Mr. Shackleton ﬁnds Boston a “very human city, with pleasantly piquant peculiarities.” Of course he tells interestingly the things to be seen in Boston, but he deals still more with that Boston which is “a state of mind”—the literary tradition of the city, its lecture habit, its ancestor worship, the “Boston Bag” and the “Sacred God"—and the things that make it a “woman's city.” This is not only a guide to Boston sights—it's a pilot to Boston prejudices and ﬁne beliefs. Sprinkled with anecdote and ﬂavored with personal adventure, it is a book to cherish, to lend, to read aloud.
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The Book of Boston
The book of Boston, R. Shackleton
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
Chapter I - Taking Stock Of The City. 1
Chapter II - Boston Common. 3
Chapter III - Boston Preferred. 10
Chapter IV - On The Prim, Decorous Hill 17
Chapter V - The City Of Holmes. 24
Chapter VI - A House Set On A Hill 30
Chapter VII - A Picturesque Bostonian. 36
Chapter VIII - A Woman's City. 42
Chapter IX - The Distinctive Park Street Corner 49
Chapter X - Two Famous Old Buildings. 54
Chapter XI - To The Old State House. 61
Chapter XII -Faneuil Hall And The Waterside. 67
Chapter XIII - The Streets Of Boston. 75
Chapter XIV -. In The Old North End. 83
Chapter XV - Down Wapping Street And Up Bunker Hill 90
Chapter XVI - The Back Bay And The Students Quarter 96
Chapter XVII - Heights Reached And Kept 106
Chapter XVIII - Colleges Red And Common Green. 113
Chapter XIX - An Adventure In Pure Romance. 121
Chapter XX - A Town That Washington Wanted To See. 129
Chapter XXI - The Famous Old Seaport Of Salem... 136
Chapter XXII - The Most Important Road In America. 144
Chapter XXIII - Plymouth And Provincetown. 152
Chapter XXIV - The Night Shall Be Filled With Music. 162
I SHALL write of Boston. I shall write of the Boston of to-day; of what Boston has retained, and what it has become and what it has built; and I shall write, to use the quaint old Shakespearean phrase, of the memorials and the works of art that do adorn the city. I shall write of the Boston to which thousands of Americans annually pilgrimage. And if, in writing of the Boston of to-day, there is mention of the past, it will be because in certain aspects, in certain phases, the past and the present are inextricably blended. Boston is dear to the hearts of Americans.
A city of interest, this: a city with much of charm, with much of beauty, with much of dignity. A city of idols as well as of ideals, and with some of the idols clay. For, indeed, it is a very human city, with pleasantly piquant peculiarities. On the whole, in its development, a comfortable city. A city of traditions that are fine and traditions that are not so fine. A city of beliefs and at the same time of prejudices. A city rich in associations, rich in its memories of great men and great deeds, rich in its possession of places connected with those men and deeds. No other American city so richly and delightfully summons up remembrance of things past.
I shall write of the people as well as of their city, and of their character and peculiarities and ways. Boston, with its prosperous present and its fine, free relish of a history that is like romance, is a likable city, a pleasing city, a city to win the heart.
And it still has the aspect of an American city. Hosts of foreigners have come in, but something in the spirit of the place tends finely to assimilation. Some portions of the city are altogether foreign, but on the whole the American atmosphere has persisted. There is constantly the impression that Americans are still the dominant and permeative force, and one comes to realize that by their influence, and by a splendid system of day schools and night schools, they are steadily making Americans of foreigners and even more so of the children of foreigners. The early Bostonians, by means of the forces of a thoughtful civilization, and constantly by earnest work and profound sacrifices, expended their energies in fitting their country for the citizens of the future. The Bostonians of to-day find it necessary to fit those citizens for our country!
Boston is a mature city, a mellow city, a city of experience and experiences, a city of amenities, a city of age. Never was there a greater fallacy than the still-continuing one that ours is a new country! It is generations since this was true. When one remembers that the Pilgrims came three centuries ago, and that the Bostonian settlers closely followed them, it is strange that there should still be an impression that this means youth. Clearly, undoubtedly, the city of Boston is old. If one should say that it is not old because it is younger than London, then neither is London old because it is younger than Rome. Age is necessarily a relative term, and three centuries of vivid, earnest, eager, glowing life give age to Boston.
Yet it is not merely because of its age that Boston holds one. A city, like a building or like a person, must have much more than mere age to arouse interest. A city must have charm or beauty or grace, or brave associations with a long-past time; and Boston, with the soft twilight into which its more distant history vaguely merges and with its possessions of beauty and delightfulness and dignity, assuredly possesses these requisites. History and buildings, great achievements, picturesque events — Boston may point to them all.
