The headquarters of the Colonial Society at 87 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, is an important Beacon Hill landmark, having been built by the famous architect Charles Bulfinch in 1807. Unfortunately because of our small staff, we are unable to open it to the public, but we happily provide the following information written by Elton Hall, our curator. Please click here to read
the entire article in PDF Format.
The Colonial Society's House
87 Mount Vernon Street, Boston
by Elton W. Hall
87 Mount Vernon Street, ca. 1940, courtesy
of Thomas M. Paine
IMAGINE that it is the year 1806. You are standing on the front
steps of the house recently completed by Charles Bulfinch for
Stephen Higginson, Jr., at Mount Vernon, or more precisely just
west of the site on which the knoll known as Mount Vernon had
lately stood. Aside from the other half of the double house at
which you stand and the house built in 1801 for Harrison Gray
Otis next door, you see few buildings as you look out over an
expanse of open land to the south and west sloping down to the
Back Bay where the waters lap at the foot of the hill only a few
hundred feet away at the edge of newly constructed Charles Street.
As late as the 1790s the western and southern slopes of Beacon Hill were largely
pasture lands. With the construction of the Charles River Bridge
in 1786 and three others in subsequent years, the situation changed
dramatically as the district became a thoroughfare. The north
slope, facing navigable water, had been developed much earlier
and was occupied by wharves, maritime tradesmen, rope walks, and
sailors' boarding houses where such boisterous and ribald entertainment
took place as to earn that district the unflattering name of "Mount
About that time the state government had outgrown the old Town House, and a plan was approved to purchase a tract of pasture land from John Hancock's heirs on the slope of Beacon Hill for the construction of a new State House to plans drawn by Charles Bulfinch. The cornerstone was laid on 4 July 1795 and the building occupied 11 January 1798.2
Library, ca. 1900, courtesy of Thomas M. Paine
Harrison Gray Otis, a member of the town committee that had purchased
the Hancock pasture, realized that the presence of the government
would change the character of the area dramatically, offering
the possibility of a highly respectable residential neigh-borhood.
Much of the upland pasture on the south and west slopes of the
hill was owned by John Singleton Copley who had been residing
in England for the previous twenty years. Forming with Jonathan
Mason, Dr. Benjamin Joy, and Hepsibah Swan, a group known as the
Mount Vernon Proprietors, Otis arranged with Copley's agent to
purchase the entire tract at the rate of $1,000 per acre. Unhappy
with the agreement, Copley sent his son, later Lord Lyndhurst,
the Lord Chancellor of England, to try to break the commitment.
Copley, however, found that Mr. Otis had taken care of all the
technicalities and was compelled to sell the property for $18,450.3
The proprietors also acquired pastures from Charles Allen and
the heirs of Enoch Brown making in all a tract bounded westerly
by the Charles River, southerly by Beacon Street as far as the
east side of Walnut Street, easterly by the east side of Walnut
to the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, southerly again
by the south side of Mount Vernon Street to the corner of Mount
Vernon and Joy Streets, easterly again by Joy Street, and northerly
by a line about seventy feet north of Pinckney Street back down
to the Charles River.4 This was such an extensive tract of land
that thirty years were to pass before the land west of 89 Mount
Vernon Street was laid out.
1. Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston, A Topographical History (Cambridge,1968), p.7-8.
2. Whitehill, p. 59.
3. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist (Boston, 1913), p.42-43.
4. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Lucy Valentine vs. W. P. Mason et als., 1890. Petitions 4331 and 4229. A printed brief gives a thorough history of ownership of the properties.
Please click here to read
the entire article in PDF Format.