Eat a raw oyster, meet your state rep, frolic on the Common, and see half of Boston’s top historic sites, all in less time than it would take to watch an episode of Cheers without the commercials? It’s possible. With its rich colonial, revolutionary, industrial, and cultural past, Boston boasts hundreds of entries on the National Register of Historic Places, and 56 of them have been designated as bona fide National Historic Landmarks. Most of these sites are in a relatively small area of downtown Boston, just a short trolley ride from BU’s Charles River Campus.
For BU Today, this reporter, jogger, and history buff made a rapid circuit of downtown and Beacon Hill on foot, aiming to see 25 of the landmarks in under 25 minutes. (My wife and I once walked this route in 33 minutes, and I figured with my long, lanky legs I could easily beat that time alone.) Sure enough, at a jog I took in all 25 in well under 25 minutes—closer to 18. That leaves a good seven minutes to actually stop and visit a few of these places, as you’ll see in the above reenactment.
Of course, the point of this exercise is simply to demonstrate the sheer number of great historic places in a manageable area not far from campus. The 25 landmarks and their significance are sketched out below, and a map at bottom shows their locations, but readers should take in the sites at their own pace, and even wander off the route to see landmarks not on this list. Really, plan to set aside a weekend afternoon to explore historic Boston at your leisure.
Unless, of course, you want to beat my time.
Underground from Boylston Street to Government Center
When you’re riding the MBTA’s Green Line beneath downtown’s streets, you’re actually inside a National Historic Landmark: America’s first subway tunnel. Built to ease traffic flow aboveground, the tunnel opened in 1897. Trolleys ran between Boylston Street and Scollay Square (now Government Center).
38-72 Cornhill Street
With burlesque houses, taverns, and tattoo parlors, Scollay Square was a rough-and-tumble sailor’s playground in the first half of the 20th century. Nearly the entire district met with the wrecking ball in the early 1960s to make way for today’s Government Center, whose main features are City Hall and City Hall Plaza. All that remains of the old Scollay Square are the Sears Block and Crescent buildings.
3. Faneuil Hall
One Faneuil Hall Square (back faces Congress Street)
French Huguenot Peter Faneuil built this landmark as a central food market in 1742. The building included an upstairs hall that became Boston’s town meeting space. Architect Charles Bulfinch doubled the hall’s width and height in 1805. Over the centuries, Faneuil Hall has hosted fiery speeches by revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, and suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony.
4. Blackstone Block
The area bordered by Union, Hanover, Blackstone, and North Streets
Hard by Haymarket Square, these haphazard little streets were laid out by Boston’s early settlers in the 17th century, and they have not changed in width or pattern since. The brick buildings have stood since the 18th century. John Hancock’s brother Ebenezer lived here, and his house became a shoe store that operated from 1798 until 1963. Ancient establishments the Bell in Hand and the Green Dragon Tavern make their home here as well.
41 Union Street
Welcome to America’s oldest continuously operated restaurant. In a building dating to 1714, Atwood and Bacon’s Oyster House opened here in 1826, changing its name in 1916. It is said that Daniel Webster came almost daily to consume a half-dozen oysters with a tumbler of brandy and water. Later, President John F. Kennedy was a regular. It so happens that a BU alumna, Mary Ann Milano (CFA’66), owns the Union Oyster House today. Her family is but the third owner of the restaurant in its 185 years.
Directly across from Faneuil Hall (Landmark number 3 above)
After nearly two centuries of government by town meeting, growing Boston incorporated as a city in 1822, and Josiah Quincy became Boston’s second mayor. Quincy launched the city’s first urban renewal project when he had the crumbling houses behind Faneuil Hall torn down and three long Greek Revival market buildings erected in their place. Officially Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the area was closed to automobile traffic and trees were planted during a second renewal in the 1970s. Note: Quincy Market features a statue of the late Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach (Hon.’84) sculpted by BU College of Fine Arts Professor Emeritus Lloyd Lillie.
206 Washington Street
Built in 1713, this was the seat of British power in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, housing the royal governor’s office—and the Massachusetts Assembly, where colonists aired their grievances against the king. Right out front, the Boston Massacre occurred in 1770 when Redcoats fired into an angry crowd, killing former slave Crispus Attucks and four others. Revolutionaries took over in 1776, reading the Declaration of Independence from the second-floor balcony, transforming the building into the Massachusetts State House.
8. Ames Building
One Court Street
At 13 stories, the Ames Building was an imposing structure when it was erected in 1893. Designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and built of granite, sandstone, and brick, the onetime headquarters of Frederick Ames’ farm implement business is considered Boston’s first “skyscraper.”