But I shall not attempt to tell everything, or even every important thing, in Boston's present or Boston's past. He who writes of Boston must, from necessities of time and space, leave much untold and undescribed; but in selecting what seem the essential and most notable features one ought, at least, to present the piquant city in a fair and rounded way.
And Boston ought not to be considered in a narrow geographical sense. To write properly of Boston is to write also of the neighboring towns that have come to be associated with her in common acceptance and common thought; the places over which the mantle of Boston has been flung and which stand hand in hand with her in the light of tradition and history.
BOSTON COMMON has given to Boston individuality. Standing practically untouched and unbroken, in the very heart of the city, it represents the permanence of ideals. And it has always represented liberty, breadth, uniqueness of standpoint. One gathers the impression that the people of Boston will retain their liberty so long as they retain their Common, and will sink into commonplaceness only if they give up their Common. It is, in a double sense, a Common heritage.
Utilitarianism would long ago have taken this great central space to make way for the natural development of business; this great opening, in the ordinary course of city growth, would long ago have been cut by streets and covered with buildings. But Boston has held loyally to her ideals: she has held the Common; from the first, she seems to have had a subconscious sense of its indispensability to her.
One might begin, in writing of the Common, with naming the streets that bound it, and setting down the precise area — which, by the way, is not far from fifty acres — but the vital fact about it is that for almost three hundred years, almost from the beginning of Boston, the Common has been a common in fact as well as in name, held for public use throughout these centuries. No street has ever been put through it; no street car line has been allowed to cross. To some extent the subway has been permitted to burrow beneath, but that has itself been for public use without affecting the surface. The long-ago law of 1640 declared that " There shall be no land granted either for houseplott or garden, out of ye open ground or common field," and this inhibition, broadly interpreted for the Common preservation, has held through the centuries. In 1646 — how long, long ago! — a law was passed, further to strengthen the matter, declaring that the Common should forever be held unbroken until a vote of the majority of the people should permit it to be sliced or cut; and this very year in which I write, the people, on account of this ancient law, voted on a proposition to reduce the Common in order to widen bordering streets, and by a big majority voted it down.
The ordinary American impression of a common is of a shadeless and cheerless expanse, a flat, bare space. But Boston Common is crowded thick with old trees, it is light and cheerful and alive with happiness; instead of being flat it is delightfully diversified, and instead of being bare it has, over all of its surface excepting the playground spaces, an excellent covering of grass — and this in spite of the fact that there are no keep-off-the-grass prohibitions. The Common is a space to be freely used, but the people love it and do not ruin it with use.
Those whom one ordinarily meets on the Common are of the busy, earnest, clean-cut types. Many of them, one sees at a glance, have grandmothers. All are well-dressed, alert, genially happy — and the fancy persistently comes that the very air of the Common diffuses a comfortable happiness.
Among the pleasantest of the many pleasant associations with the Common is that of Ralph Waldo Emerson and of how, as a small boy, he used to tend his mother's cow here! There is a fine and simple breeziness in the very thought of it. What a picture — the serious, solemn little boy so solemnly and seriously doing his part to aid his widowed mother in the time of her straitened fortunes! I think it much more than a mere fancy that the influences of that time had much to do with making Emerson a patient and practical and kindly philosopher instead of merely a cold and theoretical one. And I associate with those early days a tale of his later years, a tale of his coming somewhere upon a young man who was vainly struggling to get a mild but exasperating calf through a gate: pushing would not do, pulling would not do, and, "Oh, don't beat her!'' said a gentle voice, and the by -that-time famous Emerson tucked a finger into the corner of the calf's mouth and the little beast trotted quietly along, sucking hard! I think that Emerson, personally lovable man that he was, owed to his experience with the cow on the Common the possession of so great a share of the milk of human kindness, and to his living for a time at the very edge of the Common much of his open outlook on life. And there comes to mind a letter in which someone mentioned his writing, as a boy, a scholarly composition on the stars, because of thoughts that came to him from looking up at the stars from the Common. That is the sort of thing that represents Boston Common. Perhaps " Hitch your wagon to a star!'' came to Emerson from the inspiration of those early days.
