- Historic Sites
The Hub Of The Solar System
The author walks us through literary Boston at its zenith. But Boston being what it is, we also come across the Revolution, ward politics, and the great fire.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
Like three Bostonians out of four, I live on a site that was originally underwater. My house is on River Street, an alleyway that was built for stables at the bottom of Beacon Hill in the middle of the nineteenth century. Until my wife, twenty years ago, redesigned the carriage house we live in, no humans had resided there. Out of the back of the house we see the spire of the Church of the Advent, a late-nineteenth-century Gothic-revival creation that has the best music, and the highest Episcopal service, in Boston. Outside the front door stands the Charles Street Meeting House, originally built in 1804 as the Third Baptist Church—by the waterside for baptismal convenience. A favorite meeting place for abolitionist orators, it became an African Methodist Church, and serves today as an office building.
My work (I am a poet and an editor) regularly takes me on a route that covers the history of literary Boston in the nineteenth century. I walk to work (as do most people in Boston who value their personal safety), and my way takes me along Charles Street, built in 1799 by filling the edge of Boston Harbor with the soil from one of Boston’s five original hills (Mount Vernon, cheerfully called Mount Whoredom by the appreciative redcoats who occupied Boston during the Revolution). Mount Vernon Street certainly altered the character of the place; by the early twentieth century Henry James would call it “the only respectable street in America.” From a literary point of view he could not be faulted: Robert Frost, Robert Hillyer, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Henry Adams, and Julia Ward Howe all lived on this street at one time or another, while the side streets gave residence to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, W. S. Merwin, L. E. Sissman, and George Starbuck during the little Boston poetic renaissance of the 1950s. Parallel to Mount Vernon Street runs Chestnut, obedient to the principles of English Georgian architecture as interpreted by Charles Bulfinch, and to my taste the most beautiful street on the Hill. It sheltered James Russell Lowell, Richard Henry Dana, and Francis Parkman. Edward Weeks, the tenth editor of The Atlantic Monthly, still lives at the near end of Chestnut Street, as the ninth editor, Ellery Sedgwick, once lived at the far end.
So I walk each morning past the antique shops of Charles Street, past the mouths of Mount Vernon and Chestnut streets. On some days, when I arrive at the corner of Charles and Beacon streets, I turn left toward Beacon Hill to my work at Houghton Mifflin Company; on others, I turn right toward the Back Bay, to work at The Atlantic Monthly, two enterprises that in the nineteenth century were closely allied.
If I were to stop at this corner I would be standing at the present cultural crossroads of the city. But in 1800, if I had stood here after dark, I would scarcely have seen a light. Straight ahead there would only have been an embankment to keep the waters of the Back Bay under control, with a road atop it leading half a mile straight ahead until it encountered Washington Street, the only land exit from Boston at the time. To my right there would have been nothing whatever except a watery waste, for Bostonians were only just beginning to outgrow their little peninsula of 785 acres of land and begin filling in the shallows around it. Up the Hill to my left, in 1800, I would have seen the open country of the Boston Common. Halfway up the Hill, along Beacon Street, the farmhouse of John Singleton Copley probably would not have obscured the view of Charles Bulfinch’s two-year-old State House, though the steep slopes, not yet leveled, might have kept me from seeing it from here.
Seen from this spot fifty years later, Beacon Hill would have looked very different. Boston’s population would have totaled 136,881. The top of the Hill, removed to fill the coves around the edge of the peninsula, would have dropped nearly sixty feet. The brick houses of Charles Street, Chestnut Street, and Mount Vernon Street would have sprouted up on the eighteen acres that the Mount Vernon Proprietors, in one of the great land grabs in history, had managed to buy in 1795 from the agents of John Singleton Copley for one thousand dollars an acre. By 1850 all the great houses of Beacon Street were in place. Beacon was principally a street for those aspiring to social grandeur, though today only institutions can afford it.