One in a series of stories showcasing closer-to-home destinations.
Allison Kaminsky, our guide, opened an old wooden door into a tight, spiraling staircase and invited us to climb. The steps were steep and shallow; the air smelled of old wood and must. We stepped carefully, grabbing onto old beams as we climbed up the bell tower of historic Old North Church. We entered a small, archival room with a table laid out with old photographs of the church, including one showing the steeple toppling during Hurricane Carol in 1954.
Kaminsky explained that the tiny room was once the church rectory, and the rector had complained that the smell of rotting bodies in the crypt reached this room, writing that he had been “haunted by a visitation from the tombs; inaudible, unseen ministries, but ... not unsmelt.”
We learned that the existing steeple is not the original (though the weathervane on top is); it’s the third steeple. And the story of Paul Revere hanging a lantern in the church’s belfry? Not true. “But Paul Revere was a bell ringer here as a boy and knew that any light shining from the top windows would be visible to his fellow riders,” Kaminsky explained. “He gave the orders to hang the lantern in Old North Church and set up the system of signals.”
We took another flight of stairs up to the bell chamber and stood under the ropes of the eight historic bells, the oldest change-ringing bells in North America. They were shipped from Gloucester, England, in 1744 and hung in the Old North Church in 1745.
“It’s amazing that artifacts like the bells are still being used,” Nikki Stewart, executive director of Old North Foundation, said earlier. “Remarkable, really, that we’re hearing the same bells that Paul Revere heard.”
And we were standing in the same bell chamber where Revere once stood, where he worked as a bell ringer as a young boy. It was remarkable to us, also. Today, volunteers from the MIT Guild of Bellringers ring the bells for Sunday services and special occasions throughout the year. They often practice on Saturday morning. When we showed up on this steamy Saturday morning, the bells were ringing.
It had been many years since we visited The Old North Church. Established in 1723 as Christ Church in the City of Boston, Old North Church is both a national historic landmark operated by the Old North Foundation and an active Episcopal Church congregation. We’d popped in a few times over the years but noticed that the foundation was now offering a variety of guided tours, including a gallery tour, crypt tour, and the bell tower tour. There’s also a DIY scavenger hunt that’s been a hit with families. We decided to take a closer look at the historic church and to extend the visit with an overnight stay at one of our favorite Boston hotels. The Boston Park Plaza, one of America’s oldest hotels, is a city landmark and sits on land that was once waterfront — before fill was dumped into the water to create Back Bay. It was here where British troops departed on the expedition that led to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The hotel, like Old North Church, has a rich history. Built in 1927, it was 14 stories tall, with 1,300 rooms; for five decades it was the eighth largest hotel in the world. The list of dignitaries who have stayed here reads like a Who’s Who, including all but two US presidents. The Grand Dame is 95 years old but sure doesn’t look it, thanks to a massive $100 million renovation in 2016. The lobby is a large contemporary space with a soothing gray and white color palette, tall ceramic columns, and contemporary chandeliers. It’s anchored by Off The Common, an open bar and restaurant. We also love The Library; located across the lobby, it’s a quiet, handsome spot to hang out, with wood bookshelves and comfy seating.
Today, there are 1,060 rooms, which have been updated, with contemporary furnishings, upholstered headboards, luxury linens, flat-screen TVs, and modern baths. Rooms tend to be on the smaller side, but we weren’t planning on spending too much time in them. We dropped our bags and headed across Boston Public Garden, through Boston Common and into the North End, following the ringing of church bells.
Some new things we learned on our tour of Old North Church: There are 1,576 pipes inside the 1759 organ. It takes 15 minutes to light all the candles in the church chandeliers. The walls were once painted with colorful murals of plants and flowers and landscape scenes. Until 1912, members of the church would pay for their pew. There’s a Governor’s pew, and if Charlie Baker shows up, he still gets the honored seat. The Warden’s Wands were used to keep parishioners in check; if you fell asleep or were squirmy, you’d get a rap on your hand. We also learned that children under 12 and enslaved and free Black people were not allowed in the main pews, but were seated upstairs in the balcony, where it was cold and where views of the pulpit were obstructed. “We know that there were Black people who worshiped here,” says Kaminsky, “but we don’t know a lot about them. It’s our mission to find out more, and to learn their stories.”
The construction of the church and its steeples has direct connections to human trafficking and enslaved labor, Kaminsky said, “which is pretty ironic since Old North Church has been considered a beacon of freedom.”
The crypt tour was short — 15 minutes or so — and not so sweet, a walk through a cramped, low-ceiling basement where more than 1,100 bodies are buried beneath the floorboards of the church. It used to be a smelly, nasty place of decomposing bodies and a city health hazard. In 1860, the crypts were sealed.
We were happy to climb out into the fresh air and sunshine, and despite the images of dead bodies in our heads, we were famished. We walked back through the Public Garden in full bloom and had a lovely lunch at Contessa, sharing a fresh burrata appetizer, wood-fired shrimp flatbread, and spicy lobster capellini. The wrap-around, glass-enclosed dining space, on the rooftop of The Newbury, is stunning, with views of the city in nearly all directions. Is that the steeple of Old North Church in the distance? Hard to say, but we were still hearing bells ringing in our heads.
If you go . . .
Old North Church & Historic Site is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is $5, ages 5 and under are free. Guided crypt, gallery, and bell tower tours are $10 and include the general admission.
Families can request a copy of Prince’s Pew Pursuit, a DIY scavenger hunt designed for children ages 6-12. It’s led by Prince, the friendly North End cat who used to frequent the church.
Boston Park Plaza Hotel, 617-426-2000 www.bostonparkplaza.com; room rates start at $249.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org