May is Preservation Month, designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a time to “encourage people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them and to their communities.” Those of us at the Bostonian Society think that the Old State House and its collections are an important part of the cultural landscape of Boston and we work hard to preserve it for future generations. The Old State House has worn many hats in its 304 year history: it has served as the seat of royal government, Boston's City Hall, a commerce center, and finally, a museum. In a city with constant development and change, what saved the Old State House and what role did historic preservation play in turning it into a museum?
There is an oral tradition shared among Bostonian Society staff that at some point in the 1800s the city proposed that the Old State House be razed to make room for new development. Citizens in Chicago, Illinois were so surprised and upset to hear this news that they offered to buy the building and move it, brick-by-brick, to the shores of Lake Michigan. Bostonians could not imagine their historic building moving to Chicago, so they joined together to save the Old State House. While our staff has been unable to find a citation for this exact story, I found a variation of it in the Society's annual meeting minutes. In an address to the Society in January 1885, President Curtis Guild stated that a gentleman from St. Louis, Missouri had made known that in regard to the Old State House and Old South Meetinghouse, "he expressed the desire to be afforded opportunity to raise a sum by subscription in St. Louis sufficient to purchase the old materials and re-erect the buildings in that city as cherished mementos of our country's history." This offer was never extended, since by the mid-to-late 1880s there was an increase in support for historic preservation in Boston. The Bostonian Society was incorporated in 1881 and became the steward of the Old State House, restoring it to its colonial appearance and turning it into a museum. The goal was to maintain the building as an important part of Revolutionary history and to build museum, archival, and library collections that would support Boston's history.
The desire to preserve the Old State House was spurred on in part by the demolition of John Hancock's mansion on Beacon Hill. The loss of this building to the city's historical landscape upset many Bostonians and resulted in a public outcry, so it is not difficult to imagine that a similar proposal to demolish the Old State House would have been met with resistance. In that same 1885 address, Guild stated that "it is an attack on the rights of people to attempt . . . to level with the dust the few great reminders of the early struggles of this country for independence, so that only the legend remains, to perpetuate their memory." A formalized approach to historic preservation came about twenty years too late to save the Hancock House - it was demolished in 1863 and some of its contents were auctioned off. Consequently, many historical societies and museums throughout the city have Hancock House relics in the collections, and our own collection is no exception. Our museum holdings include a number of artifacts, pictured in the slideshow to the left: door knocker (1885.0045 - Gift of Oliver Wendell Holmes), baluster (1919.0005 - Gift of Harry F. Damon), and bracket (I 1987.0119a). An 1863 broadside announcing "all materials of the Old Hancock House of Revolutionary fame on Beacon Street to be sold at auction" is part of our archival collection (MS0119/DC691). While the Hancock House itself is no longer in existence, the long-term maintenance of its artifacts has preserved a portion of it, and speaks to its historical importance.
The theme for Preservation Month is "This Place Matters." Looking at the Society's early records and the push for historic preservation in the 1800s, we know that our work preserves not just the building and its collections, but the legacy of people who thought that this place mattered then, too.