Here’s a Look at Downtown Boston’s Oldest Building
Whether you’ve read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, remember the lessons from history class, or have heard the saying “The British are coming,” odds are you’ve come across the legendary Colonial Patriot Paul Revere one way or another. He was a silversmith, a war veteran, an entrepreneur, and one of the most well-remembered figures of the American Revolution.
However, his legacy extends far beyond his heroic acts on the night of April 18, 1775, when he set out on a daring ride to warn colonists about impending attacks from British troops. His family home in Boston, Massachusetts – which was originally built over 300 years ago – is still standing today, making it one of the oldest buildings in the region, and one of the first historical homes in the country.
Read on to learn more about the rich history and fascinating legacy of this slice of American Colonial architecture. (For another historical Colonial-era home – but in New York – check out Alexander Hamilton’s Grange estate.)
The Freedom Trail House
The Paul Revere House stands today as the oldest building in downtown Boston and is the only home located on the famous Freedom Trail historical tour. Despite numerous rounds of construction and modification, the Revere House actually retains over 90 percent of its original materials and fixtures. This includes the heavy support beams, large stone fireplaces, and much of the original floor plan.
The Paul Revere House as it appears today in Boston, Massachusetts. Located in the historic North End district, it remains the oldest standing building in downtown Boston.
Similar in appearance to the Paul Revere House, with its rectangular façade, 2-story construction, gable roof, and chimney, this Colonial style 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath home plan is nevertheless set apart by inclusion of its modern-day-essential garage and brick siding instead of wood clapboards. The center-hall Colonial is a modern interpretation of the prevailing architectural style of the time (House Plan #170-1587).
The house was originally built in 1680 in what is now the North End district Boston, though of course, not by Revere himself. The home sits on a site that formerly belonged to the parsonage of the Second Church of Boston. The parsonage was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1676, and was only remarkable for its previous owner Cotton Mather, best known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials. After the fire, a wealthy merchant in the area purchased the land and built himself a palatial three-story, L-shaped townhouse that exemplified the aesthetics of the Massachusetts Bay timber construction common during the time, with features such as casement windows.
While the Paul Revere House appears to be rectangular from the front, it actually extends in an L-shape at the back, giving it a small outdoor space near the rear exit (courtesy Historyonics). This is the original footprint of the house.
These plans show the original layout and appearance of the Paul Revere House, including some of the changes that had to be undone during the restoration. The middle image shows the house in cross section, with the front at right (courtesy Paul Revere House).
Influence of Architectural Style
The early settlers in the American colonies built homes that borrowed heavily from the current architectural styles of their homelands, making adjustments and adaptations based on their new locations and the materials available. As such, the term colonial house held a slightly different meaning during the 17th and 18th centuries, as the exact style and features depended on the colony.
The New York and Pennsylvania colonies, for example, were settled by large populations of Dutch settlers. They brought with them their style of building, which included timber-frame construction (think timber-framed barns of the Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish communities) and structures with gambrel roofs, which incorporate two different pitches on each side of the gable-like roof.
This small 2-bedroom, 2.5-bath Dutch Colonial style home plan displays the typical gambrel roof of Dutch architecture (House Plan #137-1316). Known for their practicality, the settlers from the Netherlands embraced the space efficiency and inherent structural strength of this roof design in their homes and barns.
The Paul Revere House, which was built in the British colony of Massachusetts, drew from the English styles of the time, which included a wooden construction that featured conventional gables, cellars, and an overall compact design.
Some homes in the English Colonial style, such as this 4-bedroom, 2.5-bath home plan, make use of a hip-style roof instead of a conventional gable roof (House Plan #149-1176). In Early America, this roof design was more popular in the townhomes and houses of larger towns and cities than in the countryside, where easier-to-build gable roofs proliferated.
Paul Revere purchased the home in 1770, nearly 100 years after its original construction. During that time, it had seen some modifications and improvements, the most notable being construction that raised the roofline facing the street to match the Georgian style that had become the norm during that era. This process also removed some of the home’s signature gables, though the original roofline was recreated during later restorations.