Cows were freely pastured on the Common until about 1830; and one thinks of the delightful story of Hancock, he of the mighty signature, who, having on hand a banquet for the officers of some French warships, at a time when the friendship of the French meant much to us, and learning that his own cows had not given milk enough, promptly sent out his servants to milk every cow on the Common regardless of ownership! And the very owners of the cows liked him the better for it. And the fact that Hancock's splendid mansion looked out over the Common had, doubtless, much to do with giving him the cheerfully likable qualities that he possessed, in spite of qualities not so likable. For this is such a human Common! You cannot help feeling it every time you cross it or walk beside it or look out over it. It is a place where people are natural, even though you no longer see cows there. And there is a building on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, close by, a low one-story studio building, which not only, though the inhibition is ancient indeed, is kept down to one-story height as an incorporeal hereditament of the houses opposite, which did not wish their view interfered with, but which also possesses, opening upon the street, a broad door which — so you are told, and you have no desire to risk the chances of disproval by unearthing old documents — must forever remain a broad door so as to let out the cows for the Common!
The Common is not all a level, nor is it all a hill, for it is freely diversified with levels and slopes. It is a pleasantly rolling acreage and possesses even a big pond. And there are a great many trees, in spite of the difficulties that trees face in their fight for existence against city air and smoke, and in spite of the ravages of the gypsy moth, and in spite of serious lopping. The trees still cast a royal shade and give a fine, sweet air to it all.
It is pleasant, too, to notice the system adopted here many years ago, and now in use in some other cities also, of marking carefully the different trees with both their popular and botanic names. For my own part, I remember that it was as a youth, on Boston Common, that I first learned to differentiate the English elm from the American and the linden from the English elm.
One may get somewhat of real beauty on the Common too, as, the glorious yellow and green effect of the great gold dome of the State House seen through and beyond the trees.
The paths, whether of asphalt or earth, are rather shabby, and the Common has nothing of the aspect of gardens or of trimmed lawns. There is an excellent Public Garden just beyond the Common, if that is what one is looking for.
I know of no other open space in America so genially and generally used. And no one, except once in a while for some special event or reason, ever goes to the Common — no one needs to — for it is simply right here at the center of things, and doesn't need going to! It is crossed and passed and looked at in the daily routine of life.
In its complete exclusion of vehicles, the Common is the pedestrian's paradise; and never were there paths that lead on such unexpected tangents. Never were there paths which so puzzlingly start you in apparent good faith for one destination only to make you find yourself most surprisingly headed in another. Yet these perplexing paths are all straight! The uneven and vari-angled sides which make the Common neither round nor oblong nor square nor anything at all, are responsible for leading even the oldest citizen away from his objective if he for a moment forgets what a lifetime of familiarity with these paths has taught him.
Many of the Common walks, as winter approaches, are made to look amusingly like the sidewalks of some village, for interminable lengths of planking, full of slivers and holes, are dragged from their summer's hiding places and laid down here, on crosspieces that raise them a few inches above the level of the walks.
A prettily shaded path is the one known as the Long Path, leading far on under tall and overarching trees from the steps opposite Joy Street to the junction of Boylston and Tremont, and this is the path followed by the Autocrat and the Schoolmistress in the charming love episode that was long ago so charmingly told. One may almost think that the human touch of this pretty romance, with its simple glow of love and life, is the most delightful bit of humanity about the Common, and the fact that it was a love affair of fiction does not make the story the least particle unreal, for everyone remembers it as if it was lovemaking of the real and actual kind.
Although the Common has been held immune from homes or streets for these three centuries, a part of it was long ago given over to a graveyard. It is a large graveyard, too, and, although it is directly across from thronged sidewalks and sparkling shops and theaters, it is just as attractively gloomy in appearance as a good old-fashioned graveyard ought to be! Central as it is, and befitting its name of Central Burying Ground, it has all the interest of aloofness. It is practically hidden, it is almost forgotten and overlooked; and this effect is really remarkable.
One of the many who are buried here was the inventor of a soup that promises to keep his name in perpetual remembrance — of such varied possibilities does Fame make use to hold men's names alive! Many years ago a certain Julien was a cook and a caterer in Boston, an excellent cook and caterer whose finest achieved ambition was the making of a certain soup which so hugely tickled the palates of the elect that by general consent the name of Julien was lovingly attached to it. Well, he deserves his fame, as does any man who adds to the happiness and health of humanity. And here his body lies.
And in this lonely and melancholy cemetery, with the brilliant shops and theaters so incongruously looking out over it, there is buried the artist admittedly honored as the greatest of early American portrait painters; perhaps the greatest, even including the best of modern days; and of course I refer to Gilbert Stuart. This son of a snuff grinder was honored abroad as well as at home, and gave up a triumphant career in England, in the course of which he painted King George the Third and the Prince of Wales, who was to become George the Fourth, in order to satisfy his intense desire to return to America to paint a greater George than either.
