This is the story of the five story brick townhouse at 34 West Cedar Street. Like many of the homes built in Beacon Hill, its history was intertwined with the story of Boston. But unlike many of more famous homes, no one had taken the time to compile its story. Here is the story of 34 West Cedar Street in Beacon Hill.
The story of 34 West Cedar Street is the story of Boston. It starts with the arrival of the first English settler to Boston, a man who came here alone over five years before the Puritans. He would become the first owner of this land, given rights to it by the Puritans after they purchased the Shawmut Peninsula from a Native American tribe. For most of the first century after the founding of a settlement, this land would be used primarily for grazing cattle. Its ownership would change over the years, from a Boston butcher to a Massachusetts governor to a US Senator. It would eventually be purchased by a master painter in 1841, who would build the brick home that resides here today. Each of its thirteen owners would bear witness to the transformations in the United States over the last two centuries: from the Industrial Revolution, to the rise of the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era, the environmental movement, the urban revitalization, and more. During this time the geography of Boston would change too. This home was once located just south of one of the three peaks of Beacon Hill, and less than 200 feet from the grassy shores of an estuary. Over the years the peaks that made up Beacon Hill would be lowered, and their landfill used to push out the shoreline and transform this narrow peninsula on which Boston resides.
The inhabitants too reflect the story of Boston. The first owner of 34 West Cedar was a master painter in a guild founded by Paul Revere, part of a growing class of tradesmen attracted to the growing city. Over the years the home would be owned by a Civil War veteran, a well-to-do spinster, three sisters from Albany who wintered in Boston, a Boston Brahmin financier, an Irish immigrant who became one of the great Irish industrialists of his age, a reverend, the grandson of the Great Northern Paper Company, a member of the famous Cabot family, the first CEO of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), and a world renowned neurosurgeon.
So let’s get started telling the story of 34 West Cedar Street and Boston.
The Early Years: 1630-1820s
The first European to settle in Boston was Reverend William Blaxton, a recluse who remained behind from a 1625 expedition to the New World to settle on the Shawmut Peninsula. The peninsula then was surrounded by water and connected to the mainland via a narrow isthmus. To the west was the Charles River, which was a tidal estuary with marshes and mudflats; to the east was the Boston Harbor and the islands, which opened to the Atlantic Ocean; and to the north was the mouth of the Charles River, across which was the peninsula of Charlestown. The land of Boston was thickly forested, and dominated by three hills: Copps Hill (North End), Fort Hill (Financial District), and Trimountain (Beacon Hill). The later hill - Trimountain - was the highest, with its name deriving from its three separate summits. In later years Trimountain would be shortened to Tremont, from which we get the name for Tremont Street.
Driven by the intolerance of King Charles I of England, a religious sect called the Puritans decided to resettle in the New World. Led by John Winthrop, they originally tried to settle in the areas that are now Salem and Charlestown, before being convinced by William Blaxton to move to the Shawmut Peninsula. The Puritans would purchase the peninsula from the Chickatawbut tribe, in return for which Blaxton would receive the area that today consists of the Boston Common and parts of Beacon Hill. It is therefore likely that the original owner of the land on which 34 West Cedar resides was none other than the first English settler of Boston, William Blaxton.
Beacon Hill would remain a remote and uninhabited area through the 17th century, being used primarily as a cow pasture for the inhabitants of Boston. In 1658, Zachariah Phillips, a butcher, purchased the land for grazing his cows from Samuel Cole. This pasture would eventually be sold to Governor John Leverett (1616-1679) in 1672, from whom it would descend to his heirs. In 1729, Byfield Lynde, who inherited the tract from his great grandfather, would initiate the first development on this land. He laid out 59 lots in the pasture, along the line of today’s West Cedar Street. The first houses that would be built here were cheap in nature and inhabited by a “questionable set of people” in the years before the Revolutionary War1. But after the war, an economic boom in the 1790s brought substantial development to the hill, attracting the first respectable tradesmen.
