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Ideas | the Rev. Stephen T. Ayres

Boston’s historic landmarks could use more love

The Old North Church guests are drawn by the story of Paul Revere and the two lanterns that led to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
The Old North Church guests are drawn by the story of Paul Revere and the two lanterns that led to the Battle of Lexington and Concord. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)

ON SUNDAY NIGHT, old north Church & Historic Site celebrates our annual Lantern Ceremony and the 244th anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution. It is a celebration of our history and recognition of a hero. This event will be my last as vicar and a good time to review 22 years at the helm of one of Boston’s most loved historic sites.

Over the past two decades, Old North has greeted over 10 million visitors and hosted field trips with more than 1,000 school groups. Our guests are drawn by the story of Paul Revere and the two lanterns that led to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

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We try to teach them much more. The stories we tell embody the shared values that hold our diverse nation together — values like freedom, courage, and civic engagement. We talk about the events of April 18, 1775, but we reinterpret “Paul Revere’s Ride” in its own context as a pro-Union poem published on the eve of the Civil War.

When teaching visitors about our historic pews and colonial congregants, we also bring attention to enslaved members of the congregation and where they sat. Our historic chocolate shop teaches about the triangular trade that brought sugar, cacao, and slaves to Boston. In the rear courtyard, there’s a memorial to servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our goal in introducing these stories is to encourage visitors to think deeply about the meaning and costs of freedom, and sacrifices made on its behalf.

Roger Scott Conant, retracing ancestor's foot steps, placed lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church in Boston on April 15, 1978.
Roger Scott Conant, retracing ancestor's foot steps, placed lanterns in the steeple of Old North Church in Boston on April 15, 1978. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/1978)

In six years, our nation will celebrate its 250th birthday. In 1976, the Bicentennial helped unite our nation after Vietnam and the resignation of President Nixon. It also brought a sizable investment in Boston’s historic infrastructure, along with the establishment of the Boston National Historical Park. Since then, the National Park Service budget has been significantly reduced.

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The Boston National Historical Park now has a $100 million maintenance backlog. Three years ago, NPS allocated $3.5 million to update critical life safety systems at Old North, but that allocation disappeared with Trump Administration budget cuts. The state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston fund effective small programs to support preservation of our historic buildings, but few foundations prioritize historic preservation.

I am profoundly grateful for the support Old North has received, but more resources are needed for Old North and our sister historic sites to keep iconic, centuries-old structures well maintained and in compliance with modern building and accessibility codes.

Our need isn’t unique, but there are outstanding examples of public investment in preservation that could act as models for Boston. In Philadelphia, four museums dedicated to the birth of our nation have been built since 2000, most recently, the Museum of the American Revolution, which includes a Boston room with a replica of our Liberty Tree. Their congressional delegation created a national USA250 Commission. South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey followed suit with state commissions. Massachusetts, notably, hasn’t dedicated funds or political will to a similar commission.

At least, not yet.

But this is a moment of opportunity for our corporate, civic, and political leadership to pool resources and prioritize the preservation of our iconic buildings. A moment to work alongside heritage and historic sites and to build public programs promoting our legacy of active citizenship.

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And of course, we need you, the public, to join us as well. Take action! Show your patriotism and become a member of your favorite historic site. We need your support to preserve our heritage and champion civic values that make us “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


The Rev. Stephen T. Ayres is the Vicar of the Old North Church and Executive Director of the Old North Foundation. Vicar Ayres will be retiring at the end of 2019.