310 Washington Street
Congregationalists built this meetinghouse in 1729 and held services every Sunday, but Old South doubled as a town meeting hall when larger crowds than could fit in Faneuil Hall were expected. In December 1773, 5,000 Sons of Liberty and supporters gathered here and marched down to Boston harbor, boarded a British merchant ship, and dumped tea overboard to protest taxation without representation, an act known as the Boston Tea Party. After the Great Fire of 1872 wiped out the neighboring houses, the church’s congregation moved out to the Back Bay, and the “New” Old South Church at Copley Square was born.
283 Washington Street (corner of School Street)
Anne Hutchinson lived on this corner until 1637, when the town’s ruling Puritans exiled her to Rhode Island for having the temerity to suggest that men’s and women’s souls were equal in the eyes of God. A pharmacist built this house in 1712, living upstairs and plying his trade downstairs at a time when there was virtually no distinction between a residential and a commercial district. (Think Paul Revere’s house and workshop in the North End.) In 1828 the house became the Old Corner Bookstore, and from 1845 to 1865, it was home to Ticknor and Fields, publishers of the works of Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Thoreau, as well as the periodical Atlantic Monthly.
11. Old City Hall
45 School Street
On the former site of Boston Latin School (America’s oldest public school), this French Second Empire–style building was the seat of Boston’s city government from 1865 to 1969. Mayors who served here include Hugh O’Brien (Boston’s first Irish-born mayor) and John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald (John F. Kennedy’s grandfather). James Michael Curley served four mayoral terms here, from 1914 to 1950, with terms in Congress, the governor’s office, and jail in between. Today the building houses Ruth’s Chris Steak House and other businesses.
12. King’s Chapel
Corner of Tremont and School Streets
Decades after Boston’s founding by English Puritans, a new breed of English colonists settled here. Followers of the conventional Church of England, they constructed their own Anglican church, a wooden one, in 1688. When the congregation outgrew it 70 years later, they built the stone church that stands today. After its original bell cracked in 1814, Paul Revere recast it, the largest bell his foundry ever cast and the last one he handled personally. The King’s Chapel Burying Ground (which began as a public burial ground not associated with the church) holds the remains of John Winthrop, first Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and other historical figures.
13. Boston Athenaeum
10½ Beacon Street
Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum is one of the oldest private libraries in the nation. Members pay a yearly fee for access to its holdings of more than 500,000 volumes of history, biography, and literature, as well as a collection of paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs. Among its rare books is the memoir of highway robber James Allen, which is stomach-churning not so much for its content as for its binding: per his last will and testament, the book is bound in Allen’s own skin. On a less creepy note, many of the Athenaeum’s trustees were instrumental in establishing Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
14. Chester Harding House
16 Beacon Street
This four-story Federal-style town house was built in 1808, and portrait painter Chester Harding lived here from 1826 to 1830. Later, the building housed the antecedents of the Unitarian Universalist Church, and since 1962 it has been the headquarters of the Boston Bar Association.
24 Beacon Street
John Hancock donated pastureland here for the site of the Massachusetts capitol building. This grand edifice was designed by Charles Bulfinch, a self-taught architect who built several of Boston’s churches and homes as well as a theater and a hotel (while also serving as chief of police and head of the Board of Selectmen) before supervising construction of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Samuel Adams laid the cornerstone on the Fourth of July, 1795. The highly visible dome of the State House was originally shingled in wood, then sheathed in rolled copper by Paul Revere, and finally gilded in gold in 1861.
16. Boston Common
Accessible from Beacon, Park, Tremont, Boylston, and Charles Streets
The country’s oldest public green, these 48 acres were once a grazing ground for the colonists’ cows. Nowadays, you’ll see humans, pigeons, and squirrels eating their lunch here, but no bovines. Thousands of people gather on the Common for free Shakespeare productions in the summer, the annual Hemp Fest (officially “Freedom Rally”) in September, and the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in December. The sporty come here to play softball or frisbee in nice weather or to go ice skating on the Frog Pond in wintertime.
