THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

An upgrade of history

Makeover of Boston Massacre memorial downtown is expected to make the site safer, raise visual impact

The cobblestone Boston Massacre memorial inhabits a small traffic island across from the Old State House. The removed stones will be stored by the National Park Service in Charlestown while upgrades to the MBTA’s State Street subway station are underway. The cobblestone Boston Massacre memorial inhabits a small traffic island across from the Old State House. The removed stones will be stored by the National Park Service in Charlestown while upgrades to the MBTA’s State Street subway station are underway. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff/ File 2010)
By John R. Ellement
Globe Staff / May 11, 2011

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The site of the Boston Massacre, the stop on the Freedom Trail that left tourists disappointed even as they risked their lives to visit it, is getting a makeover that will make it safer but also leave its modest appearance largely intact.

The memorial, which is made of 13 rings of cobblestones with a center stone marked with a star, was removed this month by contractors working for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority as it upgrades its State Street subway station in downtown Boston, T officials said.

The T plans to return the stones later this year to a changed intersection of Congress, Devonshire, and State streets. The sidewalk will be expanded to include the Massacre cobblestones, which since the 1970s were accessible by venturing onto a small traffic island surrounded by a sea of drivers.

Suffolk University history professor Robert J. Allison said the cobblestone circle was easily overlooked, even though it is outside the Old State House, a prime tourist destination.

Moreover, he said, the circle has never had a visual impact equal to its role in American history. “It’s not very impressive at all,’’ Allison said. “You might not even notice it if you are walking by.’’

For the nation, Allison said, the circle is located near where British soldiers shot and killed five people on March 5, 1770, a violent act seized upon by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams to inflame passions for independence from England. Adams called the victims martyrs for liberty.

Allison said the star in the center circle represents Crispus Attucks, an African-American who is widely considered to be the first casualty of the American Revolution.

“That is where Crispus Attucks fell,’’ said Allison, the author of the 2006 book “The Boston Massacre.’’ “This is where the nation is born.’’

For Bostonians, Allison said, the circle signified a rare instance where Boston’s 19th-century black community found common ground with the Brahmins who once dominated the city’s political life.

In the 1880s, both communities were looking for a way to honor the city’s history, and the cobblestone circle was devised to mark the birth of the nation and to make a statement about the role African-Americans played in the American Revolution, Allison said.

Matthew Wilding, spokesman for the nonprofit Freedom Trail Foundation that offers guided walking tours, said visiting the Boston Massacre site is usually a top priority for tourists.

But most came away disappointed by “a major historic site that doesn’t seem to be getting its due in the eyes of visitors,’’ Wilding said.

According to the MBTA, the cobblestones were removed by a special contractor who numbered each one so they can be properly reassembled.

The stones will be stored by the National Park Service in Charlestown while construction is underway.

The returned stones will be placed inside a bronze ring to bring more visual attention, and will be on the sidewalk, not in a traffic island.

“They are going to make it nicer . . . it will be more visually appealing, it will be safer,’’ Wilding said.

“And it won’t be in the middle of the street. That will be good for everybody in the long run,’’ he added.

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.