The development of Beacon Hill as we know it today started when the state legislature approved the building of a new State House. The construction started in 1795 and was completed by 1798, with its design done by Charles Bulfinch, who would go on to design many classic buildings in Boston and Washington DC (including the rotunda of the US Capitol Building). The development of the State House would launch a frantic era of land development in Beacon Hill, as developers sought to build homes for the wealthy near the center of state government. One of the best known land speculators of this era was the Mount Vernon Proprietors, which was founded in 1795, and whose partners would include several notable Boston citizens, such as Jonathan Mason, Dr. Benjamin Joy and Charles Bulfinch.
Jonathan Mason & Son: 1820s-1841
The land for 34 West Cedar would eventually be purchased independently by one of the Mountain Vernon Proprietor founders, Jonathan Mason (1756-1831). Mr. Mason was a witness to the Boston Massacre, studied law under John Adams, and was a US Senator. He is shown as the owner of the land as early as 1829, when he was listed as an adjacent property owner for the sale of 36 West Cedar. After his death in 1831, the ownership of the lot for 34 West Cedar fell to his son, Jonathan Mason junior (1796-1884).
In 1836, the Mount Vernon Proprietors tried to lay claim to the southern end of the Phillips cow pasture that included 34 West Cedar, based on the long existence of a fence that ran from a powder house on their lot across the former Phillips’ land. The Mount Vernon Proprietors lost this suit, leaving the lot in the hands of Jonathan Mason.
Jonathan would sell off many of the inherited properties in the decades after his father’s death, including the lot at 34 West Cedar. The narrow lot was located between the properties of Eben Taylor (36 West Cedar on the north) and E. Richards (32 West Cedar on the south). An existing home stood on the north side, but the abutting home on the south side would not be built until the 1860s. The home on the north side, which was likely built in the 1820s, had a notable neighbor: Susan Paul, a 32 year old black woman who wrote the first biography on an African American. She died of tuberculosis in April of 1841, shortly before Jonathan Mason would sell the lot.
The Gibsons: 1841-1892
On May 26, 1841, Jonathan Mason had a plot plan drawn up by the surveyor Alexander Wadsworth. On May 29, 1841, he sold the property to Kimball Gibson (1806-1854), a painter. Kimball bought the lot with the plan to build a home. He negotiated a party wall agreement with Eben Taylor to adjoin his home to an existing structure on the north side, which was recorded on August 31, 1841. While we do not have a definitive date for the construction of the house, it was likely finished in 1842, after which Kimball Gibson, his wife Elizabeth Beal Gibson (1803-1892), and their two young boys, Edward (5) and Albert (1), moved into 34 West Cedar. The Gibson family would own the home for the next 50 years. While we do not have much information on Kimball’s art, we know he was admitted as a master painter in the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association in 1833, had a shop at 40 Bromfield Street, and had one of his paintings listed in an exhibit at Faneuil Hall in 1837. It is not clear if the ell in the back of the house was built with the original house or added on later, but the oldest detailed map available shows it was already on the property by 1867.
The Industrial Revolution in Boston was in full swing when the Gibsons built their home in the early 1840s. The small peninsula on which the city was originally founded was growing rapidly through annexation and filling in the waterfront to support a swelling population of immigrants. The anti-slavery movement was strong in the city, with the state banning segregation in 1842 and prohibiting the arrest of escaped slaves in 1843. During this time the “north slope” of Beacon Hill - from Myrtle Street to Cambridge Street - was known as the African American neighborhood of the city, with many of the key events in the anti-slavery movement occurring here. The tumultuous decade of the 1850s would lead to the caning on the US Senate floor of Beacon Hill resident and Senator, Charles Sumner. Soon after the Civil War would start (1861-1865), for which Boston furnished many military units, including one of the first official black regiments of the war: the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. The march of the 54th down Beacon Street and by the State House on their way to war is commemorated today by a plaque on the Boston Common.
