Paul Revere’s next challenge

He saved us from the British. Now the North End museum where his legacy lives on is fighting to keep his story alive.

Nina Zannieri is executive director of the Paul Revere House. Nina Zannieri is executive director of the Paul Revere House. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / October 16, 2010

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When it comes to how the public sees, interacts with, and learns about Boston’s history, Nina Zannieri has seen it all. For 26 years, she has spent her days inside downtown Boston’s oldest standing building, the 1680 Paul Revere House in the North End. “There are people working here who weren’t born when I came here,’’ she says.

(And in case you’re curious, Revere paid 53 pounds, 6 shillings, and 8 pence for the house in 1770, his mortgage was 160 pounds, and no, you won’t find any of that on

But like a lot of folks manning the 16 historic destinations along Boston’s tourist destination, the Freedom Trail, Zannieri, 55, the museum’s executive director, is facing new challenges these days, like how to address certain myths that circulate on the Web about Revere’s midnight ride or how to let visitors experience history like they experience reality with the video games on their smartphones.

The first step toward that change is coming, when the Paul Revere House expands into a second, neighboring home, a $4 million project Zannieri says should be finished in 2012. The second house, built in 1835 and situated behind the Revere House, is being restored for mostly administrative offices. It was bought by the Paul Revere Memorial Association, which rescued and restored the Revere House in the early 20th century.

“Technology will come with the new building,’’ Zannieri said. “We can introduce new things. Smartboards with classrooms. We can have a midnight ride exhibit, interactive, with the ride route.’’ She said the new building will allow the Paul Revere House to more aggressively address “various myths that have grown up about the ride,’’ and also allow people to learn about Revere the craftsman and the businessman.

For example, “The British are coming!’’ is a shout that’s been associated with Revere’s midnight ride seemingly forever. But in an e-mail, Zannieri says it’s highly unlikely he, or anyone, actually said it: “No one has ever found a source for Revere saying, ‘The British are coming.’ Also, we were all British at the time so in the context of the day it makes no sense. The closest phrase is from when Revere arrived in Lexington and was told not to make so much noise. Revere responded, “Noise. You’ll have noise enough before long! The Regulars are coming out!’’

Myth or no myth, there is no question about why Revere was a rock star of the Revolution, immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about his midnight ride to warn patriots in Lexington and Concord that the British were marching on them. The poem was, as Zannieri says, the best PR imaginable for Revere. Were there no Longfellow, there would be no Paul Revere as we know him. “The iconic Boston image is the statue of Paul Revere,’’ she says, referring to the one near the Old North Church with Revere on horseback.

The Paul Revere House has been a fixture on the red line of the Freedom Trail since its beginning in 1958. It drew 237,000 visitors last year, roughly half the 495,000 at the Old North Church. In all, 3 million people walked the 2.5 mile Trail last year, according to the National Park Service.

The challenge for Zannieri today is growing from being a place where people come for a quick history lesson into a place where they come to experience history, relive history right down to the sights and sounds. Yet still making sure they get a complete picture, not just pieces that don’t tell the complete story. “You leave a lot of stories out, like immigrant history,’’ says Zannieri. “The goal of historians and folks who do public history is to broaden the story, to get visitors to other stories. There is a Civil War story in Northern cities about people leaving to war and not coming back, and the effect that had on their families.’’

The Revere family is a case in point. Revere’s grandsons, both officers, were killed in that war — one at Antietam and the other at Gettysburg. “It had a dramatic impact on the family business,’’ Zannieri says. “There was no one to take it over. There was another brother, John, who was not very good at it.’’

One has to look no further than the Revere House itself to see the effects of the flow of immigrants into the city. The House, built in 1680 and bought by Revere in 1770, was sold in 1800. It soon became a boardinghouse full of sailors and immigrants in a gamy part of town. At the turn of the 20th century, it fronted an immigrant bank, an Italian grocery store, and a cigar maker.

The issue of slavery in Boston during the Revolution gets scant attention on the Freedom Trail, Zannieri says. Mimi LaCamera, president of the Freedom Trail Foundation, concedes the subject is not dealt with along the Freedom Trail, but points instead to different tours on black history — the National Park Service’s Black Heritage Tour and the Foundation’s African-American Patriots Tour.

Zannieri, however, says that’s not enough. “We need to give our guides more information on slavery.’’

While she gives top marks to Boston’s presentation of its history, she maintains it needs a more coherent way to present visitors the entire historical arena before them. “The city has long needed a history center,’’ she says.

The Boston National Historic Park Service Visitor Center next to the Old State House technically is one, but its size and scope are limited. Its move soon to Faneuil Hall, all agree, will provide a better location and present a much broader and more sophisticated history site.

But then the Freedom Trail came with a purposeful confusion of its own when it opened. In a paper she wrote in 2003, Zannieri wrote: “It is critical to note that the Freedom Trail was established as a way-finding device and a marketing tool, not an interpretive framework.’’

This template has changed little through the years, prompting Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau president Pat Moscaritolo to say, “The strength of the Freedom Trail is its 16 sites. The weakness of the Freedom Trail is its 16 sites.’’

Does that mean it’s time to rethink the Freedom Trail?

“If ‘rethink’ means adding more sites, I’d say no,’’ says Zannieri. “We see it as a brand of continuity. The red line marking it as originally conceived was brilliant.’’

Plus, she adds, things have begun to change in the last decade, as more interpretive presentations have been added at many Freedom Trail sites. Take the Old South Meeting House. She points to the permanent exhibit there about Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black poet, a freed slave, and a member of the Meeting House congregation.

“I’m certain that in the ’50s and ’60s, there would have been no discussion of slaves, of women, the lower classes,’’ says Marty Blatt, Chief of Cultural Resources/Historian at the Boston National Historical Park, a close colleague of Zannieri who helped mount the exhibit. “Things are broadening out.’’

Zannieri was born for this job. “I just loved history,’’ she says. “I was mesmerized by the lost colony of Roanoke.’’ She was a history major at Boston College and received a master’s degree at Brown in anthropology and museum studies. And the opportunity to mix the Paul Revere House site with the broader historical spectrum around the Revolutionary War never gets old.

“The thing I do when I’m bummed out,’’ she says, “is to go into the courtyard and look at the face of a little kid who’s having a great time. And I say to myself, ‘That’s why I do it.’ ’’ Her challenge now is to educate, and entertain, that kid, with words, videos, whatever it takes, so that Paul Revere’s story, the true story, rides on.

Sam Allis can be reached at