One Square, Five Centuries: An Introduction to the History of North Square

May 29, 2020

By Robert Shimp

Image of paved public square surrounded by brick buildings

North Square, Boston, MA

During the Paul Revere House’s temporary closure, the exteriors of the Revere House, the Pierce/Hichborn House, as well as the immediate environs of North Square, present great opportunities for visitors to explore five distinct centuries of history in one location.


For the c.1680 Revere House at 19 North Square, what you see as you walk into North Square is largely a 17th century-style exterior from the 1907-08 restoration by Joseph Chandler. Chandler restored the house to an older style after two-plus centuries of varied uses. As it stands now, visitors see a two-story late-Tudor style house with a large attic and a second-floor overhang. The general layout of the house is likely very close to its original construction. Some of the original fieldstone foundation is also visible at street level. Though the house had been greatly altered by the time Paul Revere moved in, the exterior as restored provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the march of time across North Square.


The Revere House stands out from its historic counterparts in Boston precisely because it retains an older aesthetic style, one that directly contrasts with its Pierce/Hichborn House counterpart. The Pierce/Hichborn House at 29 North Square, though also used for various purposes since its 1711 construction as a single-family dwelling, importantly maintains its brick facade and thus its exterior more closely resembles its appearance during Paul Revere’s lifetime than the Revere House.


North Square, as part of Boston’s North End, is one of the original parts of the city. Boston harbor abutted the Square through Paul Revere’s time, and this space served as a market for four centuries going back to the 1600s. For a period of time, the market was housed in a physical structure until it was torn down in 1747. North Square has always been a bustling place of activity and a community gathering space. Considering the market and the nearby wharves is central to understanding what living in Boston or the Revere House was like in the 17th through the 19th centuries.


Boston’s religious history has deep roots in North Square. In the 17th century, the Mather family called the area home, as their church, the Old North Meeting House, stood at the top of the Square. The most famous family member, Cotton Mather, is known for his connection to the Salem Witch Trials and as one of the primary chroniclers of Massachusetts’ history. The family had lived in the parsonage which existed at 19 North Square up to its destruction in the great fire of 1676. There is speculation that the Revere House’s initial construction may have been for the Mathers, but as we know, Robert and Elizabeth Howard became the home’s first occupants in 1681.


Old North Meeting House stood in the Square until it was pulled down by British soldiers in January 1776. It was the second oldest Church in Boston at the time. Rev. John Lathrop, a fiery preacher with deep patriotic leanings leading up to the Revolution and during the occupation, likely became a target for the soldiers to destroy his meeting house just before their evacuation from Boston. The majority of the congregation ultimately fused with that of the New Brick Church in the North End.


The Square’s religious importance continued in the 19th century, particularly for arriving sailors and new immigrants to Boston. As segments of the North End became infamous for illicit activities, sites in North Square offered a counter option with the promise of salvation. No site better exemplifies this than the Seamen’s Bethel, a church built in 1833 as a permanent site for religious reform movements which aimed to improve the lives of the sailors in the neighborhood. The most notable figure associated with the Bethel was Father Edward Thompson Taylor, a former sailor himself who was able to meet the young men from the boats on their rhetorical level. He knew the language of the sea, filling his sermons with emotion and nautical metaphors. He rejected the associated vice of a sailor’s itinerant life for a religious calling as a Methodist preacher, reborn during Second Great Awakening. His effectiveness was legendary in the community and his sermons left a great impression on sailors and others who attended his services. Ralph Waldo Emerson, on a tour through the North End, visited Taylor’s pulpit and called him “The Shakespeare of the sailor and the poor.” Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and even Charles Dickens during his tour of America also made special visits to the Bethel to watch Taylor in action.


The Bethel is not a Protestant church today, however, as it was repurposed for a different faith community long after the fires of the Second Great Awakening had dwindled. In 1880, North End Italians raised the funds to buy the church and transform it into a Roman Catholic place of worship, attempting to make it clear that Catholicism in the North End would not be exclusively Irish. The purchase was delayed due to a five-year dispute between the San Marco Society, the purchasing group, and Boston’s Archbishop John Joseph Williams. The predominantly Irish Catholic archdiocese ultimately prevailed and the San Marco Society relinquished control of the church to the archdiocese. The land itself, however, remained for the worship and benefit of the Italian Roman Catholics of Boston, run by Italian and Italian-American clergy. The building, now Sacred Heart Church, is still a staple in North Square today.


In a similar vein to the Bethel, the early Victorian period brought the construction of the Mariner’s House at 11 North Square, which was opened in 1847. The Mariner’s House actually maintains its fundamental purpose today, providing affordable lodging and meals for sailors from around the world. Beyond food and shelter, the House originally aimed to reintroduce the sailors to religion and give them a safe haven for resisting the temptation to run through their money and abandon their morals in seedier activities around the city. The Mariner’s House tapped into the temperance branch of reform movements and banned alcohol while also establishing a strict curfew for its residents. While no longer religiously affiliated, the House’s staying power in the Square speaks to its efficacy and important role in the 19th century.


Finally, in 2019 an art installation by Anne Hirsch and Jeremy Angier from A+J Art+Design opened to the public at the top of North Square. Their work richly details all of this history and much more in four thoughtfully crafted pieces. We invite you to spend some time enjoying this evocative public art as you contemplate the Square’s rich history that can be viewed simply by standing and turning about in this culturally rich place. We encourage you, as you are able to do so safely, to visit and explore North Square in preparation for the Revere House’s pending reopening!


If you have been enjoying these posts and our other content during the closure, we invite you to consider making a donation or becoming a member of the Paul Revere Memorial Association. We greatly appreciate your support, and we hope to see you in person soon!


To visit virtually for now, check out the Square’s street view on Google Maps!


Robert Shimp is the Director of Research and Adult Programming at the Paul Revere House