The Trail Leads to Boston

Posted March 8, 2004 at 9:02am

The city of Boston prides itself in instigating revolution against King George. This summer, the Democratic Party will convene in Boston in hopes of ending the reign of another George: Delegates will flock to the FleetCenter July 26-29 to nominate their candidate for the president. The Democratic National Convention is an example of democracy in action and — potentially — history in the making. From colonial times to Camelot, Boston’s identity has long been intertwined with politics and history.

The American Revolution is the foremost example of this role, and the best introduction to revolutionary Boston is the Freedom Trail. The red brick path winds its way past 16 sites that earned this town its status as “the cradle of liberty.” The 2.5-mile trail follows the course of the conflict, from the Old State House, where Redcoats killed five men marking the Boston Massacre, to the Old North Church, where the sexton hung two lanterns to warn that British troops would come by sea.

The Freedom Trail starts at the gold-domed State House, atop Beacon Hill. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who first dubbed the Massachusetts State House “the hub of the solar system” (thus earning Boston the nickname “the Hub”). The state Constitution, drafted by John Adams in 1779, makes Massachusetts the world’s oldest working constitutional democracy. Under the dome, leaders and legislators attempt to turn their ideas into concrete policies and practices.

For a break, they head across the street to the 21st Amendment.

“Back in the day, the pols would be over here for hours,” according to bartender and co-owner Cy Clark. “A lobbyist would lay down a credit card and that’s it — nobody’s paying. … They can’t get away with that anymore.” Yet stricter lobbying rules do not stop State House staffers and Beacon Hill regulars from congregating there.

Those in search of a more upscale power lunch walk across the Boston Common to Locke-Ober, a bastion of Boston Brahmin. According to an 1883 guide to Boston: “The leading French restaurant of the city is Ober’s, on Winter Place. … This has more than a local fame. It is most patronized by the possessors of long purses.”

The description rings true for the successor restaurant, which reeks of a patrician past. Many 19th-century artworks and architectural details have survived in the sumptuous dining rooms. The exclusive men-only policy has not. Chef and owner Lydia Shire has brought Locke-Ober into the 21st century while maintaining a traditional menu and elegant atmosphere.

Boston’s neighbor to the north, Cambridge, was home to the country’s first college and first printing press. That established the city’s reputation early on as fertile ground for intellectual and political thought — a reputation that has held up for more than 350 years (and counting). No less than seven presidents of the United States and countless Cabinet members have graduated from Harvard University; its faculty has produced nearly 40 Nobel laureates.

The focal point of Harvard Yard is Daniel Chester French’s statue, where every Harvard hopeful has a photo taken. The sculpture — inscribed “John Harvard, Founder of Harvard College, 1638” — is known as the statue of three lies: (1) it does not actually depict Harvard (since no image of him exists), but a student chosen at random; (2) John Harvard was not the founder of the college, but its first benefactor in 1638; (3) the college was actually founded two years earlier in 1636. The Harvard symbol hardly lives up to the university’s motto, Veritas, or “truth.”

Opposite Harvard’s main entrance, Cambridge Common is the village green where Gen. George Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775. Christ Church across the street was used as barracks after its loyalist congregation fled.

Heading west out of Harvard Square, Brattle Street is the epitome of colonial posh. Lined with mansions that were once home to royal sympathizers, the street earned the nickname Tory Row. The Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, a 1685 colonial, is now the address of the Cambridge Historical Society.

Brattle Street’s most famous resident was Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, whose stately manor offers poetry readings and historical tours. The urban estate at 33 Elmwood St. (off Brattle) was the home of Elbridge Gerry, signer of the Declaration of Independence and namesake of the term “gerrymandering.” Elmwood is now the residence of the president of Harvard University.

Brattle Street terminates at the Egyptian revival gateway into Mount Auburn Cemetery. Since 1831, this beautifully landscaped park has been the final resting place for Boston’s most influential artistic, literary and philosophic souls. Stroll past the graves of Dorothea Dix, Mary Baker Eddy, Fannie Farmer, Isabella Gardner, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Winslow Homer, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow and Sen. Charles Sumner.

Flowering with cherry, dogwood and magnolia trees, the cemetery is a welcome respite from the city’s turmoil. Hidden among the hills is the exquisite Gothic Revival Bigelow Chapel. At the highest point in the park, Washington Tower offers a panoramic view of Harvard, the Hancock and Prudential buildings and beyond.

Besides the birthplace of the revolution, Boston is, of course, the birthplace of the Kennedys. The legacy of John F. Kennedy is ubiquitous in the Boston area, from the JFK dining room in Locke-Ober to the JFK School of Government at Harvard University. However, the official memorial to the 35th president is the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum (Columbia Point), an obligatory political pilgrimage for Democratic delegates.

The striking, modern, marble building — designed by I.M. Pei — was dubbed “the shining monument by the sea” soon after it opened in 1979. The architectural centerpiece is the magnificent glass pavilion, with soaring 115-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Boston Harbor.

The museum is a fitting tribute to JFK’s life and legacy. The effective use of video recreates history for visitors who may or may not remember the early 1960s. A highlight is the museum’s treatment of the Cuban Missile Crisis: A short film explores the dilemmas and decisions that the president faced, while an archival exhibit displays actual documents and correspondence from these gripping 13 days. Family photographs and private writings — of both first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John F. Kennedy Jr. — add a personal but not overly sentimental dimension to the exhibits. Ardent admirers may also wish to visit Kennedy’s birthplace, a modest clapboard house in Brookline that is open for tours.

Another Kennedy haunt was the Union Oyster House, Boston’s oldest restaurant and JFK’s favorite place to savor lobster stew on Sunday afternoons. His preferred booth — No. 18 — has been dedicated to his memory. In earlier times, Daniel Webster regularly held court at the bar, often consuming three dozen oysters and six tumblers of brandy in one sitting.

Whether in a back booth of the Union Oyster House or in the hallowed halls of Harvard University, Boston continues its tradition of blending practical politics and progressive ideas. Speaking from his experience as Congressman and Bostonian, the late Speaker Tip O’Neill (D) liked to say that “All politics is local.” And Boston has proved that local politics can shape history.

Mara Vorhees is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

Cambridge Historical Society
159 Brattle St., Cambridge
(617) 547-4252
Open 2-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday

The Freedom Trail
(617) 357-8300

John F. Kennedy Library & Museum
Columbia Point, Boston
(866) JFK-1960
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

John F. Kennedy
National History Site
83 Beals St., Brookline
(617) 566-7937
Open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday May-October

3 Winterplace, Boston
(617) 542-1340

Longfellow House
105 Brattle St., Cambridge
(617) 876-4491
Open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday May-October

Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge
(617) 547-7105
Open 8 a.m.-7p.m. daily
(5 p.m. in winter)

The State House
Beacon and Park streets, Boston
(617) 727-3676
Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

21st Amendment
150 Bowdoin St., Boston
(617) 221-7100

Union Oyster House
41 Union St., Boston
(617) 227-2750