This 4-bedroom, 3.5-bath 3-story home plan is a fine modern example of the Georgian architectural style that original 18th-century renovations to the Paul Revere House sought to match (House Plan #137-1542).
Revere and his family lived in the home from 1770 until 1800, sometimes living in other homes and locations during that time. Revere was a silversmith, and operated a successful business in the area, though he did not create or sell his wares from his home. Despite their occasional relocations, Revere and his growing family occupied the home during many parts of the American Revolution, which allowed him to earn his place in history.
The kitchen in the Paul Revere House as Revere and his family would have experienced it. Unlike modern kitchens, with their many appliances, the only “appliance” the Reveres would have had was the fireplace, center for boiling water and cooking, baking, and roasting meals. Note the baby cradle, which would have been positioned as close to the fire as possible for warmth.
The Post-Revere Era
Paul Revere sold his home at the turn of the 19th century, though he continued to live in Boston until his death in 1818. After the building left his possession, it experienced some additional modifications as it was put into use as a tenement building for sailors coming in and out of the nearby port.
The lower level was also transformed into a commercial space, which held a wide range of business over the years, including a bank, a candy shop, and even a cigar factory.
During the 1800s, the Paul Revere House was used for a variety of commercial purposes, including an Italian bank (courtesy City of Boston Archives). Note that the façade of the house was raised, with a shallower roof, to create a fully functioning third floor.
Preserving a Historic Legacy
By the dawn of the 20th century, the home had fallen in disrepair and was slated for demotion. In 1902, John P. Reynolds Jr., Paul Revere’s great grandson, purchased the home and set out on a groundbreaking feat of restoration and preservation. He wanted to ensure that his family’s legacy would be properly remembered, and not destroyed in the name of modernization, as was often the case for many of the building in the region.
By the end of the 19th century, the Paul Revere House had experienced a great deal of wear and was ready to be torn down.
Over the next several years, Reynolds raised a great deal of money and formed Paul Revere Memorial Association, which oversaw the restoration. During this time, many of the later additions to the property were removed, in order for it to resemble its original visage as closely as possible. In April of 1908, over 130 years after Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride, the Paul Revere House opened as one of the earliest historic home museums in the United States.
This colorized image shows how the Revere House appeared following its initial restoration in 1908.
Revere and the Revolution
During his time in the North End, Revere worked with the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety as a rider. If the Patriots, also known as the Sons of Liberty, received word of British troops operating in the region, he was called upon to deliver messages to other members of the Sons in the region.
His most famous action took place in April of 1775, when he was tasked with riding to Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock about soldiers coming to arrest them. Revere had to set out at night in order to avoid detection by the British soldiers already occupying the town and the oncoming troops entering the colony. Before borrowing a horse from a fellow patriot, Revere ordered a friend to hang two lanterns from the tower of Christ Church (which still stands in Boston today and is now known as Old North Church). As the story goes, these two lights would indicate that the British troops were invading Boston by sea, rowing along the Charles River into the neighboring city of Cambridge, instead of by land.
A print of Paul Revere's famous ride, based on a mural by Aiden Lassell Ripley that resides in the Lexington, Massachusetts, Post Office (courtesy National Park Service).
It was this night that would later become immortalized (although not in an entirely historically accurate fashion) by Longfellow in his 1861 poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Longfellow, as it turns out, intentionally altered some facts and elements of the night in order to create a more poetic effect that would establish the events as a true American legend.
The poem quickly grew in popularity, and indeed did transform the night, and Paul Revere, into a legend. Over time, the actual events of the ride would experience other changes in popular culture, leading to many common misconceptions. One of the most famous inaccuracies is that Revere yelled the famous phrase “The British are coming!” as he rode. He didn’t. Revere’s mission was meant to be covert, so he would not have been yelling out as he rode. Also, as many of the colonists and revolutionaries actually considered themselves British, he would have referred to the incoming troops as “regulars,” a term commonly used during the time to refer to members of the British army.
Though as we all know, the “history” of most legend is not entirely accurate, it is good to know that there are nuggets of fact in almost every popular story, and sometimes you can actually see and touch those nuggets – like the Revere House and its architectural history – to channel true, historical figures!