Beacon Hill Historic Houses Tour, Boston

Beacon Hill Historic Houses Tour (Self Guided), Boston

Boston’s historic neighborhood of Beacon Hill is quite a charm! One can spend hours here, admiring the elegant uniformity and restraint of the architecture; at times, perhaps, imagining people from the past in their horse-drawn carriages. Federal-style and Victorian row houses, narrow streets lit by antique gas lanterns, brick sidewalks and lavender-hued windows adorn the area, which is generally regarded as one of the most desirable and expensive in the city.

For a quick – but very engaging – tour of the historic buildings, start at the Gibson House Museum, where you’ll learn a great deal about Back Bay history and living in the Victorian times in general. Another highlight is the Nichols House Museum on Mount Vernon, which has likewise been preserved as it was left by its last occupant, Rose Nichols, and as such gives a great insight into the lives of Boston’s middle-class professional families of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Last but not least, don’t miss the several houses formerly owned by noted lawyer-politician Harrison Gray Otis, the first of which – a National Historic Landmark – is usually open to the public. You can get close to the furniture, walk around the rooms, and really internalize the grandeur!

Make sure to bring your walking shoes and to select a nice day for wandering around. Our self-guided walking tour will do the rest, acquainting you with some of Beacon Hill’s most exclusive addresses.
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Beacon Hill Historic Houses Tour Map

Guide Name: Beacon Hill Historic Houses Tour
Guide Location: USA » Boston (See other walking tours in Boston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 7
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.1 Km or 1.3 Miles
Author: anna
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Gibson House Museum
  • William Hickling Prescott House
  • Otis House III
  • Otis House II
  • Nichols House Museum
  • Chester Harding House
  • Otis House I
Gibson House Museum

1) Gibson House Museum

If you are a student or lover of Social History, you wouldn't want to miss a visit to the Gibson House Museum in Boston’s famous Back Bay area.

This Italian Renaissance-style house was built in 1860 by Edward Clark Cabot, one of the city’s leading architects. It is a brownstone and red brick, six-storey terrace house bought by Catherine Gibson following her husband’s death. The property remained in Gibson's family, passing on to her son and grandson successively until the latter died in the early 1950s. The museum was opened in 1957. In 2001 the building was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Four of the six storeys are open to the public: the “false” ground floor, half below street level with windows and doors opening onto the back courtyard; and the ground floor with the entrance hall and dining room. A red-carpeted stairway leads to the upper floors and a narrow stairway leads to the kitchens. On the first floor there are the largest rooms in the house, the music room and the library. On the second floor there are a bedroom and a study (once a bedroom) separated by a bathroom and a dressing room.

Tastefully decorated with the original family furniture, portraits, porcelains and ceramics, each room of the house expresses louder than words the Bostonian upper-class way of life between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries.

Why You Should Visit:
Boston is all about its history, and if you're interested in it at all in the slightest, this is a great destination to see life as it once was.
Aside from being an observer, you can really get the most out of the guided tour if you ask questions (so...don't be afraid to ask).

Arrive early and wait outside until tour time, then ring the bell for assistance.
They do not like to interrupt a tour in progress and will likely turn you away, if late.
Special events are held throughout the year – check their site regularly!

Opening Hours:
Wed: 11am-9pm; Thu-Sun: 1pm-4pm
Visits are by guided tour only, Wednesday–Sunday
Tours begin promptly at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
William Hickling Prescott House

2) William Hickling Prescott House

William Hickling Prescott House, also known as “Headquarters House”, is a historic house museum located in the left-hand portion of a double townhouse on Beacon Street. Built in 1808, the twin houses were designed by architect Asher Benjamin. Nearly mirror images of one another, they are four stories high and three bays wide.

The left side, 55 Beacon Street is named for William Hickling Prescott, a nearly blind historian, who gained reputation for his books on Spanish (and Spanish colonial) history, and who had lived here from 1845 to 1859. At one point, he had the celebrated novelist William Makepeace Thackeray as a house guest here. That unit was acquired in 1944 by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America for use as its headquarters, a role that it still serves. The Dames restored Prescott's study to its original state in 1968, based on historical documents.

The house's original owner was James Smith Colburn, a successful Boston merchant. He commissioned Asher Benjamin to build the double town houses on the land he purchased from the Mount Vernon Proprietors. Originally, the structures were free-standing and would have had a water view (before the filling of the area that is now the Boston Public Garden). They were the height of fashion in the Early Republic. Prescott purchased his house in 1845 and after his death, his wife sold it to cousins, who made significant changes to the property: updating the stairwell, adding an elevator and reconfiguring Prescott's library into a dining room.

The house was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1964, and was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1966. One of the two units (possibly both) is memorialized as a Victorian dollhouse at the Cayuga Art Museum in Auburn, New York.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Otis House III

3) Otis House III

There are in total three houses named Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, all built by the noted American architect Charles Bulfinch for the same man, Federalist lawyer and politician Harrison Gray Otis. The third Harrison Gray Otis House was completed in 1806, and is the last and the largest of the three. Just as the other two counterparts, it features Federal style and served as the residence of Otis until his death in 1848.

