Hidden Treasures of Beacon Hill

11 Beacon Hill Gems

Once upon a snowy morning in Boston’s charming Beacon Hill neighborhood, my passion for photography was born. Outside my window, a magical scene was unfolding, and for a second, I imagined I was enclosed within a picturesque snow globe-setting. I quickly grabbed my brand-new, unused camera, layered up and captured an enchanting winter wonderland in all its glory outside; I craved something more tangible than a memory to describe the beauty I was witnessing. Since that morning, my appreciation, captivation and enthusiasm for Beacon Hill has continued to intensify – through all four brilliant seasons.

The oldest of nine districts in Boston, Beacon Hill is steeped in rich history dating back to the 18th century. Time stands still here: Its heritage look has been preserved and well-maintained – an incredible feat given the neighborhood’s age and antiquity. And, the details are exquisite. If you acquaint yourself with just a bit of the Beacon Hill’s history, you’ll gain an entirely new perspective on your surroundings.

If you have the privilege to explore Beacon Hill (and I highly recommend adding to the top of your Boston bucket list), here are 11 distinctive features you’ll notice in the neighborhood. For my favorite spots to photograph, check out my post here:

1) Federal-Style Buildings

Beacon Hill’s homes range from row houses, to semi-detached houses and even freestanding mansions (yes, please!). You can tell a lot about the period of the building by studying its architecture.

You’ll notice mostly brick Federal Style Buildings (~1790-1820) in Beacon Hill, popularized by Charles Bulfinch, who designed the Massachusetts State House; the earliest homes were made of wood.

Some indicators of this classical Federal Style of architecture include:

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Federal Style 2

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Federal-Style Otis House, 1796

The Greek Revival (~1820s-1850) brought Greek columns and ornamental portico to the neighborhood, and the Victorian Era (~1850s-1900), bay windows.

2) Hidden Gardens

Tucked behind many brick facades in Beacon Hill are wonderful city gardens, serving as outdoor extensions to these homes. To my (selfish) dismay, they’re not all meant for show – more for retreat and refreshment of the owners.

One rare exception is 29 A Chestnut Street, possessing an elaborate garden that’s visible from the street. The lawn, 25 feet wide, houses a historic property which was once occupied by Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth. In the spring, tulips and bright flowers accent the young trees, and in the winter, the charming Christmas accents and fresh, powder snow yield a fairytale-like scene.

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There’s something exhilarating, yet often frustrating, about not knowing what’s behind every door in Beacon Hill. I personally try to peek into any nooks and crannies to catch a glimpse; however, the official viewing party takes place every third Thursday in May. Since 1928, the Beacon Hill Garden Club has offered behind-the-scenes tours of 10-12 gardens, otherwise hidden from public view.

3) Brick Sidewalks and Cobblestone Streets

Watch your step! Adding to the neighborhood’s exquisite charm and appeal, sidewalks in Beacon Hill are made of bricks.

In 1947, Mayor James Curley had made the decision to pave Beacon Hill’s sidewalks with cement, noting the bricks caused accidents; yet, the resilient ladies of Beacon Hill wouldn’t have it. Following a strong resistance, the women won “the battle of the bricks” (let’s hear it for the girls), and we still walk all over them today – the bricks, that is.

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Beacon Hill also houses the city’s ONLY true form of cobblestones in significant quantity. Most notably, Acorn Street, the most photographed street in Boston, features cobblestones, in addition to Louisburg Square and a few driveways on Mount Vernon Street.

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4) Gas-Lit Street Lamps

As the oldest historic district in Boston, Beacon Hill retains many of its significant features – including vintage gas-lit street lamps, strung along the narrow streets. The lamps are preserved solely for history, character and nostalgia, as they’re certainly costlier than electricity. In total, about 2,800 gas lamps exist in Beacon Hill, Back Bay, North End and Charlestown.

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5) Boot Scrapers

As you walk through Beacon Hill, take a close look on the doorsteps. Do you notice wrought iron fixtures at several entryways?

I’ll explain: Back in the day, streets were unpaved and horses were the mode of transportation. These iron contraptions were intended to scrape the mud and manure off residents’ and guests’ boots before entering the house. Today, many still exist – some more ornate than others.

6) Carriage Homes & Stables

Many residences in Beacon Hill were initially built for horses, and it’s very apparent in retrospect.

One of my favorite carriage homes (and its coinciding story) is at 50 Mount Vernon Street, known as “Thirteen Foot House.” Originally, they were three separate carriage houses (now one unit), each accompanied by a larger home on Chestnut Street. Hepzibah Swan, wife of revolutionary patriot James Swan, gave one to each of her three daughters.

Mrs. Swan also lived on Chestnut Street, and she wanted to maintain her view up the hill to Mount Vernon Street. Therefore, she dictated that the roof of the stables must never be raised more than 13 feet above Mount Vernon Street (Olive Street, at the time). As you’ll notice, the unit is clearly low-to-the-ground, surrounded by much taller brick buildings.

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7) Purple Windows

Allow me to share with you one of my favorite “Beacon Hill” secrets: Purple windows. Known as Lavenders, these are an incredibly rare find among original residences in the neighborhood.

From 1818 to 1824, a glass manufacturer in England exported these “crystal clear” windows. But, too much manganese oxide in the glass resulted in a light purple hue, once exposed to the sun. Residents were none too pleased at the time, yet the panels ultimately became a status symbol. Today, a few buildings retain the historical glass.

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8) Door Knockers

As you walk around the quaint Beacon Hill, pay attention to the door knockers. You’ll see sea shells, lobsters, pineapples and lions (OH MY!) – the list goes on. The decorative knockers, which can be quite expensive, tend to mostly serve as symbolic functions.

According to Frank McGuire, co-chair of the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s architecture committee, “A door knocker is not just something that makes a noise. It says something about the people on the other side of the door.”

9) Window Boxes & Christmas Wreaths

Beacon Hill is appealing year-round. But, for two seasons of the year in particular, the neighborhood décor is next level.

In the spring, residents adorn each window (and as you know by now, Federal Style buildings have several) with stunning, seasonal flowers. You can dedicate an entire day walking around and admiring the bright pops of color against red brick homes. Although, the most elaborate window boxes make me wonder (and antsy to find out) how exquisite their secret gardens must be!

Around the winter holidays, nearly every door is decorated with a Christmas wreath. There’s no neighborhood more attractive and seasonal than Beacon Hill in December.

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10) Alleyways

Alleys typically carry the connotation of being creepy and dangerous, but you must dissociate these implications in Beacon Hill. If there’s no notice of “private passageway” or “do not enter,” be sure to walk down each and every narrow alleyway. Some connect to other streets, and others are dead ends, but they all carry some element of surprise – hidden homes, unique residences, viewpoints of “secret” gardens and elaborate fire escapes, to name a few.

My two favorite “hidden” alleyways are:

  • Passageway between Joy Street and Russell Street, accessible by walking to the seeming “dead end” of Smith Court
  • Champney Place, off of Anderson Street. How about that white bench at the dead end?

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11) Fire Escapes

Lastly, don’t forget to look up. These important safety inclusions can also be serious works of art.

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Did you learn anything new? Did I miss anything? Please share!

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