An Elegant Address: Henry Knox and the Tontine Crescent

Henry Knox, 1947.0002
Our Revolutionary Characters exhibit explores the lives of Bostonians by using artifacts from the Society's collections to highlight the daily lives, relationships, and aspirations of colonial subjects as they navigated a city forever changed by the conflict with Britain. Visitors have the opportunity to view notable items made by the likes of Paul Revere and Lydia Hutchinson, and a special document case also allows me to select an item from our archival collection that pertains to some of our Revolutionary Characters. By rotating the documents each month, I have the opportunity to share items associated with a number of Bostonians, from the famous to the lesser known.

I was recently able to display a document related to Henry Knox (1750-1806). Born and raised in Boston, Knox was a bookseller before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, during which he served as a military officer.  After the war, Knox was appointed the first Secretary of War in George Washington's cabinet.

The document from our collection is a deed from July 27, 1797, in which Knox deeded “a brick tenement situated at the easterly end of the Tontine buildings” to William Tudor for the sum of five dollars. This building was part of the Tontine Crescent, which was designed by architect Charles Bulfinch. Completed in 1794, it comprised 16 units arranged in a crescent shape and was Boston’s first row-house complex.  According to the deed, Knox owned building number one.  The crescent also included a central pavilion, flanked by eight units, that housed the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Boston Library Society. Arch Street, which is still a main thoroughfare in Downtown Crossing, ran through a central archway in the pavilion.

Bulfinch's design was influenced by architecture in England and France, and when it was completed it was praised as an example of modern elegance. The crescent, along with an oval-sized park and four double houses, was referred to as Franklin Place.

Tontine Crescent on Franklin Street, ca. 1853
The Tontine Crescent was demolished in 1858, but a few images from our collection capture what it looked like in the early 1850s.  To see more images, please search our photograph catalog and use "Tontine Crescent" as your search term.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager