Paul Revere’s House

Paul Revere House

If there was a starting line for Paul Revere’s Ride, perhaps it would be the threshold of his own home in North Square, in Boston’s North End. It’s from there that Revere’s historic night was launched. After two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church he hustled home for his riding boots, then raced out again, at first by foot, then by boat, and then by horse, to warn the colonists that the Regulars (the British) were coming.

The Paul Revere House is the oldest house in downtown Boston, built in 1680. Revere didn’t always live there, but he did at the time of his famous ride, and that’s why it survived until today. Revere’s great-grandson, John P. Reynolds Jr. purchased the house in 1902, and not long after, the building was restored and turned into a museum. Paul Revere moved from here in the 1780’s and sold it around 1800. Between Revere’s time and ours, the house took on many roles:  including a home for wayward sailors, a tenement house, and a host for shops on the first floor. And with the changes of use, came changes to the facade. The house is almost unrecognizable in old photographs.

For its restoration, the clock was turned back to the years before Paul Revere lived there, to match the its surviving 17th Century interior structure. So, while Revere’s home had a third floor of windows facing the street, what we see now is the earlier facade, featuring more roof.

Before this house was built, the famous early Bostonians, Increase and Cotton Mather lived at this location in what was a then parsonage for the Second Church of Boston. Both Mathers became famously entangled in the Salem Witch Trials.

While drawing across the street from the Paul Revere House on a raw but sunny Saturday morning in March, I watched visitors line up for the opening of the museum. Groups of foreign tourists made their stops as part of a journey along the Freedom Trail. Germans, Chinese and Scottish folks said hello. At one point, a tour of joggers stopped by. They took a brief break to stretch and hydrate while their heavy-breathing guide blabbed about the house. Then off they went, running the same streets that Paul Revere hustled down on his momentous night.

 

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The Signal Sent

Old North Church

High above Boston’s North End, is where I spied someone scaling the tall steeple of the Old North Church (officially known as Christ Church in the City of Boston, built in 1723). Apparently working as part of a construction project, the courageous man shimmied up the side of a needle with ropes. I admired his courage.

224 years earlier, under the cover of darkness, two other men risked their own hides by climbing to the heights of that same church – but from the inside. Their mission was to hang two small lanterns of light, in order to awaken a rebellion.

“One, if by land, two, if by sea,” was what the lanterns were meant to signal, as told by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his famous poem, Paul Revere’s Ride. That much Longfellow got right. However what he got wrong was that the signals were not sent to Paul Revere, but from Paul Revere. It was on his behalf that the two snuck into the church and spiraled up a series of dark staircases and ladders, up and around the church’s large bells, to the set of large windows that looked over the city and far beyond. At the time, all along Hull Street, where I sat drawing, were the homes of many British soldiers. Many of the church’s congregation were British. Yet, lanterns were successfully hung, or held, before the highest windows of the Old North Church – eight stories up.

The lights hung for only a short time – perhaps a minute – before they were extinguished. Patriots in Charlestown, to whom the signal was sent, had been watching for a few nights for the alarming signal. The British plans to send a large force (about 700 soldiers) across the Charles River and on to Lexington and Concord to seize colonists’ stockpiles of munitions, and perhaps arrest the patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock were broadcast across Boston Harbor.  Alerted in Charlestown, riders were sent into the countryside to alert the local colonial militias. Not long after, Paul Revere would set out, first by boat to Charlestown and then by horseback to Lexington as one of two special riders who’s job it was to alert Adams and Hancock of what was to come.

The secret as to who were the two men who snuck into and up to the top of the Old North  Church was kept better than the British plans. It is thought that Robert Newman, the church’s sexton (caretaker) and Capt. John Pulling, a vestryman (a leading parishoner) of the church, were the two who lit the lanterns. It was their flint, that sparked the colonists to action that fateful night.

 

 

Sidetracked: Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist

To draw Paul Revere at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is to see him as a celebrity, and to be treated as a bit of one, too.

“Hey, that’s in our library!” kids say as they enter the new and beautiful American Wing of the MFA and face Paul Revere’s portrait welcoming them.

“Look, an artist!” and “I’m sorry, may I pass in front of you?” people say politely as I stand before the painting, drawing in my sketchbook. On the streets, there is no such interest or courtesy.

