Thursday, January 13, 2005

Stairs leading nowhere


Image: Rambles Around Old Boston

These worn granite steps join Province to Bosworth Street, and as both avenues are generally inconsequential and lightly trafficked, they tend to attract little interest or attention. Yet once, long ago, they served as the entrance to the Province House courtyard and stables, and are, arguably, the oldest set of stairs in Boston.

Originally constructed by a wealthy merchant named Peter Sargeant in 1679, the Province House was, as Walter Muir Whitehall describes,
"...a high-shouldered building of brick, laid in English bond, with a high attic lighted by dormers, and an octagonal cupola surmounted by Shem Drowne's Indian archer weathervane, which is now, like the royal arms that hung over the front entrance, in the Museum of the Massachusetts Historical Society."
In all it resembled nothing so much as the country manor of some English squire, surrounded by "spacious grounds" into which the granite stairs led.

Sargeant held onto the property until 1716, when it became the official residence of the colony's royal governors, prompting the street onto which the stairs led to be named Governor's Alley. It was only following the Revolution that the Alley's name was changed to that which it bears today, the victors having decided that no remnant of English "tyranny" should sully the maps and signposts of their newly-free city. Thus it was that King, Queen and Marlborough Streets were also wiped from existence, to be replaced with State, Court and Washington — names that better reflected the fledgling nation's republican ideals.

Many decades thereafter, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne set four short stories at the House, describing it in the first of these as,
"...three stories high, and surmounted by a cupola, on the top of which a gilded Indian was discernible, with his bow bent and his arrow on the string, as if aiming at the weathercock on the spire of the Old South. The figure has kept this attitude for seventy years or more, ever since good Deacon Drowne, a cunning carver of wood, first stationed him on his long sentinel's watch over the city.

The Province House is constructed of brick, which seems recently to have been overlaid with a coat of light-colored paint. A flight of red freestone steps, fenced in by a balustrade of curiously wrought iron, ascends from the court-yard to the spacious porch, over which is a balcony, with an iron balustrade of similar pattern and workmanship to that beneath."
Each tale is part history, part folklore and part fiction, and one of them, "Howe's Masquerade," even makes reference to the stairs on Province Street:
"...entering the arched passage, which penetrated through the middle of a brick row of shops, a few steps transĀ­ported me from the busy heart of modern Boston into a small and secluded court-yard."
Sadly, the House burnt to the ground in 1864, thus eliminating one of the last "great manors" of the colonial era.

Today, the notion of having a free-standing house, surrounded by a manicured courtyard, in the midst of Downtown Boston seems an absurdity, almost unimaginable. It is thankfully, then, that the granite steps remain, since they serve as both concrete proof of this history and as a reminder that Boston is an old city with a storied past. True, they are not much — not a church or a townhouse — but when one climbs their meager height, one is following in the footsteps of knights and generals, and where else in urban America can such a claim be made?

1 Comments:

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