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Beacon Hill

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The location during the colonial period of the beacon used to warn the inhabitants of any imminent danger, Beacon Hill is the highest of three “mountains”—Cotton (or Pemberton) Hill, Beacon Hill, and Mount Whoredom, renamed Mount Vernon—that topped the Shawmut Peninsula. These hills were gradually cut down to provide fill as the landmass was extended out into the harbor. Charles Street and adjacent lots are now situated atop fill excavated from Mount Vernon Hill in the area of Louisburg Square (BH24) in 1803–1805. Relatively few people lived in this area before the Revolution, the most prominent exception being John Hancock whose grand house (1737) overlooking Boston Common was the earliest granite residence in the city. In 1795 a group of wealthy investors, called the Mount Vernon Proprietors, purchased land on Beacon Hill from John Singleton Copley, the dominant portrait artist of eighteenth century Boston, who left for England in advance of the Revolution. The principal investors agreed to build substantial houses on this high land and to develop the surrounding property in an appropriate manner. Charles Bulfinch joined the Mount Vernon Proprietors, established the guidelines for development, and designed the important early houses. The first house on the Mount Vernon Proprietors land may have been the Benjamin Joy House at 29A Chestnut Street (c. 1799–1800), followed closely by the Jonathan Mason Houses (BH18; 1800) on the site of the Cabot Apartments at 65 Mount Vernon and the Second Harrison Gray Otis House (BH22; 1800–1802) at 85 Mount Vernon. Demolished in 1836, the Jonathan Mason House may have been the first bowfront or swellfront house in Boston. The pattern of a thirty-foot setback along Mount Vernon Street, creating a green frontispiece to this development, may derive from Bulfinch's proposal for an oval park descending westward down the hill from Mount Vernon and Walnut streets to Spruce Street. In 1826, the Mount Vernon Proprietors, as their last official act before disbanding, hired S. P. Fuller to lay out the centerpiece of the neighborhood, Louisburg Square (BH24), oriented around a fenced central park. Housewrights developed most of the south slope of the hill from the 1790s through the mid-nineteenth century.

On the North Slope of Beacon Hill a very different pattern emerged. Known as Mount Whoredom in the colonial period because of the houses of ill repute located here, the area developed as a grid of streets proposed as early as the 1730s. Ropewalks were constructed in the second half of the eighteenth century. This section attracted the first coherent African American community, centered on Smith Court, in the opening decade of the nineteenth century and became a major stop on the Underground Railroad following the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The waves of international immigrants that poured into Boston from the 1840s on came to the North Slope of Beacon Hill and the adjacent areas of West Boston from the 1880s to the 1910s to live in tenements often built by those who had arrived before them. A synagogue and a few churches document the settlement pattern of the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth century. In 1955, the Massachusetts legislature established the Beacon Hill Historic District, the earliest in the commonwealth. The wealthy South Slope and the poorer North Slope still coexist as they have for two centuries, a residential island with firm boundaries.

Writing Credits

Keith N. Morgan

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