Substantial changes occurred to the landscape in this area of Boston during the time the Gibsons lived in the home. The Charles River was still a tidal estuary, with acres of salt marshes and mudflats in the 1840s. The buildings on the west side of Charles Street, such as the Charles Street Meeting House, were waterfront properties located along the river bank. The combination of dams for mills preventing the natural tidal movements, the release of sewage upstream, and heavy industry locating along the river resulted in the proliferation of pollution in the Charles River Basin in the 19th century. As a result, at low tide the Charles River was filled with foul, sewage-filled, mudflats. In the 1850s, the city filled in one of the dams along the river, making the Beacon Hill flats and Back Bay we know today. All the land west of the Public Garden and north of Tremont Street was once part of the Charles River estuary.
After the Civil War, the city of Boston continued to expand through annexation and landfill. The addition of Roxbury and Dorchester opened additional space for post-Civil War immigration, including the migration of former slaves from the south. This would start the gradual migration of the African American community away from Beacon Hill, which was completed by the early 1900s. The rapid influx of Irish immigrants resulted in cheap labor for many of the upper class residents of Beacon Hill, with “Bridgets” becoming common slang for house servants of the era. Some other key events that occurred while the Gibsons owned West Cedar include the creation of the Public Garden, the founding of Boston University, the Great Fire of 1872, and Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call from his lab on Cambridge Street.
Kimball Gibson died in 1854 at age 51, leaving behind his wife and two teenage boys. The boys would also die young, with Edward K. (1837-1867) dying at 29, and Albert Otis (1841-1871) at 30. Elizabeth would continue to live in the house until her death at age 89 on July 29, 1892. When she passed away in 1892, she left no surviving relatives. Three months after Elizabeth’s death, the deed to the house was sold by a Haverhill widow, Mary Carlton, to Edward Everett Wells (1839-1902) on October 19, 1892. It is not clear the relationship between Elizabeth Gibson and Mary Carlton, but no transfer of the deed was recorded. Mary Carlton appears in the newspaper in these years as involved in a few real estate transactions, so it is possible she acquired the deed at an estate sale.
Edward Wells: 1892-1904
The new owner of 34 West Cedar, Edward Wells, was a master builder by trade, which was a precursor to the modern architect. Like Kimball Gibson, he was a member of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, which was started by Paul Revere in 1795. As a young man he served in the Civil War as a lieutenant in the 13th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (1861-1864). After the war he married Harriett L.L. Dean of Vermont (1833-?). There is no record of the Wells’ having children, and it is possible Edward was already a widower when he purchased the home. Starting in 1893, 34 West Cedar was sublet to various tenants, with ads appearing frequently in the Boston Daily Globe. On September 12, 1901, during a time the house was rented by an Alfonso Martin, a fire broke out on the 2nd floor from which three women barely escaped.
The renting of rooms at 34 West Cedar was a sign of the times in Beacon Hill in this era. In the 1850s, the city filled in much of the Charles River Basin to form 500+ acres of new buildable land called Back Bay. Between 1859 and 1900, the area was developed with rows of Victorian brownstone homes that were larger and more modern than those in Beacon Hill, all arranged along straight European-inspired avenues. The homes were also designed with the latest advances in technology, including central heating, gas lighting and modern plumbing. As a result, starting after the Civil War, there was a gradual shift of the wealthiest citizens from Beacon Hill to Back Bay, with the hill increasingly seen as cramped and outdated. As the fortunes of Beacon Hill declined, historic single-family homes were often demolished to make room for tenement-style housing or converted to rooming houses. It would not be until the 1920s that Beacon Hill would start its resurgence, driven by civic organizations and new preservation-conscious developers.
Ellen Barnard: 1904-1909
When Edward Wells died in 1902 at age 63, there seems to have been some issue settling his estate, resulting in the house being auctioned off in the summer of 1904. Since the next transfer of the deed shows the home owned by Ellen Francis Barnard (1841-1921), who stated she received it from the estate of Edward Wells, it is likely she purchased the home at this auction. Ellen Barnard was a well-to-do unmarried woman who owned the home for five years. After selling 34 West Cedar, she lived until 80, dying in the West End. She would have her will contested after her death by her nieces and nephews when they found she suspiciously left all her money to her lawyer and seven cats.
