Voices | Sam Allis

Where’s Winthrop?

And why is the square that bears his name home to a statue of a Scottish poet?

By Sam Allis
January 18, 2010

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I’ll tell you a story. It carries a bewitching blend of “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?’’ and “Where’s Waldo?’’ It’s about the ultimate Boston poobah John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a founder in 1630 of the First Church in Boston.

I’ve always assumed that the statue in Winthrop Square in the financial district is of Winthrop. I mean, wouldn’t you? Last week, I asked about a dozen well-dressed types who work in the area to name the person who stands in bronze in the square. They all said, without hesitation, “John Winthrop.’’ A couple of them fixed me with a look that radiated, who else do you think it is, you pluperfect fool.

But John Winthrop is not in Winthrop Square. John Winthrop was never in Winthrop Square. What he has been is all over town. So who is in Winthrop Square?

Robert Burns, the esteemed Scottish poet and author of the maudlin poem put to song, “Auld Lang Syne’’ which, to the best of my knowledge, is sung only at a time of night when one can no longer put together a declarative sentence.

So what happened to John? He surfaced in 1873 as a bronze replica of a marble statue sculpted by Richard Saltonstall Greenough - how’s that for a Brahmin name - that stands in the US Capitol building: Bible in one arm, the charter and seal of the Bay Colony in the other. This Winthrop ended up in 1880 in Scollay Square, of all places.

It is delicious to think that the leader of the Puritans, the intolerant tribe that abhorred anything fun, was stuck in the grand, gamy area where ecdysiasts like Ann Corio would later practice their art at places like the late lamented Old Howard Theatre. (Ad man Frank Hatch immortalized its demise in his classic “Some Coward Closed the Old Howard.’’)

I don’t know about you, but one thing I would really, really not want to do is share a ride to the Berkshires with a Puritan scary guy like Increase Mather.

Anyway, Scollay Square became convulsed with construction, and John had to move. His ordeal ended. No more sleaze, although he may have warmed up to it, who knows? In 1903, he left for the gentility of his First Church in the Back Bay, where he stands today surveying the wilds of Marlborough Street.

Stay with me now. A major fire in 1968 gutted the First Church. Debris fell on poor John. He was decapitated and knocked to the ground. The body was stored for safe keeping, but no one is quite sure what happened to his head. The church eventually had both pieces of Winthrop made whole, and he arrived back in one piece in 1975.

Enter developer Ted Raymond who in the early ’70s had bought the old Hearst newspaper building at One Winthrop Square, fixed it up in grand style, and later sold it. He also paid for the small park that sits today in the middle of the square. But he needed a statue.

In 1974, Raymond asked Oliver Ames, an august trustee of the First Church, if he would part with John Winthrop so that he could be brought to Winthrop Square. Seems eminently reasonable to me. Ames, ever the gentleman, essentially told Raymond, don’t even think about it. This was when Brahmin juice mattered.

Raymond still needed a statue. One candidate was Burns, cast by a sculptor named Henry Kitson. Kitson won a competition held in 1910 by the Burns Memorial Association of Boston to make a statue of the great man. Burns ended up in the Fens, a rather rude setting, where in 1920, Governor Calvin Coolidge dedicated his statue.

The Scot languished out there for decades. Aware that Winthrop Square was without statue, Nelson Aldrich, chairman of the Boston Art Commission, suggested that Raymond take Burns there. Burns arrived in 1975 and has been there ever since with his dog Luath.

I talked to one man who knew Burns is the guy in Winthrop Square. “You’d think that John Winthrop would be in Winthrop Square,’’ he said. He paused and then added, “But this is Boston.’’

Sam Allis’s e-mail address is