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Home | Articles | Interiors of Beacon Hill, Boston

by Barbara W. Moore and Gail Weesner
photography by Peter Vanderwarker

or the student of American domestic architecture, the streets of Boston's Beacon Hill are an outdoor museum; an open-air display of more than two centuries of urban building. Located north of the Boston Common and the Public Garden, with the Massachusetts State House – designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798 – on its southern slope, the architecture in this residential neighborhood is predominantly Federal and Greek Revival, with a smaller percentage of Victorian and early twentieth-century colonial revival homes.1 Since 1955, thanks to neighborhood activists, the Hill has been a designated a National Historic District. Though the original legislation protected only twenty-two acres of the South Slope of Beacon Hill, the district was expanded in 1958 to include the Flat of the Hill, between Charles Street and the Charles River, and in 1963 to encompass the North Slope, between Myrtle and Cambridge Streets. Restrictive regulations allow no changes to the exteriors of buildings without approval from the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission.

Greek Revival house: 59 Mount Vernon Street, 1837; Edward Shaw, architect.

Interiors are a different matter. And since it is human nature to periodically update one's home to the tastes of the day, no historic house survives one hundred percent in the 'original.' From the Hill's earliest years, rooms and entire houses have been altered to modernize their style or to introduce technological improvements. There have been occasional lulls in this kind of activity as the Hill's fortunes have waned – limited prosperity can be the best preservative. In recent years, as property values have risen and Beacon Hill has attracted new residents, the pace of interior construction has greatly increased. While much of this activity includes necessary repairs and improvements, numerous original features have been destroyed and lost in the process. Nevertheless, a good number of notable interior spaces can still be found.

Since a taste for antique houses often signals a taste for antique objects, it is not surprising that this is a neighborhood of collectors. Some have had the good fortune to inherit fine family pieces, while others have assembled their own collections gradually through the years. Some collections are focused, others are not. The diversity of house types – large and small, modest or grand – reflects the history of the district and the variety of tastes among today's neighborhood residents. The images shown here present a selection of rooms inside Beacon Hill houses that retain the spirit of their age.

This cherry-paneled room was installed just a few years ago in a late-Federal house near Louisburg Square, but the Italian marble mantelpiece is a family heirloom with a long and reliable provenance. Dated 1839 and recalling the style of Antonio Canova (1757–1822), it was purchased by the owner's great-grandfather for his New York City home. It was subsequently moved at least twice (to family houses in North Carolina and Rhode Island) before its recent arrival on Beacon Hill. The collection of several hundred leatherbound books, ranging from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, also descended in the family. Hanging over the mantel is another family piece, a portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). The framed letter on the mantel shelf was written by George Washington; dated 'Philadelphia, 6 January 1796,' it is a personal letter from the president to his niece. The figurines on the bookshelf are Portuguese ceramics, circa 1775.

The double parlor – two identical rooms with matching woodwork and mantelpieces and separated by a pair of wide pocket doors – was a feature in almost every early Beacon Hill row house. On Hancock Street, a Greek Revival house retains its formal double parlor. In the foreground is the front room, with a remarkable eighteenth-century French troumeau over the black marble mantelpiece. The large framed drawing to the left of the fireplace is a study by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco (1884–1949) for one of the Epic of American Civilization panels in the Baker Library at Dartmouth College.

This large second-floor living room took form some forty years ago when the present owners moved into the Greek Revival house and removed partitions that had divided the area into four small rooms. The only remaining original features today are the tall windows overlooking lower Chestnut Street. The gracious ambiance is achieved with a superb collection of antiques acquired over many years, largely European, with numerous Chinese accents. One of the most unusual pieces in the room is the painted Chinese bridal chest in front of the sofa. Made of camphorwood and covered with pigskin, it dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. The Chinese-style rug was in fact made in Romania. The French Provincial style mantelpiece is contemporary, custom-designed to complement the collection; the mantel shelf holds a French clock, English porcelain doves, and Chinese Fu dogs, with an elaborate eighteenth-century Chippendale period mirror above.

