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History revisited

Munroe Tavern offers British take on April 19, 1775

A Revolutionary War reenactor’s uniform is draped across a chair in the Munroe Tavern (inset above), a Lexington Historical Society property being rededicated at 2 p.m. today. A Revolutionary War reenactor’s uniform is draped across a chair in the Munroe Tavern (inset above), a Lexington Historical Society property being rededicated at 2 p.m. today. (Photos By Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2011

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It took almost a year and $800,000, but the most important portion of work recently completed at the Colonial-era Munroe Tavern in Lexington may be the history that was left unscathed.

A British-inflicted bullet hole scars the plastered ceiling, the hardwood floors still creak and moan underfoot, and the weathered dining chair once used by George Washington remains undisturbed.

“As we always say about these restorations, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and everything looks the same,’’ said Susan Bennett, executive director of the Lexington Historical Society.

After a year of restoring and renovating the Munroe Tavern, the society will hold a dedication ceremony today at 2 p.m. celebrating the completion of the work, and thanking town taxpayers for funding half of the project.

Made famous when it was used as a makeshift hospital by weary British soldiers on the first day of the Revolutionary War, the restored tavern refocuses attention on its important place in history.

Sitting at 1332 Massachusetts Ave., about a mile east of the center of town, the tavern is one of a trio of Lexington homes, including the Buckman Tavern and Hancock-Clarke House, that played central roles in the events that unfolded on April 19, 1775, when British soldiers first clashed with Colonial militiamen in a confrontation on the town common, since known as the Battle Green.

But while the Buckman Tavern and the Hancock-Clarke House were made famous by their ties to the local residents involved in the uprising, the brief occupation of the Munroe Tavern has presented the historical society with a unique opportunity to tell about the first day of battle from the British perspective, Bennett said.

Along with adding a visitor welcoming room and improving accessibility for the disabled, the historical society has renovated the tavern to accentuate the plight of the redcoats on April 19, when they suffered 73 deaths and well over 100 wounded, said Paul O’Shaughnessy, a past president of the Lexington group.

“Those soldiers went through hell that day and we rarely hear about that,’’ said O’Shaughnessy. “British soldiers are often portrayed as evil villains or stupid robots, and they are neither.’’

In the tavern’s new visitor room, the society has installed a large timeline that tracks the movements and trials of the British soldiers on the first day of the Revolution, as they marched from Boston to Lexington and then on to Concord before retreating back to Lexington by midafternoon.

They skirmished first on the Battle Green, then clashed again with Colonial militiamen in Concord, and were shot at all along the road on their return trip, said O’Shaughnessy, who also plays the part of the British commander of the 10th Regiment of Foot in battle reenactments.

As they retreated, the British burned Lexington homes between the Battle Green and the Munroe Tavern, where they met with a relief column of more than 1,200 men in the king’s army sent out from Boston.

They treated their wounded at the tavern and for some reason fired a bullet into the ceiling, creating damage that has been carefully preserved ever since, Bennett said.

The historical society has also added audio accounts of the experiences of Jeremy Lister, a junior British officer who was shot in the elbow and kept detailed notes of the day’s events.

Elaine Doran, the collections manager for the historical society, said the renovation also includes a new display case holding a rare blanket belonging to a British soldier, and the pistols of Major John Pitcairn, who commanded the British at the Battle of Lexington. Doran said the objects have not been regularly displayed by the society for years.

Another aspect of the tavern’s renovation has been the addition of climate-controlled storage rooms for other historical artifacts, such as furniture, textiles, and paintings, Doran said.

The restoration work was funded by about $400,000 from Lexington’s Community Preservation Act program, and another $400,000 from private donations, Bennett said.

Wendy Manz, chairwoman of the town’s Community Preservation Committee, said the Munroe Tavern is one of the local treasures that help attract tourists to Lexington, and the historical society’s proposal to match taxpayer dollars for the project made it even more appealing to recommend to Town Meeting, which approved the funding.

“This one was an easy one for us,’’ Manz said.

The tavern project began last October and was mostly completed by the end of May, though some work continued during the summer, Bennett said. The society has quietly reopened the tavern to visitors, she said, but wanted to wait to celebrate the grand reopening.

This afternoon’s ceremonies will include the dedication of a plaque in remembrance of John Raymond, a neighbor of the Munroe family who was killed by the British when they took refuge at the tavern.

Bennett said part of the challenge of the renovation has been to highlight the plight of the British while keeping alive the rich and important story of the Munroe family, which bequeathed the tavern to the Lexington Historical Society in 1911.

William and Anna Munroe bought the building in 1770, about 35 years after it was built, and opened it as a tavern four years later. As a sergeant in the Lexington Militia, William Monroe stood guard for Samuel Adams and John Hancock outside the Hancock-Clarke House on April 18, 1775, and spoke with Paul Revere when he arrived on his midnight ride to warn that the British were coming. Munroe also participated in the Battle of Lexington, and his wife and family fled the tavern later that day when the British approached.

In 1789, more than a decade after the battle, President George Washington dined at the tavern while on a tour of the fledgling nation. The chair where Washington sat was saved by the Munroe family, as were many artifacts from the first day of the Revolution, such as a damaged musket used by a cousin, John Munroe, in the Battle of Lexington.

“They were very aware of their place in history right away,’’ Bennett said of the Munroe family.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.