THE REST OF THE COUNTRY may tease us for our funny accents, our convoluted street patterns, and our obsessive dedication to the Red Sox, but there’s one thing no one laughs off: our sense of history. The past is everywhere in Boston and its environs, inescapable and seductive. “You can see the history of the city as you walk down one street,” says Kristi Chase, preservation planner for the city of Somerville. “Washington Street, Somerville Avenue — these are main drags that have farmers’ housing from the 1780s next to, say, a Queen Anne or a 1920s automotive or apartment building. The same is true for Boston and Cambridge and many of the suburbs.”
The reason for this, in part, is that the preservation movement began early in Boston, when Hancock House, built in 1737 on Beacon Street overlooking the Common, was demolished in 1863. The house was such a supreme example of the Georgian style and such an important site in Revolutionary history that people protested; a broadside of the time had shouted “Bostonians! Save the Old John Hancock Mansion,” to no avail. The loss of Hancock House, says Joe Cornish, senior stewardship manager of the preservation group Historic New England, “really spurred an outcry that continued even after the event. Preservationists look at that as a turning point for preservation in New England and preservation in general. It raised awareness of significant early buildings being destroyed.” The demolition of much of the West End in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s was another big wake-up call.