owned it, and they remained here until 1939. By then, Boston’s black population had shifted away from its historic roots in Beacon Hill, and the congregation relocated to Roxbury. The building was later used as an Albanian Orthodox church and later as a Unitarian Universalist church until the late 1970s. A few years later, it was converted into offices. The interior was completely renovated, but the exterior was preserved, and today it is a part of the National Park Service’s Boston African American National Historic Site.

Boston Skyline

The skyline of Boston as seen across the Charles River in Cambridge, sometime in the 1880s. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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The same view in 2015:

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These two views certainly show how the city of Boston has changed over the past 125 years or so, but perhaps more remarkable is how much has remained the same.  This view shows an arc of the city from Cambridge Street and the Longfellow Bridge on the left to the foot of Mount Vernon Street on the far right, and the most obvious difference between the two photos is the skyscrapers of downtown Boston in the distance.

In the foreground, however, is the Beacon Hill neighborhood, which really hasn’t changed much since the 19th century.  Things are a little different along the waterfront – the trees of the Charles River Esplanade hide Storrow Drive, which cuts along the river now, but further up Beacon Hill this pocket of early 19th century Boston has survived as a low-rise residential neighborhood.  Although it is hard to identify individual buildings, many of the ones from the 1880s view are still standing today.  The most prominent building in the first photo is the dome of the Massachusetts State House, which stands at the top of the hill.  Although it now has a backdrop of skyscrapers instead of just sky, it is still easily visible from here despite being over a half mile from the river.