In the front parlor of a late-Federal house, tall windows overlook upper Chestnut Street. The Chippendale tall-case clock, circa 1760, is signed 'John Dawson, London.' The mahogany chairs flanking the clock are of the same period. The Louis XV-style French tea table is a family piece. The George III Hepplewhite secretary bookcase is English, circa. 1790, and the Italian chairs on the same wall are neoclassical in design. To the left of the secretary is a marine painting by W. E. Norton (American, 1843–1916). The Chippendale wing chair in the foreground dates from the eighteenth century while the English needlepoint rug was purchased at auction in the 1970s. The house was built in 1822 as an investment property by Hepzibah Clarke Swan, whose collection of French furniture is now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This sunny living room in a Greek Revival house on Revere Street has a comfortable, almost 'country' look, but the collection is clearly cosmopolitan. The mid-nineteenth-century clock on the left comes from Scotland, while the cupboard in the middle of the wall is English. It displays a varied collection of blue-and-white china including Meissen, and several English and Chinese export pieces. The cupboard is flanked by several landscape and seascape paintings. The Venetian scene to the right is signed by the French painter Felix Zeim (1821–1911). Above the American slant-top maple desk is an English portrait in the style of Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). The sofa is an eighteenth-century American piece, with a quilt from the 1930s providing a strong visual focus. The nineteenth-century mahogany butler's table is English.

Though completely modern, this Revere Street kitchen manages to retain an antique flavor – almost a New England country look. In fact the furniture collection is international, with an English pine cupboard, antique French cookware, and a collection of English mocha ware mugs on the mantel, over which hangs an Audubon print from the Quadriped series (1849–1854). An early corner cupboard displays nineteenth-century kitchen ceramics. The long pine table is probably French; it holds the owners' collection of hand-carved and -painted American fish decoys (used by ice fishermen). Some of the thumb-back Windsor chairs display remnants of old painted surfaces.

The dining room of a late Federal house on Chestnut Street is papered in pewter leaf, reminiscent of the metallic sheets that once lined the canisters that brought tea from China. The black marble mantelpiece is probably original to the house as is the curved rear wall, which enhances the room's classical proportions. The small japanned kneehole desk against the wall is English and dates from the early nineteenth century. The antique amethyst oil lantern over the round black-lacquered table has been electrified. Many of the decorative pieces in the room are the work of contemporary artists: the giant artichoke is by the Beacon Hill porcelain ceramist Katherine Houston, and the pink decoupage obelisks were made by Prescott Dunbar of New Orleans. On the mantel shelf, an antique crystal candelabra stands between pieces of pink English porcelain, also contemporary works.

In an 1840s house on Revere Street, the double parlor is separated by the stairwell – an arrangement that worked well in narrower houses. The owners are enthusiastic collectors of both modern and antique art and furniture. A pair of nineteenth-century French library chairs flank the imposing arched doorway. Above them are works by contemporary American artists, a lithograph by George Tooker on the left and a diptych by Marilyn Dintenfass on the right. The bronze piece on the table on the far right is by the English painter and sculptor William Turnbull. A second arched doorway frames the view of the back parlor, centered by a clock designed and made by Michael Cramer. In front of the clock is a classic French fauteuil paired with a three-legged chair by the Berkshire studio furniture maker John Eric Byers.

These interiors are from the forthcoming Beacon Hill: A Living Portrait by Barbara W. Moore and Gail Weesner, with photography by Peter Vanderwarker. This publication, which includes the history and architecture of the neighborhood, is a complete revision of an edition published under the same title in 1992. For more information visit
1. According to a survey published by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (Now Historic New England) in 1954, 75 percent of Beacon Hill residences are in the Federal and Greek Revival styles (1800–1850), 13 percent Victorian (1850–1900), and only 2 percent from the twentieth century. See Carl J. Weinhardt, Jr, 'The Domestic Architecture of Beacon Hill, 1800–1850,' Proceedings of the Bostonian Society, 1958.

Barbara W. Moore and Gail Weesner are long-time Beacon Hill residents.

Peter Vanderwarker is an internationally known Boston-based architectural photographer.

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