It is fitting that he should be buried here in New England's greatest city, for he was New England born, and he lived in Boston throughout the last twenty years or so of his life, and Boston is the proud possessor of his best and finest Washington, one of the only two that he painted direct from his subject (the many others being copies or adaptations by himself or by other artists), and with this George Washington is also Stuart's altogether charming portrait of Martha Washington, the two being painted at the same time. Yet only the other day I noticed, in Boston's best morning newspaper, a brief reference to Gilbert Stuart which twice spelled his name with a "w"! O Tempora!
Some years after Stuart's death, it was arranged by some wealthy folk of Rhode Island to take his body back to his native State: for he was born at Narragansett, six miles from Pottawoone and four from Ponanicut, as he once explained to some Englishmen who wondered where a man could possibly be born who spoke English, but said that he was not a native of England or Scotland or Ireland or Wales; but after the preparations had been made it was learned that not only was the grave of Stuart unmarked but that it was unknown; Boston had carelessly mislaid the body of this great American; so the best that could be done was to put a tablet on the outside of the cemetery fence.
Not far from the burying ground is a monument in honor of the men who were killed in what has always been known as the Boston Massacre. And the list of killed is headed by the name of Crispus Attucks, the negro; not that he was more of a martyr than the others, but that this was a chance to set a negro's name first as a sort of defiance, on the part of this abolitionist city of Boston, to any who might deem negroes inferior. And by far the noblest monument in Boston, a monument positively thrilling as well as beautiful, a monument which, though standing unobtrusively, just recessed from the sidewalk, is astonishingly effective in its splendid setting between the two great trees that shade it, is a sculpture by St. Gaudens, which vividly presents, in deep relief, not only the figure of the gallant Colonel Shaw but figures of the negroes who bravely followed him to a brave death. It is a memorial to the spirit, even more than it is a monument to men. This memorial — the most successfully placed monument in America — stands at the highest point of the Common, close to the spot where the War Governor of Massachusetts stood to see Shaw and his regiment march by; and fittingly, here, these soldiers in bronze will forever go marching on.
There is a great deal in a city's devotion to ideals; but only a few evenings ago, in a big Boston theater that was packed to capacity, there were " movie" pictures of the sad Reconstruction days, pictures so utterly unfair in character as to be deplored even by the more earnest sympathizers with the South; and yet, that crowded house applauded tempestuously — the only applause of the evening — the pictures of masked Ku Klux riding down and killing negroes. But I suppose one ought not to forget that Boston must hold descendants of those who tried to mob Garrison, as well as descendants of those who stood for human liberty.
Another of the Common monuments stands on an isolated little hillock, and is to the memory of the soldiers and sailors who died in the Rebellion. It is not much as a work of art; in fact, it is somewhat worse, because more pretentious, than a host of mediocre military memorials set up throughout the country; but the situation is fine, and the inscription is fine, narrating as it does that the city has built the monument with the intent that it shall speak to future generations; and so, one sees that it is an excellent thing to stand here, elm-shaded on its eminence. More and more one feels that across this Common comes blowing the warm breath of a history that is alive.
From the very earliest days the Common was a training ground for soldiers, and this use has not been entirely forgotten. The Bostonians are inclined to resent the fact that their Common was used by the British in the Revolutionary times as a training ground and mustering place for the soldiers who went to Bunker Hill, and before that for the ones who marched to Lexington; it was taking quite a liberty, they still feel; but they find consolation in certain facts of history in regard to what happened to those men.
It is still remembered, too, that a tall young American, standing by, attracted the awed attention of the British soldiers here, for he was over seven feet high; and he remarked to them, carelessly, that when they should get up into the interior of the country they would learn what Americans really were, for out there they looked on him, with his height of only seven feet, as a mere baby.
And once, between the days of Lexington and Bunker Hill, an American stood by and laughed amusedly as a company of British were practicing target shooting, which so annoyed their captain that he demanded an explanation, whereupon the American said it amused him to see such bad shooting. "Can you do any better T' said the officer angrily. "Give me a gun," was the laconic reply. And with that the American proceeded to give an astonishing exhibition of center-spot hitting — and the British were to learn, to their cost, over on the hill in Charlestown, that Americans could hit live targets just as readily as they could hit any other kind. (That story of target hitting is curiously like Scott's story of Robin Hood hitting the target at the angry behest of King John 1 If Scott had been an American he would have found a wealth of material in American annals.)
The broad elm-arched mall along the Beacon Street side of the Common is an odd memento of our second war with England; for money was raised by subscription in 1814 to defend the city against an expected attack, and as the attack was not made and peace was, the money was spent in constructing this mall.
