Lost Elegance

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The Mansion is what the children of the district call it, knowing nothing of its history. It stands narrowly on its once rural hill, as it has these 200 years, in a peripheral Boston slum where the tide of middle-class respectability ebbed two generations ago. Roxbury, between Uphams Corner and the Dudley Street terminal, is not the place where one would expect to find a royal governor’s residence. There is a mean anonymity to these encroaching streets. However many people may live out their lives here, a visitor is apt to feel that the outer world will never hear of them. The houses press in on each other, solid mansard-roofed houses of the Seventies and Eighties that were once decent, if never fashionable, rackrent three-deckers built for the swarming immigrants.

Shirley Street dips down sharply beyond the mansion. Where the sea once flooded across the salt marshes is now a filled area taken up by an abandoned brewery and the enveloping three-deckers and the Shirley Café on the corner, Framed in the perspective of a few hardwoods beyond chimneys and television masts, the upswept line of Washington’s old fortifications cuts the horizon at Dorchester Heights, although the intervening bay is hidden.

Gray is Roxbury’s prevailing color, broken by the pastel dinginess of brick and the singular blueness of the sky that seems to draw something of its quality from the invisible sea. In the autumn before the frost a few fenced gardens in front of the scrimshaw-gabled lodging houses are oddly bright with yellow and orange marigolds and borders of salvia. But mostly the tramped lots are untended. Here is one of the thickest population areas of the city, yet it gives the impression of lifelessness as one walks through it.

Shirley Place, perched on makeshift foundations, looks a stranded hulk, a survival from a past that has no meaning here. Yet in its marred elegance it still maintains the form of an age of sensibility and proportion. Compared to the English country houses of the day, to Belton House and to Roger Pratt’s Coleshill, which it resembles most, it is small. In the old country it would have been overshadowed. Among the New England colonies it was unique. Beside it Boston’s Old State House and Faneuil Hall are naïve, and Bulfinch’s later classical State House amateurish. Only the interior of King’s Chapel can compare in architectural sophistication. The latter was designed by Peter Harrison, that émigré master of the Palladian style, and the cornerstone was laid by his friend Governor Shirley. Although the evidence is deductive rather than documentary, Harrison may also have been the architect of Shirley Place.

That house was the embodiment of royalty. When Governor Shirley planned it he had other thoughts in mind than mercantile display. There is none of the bourgeois opulence gloating in its own comfort which is found in the Federalist houses of Beacon Hill, but viceregal splendor, formal and aloof, the seal of the royal presence across the Atlantic.

William Shirley was the most attractive figure among the eleven royal governors of Massachusetts, a man of energy, capacity, and charm. As governor he was popular, succeeding and preceding unpopularity. His ingenious mind planned and organized the expedition against that constant threat to New England, the French naval base at Louisbourg. The storming of the fortress by New England militiamen was one of the proudest feats of Colonial arms, memorialized still in Boston’s Louisburg Square.

Shirley’s attitude towards America was an enlightened one. He was a king’s man, yet he never lost sight of the interests of the colony he administered. Although he had his difficulties with the Massachusetts General Court, particularly in the matter of paper currency, his relations with the local legislators were friendly and co-operative. Without seeming arbitrary he tried to maintain a policy of firmness with a tactful consideration of local interests. The men of the Massachusetts assembly liked and respected him.

Shirley came to Boston in 1731 as a poor lawyer of good family. He had two assets, his own ability and the friendship of the Duke of Newcastle. Without the latter he would not have become governor; without the former he would never have made a success of the office. His restless mind needed the nourishment of constant activity. After the fall of Louisbourg, he became more and more occupied with military affairs. He organized the New England detachments for joint action with Braddock, and he himself took command of the abortive expedition against Niagara. This middle-aged lawyer turned soldier developed a remarkable grasp of the art of war. Finally appointed a major general, he became after Braddock’s death commander of all British and Colonial forces in North America. However his position was soon undermined by intrigue and he was superseded by the incompetent Earl of Loudon. In his friend Franklin’s opinion Shirley was infinitely the more capable commander. Unjustly blamed by Loudon for the fall of the fort at Oswego in 1756, Shirley was recalled to London.