Climb Boston’s Beacon Hill to See Three Houses: The State House, The Nichols House and the Sunflower House

Three historic houses are three good reasons to see Beacon Hill, one of Boston’s oldest and most picturesque neighborhoods. 

The oldest building on Beacon Hill is the Massachusetts State House. Samuel Adams and Paul Revere laid the cornerstone on July 4, 1795 on land that once served as John Hancock’s cow pasture. The red brick building was designed by Charles Bulfinch, a Boston native, and was completed in 1798. Paul Revere installed the first dome in 1802, which was made of copper to prevent water leakage. In 1874, it was gilded in 23-carat gold.  A pinecone atop the cupola above the dome symbolizes the importance of the lumber industry to the early New England economy.

Inside the State House, the mural-lined Nurses Hall features a statue of an army nurse, designed to honor all the nurses who took part in the Civil War.  The House of Representatives chamber includes the Sacred Cod, a five-foot wooden codfish symbolizing the importance of the fishing industry to the early Massachusetts economy.  It was presented by a Boston merchant to the Massachusetts House of Representatives when the State House opened. 

Portraits of recent Massachusetts governors hang in the Governor’s Waiting Room. 

The newest addition to the State House is the Great Hall, which was completed in 1990. Topped by a glass dome, this was previously an open-air courtyard and is used for special ceremonies today. A clock hangs in the center of the room and represents some of Massachusetts’ most famous icons, such as the State House’s dome, Paul Revere’s lantern, and a lighthouse. 

Before you leave, ask a security guard to show you two statues on the grounds of the State House. One is Cyrus Dallin’s statue of Anne Hutchinson, who was driven out of Boston in 1638 for not conforming to Puritanism.

The other is a statue of John F. Kennedy that was a gift from the people of Massachusetts and was dedicated in 1990. It’s a nice reminder of the “City on a Hill” speech that President-elect Kennedy delivered before the joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature on January 9, 1961.

Next, visit the Nichols House MuseumLocated at 55 Mount Vernon Street, the Federal-style brick home was designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1804 and was one of the first built on Beacon Hill. Arthur Nichols, a medical doctor, purchased the house in 1885. The Nichols family summered in Cornish, New Hampshire and wintered in Boston. 

I went to the Nichols House to learn more about Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, the Nichols’ youngest daughter who learned to ring hand bells and church tower bells, formed the Beacon Hill Ringers and was the first president of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.  When I arrived, I discovered that the home is a tribute to another accomplished daughter, Rose Standish Nichols.

Born in 1872, Rose never married. Instead, she traveled extensively, collected antiques and pursued interests representative of a wealthy, upper-class “new woman” who led a more public life. Encouraged by her uncle, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s leading sculptors of the 19th century, Rose pursued her interest in landscape design and wrote three books about garden design: English Pleasure Gardens (1902); Spanish and Portuguese Pleasure Gardens (1924); and Italian Pleasure Gardens (1928).  She also wrote several articles on gardens and interior design for magazines such as House Beautiful, Horticulture, and House and Garden. In 1915, she helped found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She lived in the home until her death in 1960, and left it as a museum in her will. 

We began our tour in the library, which originally was Dr. Nichols’ medical examination room and office. The room contains four wooden chairs which Rose carved, thanks to her training at Mrs. Shaw’s School in Boston. She also needlepointed the cushions on them. 

The largest, most elegant rooms of Federal homes are usually found on the second floor, so we climbed the spiral staircase and saw beautiful examples of furniture and artwork that Rose collected on her travels.  In the dining room, our docent told us that Rose was an educated conversationalist, known for her Sunday tea parties, which were more like salon-style discussions. 

The guest bedroom is furnished in the Colonial Revival style, with linoleum flooring resembling rough-hewn boards and pegs. The room includes a sampler that Rose worked in the 1940s.  In Rose’s bedroom, I was partial to the crewel bedhangings that she made. The pattern is based on a Colonial-era design that she saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The room also includes an oil portrait of Rose circa 1890 and a watercolor sketch of her from 1912. 

Leaving the Nichols House, we saw the Greek Revival homes on Louisburg Square that were built in the 1830s. William Dean Howells lived at No. 16 and Louisa May Alcott lived at No. 10, I read in my guidebook. We admired the houses at 13, 15 and 17 Chestnut Street, Bulfinch-designed homes that Hepzibah Swan built as wedding gifts for her three daughters. And we saw the Sunflower House, also known as the Sunflower Castle, at 130 Mount Vernon Street. Very different from Beacon Hill’s traditional Federal and Colonial architecture, the Queen Anne-style residence at the corner of Mount Vernon and River Streets was built in 1840, but its present appearance dates from 1878, when it was renovated by Charles Luce. The first floor is of stucco and is painted bright yellow. The second story and the roof are covered in a red English fish-scale shingled tile, said to be made in Akron, Ohio. Above the front door, you can spot a black iron griffin. Directly above the griffin, under the large gable in the roof, is a wooden carving of a sunflower. 

Researching the Sunflower House, I learned that in the 1860s, the home was occupied by artist Frank Hill Smith, who created the ceiling frescoes in the Representatives Hall in the Massachusetts State House. In the early 20th century, it was the home of watercolor artist Gertrude Beals Bourne and her husband, architect Frank Bourne.  It continues to be a private home today; in fact, it just happens to be for sale.

Browsing in a store on Beacon Hill led me to discover more Boston-themed books to add to my reading list.  Barbara Hamilton’s “Abigail Adams Mysteries” series — all set in Colonial Boston — includes The Ninth Daughter, A Marked Man and Sup with the Devil.  Anna Maclean has written a series of mysteries in which Louisa May Alcott is the main character:  Louisa and the Missing Heiress, Louisa and the Country Bachelor and Louisa and the Crystal Gazer. I’ll also be checking out The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, by Kelly O’Connor McNees. 

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This entry was posted in Architecture, Art, Books, Boston, History, Museums, Needlework, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Climb Boston’s Beacon Hill to See Three Houses: The State House, The Nichols House and the Sunflower House

  1. Nancy Kirwin says:

    While visiting the State House in Boston be sure to find the newly refurbished library on the 3rd Floor. When you walk in the door look across the room and up to the 4th floor. The Freedom Trail Tapestry hangs in a place of donor. This 6′ x 11′ tapestry was stitched by members of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Needlepoint Guild. How could a stitcher miss this!!! NOT!!!

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