Neighborhood between Cambridge, Beacon, and Charles Streets
For the better part of two centuries, even as Boston built up along the shores of the Charles River, this area was an undeveloped trio of grassy hills: Mount Vernon, Pemberton (or Cotton) Hill, and Sentry Hill, which featured the tar-barrel distress signal that gave the area its collective name: Beacon Hill. Portrait painter John Singleton Copley, whose work can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, owned most of the property, but in 1795, while he was traveling in Europe, his agent sold his land to home builders. About 60 feet of Mount Vernon Street was dug up (possibly using the nation’s first gravity railroad) and the fill used to create land on the city’s marshy perimeter. Streets were laid out, lots were divided, and Beacon Hill was eventually covered in Federal, Georgian, and Victorian townhouses, many of which became the homes of Boston’s ruling-class “Brahmins.”
46 Joy Street
An often-overlooked element of Beacon Hill’s history is the black population that for much of the 19th century lived on the slope overlooking Cambridge Street. Built as the First African Baptist Church in 1806, what came to be called the African Meeting House is America’s oldest existing black church building built primarily by black artisans. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here in 1832, and during the Civil War, Frederick Douglass came here to recruit soldiers for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments, both made up of black volunteers. Today the building houses the Museum of African American History. BU alumna Carmen Fields (COM’73) chairs the board of the organization, which is currently completing a restoration of the meetinghouse.
19. William C. Nell Residence
3 Smith Court
Across tiny Smith Court from the African Meeting House stands the home of William Cooper Nell, an African American abolitionist and early advocate for racial integration in public life. He helped establish the Freedom Association, a group that aided fugitive slaves, and he wrote for William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator as well as Frederick Douglass’ The North Star. As a postal clerk, Nell was the first African American to gain a federal appointment. The home is a private residence.
20. Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe House
13 Chestnut Street
During the Civil War, abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe lived in this Bulfinch-designed home with his wife, Julia Ward Howe. Mrs. Howe is most famous for writing the lyrics for The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which she penned here, but she was also a prominent abolitionist, social activist, and poet. The home is now a private residence.
21. Francis Parkman House
50 Chestnut Street
Descended from one of Boston’s early settlers, the Parkmans were a wealthy merchant family. Born in 1823, Francis Parkman became a noted horticulturist and historian, the author of many books about America’s wilderness and its westward expansion, most notably The California and Oregon trail: being sketches of prairie and Rocky Mountain life. Parkman lived in this house (when not summering in Jamaica Plain) from 1865 until his death in 1893.
22. David Sears House
42 Beacon Street
Philanthropist, merchant, amateur horticulturalist, and sometime Massachusetts state representative and senator, David Sears was also one of the biggest landowners in Boston in the 19th century. He had this double-bayed mansion built as a freestanding home in 1816, and lived here until the 1860s. Sears branched out into Brookline, buying and developing the land now known as the Cottage Farm Historic District, just a couple of blocks from BU’s Charles River Campus. (In fact, one of Sears’ Gothic Revival English “cottages” is now owned by BU.) Sears’ old mansion on Beacon Street is now home to the exclusive Somerset Club.
23. Nathan Appleton Residence
39-40 Beacon Street
Nathan Appleton, along with Francis Cabot Lowell and other business partners, built a factory in Waltham, Mass., that featured the first power loom, introducing large-scale cotton production. Appleton, who also served as a U.S. congressman, had this twin house designed by architect Alexander Parris. It was here that Appleton’s daughter Fanny married poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Today it is privately owned.
55 Beacon Street
Grandson of William Prescott, who commanded the American forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill, William Hickling Prescott lived in this Federal period house from 1845 to 1859. He was one of the first Anglophone historians to write about the Spanish Empire. It was in his third-floor study here that Prescott wrote History of the Conquest of Peru and Philip II. Today it is owned by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and is open to the public from May to October.
25. Public Garden
Accessible from Beacon, Charles, Boylston, and Arlington Streets
In the 18th century, rope makers set up shop in this undeveloped stretch of Boston. After several ropewalk fires in the early 19th century, they wanted to sell the land for house lots, but in the 1820s Mayor Josiah Quincy proposed that the land be kept open for the public’s use. America’s first public botanical garden opened here in 1837. City councilors continued to debate selling the land until 1856, when the state legislature forever barred construction within its 24 acres. The Public Garden was made famous in Robert McCloskey’s classic 1941 children’s book Make Way for Ducklings, and in 1987 a bronze sculpture, by BU alumna Nancy Schön (DGE’48), of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings walking on old Boston cobblestones, was installed. Today, the area is maintained by the city and a volunteer organization and boasts scores of flower beds, hundreds of trees, and a four-acre lagoon ringed by weeping willows, where Boston’s iconic Swan Boats paddle from mid-April to mid-September.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to 25 historic landmarks in Boston.
This story was originally published on November 3, 2011.