Very early, the Common was used as a place of execution, and in particular it was where Quakers and witches were unanswerably silenced: but in the good old times executions were looked upon in a much more matter-of-course light than they are in modern days. They were really public entertainments in a time when entertainments were few and when the Puritan public frowned on the frivolous.
The mighty Whitefield used to preach on the Common, and it was the main place of refuge for goods and people from the great fire that less than half a century ago devastated the business section.
Flocks of pudgy pigeons now hover about the Common, and it is a pretty sight to see them come circling and whirring, in graceful curves and full trustfulness, to eat the crumbs so freely scattered for them. One need not go to Venice to find a city where citizens and visitors feed the pigeons! Countless gray squirrels dart safely about, and the Common is also a popular place for the airing of that fast-disappearing race, the dog— for dogs are indeed rapidly disappearing, not only on account of city conditions but in particular from the continuous and deadly attacks of the automobile; and so the broad Common, without automobiles as it is, is a rallying place for dog owners and their dogs. They make a sort of last stand here! But never do you hear a man whistle for his dog in Boston; not even on the Common. It simply isn't done! And if a thing isn't done in Boston, you mustn't do it!
The Common has from the first been a place for spectacles of one kind or another; not only such as the drilling of soldiers or the execution of people of unpopular opinions, but many and many other kinds. There comes pleasantly the thought of what a pretty picture it must have presented on that long-ago afternoon, far back before the Evolution, when, under the auspices of a society for the promotion of industry and frugality (the Bostonians have always had a partiality for long titles!), some three hundred demure maidens, "young female spinsters, decently dressed," as the old-time phrasing has it, came out here on the Common with their spinning wheels, and sat here and spun, with busy demureness, prettily playing Priscilla to the admiring John Aldens among the watching throng. What a charming memory it makes for the Common! How one thinks of the
Twelfth Night lines about the " spinsters and knitters in the sun," and the "free maids that weave their threads!''
One notices that the Bostonian of those old days did not consider a spinster as necessarily a female; a city of spinsters would not need to be a city of women; and after all, the word spinster might properly be used as meaning merely spinner. But the explanatory words " decently dressed" would seem to deserve further light: could any young female spinster of pre-Revolutionary days ever have dressed otherwise! The very thought is incredible.
The genial freedom for which the Common stands was well illustrated by a story told me by a Boston lady, of her last meeting with Louisa M. Alcott; for a little niece came running up, exclaiming excitedly, " Oh, Aunt Louisa! I just feel that I want to scream! " Whereupon the creator of " Little Women" most placidly replied, "Very well, dear: just go out on the Common and scream. " And that was both wise and illustrative.
Old-time city that it is, Boston has an old-time fancy for observing holidays. Even on the last Columbus Day it seemed as if every store was closed and that every citizen was either at the ball game — some 40,000 were there, with at least half as many more anxious to get in — or else walking on or beside the Common. And when night fell, it seemed as if everybody went to the Common, for there were fireworks given by the city, with lavishness of expense and superbness of effect. Mighty crowds were gathered and hundreds of motor cars were lined up around the Common's edge, and when, at the close, the American flag was flung to the night in colors of blazing fire, every motor horn honked joyously and every individual joyously cheered. For this was their own Common.
NATURALLY enough, next to Boston Common comes Boston Preferred! For the term can very well be used in referring to Beacon Hill, which edges and overlooks the Common and is still the finest residence section of the city. And this Boston Preferred, this Beacon Hill, still stands for the exclusiveness, the permanence, the unity of Boston society; it stands for the social cohesion of the city.
Beacon Hill is still of very considerable altitude, even though it was long ago lowered, by vigorous cutting-down, from the triple-peaked height that it was originally when it gave Boston its first and grandiose name of Tri-Mountain. The triple-peak disappeared and a single rounded top remained. The State House stands on the present summit of the hill, and the top of its great gold dome is at the same height as was the top of the hill itself originally. The hill is still so steep that in places there are lengths of iron handrails set into and against the buildings for the aid of pedestrians in icy weather, and there are notices at the foot of some of the hills to warn vehicles not to attempt them when the slopes are icy but to take some roundabout course instead — with Bostonian attention to detail, the particular course being suggested. And at teas or receptions the waiting motor-cars are likely to be standing with their wheels turned rakishly against the curb for safety. And on the most slippery days the motors and carriages that have dared to venture upon the actual slopes go dangerously, for the horses slip in nervous helplessness, and now and then some motor skids and slides and whirls and either dashes against the curb or slides swift and uncontrolled to the foot of the hill.
