Hancock Mansion Door Project: The Research

In preparation for an exhibit here in the Old State House, we are partnering with the Preservation Carpentry Program at the North Bennet Street School to recreate the front entrance to John Hancock's long-demolished mansion. The mansion was built in 1737 by John Hancock’s uncle Thomas and demolished in 1863. It stood on Beacon Hill in Boston near the current State House and was demolished in 1863 to make way for two fashionable townhouses. Its demolition and the subsequent outrage precipitated the origin of the Preservation Movement in the United States. It was even cited as one of the justifications for the founding of the Bostonian Society in 1881 and our preservation of the Old State House.

The Bostonian Society owns the front door to the mansion and the Preservation Carpentry students are rebuilding the internal and external surround so that we can display it in our gallery. In order to build the most accurate replica, the students and instructors, assisted by their advisory board and Bostonian Society staff, have spent several months researching the house. The research covered architectural drawings, images, documents, building elements preserved in museum collections, and two houses that were built to mimic the Hancock Mansion.

J.H. Stugis' 1863 Measured Drawing of the South Elevation of the Hancock House

The visual record for the Hancock Mansion includes measured architectural drawings done by John Hubbard Sturgis (1834-1888), drawn just prior to its demolition in 1863. The research process included comparing these drawings to the 19th century photographs of the house, at which point it was discovered that Sturgis’ drawing were not fully accurate. Among other things, Sturgis depicted five keystones above the door, rather than the three that can be seen in the photographs.

 The resaerch also covered drawings, engravings, and paintings which include the Hancock Mansion. Although these depictions may not be fully accurate, they can help us to build a more complete picture.

Detail from 1915.0013.001, a 1812 painting of the Park Street Church on Boston Common

 

One particular document has been crucial to our research: the contract between Thomas Hancock and Thomas Johnson, a Connecticut stonemason. In it, Thomas Johnson agreed to provide “as much Connecticut Stone as shall be sufficient to beatify and build four corners, one large front door, nine front windows and a facie for the front and back part over the lower story windows of a certain stone house which the said Thomas Hancock is about to erect on a certain piece of land situate near Beacon Hill…” Although our stone quoins and keystones are made from wood, they will be painted to look like Connecticut sandstone based on this passage.

There are two houses still standing which were built to resemble the Hancock House. One of these is the Ticonderoga Historical Society building, built in 1926 and originally known as The Headquarters House. The staff at the Ticonderoga Historical Society have provided high quality photographs of their building that have been invaluable to the process. Closer to home, students were able to visit the Carey House in Cambridge, MA, which was designed by J.H. Sturgis, using his measured drawings as a basis and built in 1881-2. The Carey House uses wood rather than stone around the doors and windows, but the details of the carved brackets which support the portico on either side of the door were very informative, since they cannot be clearly seen in either the drawings or the photographs.

Pieces of the Hancock Mansion were sold at auction in 1863 and many local museum collections, including ours, contain pieces of the house. Our own collection includes a door knocker which was sold at auction and used on the house of Oliver Wendell Homes for many years before it was donated to us, as well as several architectural elements such as balusters and modillions. Students and advisory board members visited several collections, including Historic New England and the Massachusetts Historical Society, as well as visiting the stone steps which once led to the front door (now in Larz Anderson Park in Brookline). This allowed them to study molding profiles, stone and wood carving styles, and paint treatments, all of which are crucial to the project.

I 1987.0119A Modillion from the roof line of the Hancock House, painted bronze

 

This process clearly shows how much more we know about the Hancock Mansion than of most houses which were demolished in the mid-19th century. This building was valued as a historical structure both during its lifetime and after. In preserving images, documents, and physical pieces of the structure, our predecessors both proved how important they believed this house to be and gave us an unprecedented ability to recreate it.