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ATURALLY enough, next to Boston Common comes Boston Preferred! For the term can very well be used in referring to Beacon Hill, which edges and over looks the Common and is still the finest residence section of the city. And this Boston Preferred, this Beacon Hill, still stands for the exclusiveness, the permanence, the fixity, of Boston society; it stands for the social cohesion of the city.
Beacon Hill is still of very considerable altitude, even though it was long ago lowered, by vigorous cutting-down, from the triple-peaked height that it was originally when it gave Boston its first and grandiose name of Tri-Mountain. The triple-peak disappeared and. a single rounded top remained. The State House stands on the present summit of the hill, and the top of its great gold dome is at the same height as was the top of the hill itself originally. The hill is still so steep that in places there are lengths of iron handrails set into and against the buildings for the aid of pedestrians in icy weather, and there are notices at the foot of some of the hills to warn vehicles not to attempt them when the slopes are icy but to take some roundabout course instead – with Bostonian attention to detail, the particular course being suggested. And at teas or receptions the waiting motor-cars are likely to be standing with their wheels turned rakishly against the curb for safety. And on the most slippery days the motors and carriages that have dared to venture upon the actual slopes go dangerously, for the horses slip in nervous helplessness, and now and then some motor skids and slides and whirls and either dashes against the curb or slides swift and uncontrolled to the foot of the hill.
And as to the name of the hill, no one need think that beacons are but a picturesque figure of speech in regard to long-past American days, for beacons were a very real and at the same time an extremely romantic feature of early life in this country. Baroness Riedesel, the wife of the Brunswick general captured with Burgoyne, tells that when she was with her captive husband in Cambridge there was an alarm which caused a rising of the entire countryside, that barrels of pitch blazed on the hilltops, and that for some days armed Americans came hurrying in, some of them even without shoes and stockings, but all eager and ready to fight. Historians have so ignored the romantic in America that they have almost succeeded in giving Americans themselves the idea that the romantic never existed here.
Beacon Hill is the part of Boston that is still full of fine old homes. They are not the earliest houses of the city, they are not even pre-Revolutionary, but they are of the fine period following shortly after the Revolution. They are generous, comfortable, well proportioned, dignified houses, with their soft-toned brick and their typical bowed fronts and their general air of spaciousness and geniality – the bows in the fronts being gentle outward swells of the walls from top to bottom of the house, with two windows in each bow, one on each side and none in the middle; something entirely different from most modern bay-windows, of Boston and elsewhere, which are excrescences with three windows. Quite English, old-fashioned English, are the Beacon Hill bow-fronts; very much the kind of fronts that Barrie somewhere describes as bringing to a stop the people driving through a little village.
That this part of Boston is really on a hill is recognized as you climb it; and if, on some of the streets, you sit inside of one of the bowed windows and a man is walking down the hill, you are likely to see him from the waist up as he passes the upper window, and to see only the top of his hat when he passes the lower! But an even better way to realize just how much of a hill this still is, is to look back at it from one of the bridges over the Charles for, from such a viewpoint, this part of the city rises prominent and steep, with its congregated mass of buildings etched dim and dark against the sky, like an old-time engraving darkened and at the same time beautified with age. This Beacon Hill is so charming a part of the city as to be supreme among American perched places for delightfulness of homes and city living.
Mount Vernon Street is the finest bit of this fine district. One of the old residents of the street said to me, with more than a touch of pride, that Henry James termed it the only, respectable street in America. Well, Henry James liked Mount Vernon Street very much indeed, although he did not write precisely what was quoted to me as being his. What he wrote was that this was the happiest street scene our country could show (perhaps I should remark that the context shows him to use "happy" in the general sense of felicitous), "and as pleasant, on those respectable lines, in a degree not surpassed even among outward pomps." After all, looking at his words again, there need be small wonder that he was misquoted, for who, except a devoted disciple of James, could be expected to understand precisely what this phrasing means! But the general impression is clear, and that is that Henry James, critically conversant as he was with the most beautiful streets of Europe, and idolizing Europe, still had high admiration for beautiful Mount Vernon Street.