Its four stories are organized into five bays. The center entrance has a small, rectangular portico with delicate pairs of Ionic fluted columns. The modest ground floor, now faced in stone, originally had the recessed brick arches typical of Bulfinch houses. When built, the house was freestanding, surrounded by the Boston Common and English gardens.

Today, the building is the home of the American Meteorological Society.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Otis House II

4) Otis House II

The second Harrison Gray Otis House is a large, square, Federal-style mansion built in 1800–1802. It stands three stories high, with brick walls laid in Flemish bond, and is set on a parcel with a relatively ample lawn and a semicircular cobblestone drive – a rare surviving remnant of the original vision for the development of Beacon Hill by the Mount Vernon Proprietors.

In this house, Bulfinch made the first floor with his characteristic recessed brick arches, ornamented on this occasion with Chinese fretwork balconies in iron. The facade has four bays, with somewhat odd use of Corinthian pilasters on the second and third floors. There is a roof balustrade and a largish, octagonal cupola. Otis lived here until 1806.

The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was portrayed as the home of Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) in the original Thomas Crown Affair film, and as Thomas Banacek's home (George Peppard) in the TV show Banacek (1972-74).
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Nichols House Museum

5) Nichols House Museum

Beacon Hill is the most exclusive area of Boston and if you want to know about its upper-class residents' lifestyle between the 19th and early 20th centuries, you can visit the Nichols House Museum to find out.

Located in one of the four-storey Federal-style terrace houses built on Mount Vernon Street in 1804 by Charles Bulfinch, a noted Boston architect, the museum was opened in 1961 after the death of the building's owner, Rose Standish Nichols. The latter was the oldest daughter of Dr. Arthur Nichols who bought the house in 1885 for his family. She was also the first woman landscape designer in America, a pacifist and an active suffragette.

The house is elegantly decorated with 17th-19th century European and American furniture, European and Asian art, oriental rugs, Flemish tapestries and sculptures by the famous American 19th-century artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In the dining room, you will see fine examples of French faience from Lunéville, rare Chinese porcelain, and lacquered boxes. The wooden furniture dates back to the early 19th century and was made by Thomas Seymour, Isaac Vose, and J.R. Penniman.

The building was classified as National Historic Landmark in 1966 and truly deserves a place on a “must visit” list of any guest of Boston.

Why You Should Visit:
Ideal to get a glimpse of Beacon Hill's mansions from the inside. Plus, incredibly knowledgeable tour guides, and hardly anyone here!
Recommended for anybody interested in Bostonian history, antiques, textiles, preservation, family dynamics, or killing a little time (so, basically, everyone).

Take note, there is no air conditioning in the summer.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 11am-4pm (Apr-Oct); Thu-Sat: 11am-4pm (Nov-Mar)
Tours are offered on the hour and last 30-45 minutes. The last tour is at 4pm.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Chester Harding House

6) Chester Harding House

The Chester Harding House is a historic building located across from the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. The four-story town house was built in the Federal architectural style as a private home by real estate developer Thomas Fletcher in 1808, at a time when Park Street and Beacon Street were lined by run-down public buildings.

As evident from a commemorative plaque hanging on the left-hand side of the building, it was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1965 for its association with the famous American portrait painter, Chester Harding. In 1826, Harding bought the house and occupied it until 1830.

In January, 1962, the Boston Bar Association acquired the property and moved its headquarters here from 35 Court Street, where it still remains at present.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Otis House I

7) Otis House I

The First Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston is a National Historic Landmark, located next to the Old West Church. Built in 1795–96, this house was the first of three properties designed by noted American architect, Charles Bulfinch, for Massachusetts politician and Federalist lawyer, Harrison Gray Otis. It is notable as one of the earliest three-story brick houses that came to represent the Federal style of architecture, and its interiors show the influence of Robert Adam.

Simplest of the three houses designed by Bulfinch for Otis, its design is said to be inspired by a William Bingham house that Bulfinch saw in 1789 in Philadelphia, which in turn was derived from a house in London. The building is three stories tall, five bays wide, with elegant string courses. Today's graceful entrance was added after 1801. Above it is a fine Palladian window, and above that a lunette. The third floor is very short; ceilings are just over six feet tall.

The house was purchased in 1916 by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) for use as its headquarters. It was originally located about 40 feet forward of its present location, but was moved in the 1920s after it was threatened by the widening of Cambridge Street. The original cellar was lost during this move. The house is now connected to a group of row houses on Lynde Street, which serve as office and program space for Historic New England. The house underwent a careful restoration in 1960, attending to the brilliantly colored wallpapers, carpeting, and high-style furnishings, based on meticulous historical and scientific research led by Abbott Lowell Cummings. It is open year-round for tours for those interested in learning about the family life in the Federal era in the U.S.A. and the later history of the house, when it served as a clinic and a middle-class boarding home.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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