Day 3 – Boston. Capitol, Cemetery, Church

For our first full day in Boston we started with an orientation ride around town on the hop-on, hop-off bus, had an excellent sandwich for lunch, and started our long and gradual walk along Boston’s famous Freedom Trail.

The wheels on the bus

The hop-on, hop-off bus tour is an institution. There are some places where it is a terrible idea – in London in 2012 we spent about twenty minutes traversing a single block somewhere near Oxford Street, I think, at which point we hopped off the bus and never hopped back on. But in general they are pretty good.

They drive from one main attraction to the next, and being hop-on hop-off you can of course stop and look at the things you want to see, then get back on later and get taken to the next thing you want to see.

We have a slightly different take on these tours. We tend to do the whole loop in one go. You get to drive around the main parts of town, a sense of the layout of the city and of where the main tourist attractions are that you may want to see. You might discover some things you didn’t pick up on in your initial research of things to do in the town. And you get at least one glimpse of all the main attractions even if you don’t follow up and look at them in detail later.

Case in point – Cheers. Originally The Bull and Finch, this Beacon Hill neighbourhood pub was the inspiration for the pub in the famous sitcom and the location for the exterior shots. The name was changed in 2002 and the pub continues to boom on the popularity of fans. We probably wouldn’t have sought it out on our own – truth to tell it was not even on my mind as a thing to do in Boston – but having rolled past and taken a happy-snap, I’m perfectly pleased that we did.

Back Bay. Historically tidal flats, in the early 18th century the area was dammed off from the rest of the Charles River estuary to create a mill-dam that would harvest tidal power. Unfortunately the engineering specs were a bit off and the project was a failure, creating a fair old expanse of brackish water and trapped sewage just a couple of hundred yards from Boston Common.

Making a good thing out of bad, another major project was launched to infill the space within the mill-dam and create land for a new residential district. While Boston has a mixed history of major project implementation, (cough Big Dig cough) this one went well and now Back Bay is one of Boston’s premier residential districts, renowned for its stately rows of elegant brownstone houses. Tom Brady lives there! The guide pointed out his house but I did not get a photo.

The Boston Public Library is the third largest public library in the United States. Completed in 1895 it is opposite Copley Square and is a truly epic building. I kind of wish we had visited there as 19th century libraries are always worth a look, but we were busy in Boston and just whizzed on by on our bus.

Just across Copley Square from the library is Trinity Church. Another granite edifice, it is notable for being Romanesque revival in its architecture. It stands out in Boston where it is more common to see Colonial (especially in the inner-city churches), Greek revival or Classical revival architecture. And of course these days lots and lots of steel-framed glass-fronted skyscrapers.

Speaking of Greek revival, we hopped off the bus for the last time opposite the Massachusetts State House. The building was completed in 1798; the dome was originally made of wood, then covered in rolled copper in 1802 by Paul Revere’s copper company (Revere got around!), and finally in gold leaf in 1874 because … I mean, if you could have a giant gold dome on top of your capitol, why wouldn’t you?

Sandwich Time

In between the bus tour and exploring the Freedom Trail we stopped for lunch. Anyone who knows me knows that I am extremely passionate about food, and Doreen is very good at indulging me (within reason). Don’t worry – these posts will not be a blow-by-blow description of every meal we had , with a forensic deconstruction of ingredients and technique. But we will share some meals with you, especially when they are a dish that is especially distinctive, local to the area, or just really darn good. Also when they have to do with steak, yum cha or burgers (but more on that later).

Which brings us to deli sandwiches. I really do love me a deli sandwich. Copious amounts of meat – some may say excessive – piled high inside good bread; savoury dressings, mustard, mayo, Russian dressing, also piled on to enhance the flavour and contribute to the sense of glorious excess. And they come with a pickle.

But they are rare and expensive outside of large American cities, so mostly they are an occasional treat to be enjoyed on holiday. And we split one between us, we’re not greedy.

The Shop : Sam LaGrassa’s

Sam LaGrassa’s is a family run sandwich shop with over 50 years in business. They are located near the Common and the sight of office workers sitting on the grass enjoying a sandwich is a pleasing one.

