By Kenneth J. Olson
The history of the destruction of John Hancock House on Beacon Street
If today you were planning to sell off Valley Forge to build condominiums or Jefferson’s Monticello for a shopping mall, there would be an uproar from coast to coast.
Yet on a Tuesday afternoon in June of 1863, while the Civil War raged on, the historic home where Lafayette slept, and George Washington dined; the wounded of Bunker Hill convalesced, and John Singleton Copley painted family portraits was sold.
And then John Hancock’s house was promptly demolished.
Today the destruction of such an important icon of patriotism would be unimaginable. Yet in the mid-1800s, these actions were not so uncommon. The country, still young by many measures, was just coming into its own. The first Industrial Revolution was hitting Massachusetts. Bigger, better, faster is not a modern concept.
Hancock Manor, as it was known, was located at 30 Beacon Street, what is now the southwest corner of the Massachusetts State House. It was built for John Hancock’s uncle Thomas in the 1730s and passed to him upon his aunt’s death in the 1770s. The three-store mansion was the first built atop Beacon Hill and had expansive views over the cow pasture that is now Boston Common. It was a large estate bounded by Park, Joy, Derne and Beacon Streets. Hancock died there in 1793 and two years later, the state purchased most of the land as the future site of the State House.
Members of the Hancock family and their descendants continued to live in the house. In the 1850s, a movement to acquire the remainder of the land, including Hancock Manor, and establish a governor’s mansion was proposed to the Massachusetts Legislature. While the Hancock family was willing to offer the house and remaining land to the government for a reasonable sum, the towns outside of Boston defeated the measure.
During the Civil War, the family entered into an agreement to sell the land for $125,000, a condition being that the house was to be removed. They put the house up for auction on June 16, 1863, and the winning bidder had ten days to remove the house and its contents. Various fixtures went in various directions, scavengers grabbed what they could as the house was demolished piece by piece in order to clear the land.
The piece shown as part of this article is likely a foam scrapper, common in the early 1800s to scrape the foam off the top of the beer. Measuring approximately 7 inches, written in period fountain pen is the following text: From the old Hancock House, Beacon Street, Bos., Erected 1736. Taken down 1863.”