Paul Revere was painted by the preeminent colonial artist John Singleton Copley in 1768, seven years before his famous ride. Copley was 30 years old at the time and he painted portraits of many of the cast of characters in Boston’s revolutionary era. Many, such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren, hang in the same gallery as Revere’s portrait. The paintings of Loyalists and Tories (the British and supporters of the British) are kept apart and shown in another room entirely.

Revere’s portrait is unusual in its lack of formality. He wears no wig and is dressed casually. It’s an idealized portrait of a successful tradesman. The well-regarded silversmith and engraver looks up from his work in the painting, perhaps as he did when Copley ordered frames for his miniature paintings a few years earlier.

John Singleton Copley didn’t get involved in politics, although his family favored the British. He stated he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neighther pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the Art itself.” Copley was not untouched by Boston’s upheavals, however. An angry mob formed outside his house once, looking for a Loyalist counselor who had indeed been there earlier. And the Boston Massacre took place down the street from where Copley grew up.

Amazingly, it was the tea belonging to his father-in-law, Richard Clark, that was dumped overboard in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Paul Revere, who had been painted by Copley five years before, was a participant in that notorious act of rebellion.

Copley left Boston for Europe in June of 1774 and never returned. He travelled first to England and then to France and Italy to study the masterworks of Western Art at the urging of another American expatriate painter, Benjamin West. Copley eventually settled in England. His wife and children joined him in May of 1775, one month after Paul Revere’s ride. Revere’s in-laws joined them in England soon after that.

John Singleton Copley eventually sold his house and land in what is now called Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, but he wished at times in his later years that he never had. He was, he realized, more liberal than his relatives. He maintained contacts in his old city and painted portraits of future presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams when they visited England. Copley’s daughter married an American and settled in Boston. His son, on the other hand, was British all the way, and later given the title “Lord Lyndhurst.”

Copley remembered Boston fondly and the city remembers him fondly, too. Copley Plaza, considered the city’s most beautiful public square and named in his honor, is situated near where his home once stood.

Sidetracked: The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it should be noted, is not on Paul Revere’s route.

Flavors of Boston’s North End

Flavors of Boston's North End

Paul Revere lived in Boston’s North End, which is now considered the city’s “Little Italy.” Walking the same streets as Revere, one sees an abundance of Italian restaurants, cafés, bakeries and shops. The place gives off an Old World vibe—the streets are narrow, the young people are seductively dressed, the old folks observe from benches and an occasional Vespa buzzes by. Parking is a nightmare.

The Italians are the fourth group to dominate the neighborhood. First, were the original colonists from England, who developed the small peninsula into a world trading hub. After the Revolutionary War, the wealthiest moved up to Beacon Hill, leaving behind an ever-growing port complete with sailors, prostitution and crime.

A huge wave of Irish immigrants filled the North End in the 1800s, escaping repression and the Potato Famine. Between 1846 and 1855, 37,000 Irish fled their home country for a new start in Boston. Eventually, they, too, left the North End, moving on to South Boston (“Southie”), where they still dominate culturally, and beyond.

Following the Irish were Eastern European Jews who played a significant role in upgrading many of the buildings in the neighborhood. They too, moved up the social ladder and on to other neighborhoods, such as Brookline.

As the Jews moved on, it was the Italians who filled the North End. In 1930, 44,000 were packed into the neighborhood. Interestingly, the immigrants from Genoa, Abruzzo, Sicily, Naples and other regions of Italy, created their own neighborhoods within the neighborhood.To this day, Italian-American culture dominates, holding on against a steady push of young professionals seeking apartments and condominiums.

Off the main drag, but no less a landmark in the North End, is Pizzeria Regina, a small, crowded, noisy restaurant which has attracted locals and and out-of-towners since 1926. The popular restaurant has since grown to a chain of stores throughout the suburbs. Pizza, one of the most popular foods in America, came with immigrants from the area of Naples. It actually exploded in popularity first in the U.S., before it was widely popularized all over Italy, where it was considered a regional dish.

At Pizzeria Regina, waiting for tables is common and space is at a premium. That’s why benches and overhead heaters are provided outside the front door. Once seated, or rather, squeezed into a tiny booth, there is an assault to the ears (blaring jukebox, barking waitresses and whooping patrons) as well as to the eyes (piles of pizza boxes, walls of old faded photographs). But alas, the experience is worth it. We come back every year.