J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Things Are Tough All Over

This month brought a spate of news reports about Boston's historic landmarks undergoing or needing repair. As the Boston Globe reported on 13 August, the Old State House is swathed in scaffolding. Tropical Storm Wilma damaged the 1713 building's northeast corner;

rainwater seeped through the building's porous bricks and aging mortar, warping wooden wainscoting inside, stripping away paint, and causing plaster to bubble and buckle. . . . An inspection of the building revealed slates were missing from the roof, the building's white tower—once the highest point in the city, second only to Old North Church—was rotting, and wooden windowsills needed replacing.
The photo above shows a leaking chimney.

The Old State House is probably the most historic structure in Boston, with all due respect to Faneuil Hall and the Old South Meeting-House. For much of the 1700s, the brick building—then called the "Town House"—was Boston's headquarters for all levels of government: the General Court (legislature) and Superior Court (highest level of the judiciary) of the province, and town meetings.

Even after the town government moved to Faneuil Hall and a new courthouse went up on Queen Street (now Court Street), the Town House was the epicenter of Massachusetts politics. That was where James Otis, Jr., argued against writs of assistance in 1761, first articulating the case that Parliament did not have the power to enact laws on an American province. It was where Samuel Adams became Clerk of the House and led the legislature in opposing new powers for royal officials. In 1770, the Town House overlooked the Boston Massacre; from its balcony Gov. Thomas Hutchinson asked the angry crowd to disperse, and in its rooms the next day Adams made the case for Hutchinson to remove the soldiers from the center of town.

The National Park Service is responsible for maintaining the Old State House building, though it belongs to Boston and is inhabited by the Bostonian Society. That non-profit organization has taken the lead in raising $3 million to repair the building, knowing how the NPS budget has been stretched first by security concerns and then by Congress seeking ways to pay for the 2005 hurricane damage while still cutting taxes.

Over at another NPS site, Longfellow House in Cambridge, I saw that the east porch is roped off, no longer usable during summer concerts and poetry readings. The wood is clearly in need of repair and painting. That porch wasn't part of the 1759 Georgian mansion when George Washington lived there in 1775-76, but former Continental Army Apothecary General Andrew Craigie added it when he expanded his property in the 1790s. Again, Congress writes the NPS budget and steers its major priorities.

In other news, the Globe and Boston Metro both ran an AP story on efforts to preserve the Boston Light, the lighthouse for Boston harbor in use since 1783. The first Boston Light was built in 1716, but the British military blew it up when they evacuated the region in 1776. The Americans chose not to rebuild the lighthouse until the war had ended so it couldn't be a landmark for English sea captains.

The Globe also reported that this month at the Old West Church, in some ways successor to the West Meeting-House of Revolutionary Boston, someone
desecrated the pulpit Bible, yanked Easter lilies from their pots, threw Methodist hymnals on the floor, cut up the century-old paintings of the church's original pastors, and damaged a 6-by-5-foot modern acrylic painting of Jesus.
Congregants expect they'll be able to repair the damage.

Finally, up north in New Hampshire, the Globe noted that the house at the Daniel Webster birthplace is closed with a collapsing hearth and rotting wood. Webster was born there in 1782; he moved to Massachusetts and became a renowned senator and litigator and a less universally well-regarded Secretary of State. As an orator Webster was in such high regard that he was invited to speak at the laying of the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument in 1825, and then invited back for its official opening in 1843.

Speaking of which, the Bunker Hill NPS site is closed, too, for serious refurbishing.

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