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Where the melting pot still simmers

Beacon Hill was settled in 1625 and its always diverse history is traceable - and walkable - nearly 400 years later

Sanctuary lamps near the altar at the Church of the Advent. Sanctuary lamps near the altar at the Church of the Advent.
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / November 8, 2009

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It’s the most historic neighborhood in America’s most historic city. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that for much of the world the iconic images of Beacon Hill - flickering gas lamps, red-brick sidewalks, wrought-iron fences - are synonymous with Boston.

But look beyond the meticulously manicured flower boxes and the polished brass door knockers, and you may be surprised to find that Beacon Hill isn’t some stodgy, homogenous Yankee enclave but a diverse melting pot where generations of immigrants have mixed with the city’s elite.

“Beacon Hill has become home to all, the famous and the ordinary,’’ says Moying Li-Marcus, a longtime resident and author of “Beacon Hill: The Life and Times of a Neighborhood.’’ She says the vibrancy of the hill constantly surprises her out-of-town friends. “They expect to see a rather static, historical ‘museum.’ Instead, they experience a living, breathing, dynamic neighborhood steeped with history.’’

Beacon Hill was highly desired property even in 1625, when William Blackstone, Boston’s first European settler, built his humble cottage near its pure springs. When the Puritans found Charlestown to be without clean water, Blackstone extended a welcoming hand to John Winthrop and his flock, a scene depicted by the Founders Monument on Boston Common.

The reclusive Blackstone probably regretted his hospitable act as Winthrop’s “city upon a hill’’ burgeoned amid the springs. A stone plaque affixed to 50 Beacon St., marking the approximate location of Blackstone’s dwelling, states that “the place of his seclusion became the seat of a great city.’’ By 1635 the hermit had left for the solitude of Rhode Island.

The Puritans erected the hill’s eponymous beacon, which could warn neighboring towns of enemy attack, at the summit now crowned by the Bulfinch Column in Ashburton Park, adjacent to the State House. The pillar commemorates the Revolution, and the slate tablets around the base detail the key events on the journey to independence. Beacon Hill may seem plenty steep to those trudging up its slopes, but the eagle perched atop the column is at the approximate height of the original summit before part of it was dug away in the early 1800s to fill the area around North Station.

Around the same time, the Mount Vernon Proprietors were constructing elegant homes on John Singleton Copley’s old cow pasture. The south slope of Beacon Hill soon became the fashionable precinct for proper Bostonians, and Louisburg Square - with its magnificent Greek Revival townhouses and private park - is the most prestigious address of them all.

Before Louisburg Square was built in the 1830s, however, the surrounding neighborhood wasn’t quite so genteel and desirable. In fact, it was a rough-and-tumble Colonial Combat Zone nicknamed “Mount Whoredom’’ by British soldiers. Luckily for the property values in Louisburg Square, the seedy nickname vanished along with the undesirable establishments.

If gawking at the exteriors of Beacon Hill’s manses piques your curiosity about their interiors, visit the Nichols House Museum, which offers a rare glimpse inside Brahmin life. The four-story townhouse, built in 1804, was home to Rose Standish Nichols between 1885 and 1960. The furnished rooms bear the touch of the multitalented woman of the house, one of the country’s first female landscape architects, from her needlepoint and carpentry to works of art collected on her many world travels to sculptures crafted by her famous uncle, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Nichols was among the Brahmins who were proprietors of the Boston Athenaeum. The private library, with most of its 600,000 volumes stored in open stacks, is nirvana for bibliophiles. The vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, polished wood tables, and sun-filled alcoves overlooking the Granary Burying Ground offer an unparalleled setting for readers and scholars. But the Boston Athenaeum is more than just a collection of books. It’s also a cultural institution with an impressive art collection. Nonmembers are welcome to view the rotating exhibits in the first-floor gallery, and twice a week docents lead tours that highlight the building’s sculptures, paintings, and other prized possessions, such as the personal libraries of George Washington and Henry Knox.

