Of all the dramatic events that took place at Boston’s Old South Meeting House, the battle to save it from destruction in 1876 was one of the hardest fought.
The odds against saving the revered building seemed impossible. The very concept of historic preservation hadn’t taken hold in New England yet. Old South sat on very valuable land, though it had fallen into a shabby artifact, the sidewalk in front of it crowded with peddlers and hawkers.
And time ran very short.
At the last minute, Boston’s 19th century leaders stepped in to save the legacy of their 18th century forbears. They used the same tools to save the Old South Meeting House as those that had made it historic: rhetoric, organization, patriotism and civic action. And they couldn’t have done it without the ladies.
It was the first successful effort to preserve a historic building in New England – and one of the first in the United States.
Old South Meeting House
The Puritans built Old South Meeting House in 1729. Judge Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for taking part in the Salem Witch Trials there. Benjamin Franklin was baptized on the site. Phyllis Wheatley thought about freedom while attending services at Old South.
In the run-up to the American Revolution, colonists often gathered at the Old South Meeting House to protest British rule. At a time when only 20,000 people lived in Boston, overflowing crowds came to hear James Otis, Joseph Warren, John Hancock and Samuel Adams denounce the tea tax, impressment and the Boston Massacre.
On Dec. 16, 1773, 4,000 angry colonists showed up at Faneuil Hall to discuss the tea crisis. Faneuil Hall couldn’t hold them all, so as many as 6,000 gathered at Old South. Then they adjourned to Griffin’s Wharf for the Boston Tea Party.
Samuel Adams understood the historical importance of the old Puritan meeting house. “The transactions at Liberty Tree were treated with scorn and ridicule,” he wrote, “but when they heard of the resolutions in the Old South Meeting-house, the place whence the orders issued for the removal of the troops in 1770, they put on grave countenances.”
The British Got It
The British understood its importance, too. During the Siege of Boston, the British vandalized symbols of the patriotic cause. They stole William Bradford‘s 1620 manuscript Of Plymouth Plantation, hidden in Old South’s tower. And they turned the Old South Meeting House into a riding school for Gen. John Burgoyne. They gutted the interior, burned the pews and dumped loads of dirt and gravel on the floor. It took eight years to restore the building.
Lowell Warren, once president of the Old South Association, said, “My wife swears she can still smell the British horses in the stairwell.”
A century later the Old South Meeting House narrowly escaped destruction when the Great Fire of 1872 swept through Boston. The conflagration burned 65 acres of the city, destroyed 776 buildings and killed 30 people.
“I heard the Old South clock strike,” said an eyewitness. “I don’t know what hour, and I know the thought came into my mind that perhaps it would never strike again.” Only the timely arrival of a fire engine from Portsmouth, N.H., saved the old building.
Old South Meeting House Sold
Snobbery almost destroyed what a raging inferno could not. By 1877, the neighborhood had grown crowded and noisy. The congregation decided to build a new church in the fashionable new Back Bay neighborhood. They moved historic artifacts, including the bell, into the New Old South Meeting House and put up the land under Old South for sale.
The building itself sold at auction on June 8, 1876 for $1,350 – the value of its parts. The spire was covered with copper, and the building contained a lot of lead. Removal was to be completed within 60 days.
All seemed lost. The clock had been removed, the masonry was under attack and copper was being taken from the building. Then George W. Simmons & Son, prominent Boston businessmen, stepped in and bought the right to hold the building uninjured for seven days. Simmons posted these words on the clock tower:
The Eleventh Hour!
Men and Women of Massachusetts!
Does Boston desire the humiliation which is to-day a part of her history since she has allowed the memorial to be sold under the hammer”
Shall the Old South Be Saved?
Simmons bought just enough time so others could organize the fight. On the sixth day, his son helped arrange an extraordinary public gathering at the old meeting house. Every seat was filled, and in the gallery sat the ladies of Boston.
They had a daunting challenge. They needed to raise $400,000, an enormous sum, to buy the land on which the meeting house stood.
Several people spoke, and then abolitionist crusader Wendell Phillips took the platform and gave the speech of his lifetime. An eyewitness reported on the remarkable oration:
The memories of the past crowded to his mind, and he spoke as if pleading for the life of one condemned unjustly. The mantle of the Revolution seemed to have fallen upon him, and he appeared to be the natural successor of Samuel Adams.
(Read the speech here.)
Then and there, the people of Boston started a fund to save the Old South Meeting House and collected several thousand dollars on the spot.
20 Ladies of Boston
On July 13, 1876, the congregation’s leaders agreed to postpone the sale of Old South for two months, but the buyers had to come up with $420,000 and ask for no further delay.
It seemed an impossible task, as Boston’s wealthy citizens were in the country or at the seashore during the summer. What’s more, there was no precedent. No historic building had ever been saved from destruction in New England.
Then the ladies stepped in.
Twenty wealthy Boston women bought the building for $3,500, more than twice what the owner had paid for its scrap value. They proposed to restore Old South, and to move it somewhere if the land couldn’t be purchased.
For a while nothing seemed to happen. Then one summer day the fire department put the old clock back in the tower, but the public couldn’t understand how or why. Then on Oct. 18, 1876, the papers passed for the preservationists to buy the Old South Meeting House. They paid a down payment of $100,000, and took a first mortgage of $225,000 and a second mortgage of $75,000.
Eventually the donor of the $100,000 down payment was revealed: Mary Tileston Hemenway, the wealthiest woman in Boston. Her husband had died in July on a trip to Cuba.
A Look at History
“American history is to us the most interesting and the most important history in the world, if we would only open our eyes to it and look at it in the right way,” she said. “I will help people to look at it in the right way.”
Still, the hawkers and peddlers had to be thrown out and the building had to be cleaned and restored. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes,Sr., and Louisa May Alcott took to the meeting house stage to plead for support. Others plunged into a frenzy of meetings, crafts fairs, balls and poetry-writing to raise money.
Membership on a committee to restore the Old South Meeting House became a status symbol. “Not to have been a member of some committee, proves you to be of the common people,” commented a newspaper writer.
Mary Sawyer Tyler, then living in Somerville, sold bits of wool for the cause. Sixty years earlier she had been a Massachusetts farm girl whose little lamb followed her to school one day. Mary Had A Little Lamb was by then a well-known poem. Mary still had two pairs of stockings knit from the lamb’s fleece. So she unraveled them, cut them into short pieces, attached them to cards with her autograph on them and sold them.
Old South Meeting House Saved
On April 9, 1877, a great ball was held in the Boston Music Hall. It was ‘one of the most extensive and elegant balls ever given in Massachusetts,’ and it raised $2,500.
The Old South Association formed and opened the Old South Meeting House as a museum in 1877. It then launched an educational program in American history and citizenship. It also published primary documents from American history as Old South Leaflets. Students from all over the country and the world came to “Children’s Hour” activities, Young People’s Lectures and essay contests.
They’re still coming. The Old South Meeting House is open daily from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. For more information click here.
With thanks to History of the Old South Meeting-house in Boston, Volume 50; Volume 282, By Everett Watson Burdett. This story about Old South Meeting House was updated in 2022.
Images: Old South interior By Daderot – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76947597.
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