During this time the Longfellow Bridge was built (1906), and John F. Fitzgerald (“Honey Fitz”), the future grandfather of President John F. Kennedy, became the mayor of Boston (1906).
The Hale Sisters: 1909-1910
Ellen Barnard sold the house on March 9, 1909 to Mary Lee Hale (1877-?), Ellen Hale (1879-1951) and Dorothy Quincy Hale (1886-1942). The Hale sisters, who are listed as “three single women” in the deed, would only retain the title to the house for 19 months. The Hales were raised in Albany, New York, spent their summers at their grandparents’ home in Westport, New York, and wintered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have records of Mary in a play in Boston, and Ellen attending a Miss Folsom’s School on Beacon Hill. Immediately after purchasing the home, they agreed to a conditional sale to the trustees of the will of Robert W. Hooper, suggesting the house was purchased on behalf of a beneficiary of the late Mr. Hooper. The three executors included John C. Gray, founder of the esteemed law firm Ropes & Gray, Charles Francis Adams, descendent of John Adams, and Horace D. Chapin. The agreement would transfer ownership of the home to the trustees in five years after the payment of $6K. The Hale’s however sold the home prior to the completion of the contract to Charles Jackson (1877-1969) and Elizabeth Higginson Jackson (1875-1974) on October 6, 1910.
The Jacksons: 1910-1919
The Jacksons would live in the house for nine years, and all four of their children would be born here: Charles Jr. (1910-2004), Elizabeth (1911-2006), Margaret (1914-?) and James (1916-2006). Charles was the son of Charles Cabot Jackson and Elizabeth Appleton Jackson. The Jackson family were Boston Brahmins, elite members of Boston’s upper class whose families descended from the earliest colonists, and who were associated with elite institutions such as Harvard University and the Somerset Club. Their family descended from Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Charles Jackson (1755-1855).
Charles Jackson started his career in banking at his father’s firm in Boston, before leaving to go on his own in New York City, and then returning to Boston in 1902. He claimed the Panic of 1907 as “the most interesting period” of his business life, and would go on to retire at age 42 in 1917. The Jacksons made the first recorded permit of modifications to the house, enlarging the dormer on the top floor in 1916.
During this era, Fenway Park opened its gates (1912), and the Red Sox would go on to win World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918, after which the “Curse of the Bambino” left them without a championship for 86 years. Other notable events in this era included opening of the Museum of Fine Arts, the start of World War I, and the relocation of MIT to Cambridge. The damming of the Charles would also take place in this decade, eliminating the polluted and smelly mudflats, and making possible the future Esplanade.
In 1918, the global influenza pandemic had spread to Boston. By the end of September the governor shutdown schools, theaters, movie houses and dance halls in hope of containing the spread. Due to the war effort, a shortage of medical personnel forced the state to conscript teachers into providing medical support to the growing number of patients. Between the fall of 1918 and winter of 1919, over 45,000 residents of Massachusetts would die of influenza, with Boston having the highest rate of death among US cities (710 deaths per 100,000 people). The pandemic continued into 1919, the year in which the Great Molasses Flood occurred in the North End and World War I would finally come to an end. The Jacksons sold the house to Bernard Joseph Rothwell (1859-1948) and his wife Herietta Rothwell (1872-1943) on July 1, 1919.
