Beacon Hill
Community Profile

Beacon Hill retains strong flavor of old Boston

By Kathleen Howley, Globe Correspondent, 12/26/1998

Beacon Hill at a glance
Settled: 1625 by the Rev. William Blackstone
Area: About 84 acres
Population: 10,000
Tax rate: Residential $13.47, commercial $38.45
Government: City council, mayor
Services: Boston Electric, Boston Gas, city water and sewer
Schools: No public schools; Advent School (elementary), Beacon Hill Nursery School, and Suffolk University
Public transportation: MBTA
Cultural/recreational: Nichols House Museum, Museum of Afro American History, African Meeting House, Boston Athenaeum, Harvard Musical Association, Beacon Hill Civic Association, Massachusetts State House, Louisburg Square
If you want to fit in on Beacon Hill, please don't say "Louieburg" when referring to Louisburg Square, the exclusive enclave lined with single-family townhouses that sell for as much as $5 million each. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

It's true that the private square with the European flavor was named for the French stronghold of Louisburg, in Nova Scotia, after the English won a battle with the French and destroyed the fort in the 18th century.

But it's the English pronunciation that distinguishes a Beacon Hill insider from an outsider -- that is, "Louisburg" with an audible "s."

"It's just something we do without thinking. It's easy to tell when someone is not from the hill. They think that it's preferable to use the French pronunciation, but most people on the Hill prefer the English way," said Ruth Gardner Lamere, who lived most of her life in a townhouse on the square, near the top of the Hill.

Today, Lamere lives in the Back Bay, less than a mile from her old home. But she still works on the Hill, as a real estate broker in the Hunneman & Company Coldwell Banker office on Charles Street, a quaint road lined with antique shops.

In Beacon Hill parlance, the level area between the west side of the Hill, from Charles Street to the Charles River, is called "the flat of the Hill."

"A lot of people prefer the flat of the Hill, especially older people who are moving to the area. Of course, there are some good aspects of having to walk up and down the Hill every day: It really keeps you in shape," said Lamere.

The original settler in the area was the Rev. William Blackstone, who built a house on Beacon Hill in 1625, when he was the sole resident of the peninsula that was later named Boston.

It wasn't until the late 1700s that Beacon Hill began to be developed as a garden suburb. First, there were free-standing mansions surrounded by lawns. Today, one of the few buildings left from that era is at 85 Mt. Vernon St., known as the second Harrison Gray Otis house.

Between 1800 and 1850, when land in Boston was at a premium — before the Back Bay and South End were filled in — the Hill became a community of brick rowhouses, built for wealthy businessmen and blue-blooded families.

Today, because of strict regulations that forbid exterior changes without the permission of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, the Hill is an unsullied example of pre-Victorian architecture.

That, along with its location within walking distance of the Financial District, has made some Beacon Hill houses among the most expensive in Boston. And it has made the neighborhood one of the densest places to live in Boston, with about 10,000 people in 60 blocks.

"You'd be surprised at the issues that ignite controversy on the Hill. Trash is a very big issue. It sounds funny, but when you live in such close quarters, people have some very strong opinions about trash disposal," said Sandra Steele, president of the Beacon Hill Civic Association.

The civic association is trying to enact a "same-day pickup" policy, meaning trash cannot be put on the street until the morning of collection day, she said.

"Some people have taken a very strong stand against it because they see it as an inconvenience. We see it as a public health issue, because when you leave trash bags on the street for 10 hours, you are bound to have some of it opened and spread around," she said.

Parking is another topic that galvanizes the community, she said. Despite the fact that most parking spaces are reserved for residents with neighborhood parking stickers, it's not unusual to circle for 30 minutes or more before finding a spot. That means people park, temporarily, in illegal spots that make it difficult for fire engines to turn the tight corners.

Ivy A. Turner, owner of Ivy Associates, on Charles Street, said that while the Hill has some of the city's highest-priced real estate, with single-family townhouses selling for $1 million to $5 million, it also has some affordable properties.

"Some people see the Hill as being only for the very richest in the city, and that's not true. You have to look hard, but the more affordable properties do turn up occasionally," Turner said.

For example, her office lists a Beacon Hill one-bedroom condominium at $169,000. It has a den, a living room with a fireplace, and hardwood floors, she said.

"If you run the numbers, and deduct the tax savings, it would cost about $1,000 a month for the mortgage. You couldn't rent in this area for that."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 12/26/1998.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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