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Three Old-Timers From the 1600s Still Standing Tall in Boston

The Nation

It's a challenge caring for the Paul Revere House and two other buildings from the 1600s due to their frailty and a multitude of visitors.

February 13, 2005|Mark Jewell | Associated Press Writer

BOSTON — In a city where centuries-old meeting houses, churches and burial grounds seem to dot every corner, it's not easy to find buildings dating to the earliest years in Boston's 374-year history.

Only three buildings from the 1600s have survived the forces of urban renewal, fire and simple deterioration that have erased most visible reminders of what was an emerging colonial city of merchants and seafarers.

The task of caring for those properties is especially challenging because of the buildings' frailty and the crush of visitors seeking a peek at history.

At Paul Revere House in Boston's North End, about 90% of the 1680 structure is original despite a rough-and-tumble history that included periods in which ground-floor rooms housed such things as a candy store, a cigar factory and a bank. Among the items that have been replaced over the years are floorboard sections worn down by the more than 200,000 visitors per year who take paid, self-guided tours of the famous patriot's three-story home.

"For Revere House to survive fires and British troops is quite miraculous to begin with," said Nina Zannieri, executive director of the Paul Revere Memorial Assn., which cares for the property. "When you're handed something like that, that is something you feel quite strongly about.

"It's a wonderful container for stories about the past that tell us something about who we are."

Boston's two other remaining 17th century structures are little-known compared with the Revere House, which is one of the stops on the city's pedestrian-friendly, 2 1/2 -mile-long Freedom Trail downtown and in nearby Charlestown. The other two buildings are off the beaten tourist path in Boston's working-class Dorchester section, south of downtown.

The most prominent is Pierce House, which dates to 1683. It housed 10 generations of the Pierce family, most notably Col. Samuel Pierce (1736-1815), who took part in the fortification of Dorchester Heights during the Revolutionary War.

Private tours, available through reservations from June through mid-October, offer a glimpse into the life of a family that was well-off but not aristocratic. Visitors can see unique architectural details, including wooden pegs in the home's original framework and 17th century exterior clapboard that is now protected from the weather.

Blake House, the other 17th century building in Dorchester, is believed to be Boston's oldest, dating to 1648 -- 18 years after Puritans led by John Winthrop founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was settled a decade after Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. The two-story, gable-roofed wood home was moved to Dorchester's Richardson Park from its original site to prevent its demolition in the 1890s, when the Dorchester Historical Society assumed the preservation as its first major project.

The home now serves as a museum of early American home construction.

Boston's three remaining 17th century structures survived great fires and centuries of urban development that rid Boston of nearly all its historic buildings. Much of that demolition occurred in the mid-20th century as urban renewal came to areas that were considered blighted.

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