The Old State House and Old South Meeting House are only two blocks apart on Boston’s narrow, bustling Washington Street. Their rich histories are closely intertwined with the country’s founding, but their Colonial red bricks have been separated by more than cobblestones and pavement for nearly 300 years.
Different organizations. Different leaders. Until now.
The two prominent destinations, which together attract more than 200,000 visitors a year, have joined to form a new organization called Revolutionary Spaces. It’s the first merger of independent sites in the 69-year history of the Freedom Trail, and its goal is to reimagine how the city’s storied past can inform its present.
“We weren’t doing justice to the real story that the buildings contained,” said Nathaniel Sheidley, president of Revolutionary Spaces. “We really weren’t telling the whole story. We were telling little shards and fragments.”
The marriage combines the Bostonian Society, which preserved the Old State House as part of its mission, and the Old South Association, which did the same for what was the largest public building in Colonial Boston. The sites are planning a broad array of synchronized programming to spark discussion of what democracy means and can deliver and how the revolutionary American experiment is constantly evolving.
“What we can do is give people a glimpse of the past, and also give them something to talk about today,” Sheidley said. “The revolution isn’t over. Each generation needs to revisit these questions.”
Sheidley had been executive director of the Bostonian Society, which was created in 1881 to protect the Old State House from demolition. The aborted plan had been to dismantle the 1713 building, brick by brick, and ship it to Chicago for restoration.
The Old South Meeting House, built in 1729, also has managed to buck the odds and survive. The Great Fire of 1872 barely spared the site, which had been the gathering place for protesters before the Boston Tea Party, as well as airings of other Colonial grievances with Britain.
“We’ve been pointing to this for a long time,” Sheidley said of the merger. “Everyone could see the shape of the opportunity. What could we do that separate organizations couldn’t do? How could we more effectively serve the public?”
At a time when democratic institutions are under heightened stress, the roles and responsibilities of ordinary citizens are worth renewed attention, said Marty Walz, who had been interim executive director of the Old South Association when the deal was approved last month.
“The work of democracy is the focus,” said Walz, a former state representative. “What does it say that we are part of a democracy?”
Walz said that giving up Old South’s independence for greater resources and potential was a sound decision, both now and for the future. The new group is planning exhibits, theater, and public art, along with other forms of contemporary storytelling.
“We’ll be able to do more than we’ve ever been able to do before,” Walz said. “We’re an important building, but it’s hard to tell the full story with just one building.”
The two spaces, both National Historic Landmarks, will retain their names. “Preserving the unique character of these sites and the stories they contain is the most important charge of the new organization,” Sheidley said.
The move was praised by Suzanne Taylor, executive director of the Freedom Trail Foundation, which promotes and helps preserve the 2.5-mile path through Boston history.
“They’re working together to create contemporary experiences. It’s pretty exciting,” Taylor said.
The sites lend themselves to an accessible, connected narrative about the American Revolution that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the country, Sheidley said. The Old State House was the seat of British power in the colony. The Old South Meeting House, just down the street, was a forum for the people.
In the combustible aftermath of the Boston Massacre, dispatches were run from one building to another, from government to the governed and back again.
The sites will charge a single admission and offer coordinated events. Later this year, National Park Service rangers are planning to escort visitors from Faneuil Hall to the two sites in a pilot program designed to engage them in a central theme or question.
Potential topics for those tours and other events include race, citizenship, and the role of protest. With the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre approaching in March, the killing of Crispus Attucks by British troops that night will be explored in various ways, organizers said. Attucks, a black or mixed-race man, has been a touchstone for 19th-century abolitionists and 20th-century civil rights advocates.
“How has the memory of the massacre been used as a tool to advance racial and social justice?” Sheidley asked.
The National Park Service and Boston Preservation Alliance also commended the merger.
“This is a great opportunity as we approach the 250th anniversary of the country’s founding” in 2026, said Liza Stearns, director of visitor engagement, education, and the arts for the National Parks of Boston, which collaborates with public and private partners at many Freedom Trail sites.
“These two boards stepped up to the plate, evaluated this, and said, ‘You know what? Change is important. We can be stronger together,’ ” said Greg Galer, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Preservation Alliance. “That’s a brave move for a couple of boards that have been around for 100 years.”
For Revolutionary Spaces, the merger is a chance to reconsider the meaning of “we the people” — the opening words of the US Constitution — and discover contemporary lessons in the history of American democracy, slavery, immigration, and other struggles.
Sheidley hopes visitors leave the sites with this message: “This story is your story, because it didn’t end.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.