And as to the name of the hill, no one need think that beacons are but a picturesque figure of speech in regard to long-past American days, for beacons were a very real and at the same time an extremely romantic feature of early life in this country. Baroness Riedesel, the wife of the Brunswick general captured with Burgoyne, tells that when she was with her captive husband in Cambridge there was an alarm which caused a rising of the entire countryside, that barrels of pitch blazed on the hilltops, and that for some days armed Americans came hurrying in, some of them even without shoes and stockings, but all eager and ready to fight. Historians have so ignored the romantic in America that they have almost succeeded in giving Americans themselves the idea that the romantic never existed here.
Beacon Hill is the part of Boston that is still full of fine old homes. They are not the earliest houses of the city, they are not even pre-Revolutionary, but they are of the fine period following shortly after the Revolution. They are generous, comfortable, well proportioned, dignified houses, with their soft-toned brick and their typical bowed fronts and their general air of spaciousness and geniality — the bows in the fronts being gentle outward swells of the walls from top to bottom of the house, with two windows in each bow, one on each side and none in the middle; something entirely different from most modern bay-windows, of Boston and elsewhere, which are excrescences with three windows. Quite English, old-fashioned English, are the Beacon Hill bow-fronts; very much the kind of fronts that Barrie somewhere describes as bringing to a stop the people driving through a little village.
That this part of Boston is really on a hill is recognized as you climb it; and if, on some of the streets, you sit inside of one of the bowed windows and a man is walking down the hill, you are likely to see him from the waist up as he passes the upper window, and to see only the top of his hat when he passes the lower! But an even better way to realize just how much of a hill this still is, is to look back at it from one of the bridges over the Charles for, from such a viewpoint, this part of the city rises prominent and steep, with its congregated mass of buildings etched dim and dark against the sky, like an old-time engraving darkened and at the same time beautified with age. This Beacon Hill is so charming a part of the city as to be supreme among American perched places for delightfulness of homes and city living.
Mount Vernon Street is the finest bit of this fine district. One of the old residents of the street said to me, with more than a touch of pride, that Henry James termed it the only respectable street in America. Well, Henry James liked Mount Vernon Street very much indeed, although he did not write precisely what was quoted to me as being his. What he wrote was that this was the happiest street scene our country could show (perhaps I should remark that the context shows him to use " happy" in the general sense of felicitous), "and as pleasant, on those respectable lines, in a degree not surpassed even among outward pomps." After all, looking at his words again, there need be small wonder that he was misquoted, for who, except a devoted disciple of James, could be expected to understand precisely what this phrasing means! But the general impression is clear, and that is that Henry James, critically conversant as he was with the most beautiful streets of Europe, and idolizing Europe, still had high admiration for beautiful Mount Vernon Street.
The street is one of serenity, and there is a certain benignancy of dignity which seems to make an atmosphere of its own; there is a constant beauty of restraint, and of even a sort of retiring seclusion, even though the houses are built close together. It is indeed a felicitous street, and the more felicitous from a certain crookedness, or at least out-of-straightness, in its street lines, that comes from quite a number of unexpected and unexplainable little bends, so slight as not at first to be noticed, but which add materially to effectiveness.
But it must not be thought that Mount Vernon Street is the only part of Beacon Hill that is full of charm, for there are other charming streets as well, notably Chestnut Street, rich in old-time atmosphere, and Beacon Street, fronting bravely out over the Common, and that charming Louisburg Square about which all of Beacon Hill may be said to cluster: and it may be mentioned that the Beacon Hillers like to pronounce Louisburg with the "s'' sounded.
Louisburg Square is like Gramercy Park in New York, in that the people who own the abutting properties possess certain ownership in it — the central portion being oval and not square, and the entire square being oblong. It is amusing that when the trees in the center are trimmed and lopped the wood is divided into bundles and parcels and evenly distributed for fireplace burning among all of the adjoining property holders.
In any city, even in Europe, Louisburg Square would at once attract attention as a charming little bit. Its central oval is green, tree shaded, with grass within an iron fence, and all about it are fine old houses of old Boston type. It is really a bit of old London, and that this is no mere fancy is shown by the fact that when a country-wide search was made by a moving picture concern which was preparing for an elaborate presentation of Vanity Fair, the search resulted in fixing upon this little Louisburg Square, with its shading trees and old-fashioned house-fronts, to represent the Russell Square of London and of Thackeray. A house was chosen — any one of a number might have been chosen — for the Osborne home, and the street sign of " Louisburg Square " was taken down and " Russell Square'' was substituted, but no other alteration was needed. I went to see the picture given, and had I not positively known that it was Louisburg Square I should never have doubted that it was really the familiar Russell Square at which I was looking. That the house chosen was Number 20 adds a point of interest, for it is the house in which the wonderful singer, Jenny Lind, was married to her accompanist. Otto Goldschmidt, in the course of that remarkable American tour in which she was given $175,000 and all of her expenses, while her manager, P. T. Barnum, received as his share $500,000.