It’s a busy shop, with a long counter, plenty of seats, and a thriving take-out and delivery trade as well. Service was quick even at lunchtime, we ordered at the take-out counter and had our sandwich in our hands in about three or four minutes.

The sandwich : Cubano

Roast pork, honey-glazed ham, sliced pickle, chipotle mayo, jack cheese, on an Italian roll, pressed and toasted. Not a traditional Cubano, which would normally have Dijon mustard and Swiss rather than jack cheese. We didn’t mind, we ate it all down. Very good sandwich.

Pickle Quality : Very good. Sour and salty, not sweet, crisp texture.

The Freedom Trail

The Freedom Trail is a collection of places of historical interest related to the American Revolution. It starts at Boston Common (at the tourist centre – you can get a free brochure with a map and some basic facts or pay a few dollars to get a more comprehensive booklet, we did) and winds its way through Downtown, up through the North End, across the river to Charlestown and ends up at the Boston Navy Yard.

I mean, if you want to get reductionist about it, the Freedom Trail is a red line on the pavement that you follow to get from one point of historical interest to the next. Mostly it is inlaid bricks with a few sections of painted red lines, and there are plaques to let you know you have arrived at the next interesting bit.

If you really push it you could walk it in half a day, but at that speed you would do little more than stroll past everything. Amid the various other things we did in Boston, we spent two half-days on the trail on the Boston side and then a full day on the Charlestown side. While we stopped and had a good look at everything on the trail, we didn’t go inside every building, for example, or look at every point of interest in every cemetery (there are a lot of cemeteries!), so you could certainly spend three days on it if you wanted to take your time.

Granary Burying Ground is just half a block from the north-east corner of the Common. It was first used as a cemetery in 1660 and contains the remains of three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin’s parents, Paul Revere, and the five victims of the Boston Massacre (of which more later).

Ben Franklin is of course buried in Philadelphia. But he a was born and raised in Boston (more on that later) and his parents were buried here. The honking great obelisk in their memory was erected by a group of Boston citizens in 1827, well after Franklin’s death. A modest man, I’m not entirely sure he would have approved.

Yes – that Sam Adams. Sadly the beer, while quite pleasant, was dreamed up in the 1980s as a marketing angle and has no direct relationship to the famous Founding Father (whose family were in fact maltsters, making the malted wheat and barley from which beer was brewed, rather than brewers themselves).

And while we’re here, let’s spend a moment on colonial New England funerary art.

Let’s get it right out there – Death’s heads are everywhere. What today would look like the cover of a heavy metal album was, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, a reminder that death was a part of the cycle of life. In a time when life was often short, the Puritans of New England saw the end of earthly flesh and passage to the afterlife as something to be, if not celebrated, then at least commemorated.

Here’s a close-up of the centre-piece of the gravestone above.

Death, scythe propped up in the background, is holding time’s arrow in one hand while snuffing out the candle of the decedent. That is a whole lot of symbology in one small panel, and I haven’t even got to the fact there is an ilithid in the background (or possibly Great Cthulhu, because after all we are just a few hours down the road from Arkham University).

More Deaths, this time reclining with what appears to be a quizzical expression on their faces. “What’s it to you, buddy?”, they seem to be asking. Perhaps I am overthinking this.

Next on the trail is King’s Chapel. The building dates from 1749, when it was erected around the outside of a smaller wooden chapel that was built there in 1687. As an Anglican church it was seen as a constant reminder of the “popery” and religious corruption that the Puritans had left England to avoid. At the time of the Revolution, the rector Dr. Henry Caner was advocating for for the establishment of a Bishop in Boston. This would further strengthen the English structure of Church and politics in the colonies, possibly threatening freedom of religion, and was a great cause of resentment among the colonists. King’s Chapel was where the British colonial officials and army and navy officers would attend church; when the British Army evacuated Boston in 1776, over half the congregation of King’s Chapel evacuated with them.