The Rothwells: 1919-1949
The Rothwells would live in the house for almost 30 years. Bernard was a first generation immigrant from Ireland who founded Bay State Milling Company of Quincy, Massachusetts, a family owned flour mill that still operates today. He came to the United States from Dublin when he was 10 years old, and worked his way up from office boy to a partner in a Boston mercantile business. He did this at a time when the Irish were just starting to become politically powerful in Boston. He would eventually found Bay State Milling, serve as president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, and be an active member of the Boston Clover Club, an exclusive male-only Irish-American social club that still exists today. A widower, at age 52 Bernard married Henrietta Goodrich in 1911. Henrietta (“Netty”) grew up in Michigan, the only child of Charles and Mary Goodrich. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1894, and received a masters degree from the University of Chicago in 1898. After her father passed away, she and her mother moved east to Boston. She served as the director of the Boston School for Home Economics, and secretary to the Women’s Education and Industrial Union. Henrietta’s mother, Mary Goodrich, lived with the couple until her death in 1934. While Bernard and Henrietta did not have children, Bernard had a son, Paul Taylor Rothwell, from his first marriage. Shortly after the purchase of the house, the Rothwells tried unsuccessfully to apply for a permit to extend the ell of the house.
Several notable events occurred in the three decades the Rothwells lived in the home. The Roaring Twenties brought the election of the infamous Mayor James Michael Curley, Prohibition outlawed the sale of alcohol (1920-1933), the Boston Garden opened, and the Beacon Hill Garden Club was started. This decade ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which brought on the Great Depression of the 1930s. During this time the Sumner Tunnel was opened, the Citgo sign was erected, and the Hatch Shell built. The 1940s brought World War II, with Boston becoming a major shipyard for the US Navy. At its peak, over 50K workers were employed in the shipyards. It was during this era that the Cocoanut Grove Fire killed 492 nightclub goers, the Old John Hancock Building was built, John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress, and Mayor Curley was sent to prison (to the Charles Street Jail, which is currently the Liberty Hotel).
The Coes: 1949-1961
The Rothwells would pass away within five years of each other in the 1940s. Henrietta died in 1943 at age 71, and Bernard died in 1948 at age 89. After Bernard’s death, his son, Paul T. Rothwell, sold the house to Albert Buckner Coe on May 16, 1949. Albert was a reverend and active member of the Massachusetts Congregational Christian Conference, a governing body for some of the oldest and largest Protestant churches in the Bay State. Reverend Coe transferred 34 West Cedar under the ownership of the religious conference - possibly for tax reasons - while he and his wife Katharine resided in the home. The city has no record of permitted changes to the home during this time. Bernard would remain president of the Massachusetts Congregational Christian Conference until 1958, after which the deed was returned to him on September 30, 1958.
In the 1950s, Storrow Drive opened, allowing for the rapid transit of cars across the city. The Museum of Science was opened, the West End was demolished in pursuit of urban renewal, Martin Luther King earned his PhD from Boston University, the Gibson House Museum was opened, the Freedom Trail was formed, and the Central Artery was built through the heart of the city, dividing neighborhoods. This was the “Dirty Water” era in which pollution was rampant, crime was high, and the city continued its slow post-war decline. It was also the decade in which Beacon Hill resident George Doriot signed the first recorded venture capital deal at his kitchen table, investing $70K in a startup called Digital Equipment Corporation, which would be worth $355M when DEC went public.
The Schencks: 1961-1974
On April 25, 1961, Albert and Katharine Coe sold the house to Garret (1932-2000) and Sue B. Schenck (1936-2020). The Schencks raised three boys in the home - Van, Chris and Trip - where they would live for 13 years. Sue (“Sudie”) was an avid gardener, and a member of the Beacon Hill Garden Club for 50 years, with her home appearing occasionally on the garden tour. Garret Schenck was the grandson of the founder of the Great Northern Paper Company. The Schencks would make several modest improvements to the house, including replacing the copper gutters, repointing bricks, installing a bathroom & laundry room, and changing four casement windows with double hungs.
The 1960s were a tumultuous era in Boston. The Callahan Tunnel was built, the Common Parking Garage opened, the Prudential Tower erected, civil rights protests were held in the Boston Common, and the assasination of Martin Luther King brought racial unrest to the city. The environmental movement also started to make inroads into Boston, with the formation of the Charles River Watershed Association.