There are two little statues, modestly pedestaled, within the oval of green, one at either end, and each of them is a little smaller than life size. They are so quietly sedate, these smallish marble men, that they seem as if made with particular thought of the sedateness of this smallish square. One of the figures, so one recognizes, is of Columbus, but the other is so unfamiliar, with a face so different from that of any well-known American, that one wonders in vain who it can possibly be — and then it is learned that it is Aristides! One helplessly wonders why Aristides the Just stands here! And the matter seems still stranger when one learns that, so the residents tell you, these two marble monuments were the very first of all the Boston public monuments to individuals.
Something approaching a century ago, so it appears, a Greek merchant settled in Boston and made his home here on Louisburg Square, and he so loved the environment that he had these monuments sent over from Greece and presented them to the city to stand forever here; choosing Columbus as his idea of the man most representative of all America, and Aristides because he personally loved the good old Greek, his own countryman. A story like that does add so much to the charm of a charming place.
This old part of the city, and particularly Louisburg Square, is a gathering place for cats; not homeless cats that furtively creep away, but sleek, sedate, well-fed, lovable and likable cats; cats come here to meet each other or to hunt birds or just to take a stroll. They are of all races, sizes, and colors, from the big, glorious yellow to the shiny-coated jet black. Sometimes only one or two are in sight; at other times there may be several; then, when these wander off, others will wander incidentally in, perhaps only one or two again or perhaps a group. When tired of walking or of hunting or of exchanging compliments with one another they are not unlikely to rest comfortably on the bases of the monuments, generally choosing, for some obscure catlike reason, Columbus in preference to Aristides; indeed, a cat on Columbus is a familiar neighborhood sight.
Here on Beacon Hill some of the houses have panes of purple glass in their windows, and one learns that this empurpling effect makes the house owners very proud indeed. It seems that quite a quantity of window glass was made which contained some unexpected material, just when some of the best houses hereabouts were building, and that it was used in these houses, and that in course of time and the action of the sunlight, the glass containing the unexpected substance turned purple and that purple it has ever since remained. Just why it should be a matter of special pride to have too much foreign substance in one's window glass it is hard for even the Bostonians to explain, for they realize that the houses are just as old, and would look just as old, without the purple panes; but none the less, to them it represents vitreous connection with a proud and precious past. As a matter of fact, a similar pride used to be felt by the owners of some old-time houses on Clinton Place and Irving Place in New York City, which also possessed purple panes. One wonders if there is some subtle and subconscious connection between the ideas of purple glass and blue blood; at any rate, the owners have all the sense of living in the purple.
Boston goes to sleep early, and Beacon Hill goes even earlier than does the rest of the city. And, the people once in bed, it takes a good deal to rouse them. At a few minutes before eleven one night I was walking down Mount Vernon Street, with the houses all blank and black, when I saw an automobile fire-engine and hook-and-ladder start climbing up the hill. Never have I heard so terrific a street noise. For the heavy motors were on low gear, and each moment they were almost stalling, and they were grating, grinding and shrieking as they slowly fought their way, with noises that shattered the very air. One would have thought that every individual on the hill would be aroused. But no! If any house on Beacon Hill must burn, it must be before eleven at night or else neighbors refuse to be interested. Two servants opened a dormer window and looked out — and that was all!
Beacon Hill, the height of exclusiveness, the citadel of aristocracy, all this it has long been, as if its being a hill aided in giving it literal unapproachableness. It still retains its prideful poise, in its outward and visible signs of perfectly cared-for houses and correctness of dress and manners and equipage. But the gradual approach of changes is shown by shy little signs, frightened at their own temerity, that here and there on Beacon Street modestly print the names of this or that publisher, and by other little signs on Pinckney Street which set forth the single word "Rooms."
Some years ago there was something of a migration from this region to the Back Bay, and many wealthy folk of Boston now live over there, but the better families have always looked on the Back Bay as not to be compared with Beacon Hill.