Next to the chapel is King’s Chapel burying ground (I told you there were a lot of cemeteries) – a misnomer actually, as the chapel post-dates the burying ground and was built on land seized from the cemetery some fifty years after the cemetery started. It is the oldest burying ground in Boston, dating from 1630. Grave sites were re-used frequently for the 150 or so years the cemetery was in use, and there may be as many as twenty burials for every headstone visible today.

At one corner of the graveyard is an octagonal metal structure. Does anyone want to guess what it is?

No, Buffy fans, it’s not the entrance to a tomb. It’s a vent for the Boston underground railway, which in 1898 was the first in America.

Next along the trail is a rather colourful mosaic set into the sidewalk (look at me, all American with my “sidewalk”. We all know it’s a footpath). The mosaic commemorates the location of the first public school in America, the Boston Latin School. The school was started in 1635, just five years after the settlement of Boston, and was unique in being open to all students (as long as you were male) and charging no tuition (although students were required to “donate” firewood and other things to support the schoolmaster, so if your parents were really poor you were kind of out of luck). Among the most famous dropouts of the school were Ben Franklin and Louis Farrakhan. The mosaic was created in 1983 by Lilli Ann Killen Rosenberg and evokes a hopscotch grid.

The school is long gone, of course. In its place now stands the old Boston City Hall, a rather elegant structure built in the 1860s. I didn’t get a good shot of it for some reason (but Google Streetview is pretty good) but you can see details of the east wing in the shot below (behind the statue of Josiah Quincy who was Boston’s second mayor).

In the 1960s the Boston city government decided it was too elegant for them, I guess, and moved to the new city hall which is a hideous brutalist lump a few blocks away. Old City Hall was going to be torn down, but local groups lobbied for it to retained and it became one of the earlier examples of urban adaptive re-use. “Adaptive re-use” is, as far as I can tell, code for “put a bar in it”.

Sometimes a bar just doesn’t do it, though, and you have to go full steakhouse.

Speaking of adaptive re-use, on “Parnassus Corner” (the corner of School and Washington streets, just a block from the old Latin School site) is a historic building that in the colonial period was an apothecary store. In the 19th century it was home to Ticknor and Fields, at the time one of the leading publishers in the United States. Frequented by authors such as Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens and Thackeray, it was at the heart of the literary flowering of New England. Now it has been adaptively re-used.

This might be sacrilege, but I can really imagine Dickens chowing down on a carnitas bowl

Just across from Chipotle, sorry I mean the old corner book store of course, is the Old South Meeting House. Meeting house is code for a church; it was built in 1729-30 and the plain architecture reflects the Congregational Puritan view that the sermon was much more important than the venue.

It became an important part of Revolutionary history for the simple reason that it was the largest meeting hall in Boston. If you wanted to stir up a mob, Old South Meeting House is where you wanted to be. Famous meetings here included the response to the Boston Massacre in 1770, when thousands met to demand the removal of British regiments from town (they left, but returned later), and the meeting in 1773 that led to the Boston Tea Party. When the British occupied Boston in 1775 they removed all the furniture, filled the floor with soil and used it as a riding-school. When the Congregational church moved in 1872 the Old South Meeting House was preserved as a historic site and museum.

And just another block down the road is the Old State House. Notably more ornate than the Old South Meeting House, it was built in 1712-13 and was the seat of government in colonial Massachusetts. It was the office of the Governor and appointed officials, and also the meeting place of the elected Massachusetts General Court (which was a legislature, of course, not a court in the more common sense). In the 1770s when the General Court met the gallery was full of fiery Boston political types who would loudly heckle any legislature member who dared to vote in line with the British government’s plans.

The balcony on the second floor (first floor to non-Americans) was used by the royal governors to read pronouncements to the populace. In entirely conscious symbolism, a copy of the Declaration of Independence was read out to a lively crowd in 1776.

And that is quite enough for one day. Actually we went out that evening to Sculler’s Jazz Club, located all the way out in Allston, which is quite difficult to get to by public transport. The venue was nice with very good service, the food was quite good, and the music was not really to my taste, which is always a risk with a young jazz artist, who do tend to change their style a lot. So I won’t bother you with that.

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