Louis Cabot: 1974-1975
The Schencks purchased the adjacent house at 36 West Cedar in April of 1974, after which they sold their home to Louis W. Cabot on May 16, 1974 and moved. Louis Cabot, who came from a storied Boston Brahmin family, and served as president and chairman of the Cabot Corporation. It’s not clear why Louis purchased the house since he does not appear to have lived there, and he sold the property only 16 months later for a loss to Robert R. Kiley and Rona Schuman on September 16, 1975.
The Kileys: 1975-1984
The Kileys would live in the house for nine years. Robert Kiley (1936-2016) started his career with the Central Intelligence Agency, and later became a global expert in public transportation. He was appointed by Governor Dukakis to be the first chairman and CEO of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in 1975. The year before purchasing the house, Robert tragically lost his wife, four year old son and two year old daughter in a car crash in New York. It was after this that he met Rona Schuman, with whom he would purchase the house and later marry. The only permitted change they are recorded as making is a kitchen remodel.
The 1970s were the era of desegregation in Boston. The John Hancock Tower was erected, the country celebrated its bicentennial, the Federal Reserve Bank Building was built, the John F. Kennedy Library opened, and the famous snowstorm of 1978 shut down the city. Under court order, compulsory busing brought minority students to schools in the suburbs, resulting in a decline of public school enrollment and “white flight” from the city.
The Pratts: 1984-2014
The Kileys sold the home to Fred N. Pratt Jr. and Christine Pratt on January 31, 1984. The Pratts would live in the house for 30 years. Fred Pratt served in a variety of executive roles, including co-founder of Boston Financial Group and CEO of Lend Lease Real Estate Investments. Christine Pratt also served in several executive roles in financial institutions, including director of BayBank and president & CEO of Pratt Associates. They raised two children in the home, Samuel and Emeline. They made substantial updates upon purchasing the house, including repairing the woodwork, plaster, wiring, floors, windows, roofs, repainting and installing air conditioning. In 1994 they remodeled the 4th floor laundry, switched to gas heating, and made repairs to the copper gutters, windows and trim. In 1996 they restored the brickwork and replaced two windows in the back. In 1997 they excavated the back of the basement to lower it by 12”, installed a concrete slab, and put in a wine room. In 1997 they made repairs to the copper and slate roofs, and in 1999 they remodeled the kitchen and den, with this work continuing until 1999. In 2001 they remodeled the bathrooms on the 3rd and 4th floors and replaced six front windows. In 2003 they remodeled the primary bedroom and bathroom, the 4th floor bathroom, and replaced several windows.
The three decades the Pratts lived in the house included the end of the urban decay and the start of the revitalization in Boston. The 1980s continued the environmental cleanup with the establishment of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and a court-ordered cleanup of the Boston Harbor. The 1990s began with the infamous art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in which 13 artworks valued at over $500M were stolen. This would be followed by the election of Thomas Menino in 1993, which marked the unofficial start of the urban revival of Boston. Over the next ten years the Mayor Menino would lead Boston during the cleanup of the Boston Harbor and Charles River, the shutdown of the “Combat Zone”, the breakup of the Italian and Irish mobs, the removal of the Central Artery, the construction of the Ted Williams Tunnel, the creation of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, and the development of the Seaport district. In 1999, the musician Carly Simon became a resident of Beacon Hill at the nearby 37 West Cedar, only to leave a year later after finding herself not welcomed by the neighborhood. In the 2000s, the Zakim Bridge opened, the Democratic National Convention came to Boston, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, the Big Dig completed, the Charles/MGH MBTA station was rebuilt, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway was opened. It was also in the 2000s that Boston was rocked by the Catholic sex abuse scandal, with the first article appearing in the Boston Globe in 2002.
The Patels: 2014-2019
On June 16, 2014, Fred and Christine Pratt sold the house to Asha and Aman Patel. Dr Aman Patel is a world-renowned neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. They lived in the house for only four years, moving to Cambridge in 2018. During this time they changed the front entrance, switching it to the main floor instead of the garden level.