When John Hancock was governor, he had his own Beacon Hill mansion. It was just steps away from what is now the State House, and the Revolutionary leader hoped the Commonwealth would keep it.
But somehow, no chief executive would ever live there again, and the irreplaceable home would eventually fall to make way for a pair of tony townhouses for wealthy merchants.
It was a formative — almost inconceivable — tragedy in a neighborhood now famous for its refusal to compromise on historic preservation. And more than 150 years later, the demolition helps explain why Charlie Baker will take office in one of the very few states without a gubernatorial mansion.
Hancock’s wealthy uncle, Thomas Hancock, built the mansion in 1737 on pasture land atop Beacon Hill. According to research from Historic New England, Hancock regularly used the word “extraordinary” to describe his specifications.
The home was lovely. Constructed with Braintree granite and Connecticut sandstone, it had an interior appointed with imported glass, tile, and dozens of rolls of deluxe imported wallpaper. John Hancock inherited the home and owned it when he became the first signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution-era governor of Massachusetts.
The modern State House was built between 1795 and 1798 on land once part of the estate, and Hancock — still in office when he died in 1793 — intended to give the mansion to the state for the use of future governors.
It might have been an easy transfer, but he never put his wishes in writing. Instead, his heirs took it over, and when Hancock’s nephew died in 1859, his family offered to sell the house to the state for $100,000.
Amid the escalating national tensions that would lead up to the Civil War, the two chambers of the Legislature — which had each voted to buy the house — couldn’t agree on how to execute the purchase.
Instead, two merchant families bought the land (though not the mansion itself), and drew up plans to replace Hancock House with luxury homes.
The City of Boston formed a committee to try to save the structure, and potentially move it to the Back Bay. Meanwhile, the publisher Thomas Oliver Hazard Perry Burnham printed up a pamphlet inveighing against the removal of the house from Beacon Hill.
According to Historic New England, he threatened the new owners and “their remotest posterity” with “frequent expressions of public discontent.”
Those efforts failed, and the Hancock House wound up dismantled piecemeal after selling for $230 at auction in 1863. Nonetheless, the mansion became an enduring rallying point for historic preservation efforts in Beacon Hill and beyond.
“The battle to save it was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Lorna Condon, senior curator at Historic New England. She said the effect was obvious in efforts to preserve the Old South Meeting House and other places of cultural significance.
William Sumner Appleton, who in 1910 founded the organization, wrote in his first letter to members that the home’s fate “has become a classic in the annals of vandalism.”
The Beacon Hill Civic Association formed in the 1920s amid a controversy over the city’s plan to pave the neighborhood’s brick sidewalks — still a hard-fought cause, as evidenced by last summer’s outcry over the design of pedestrian ramps for people with disabilities.
But Mark Kiefer, the group’s president, traces Beacon Hill’s architectural activism back to the loss of the Hancock House.
“It may seem unlikely now because of course there is so much government involvement,” he said, “but [after] the failure of the state to preserve the house . . . folks began to believe that preservation necessarily would have to depend on private efforts.”
The grand townhouses at the site didn’t last long. By 1916 they were gone, demolished to make room for an expansion of the State House lawn. This time, the Commonwealth paid $700,000 for the property, according to a Globe article at the time.
“With all its reverence for history,” the newspaper wrote, “Boston plays the iconoclast with blithe energy.”