While Beacon Hill’s south face became home to the rich and famous, the less-affluent, including waves of immigrants, crowded into modest homes and tenements on the steeper north slope. In the 1800s freed slaves and other African-Americans settled on Beacon Hill, turning it into an abolitionist hotbed and an important depot on the Underground Railroad.

“Many Bostonians have no idea really that there was a thriving, wonderful little community on the hill with an amazing history,’’ says Horace Seldon, a ranger with the Boston African American National Historic Site, which includes landmarks connected to the 19th-century free black community. “And it’s not just black history; it’s history that’s important to the whole United States.’’

Rangers lead guided tours along the 1.6-mile Black Heritage Trail, which winds past 14 sites, including the Abiel Smith School, the first public school for black children, which now houses two floors of rotating exhibits and a 15-minute film documenting the African-American experience in Boston. The adjacent African Meeting House, closed for renovations, was not only a house of worship but a place for meetings, debates, and fiery political speeches that earned it the nickname of the “Black Faneuil Hall.’’

After the Civil War, blacks migrated to other neighborhoods and Eastern European Jews were among the immigrant groups who took their place. The African Meeting House was converted to a synagogue in 1898, and other synagogues, such as the Vilna Shul, were built on Beacon Hill to serve the growing Jewish population.

The red brick facade of the Vilna Shul, built in 1919 and the city’s last remaining immigrant-era synagogue, is quintessential Beacon Hill, but the large Star of David rose window adds a distinctive touch. Today, the ground floor houses an exhibit that chronicles the Jewish experience in Boston, including a description of the settlement of Jewish immigrants in seven city neighborhoods and their subsequent migration to the suburbs. Visitors can also learn about Jewish traditions and rituals, and view Jules Aarons’s photographs of daily life. The second-floor sanctuary, which is in the midst of a large project to restore its hand-stenciled walls and ceilings, is bathed in natural light that pours through three large skylights on sunny days.

The brick construction and brass fixtures of the Church of the Advent are also classic Beacon Hill. The ornate high Victorian Gothic church is a feast for the eyes, and the ears. The church’s 172-foot spire features eight massive carillon bells made by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London (which also cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell). Visitors who contact the bell ringers in advance are given the unique opportunity to join in the Wednesday night practices or watch the circle of ringers work their magic between Sunday morning services.

The peal of the bells serenades the line of hungry diners snaking out the door of the nearby Paramount. The interior of the cozy neighborhood favorite has recently been updated, and the front window that is opened in nice weather adds an al fresco touch to the blueberry pancakes, ham and cheese omelets, and Texas-style French toast.

Panificio is another popular bistro that serves all day. With menus featuring everything from entrees and beer to soup and sandwiches to espresso and pastries, Panificio caters (reasonably) to all tastes.

It’s natural that Beacon Hill, the home of Cheers, should have some great neighborhood taverns. The dark interior and framed campaign posters inside the 21st Amendment give it a political backroom vibe, appropriate given its popularity with the pols and press who work under the gilded dome of the State House across the street. The Hill Tavern is such a local hangout that you see doctors and nurses from nearby Massachusetts General Hospital still in their scrubs.

Work off your meal or cocktail with a stroll down Charles Street, the hill’s main commercial thoroughfare. While the street has its share of upscale boutiques and antiques stores, there’s also a Main Street USA feel with local institutions such as Gary Drug, DeLuca’s Market, and Charles Street Supply.

Even calorie-counters will find it hard to ignore the siren call of Beacon Hill Chocolates. The fudge, brownie lollipops, and chocolate-covered pretzels will make you feel like a kid in Willie Wonka’s factory, and even if you don’t care for chocolate, it’s worth a peek through the truffle case glass to admire the carefully crafted candies shaped like cappuccino mugs, ice cream cones, and chocolate Labs.

If you find your dogs aching from walking around, hit the treadmill at the Boston Running Co. for a free video gait analysis that evaluates individual walking and running styles to suggest the footwear best suited for your mechanics. Your feet will thank you, particularly if you plan to scale Beacon Hill for more exploration.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.