From the first a poorer and, from the standpoint of Beacon Hill, an undesirable, population has swarmed up against the barriers from the north side, the side farthest away from the Common, but for generation after generation the barriers have held firm against them, and now there are even signs of redeeming a little of this adjoining district. Just off one of these poorer streets, I noticed a courtyard, Bellingham Court (the old governor's name has an aristocratic sound!), running back for some two hundred feet to a high wall that once was blank, and not only is that wall now thick-covered with ivy, but on either side of the brick-paved courtyard the few modest little houses are flower-bedecked, and green with vines, and brass-knockered. The courtyard is not for vehicles, and down its center are arranged neatly painted boxes of flowers, with brilliant geraniums the most prominent, as a strong note is needed. It is a little sheltered nook where the commonplace has been transformed into loveliness.
Not all of the old houses have old Bostonians living in them, for some new Bostonians are here also, and one of these naively said to me that on first moving in she was so disturbed by seeing people stop and look up at her windows that she nervously went from room to room to see if the curtains were wrong, only to find later that her house was attracting attention because it was one of the houses in which Louisa M. Alcott had lived.
The residents of this region, though ultra-particular in some respects, are not afraid to do the unusual. Two dear old ladies of eminently correct family, living in an eminently correct house, keep a dishpan chained to their front doorstep to offer water to dogs and cats! It would take a lifetime to learn just how the people of this city differentiate the things that in themselves simply must not be done, and the things which, no matter how unusual or exceptional or odd, may be done with impunity.
That Beacon Hill, with its long-maintained social prestige, is but a few minutes ' walk from the stir and crowds and bustle of the busiest business streets, and that on its crest is the very center of the political activities of Massachusetts, the State House, makes its continued possession of these serried ranks of capable, comfortable, handsome homes the more surprising in these days of constant American change, and that it is so much of a hill as always to have been impracticable for street cars seems to be the great single reason for its being so long left practically unaltered. The absence of street cars also adds very much to the general effect of serenity and peacefulness.
Most of the houses are of brick, unpainted and soft red, agreeably mellowed and toned by the weathering of years. Indeed, the effect of the entire hill is an effect of brick, for not only are the houses brick but the typical ones are, in general, narrowly corniced with dentiled brick, and the brick walls drop down to the universal brick sidewalks of the district. Yet there is no wearisome likeness of design: continually there is the relief of the variant.
The accessories of the hill charmingly befit the homes, and chief among these accessories is the greenery. For there are lines of trees on the streets, and groups or single trees in the square or in some of the gardens behind the homes and here and there is a mighty spreading elm, and here and there is a flowering ailanthus, and in every direction, on the fronts or the sides of the houses, one sees wistarias in coils or convolutions or sinuous lengths, and some of the vines are of giant thickness, and some clamber over the iron balconies, twisting and crushing and knotting themselves python-like around the rails; and one sees, too, the Boston ivy, the ampelopsis, sweetly massing its rich green against the soft red of brick. Innumerable window-boxes give color and fragrance and English-like touches of beauty. And on one of these streets I noticed a mighty, ancient rose vine, almost a ruin, which has annually spread its flowers there for decades. And all of this in the very heart of this old city!
And one of the most prominent of the large old houses, a mansion in very truth — the old-time rule in New England being that a mansion was a house with a servants' stair, but using the word here in its usual sense of meaning a large and stately home — has behind it, terraced above a side street, a high-set and level garden, with a garden-house of diamond-paned windows; a garden rather melancholy now but so romantically high perched as to have all the effect of what the ancients meant by " hanging garden.''
That on all of these streets the houses are of varying widths adds immensely to the general picturesque effect; in fact, the streets which show the greatest variety in width of houses are the most picturesque. None of the streets is what a Western man would call broad, and some are really narrow, the narrowest of all being little Acorn Street, so slender that you may shake hands across its width. An attractive little street, this, with its line of neat little houses and its brave array of prettily framed doorways and polished brass knockers; the houses being on one side only of the narrow way, facing the high walls, trellised on top and green with vines, of the gardens of Mount Vernon Street homes.
Several of the streets of the hill climb straight and steep from the waters of the Back Bay, and there are positively beautiful views looking down the vistaed narrowness and out across the surface of the water. Stand well up on the steepness of Pinckney Street, and look down at the water sparkling under a sky of Italian blue, and across the sweeping stretch to the white classic temples gleaming in the sun on the farther edge of the Charles (and they look like temples, although in fact they are new buildings of the School of Technology), and you will see how striking and beautiful a city view may be. Or, stand well up on the steep of Mount Vernon Street in the late afternoon of an early autumn day, when the golden sun transmutes the water of the Charles into gold, and scatters showers of gold through the branches of the trees, and flings the gold in splotches and streaks and shimmerings on the pavement, and all is a glorious golden glamour, and again you will realize how beautiful a view it is possible for a city to offer.
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