The street is one of serenity, and there is a certain benignancy of dignity which seems to make an atmosphere of its own; there is a constant beauty of restraint, and of even a sort of retiring seclusion, even though the houses are built close together. It is indeed a felicitous street, and the more felicitous from a certain crookedness, or at least out-of-straightness, in its street lines, that comes from quite a number of unexpected and unexplainable little bends, so slight as not at first to be noticed, but which add materially to effectiveness.
But it must not be thought that Mount Vernon Street is the only part of Beacon Hill that is full of charm, for there are other charming streets as well, notably Chestnut Street, rich in old-time atmosphere, and Beacon Street, fronting bravely out over the Common, and that charming Louisburg Square about which all of Beacon Hill may be said to cluster: and it may be mentioned that the Beacon Hillers like to pronounce Louisburg with the "s" sounded.
Louisburg Square is like Gramercy Park in New York, in that the people who own the abutting properties possess certain ownership in it – the central portion being oval and not square, and the entire square being oblong. It is amusing that when the trees in the center are trimmed and lopped the wood is divided into bundles and parcels and evenly distributed for fireplace burning among all of the adjoining property, holders.
In any city, even in Europe, Louisburg Square would at once attract attention as a charming little bit. Its central oval is green, tree shaded, with grass within an iron fence, and all about it are fine old houses of old Boston type. It is really a bit of old London, and that this is no mere fancy is shown by the fact that when a country-wide search was made by a moving picture concern which was preparing for an elaborate presentation of Vanity Fair, the search resulted in fixing upon this little Louisburg Square, with its shading trees and old-fashioned house-fronts, to represent the Russell Square of London and of Thackeray. A house was chosen – any one of a number might have been chosen – for the Osborne home, and the street sign of "Louisburg Square" was taken down. and "Russell Square" was substituted, but no other alteration was needed. I went to see the picture given, and had I not positively known that it was Louisburg Square I should never have doubted that it was really the familiar Russell Square at which I was looking. That the house chosen was Number 20 adds a point of interest, for it is the house in which the wonderful singer, Jenny Lind, was married to her accompanist, Otto Goldschmidt, in the course of that remarkable American tour in which she was given $175,000 and all of her expenses, while her manager, P. T. Barnum, received as his share $500,000.
There are two little statues, modestly pedestaled, within the oval of green, one at either end, and each of them is a little smaller than life size. They are so quietly sedate, these smallish marble men, that they seem as if made with particular thought of the sedateness of this smallish square. One of the figures, so one recognizes, is of Columbus, but the other is so unfamiliar, with a face so different from that of any well-known American, that one wonders in vain who it can possibly be – and then it is learned that it is Aristides! One helplessly wonders why Aristides the Just stands here!
And the matter seems still stranger when one learns that, so the residents tell you, these two marble monuments were the very first of all the Boston public monuments to individuals.
Something approaching a century ago, so it appears, a Greek merchant settled in Boston and made his home here on Louisburg Square, and he so loved the environment that he had these monuments sent over from Greece and presented them to the city to stand forever here; choosing Columbus as his idea of the man most representative of all America, and Aristides because he personally loved the good old Greek, his own countryman. A story like that does add so much to the charm of a charming place.
Beautiful Mount Vernon Street
This old part of the city, and particularly Louisburg Square, is a gathering place for cats; not homeless cats that furtively creep away, but sleek, sedate, well-fed, lovable and likable cats; cats come here to meet each other or to hunt birds or just to take a stroll. They are of all races, sizes, and colors, from the big, glorious yellow to the shiny-coated jet black. Sometimes only one or two are in sight; at other times there may be several; then, when. these wander off, others will wander incidentally in, perhaps only one or two again or perhaps a group. When tired of walking or of hunting or of exchanging compliments with one another they are not unlikely to rest comfortably on the bases of the monuments, generally choosing, for some obscure catlike reason, Columbus in preference to Aristides; indeed, a cat on Columbus is a familiar neighborhood sight.
