Saturday, March 15, 2014

A House on Beacon Hill, or Walking Across the Common on a Snowy Day.

On Thursday, I had reason to travel into Boston though it was a very cold day.  Upon my return, I made these notes. Some facts I report are erroneous, based as they were on what I'd heard from people that day (which might, in and of itself, be an interesting comment on how history gets transmitted).  William Prescott's biographical details, for example, are completely wrong.  He was not yet born at the time of the American Revolution.  Though he did live in the house, it wasn't until 1845.  The house was built in 1808, designed by Asher Benjamin, which means it did exist in Jane Austen's lifetime (she died in 1817).


From City Hall, I ran down to the Central Square T stop to hop on the Red Line to get into Boston to give my little Kendall Square talk.  The day was bitter cold and snowy, and I arrived in Boston with about 20 minutes to spare for the 1 pm engagement, so I thought I’d get a coffee before heading over to the place.  A quick walk down Tremont Street quickly disabused me of this idea. The howling wind and the biting cold convinced me tout de suite to forget about it, and I just decided that I would get there early, which demanded a walk across the Boston Common to 55 Beacon Street – the Prescott House is what I think the place was called – where the talk was to be given. 

When I turned to cross the Common, all I could observe was that the wind had been sent to send the midday snow swirling, a white veil of depth that gave a third dimension of challenge to my pilgrimage across this colonial ground, a walk across time in some of the oldest American land.  The Common would not relinquish its dead without a fight.  The Common would not relinquish its history without a fight, and would not reveal its stories without the same.  Winter would not relinquish Massachusetts either.  And they were all fighting.  Little me, arrogant me, brave me, I wanted to cross this land, reach my safe harbor over there, in that house, over there.  I cursed the heavens.  I am not a stranger in a strange land, I shouted. This is my land.  I am from here.  Not Massachusetts to be sure, but New York.  I know this land.  I know this history.  Welcome to the 17th century my friend.  Here is winter.

Prescott was a colonial governor and a general in the Revolutionary War, and clearly a man of means and capacity, who made out quite well in the process of war and the founding of a nation, and with all his accumulated wealth built himself a house on the hill near his new capital.  The house is grand, not of a Versailles scale obviously, but large enough in a Beacon Hill context – screw that, in an American context – to give one serious pause.  Unlike the Hooper-Lee-Nichols house on Brattle Street where the Cambridge Historical Society is housed, where one feels one is walking into a relatively primitive construction from a rather rugged time, this Prescott house gives quite the opposite sense – early 19th century splendor and opulence from a time of wealth and sophistication that presumably matched what was happening in London or Paris at the time.  The house now is home to the Society of Colonial Dames or Daughters of the American Revolution or some such, which means that it has an owner and a landlord, but the space can be rented for 2 hours on the middle of a Thursday. 

What is so odd about this house is that it feels so out of place in America.  It is so obviously European in its references, but unlike the faux French chateaux that the Rockefellers and the Fricks and the Vanderbilts built along Fifth Avenue, this house feels authentically American at the same time.  It’s an odd combination of the dominance of the English culture in the former colony, a dominance that extended into post-Revolutionary America, and yet at the same time the undeniable truth that we were an independent nation.  In this way, the house is odd not for its architectural detailing, which is not so uncommon and found in other houses of the era along the eastern seaboard, but for its size, its grandeur, the height of its ceilings, the breath of the cavity of the central staircase that winds up the middle of the house in a large square pattern, the intricacy of the details on the balustrade, the paneling on the walls.  

This place is also so clearly a city house, not a country house.  It goes up rather than out, which is also fairly unique in the American context for that time.  There was so much land that could be built upon, but Mr. Prescott wanted to be close to the centers of power, so he chose an urban architecture.  It is undeniably part of what makes it feel so European, where both Paris and London for exactly the same reasons saw grand houses sprawl upwards not outwards while still retaining the grand meeting spaces, the ceremonial gathering rooms and social rooms.  Fascinating to think about. 

Though we’re in America, we could be in a Jane Austen novel.