Boston: Brick Sidewalks and Boot Scrapers

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Edge of Beacon Hill from the Public Gardens

I HAD VISITED BOSTON only twice, so long ago and so briefly I couldn’t even tell you which neighborhoods I was in. So when the time came to plan a little birthday outing for myself, I lit upon the idea of Boston. I was thinking of a magazine picture I kept on my bulletin board for years, of a steep cobbled street in Beacon Hill, with black shutters on red-brick houses. I wanted to see that street.

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Hilly Acorn Street in Beacon Hill

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Brick sidewalks and boot scrapers

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Elegant Louisberg Square in Beacon Hill, onetime home of Louisa May Alcott, present home of John and Theresa Kerry, with townhouses built from 1833-47

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Freeestanding mansion on Mt. Vernon Street, Beacon Hill

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I did a little advance reading, and discovered that as recently as the 1980s, Boston was a city in decline — losing population and losing heart. And that for a decade or more, the whole downtown area was a miserable construction site, as they dismantled and re-routed the elevated highway that ran through some of the city’s most historic parts. Well, no more. Boston is now scrubbed clean and spiffy, organized and attractive, with obvious pride in itself, its architecture, and its heritage.

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The extraordinary 1713 State House in downtown Boston, once seat of the British Colonial government

In a whirlwind day, a friend and I walked through sections of residential Back Bay and Southend, sprawling Victorian neighborhoods that call to mind Park Slope, and Beacon Hill, which has been a National Historic District since the 1950s and whose brick row houses, built in the 1830s and ’40s, have elegant arched doorways and fanlights, curved bowfronts, and fanciful ironwork.

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An early frame house in Beacon Hill

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Unusual wood facade in Beacon Hill

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Wavy window glass on a curved bowfront building facade

To get an inside view of a Beacon Hill townhouse, we toured the four-story Nichols House Museum on Mt. Vernon Street, an 1804 Federal last lived in by Rose Standish Nichols, an ahead-of-her-time women’s rights activist and suffragist who never married and supported herself as a garden designer. The house is filled with arty, eclectic furnishings, faded Oriental rugs, paintings, and accessories brought back from London and other travels.

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Staircase in the Nichols House, added later

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The dining room, with lincrusta wallpaper and a smallish breakfast table (the last homeowner didn’t entertain much)

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Aqua bedroom in the Nichols House

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The pink parlor, Nichols House

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View of Beacon Hill’s front gardens from the Nichols House

And I had to see the c.1680 Paul Revere House, one of (if not the) oldest standing example of urban architecture in the country, restored in 1908 to its original medieval-English appearance, diamond-paned windows and all. It now looks as it did even before Revere, the silversmith famed for his 1775 night ride to warn American patriots of British troop movements, lived there with his family in the last three decades of the 18th century.

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Paul Revere House, the only surviving 17th century building in Boston

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Rear view of Paul Revere House

Somehow we managed, with Zagat’s as a guide, to fit four meals into 24 hours, all more than fine: dinner at the cozy, red-walled Franklin Cafe in Southend; French toast for breakfast at diner-cum-cafeteria Paramount in Beacon Hill; a late lunch of oysters, fish chowder, and pale ale at the Union Oyster House, America’s oldest restaurant (since 1826) and a national landmark; and another dinner at the authentically French and justifiably popular Petit Robert Bistro, near our hotel, which, after walking at least five miles yesterday, was all we could manage.

I can enthusiastically recommend the Inn@St.Botolph, in a converted 19th century red-brick building on the border between Back Bay and Southend — crisply decorated, quiet, and central, but with a neighborhoody vibe.

About cara

I blog for fun here at casaCARA, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
This entry was posted in ARCHITECTURE, HISTORIC PRESERVATION, ROAD TRIPS, TRAVEL and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Boston: Brick Sidewalks and Boot Scrapers

  1. Terry says:

    That sounds like a great trip. We’ve just been a few times. My Daniel Boone navigation instincts failed me every time, never quite getting the lay of the land/sea, always feeling I’d just scratched the surface, nearly always on the most grim, un-pretty days.

  2. cara says:

    I’m a great one for studying maps. Didn’t find Boston terribly confusing. The sun shone, which helps.

  3. Patti Hinkle says:

    Thanks for the tour. When I was there we did the normal tourist-y things so missed Beacon Hill for the most part. Glad you were able to fit in lots of good food–that’s very important;)

  4. Cher@NR says:

    Loved this post! It makes you wonder what were all these ‘urban renewal’ people thinking! Tearing down historical structures, ugh, makes me so sad. This post really reminds me of what Newburgh could be one day when fully restored. So many of these cities/towns were in decline, and have made their way back up because of appreciation for how beautiful they are. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Astor C says:

    I love the way the Statehouse sits so self-assured in the midst of those turn of the century and International Style skyscrapers.

  6. cara says:

    hi Cher, yes, it’s a story told again and again, of beautiful old neighborhoods fallen into disrepair (Society Hill in Philly, Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn) that have come back, or are coming back, better than ever. Like you, I mourn what was lost (600 brownstones torn down in Brooklyn Heights to build Cadman Towers!) but I have to admit there’s still a lot left to appreciate. Did you ever read Jane Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of American Cities? She was in the forefront of the movement to preserve rather than destroy, and instrumental in establishing the first landmark districts in NYC.

  7. Cher@NR says:

    Never read that book, but I will check it out! I could read that books/articles on that topic for hours

  8. Jenny McH says:

    I have been following your blog for a while and wanted to tell you that I have really enjoyed your photos of the different styles of houses & buildings you post. I am from Melbourne, Australia and we too have areas that were once in decline and now are becoming popular again. But so many beautiful buildings & homes have been demolished in the past, it’s so disappointing.
    I will be travelling to the US in a few weeks and look forward to seeing the styles of architecture in Kentucky & Philadelphia.

  9. cara says:

    Welcome, Jenny, all the way from Australia! Thanks for checking in. I know nothing about Kentucky (never been there), but a lot about Philadelphia (my son lives there, and I own two buildings there). Here’s a link to one of my Philly posts: https://casacara.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/i-%E2%99%A5-philadelphia/ There are others in the ‘Philadelphia’ category. Have a great time in the U.S. and please keep in touch!

  10. Lexy says:

    Cara I love this post! I feel so guilty growing up in Massachusetts and never really seeing the city quite like you did in just 24 hours.You are great with maps, but I think you also just have that eye for design. I always knew the architecture was beautiful, but you have such a great way of showcasing it. I can’t wait to go home now and rediscover Boston, thank you!

  11. cara says:

    hey Lex, no need for guilt — I grew up in and around NYC, and didn’t discover Philadelphia until a few years ago! Glad you enjoyed the post. Boston awaits you (and me – we only scratched the surface)!

  12. Nick A says:

    cara – thanks for this post. I went to school in Boston and though I live in Brooklyn now I still miss Boston a lot. It has many beautiful neighborhoods and is the most walkable city I’ve been in. Next time you’re there you must check out Cambridge as well, particularly the area around Harvard Square and West Cambridge. Mount Auburn Cemetery is also a must-see with its beautiful gothic tombs and follies.

  13. cara says:

    hi Nick, good to hear from you. Another reader mentioned Mt Auburn, and I wanted to get to Cambridge, but you can only do so much in 36 hours!

  14. Larry says:

    Hello Cara!
    What a great visit up to Boston !

    Just a quick spelling correction – Louisburg Square is spelled with “u” not “e” and South End is two words. I loved your commentary. The Beacon Hill grey wood House is more interesting than most visitors suppose- it is a site on the National Park Service Black Heritage Trail (north side of Hill always the immigrant, less favorable district and was at one point the free African neighborhood and that is one of the freeman’s houses!) . The sunny/south side of the Hill was the fine Boston neighborhood with streets mostly named with tree names- and you discovered the smallest-Acorn!)
    Larry in BostonUSA

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