Here on Beacon Hill some of the houses have panes of purple glass in their windows, and one learns that this empurpling effect makes the house owners very proud indeed. It seems that quite a quantity of window glass was made which contained some unexpected material, just when some of the best houses hereabouts were building, and that it was used in these houses, and that in course of time and the action of the sunlight, the glass containing the unexpected substance turned purple and that purple it has ever since remained. Just why it should be a matter of special pride to have too much foreign substance in one's window glass it is hard for even the Bostonians to explain, for they realize that the houses are just as old, and would look just as old, without the purple panes; but none the less, to them it represents vitreous connection with a proud and precious past. As a matter of fact, a similar pride used to be felt by the owners of some old-time houses on Clinton Place and Irving Place in New York City, which also possessed purple panes. One wonders if there is some subtle and subconscious connection between the ideas of purple glass and blue blood; at any rate, the owners have all the sense of living in the purple.
Boston goes to sleep early, and Beacon Hill goes even earlier than does the rest of the city. And, the people once in bed, it takes a good deal to rouse them. At a few minutes before eleven one night I was walking down Mount Vernon Street, with the houses all blank and black, when I saw an automobile fire-engine and hook-and-ladder start climbing up the hill. Never have I heard so terrific a street noise. For the heavy motors were on low gear, and each moment they were almost stalling, and they were grating, grinding and shrieking as they slowly fought their way, with noises that shattered the very air. One would have thought that every individual on the hill would be aroused. But no! If any house on Beacon Hill must burn, it must be before eleven at night or else neighbors refuse to be interested. Two servants opened a dormer window and looked out – and that was all!
Beacon Hill, the height of exclusiveness, the citadel of aristocracy, all this it has long been, as if its being a hill aided in giving it literal unapproachableness. It still retains its prideful poise, in its outward and visible signs of perfectly cared-for houses and correctness of dress and manners and equipage. But the gradual approach of changes is shown by shy little signs, frightened at their own temerity, that here and there on Beacon Street modestly print the names of this or that publisher, and by other little signs on Pinckney Street which set forth the single word "Rooms."
Some years ago there was something of a migration from this region to the Back Bay, and many wealthy folk of Boston now live over there, but the better families have always looked on the Back Bay as not to be compared with Beacon Hill.
From the first a poorer and, from the standpoint of Beacon Hill, an undesirable, population has swarmed up against the barriers from the north side, the side farthest away from the Common, but for generation after generation the barriers have held firm against them, and now there are even signs of redeeming a little of this adjoining district. Just off one of these poorer streets, I noticed a courtyard, Bellingham Court (the old governor's name has an aristocratic sound!), running back for some two hundred feet to a high wall that once was blank, and not only is that wall now thick-covered with ivy, but on either side of the brick-paved courtyard the few modest little houses are flower-bedecked, and green with vines, and brass-knockered. The courtyard is not for vehicles, and down its center are arranged neatly painted boxes of flowers, with brilliant geraniums the most prominent, as a strong note is needed. It is a little sheltered nook where the commonplace has been transformed into loveliness.
Not all of the old houses have old Bostonians living in them, for some new Bostonians are here also, and one of these naïvely said to me that on first moving in she was so disturbed by seeing people stop and look up at her windows that she nervously went from room to room to see if the curtains were wrong, only to find later that her house was attracting attention because it was one of the houses in which Louisa M. Alcott had lived.
The residents of this region, though ultra-particular in some respects, are not afraid to do the unusual. Two dear old ladies of eminently correct family, living in n eminently correct house, keep a dishpan chained to their front doorstep to offer water to dogs and cats! It would take a lifetime to learn just how the people of this city differentiate the things that in themselves simply must not be done, and the things which, no matter how unusual or exceptional or odd, may be done with impunity.
That Beacon Hill, with its long-maintained social prestige, is but a few minutes' walk from the stir and crowds and bustle of the busiest business streets, and that on its crest is the very center of the political activities of Massachusetts, the State House, makes its continued possession of these serried ranks of capable, comfortable, handsome homes the more surprising in these days of constant American change, and that it is so much of a hill as always to have been impracticable for street cars seems to be the great single reason for its being so long left practically unaltered. The absence of street cars also adds very much to the general effect of serenity and peacefulness.
Most of the houses are of brick, unpainted and soft red, agreeably mellowed and toned by the weathering of years. Indeed, the effect of the entire hill is an effect of brick, for not only are the houses brick but the typical ones are, in general, narrowly corniced with dentiled brick, and the brick walls drop down to the universal brick sidewalks of the district. Yet there is no wearisome likeness of design: continually there is the relief of the variant.
The accessories of the hill charmingly befit the homes, and chief among these accessories is the greenery. For there are lines of trees on the streets, and groups or single trees in the square or in some of the gardens behind the homes, and here and there is a mighty spreading elm, and here and there is a flowering ailanthus, and in every direction, on the fronts or the sides of the houses, one sees wistarias in coils or convolutions or sinuous lengths, and some of the vines are of giant thickness, and some clamber over the iron balconies, twisting and crushing and knotting themselves python-like around the rails; and one sees, too, the Boston ivy, the ampelopsis, sweetly massing its rich green against the soft red of brick. Innumerable window-boxes give color and fragrance and English-like touches of beauty. And on one of these streets I noticed a mighty, ancient rose vine, almost a ruin, which has annually spread its flowers there for decades. And all of this in the very heart of this old city!
And one of the most prominent of the large old houses, a mansion in very truth – the old-time rule in New England being that a mansion was a house with a servants' stair, but using the word here in its usual sense of meaning a large and stately home has behind it, terraced above a side street, a high-set and level garden, with a garden-house of diamond-paned windows; a garden rather melancholy now but so romantically high perched as to have all the effect of what the ancients meant by "hanging garden."
That on all of these streets the houses are of varying widths adds immensely to the general picturesque effect; in fact, the streets which show the greatest variety in width of houses are the most picturesque. None of the streets is what a Western man would call broad, and some are really narrow, the narrowest of all being little Acorn Street, so slender that you may shake hands across its width. An attractive little street, this, with its line of neat little houses and its brave array of prettily framed doorways and polished brass knockers; the houses being on one side only of the narrow way, facing the high walls, trellised on top and green with vines, of the gardens of Mount Vernon Street homes.
Several of the streets of the hill climb straight and steep from the waters of the Back Bay, and there are positively beautiful views looking down. the vistaed narrowness and out across the surface of the water. Stand well up on the steepness of Pinckney Street, and look down at the water sparkling under a sky of Italian blue, and across the sweeping stretch to the white classic temples gleaming in the sun on the farther edge of the Charles (and they look like temples, although in fact they are new buildings of the School of Technology), and you will see how striking and beautiful a city view may be. Or, stand well up on the steep of Mount Vernon Street in the late afternoon of an early autumn day, when the golden sun transmutes the water of the Charles into gold, and scatters showers of gold through the branches of the trees, and flings the gold in splotches and streaks and shimmerings on the pavement, and all is a glorious golden glamour, and again you will realize how beautiful a view it is possible for a city to offer.
Beacon Hill is so delightfully mellow! And this mellowness of aspect comes not only from the fineness of the old houses in their age-weathering of brick, but also from such things as the old iron balconies that hang in front of the drawing-room windows (all this part of old Boston having its drawing-rooms one flight up so that the people, following the English tradition, may "go down to dinner"), and the brass knockers, and the doorknobs of brass or old glass, and the old frames of iron, leaded into brick or stone, like those of old Paris that used to hold the ancient lanterns that roused the à la lanterne cry so terrible to the French aristocrats, and the old iron rails, with little brass urns on their posts, on the tops of big-stoned walls, and the fat cast-iron pineapples, ancient emblems of hospitality, and the good old footscrapers, of fine dignity in spite of their lowly use; and one cannot pass along any of these old streets without seeing at windows, as if turning a cold shoulder to the present day, fascinating chair-backs of Chippendale or Sheraton, or even of the rare Jacobean.
On Beacon Hill one is always anticipating the unusual. And one evening, just as dusk was softly creeping over Louisburg Square, strains of music softly sounded, with a sort of gentle pathos, and there came quiveringly the old-fashioned "When we think of the days that are gone, Maggie." It was played so very, very slowly, so very, very sweetly, by two quite oldish men, both of them American, that window after window softly opened and women looked out, and home-going men paused in mounting their doorsteps, and a tenser silence, except for the quivering notes, fell over the twilight square, and all intently listened, all were moved. The two players, so unexpectedly American instead of German or Italian, seemed strange memories of the past, tremulously playing here their old-fashioned music in front of these old-fashioned houses that were, themselves, softly dimming like memories in the twilight.