Boston Walking Tour: Common to Copley
Our Common to Copley tour starts at the oldest public park in the USA, the Boston Common. The early Bostonians used this area to graze their cows but now it is a green oasis in the busy city of Boston. We visit a variety of points in the Common and then move to the Public Garden and the Back Bay all of which were originally tidal marshes but in the mid-1800s in order to expand the city of Boston, this land was filled in. The Back Bay is now one of the premiere shopping and dining destinations of Boston.
Other locations on the tour include: the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial , the Frog Pond, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Boston Common Visitors Center, Boston Massacre Monument / Crispus Attucks Monument, Central Burying Ground, 55 Boylston Place (Old Public Library), Public Garden, Swan Boats, "Make Way for Ducklings" Statues, Cheers (Bull & Finch Pub), Statue of George Washington, Back Bay / Newbury Street, Arlington Street Church, 234 Berkley St (Old Museum of Science), Berkley Building (Old John Hancock Building), 200 Clarendon Street (John Hancock Tower), Copley Square, Trinity Church, The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, Boston Public Library (McKim Building), Old South Church, Prudential Tower.
The path of the tour is about 2 1/2 to 3 miles long and would take a little over an hour if walking straight on the path without stopping.
Start the Common to Copley Tour
Stop 1. Boston Common
The Boston Common is the oldest public park in the USA dating back from 1634 when the first European settler of Boston, Anglican minister William Blackstone, sold his 44 acres to puritan colonists for 30 pounds (6 shillings per homeowner).
Residents of Boston used this common area to graze their livestock (up until 1830). Puritanical public punishments were carried out using the Common’s whipping post, pillory, and stocks and hangings were made on the “great elm”.
The British used the park as a camp just before the Revolutionary War and from this location 3 brigades started their fateful march to Lexington and Concord.
Through the years it has maintained its popularity as a public park in Boston and its size has allowed large events includes speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II.
Stop 2. Robert Gould Shaw Memorial
(across Beacon St from the MA State House)
The memorial commemorates Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first documented African American volunteer regiment in the Civil War fighting for the North.
While African Americans had fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, northern racist sentiments kept African Americans from joining the North at the beginning of the Civil War. A clause in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation allowed African American volunteer regiments and the first was formed under Massachusetts Governor John Andrew in 1863 - the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Governor Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent Boston abolitionist family, to lead the 54th regiment.
The 54th Regiment became famous following an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863 (depicted in the 1989 academy award winning movie Glory). At least 74 enlisted men and 3 officers were killed in the battle, including Colonel Shaw, and many more were wounded. Sergeant William H. Carney became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by saving the regiment’s flag from being captured even though he was severely injured. At the end of the war by the time the regiment returned to Boston in September 1865 only 598 of the original 1,007 men who enlisted were able to take part in the welcoming ceremony.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the artist that created this high-relief bronze monument which was unveiled on May 31, 1897. The scene shows the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston to head south with Colonel Shaw on horseback and three rows of infantry men march behind him.
Stop 3. Frog Pond
This was originally a real pond with lots of frogs but was replaced with a man-made water structure that allows for a spray and splash pool in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The splash pool is free and open to all during the summer months. The outdoor skating is weather dependent but generally available between November and March, requires a fee to enter and skates can be rented. USA today voted it Best Outdoor Skating Rink in the USA and 2nd overall in North America. There is also a frog pond café located at the site offering simple food and drinks.
Next to the Frog Pond is the Boston Common Carousel which is a small but fun carousel for kids.
Stop 4. Soldiers and Sailors Monument
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is atop Flagstaff Hill. The monument, designed by Martin Milmore, was unveiled in 1877 as memorial to the Civil War. Flagstaff Hill during the Revolutionary War was a fortified British redoubt and today offers fantastic views of the Commons and the City.
Stop 5. Boston Common Visitors Center
(139 Tremont Ave, 8:30am to 5pm Mon-Fri, 9am to 5pm Sa-Sun)
The center provides information about Boston and the Freedom Trail including free maps. There are tours available, a souvenir shop and public restrooms.
Stop 6. Boston Massacre Monument / Crispus Attucks Monument
This outdoor monument was created by Robert Kraus and erected in 1888, fully paid by public funds.
The Spirit of the Revolution stands atop a granite base in front of a tall obelisk (25ft) with 13 stars displayed around the top. In her right hand she holds a broken piece of chain symbolizing freedom from oppressive England and with her right foot she crushes the crown of the British monarchy.
On the base is a bronze relief plaque depicting the Boston Massacre. It shows five men- Crispus Attucks, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, Samuel Gray, and Patrick Carr - slain by the British soldiers in front of the Massachusetts State House on March 5, 1770.
Crispus Attucks was an American of African and Native American descent and is widely regarded as the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and thus the first American killed in the American Revolution. Historians disagree on whether he was a free man or an escaped slave but most agree that he was of Natick (or possibly Wampanoag) and African descent. Attucks became an icon of the anti-slavery movement in the mid-19th century and supporters of the abolition movement lauded him for playing a heroic role in the history of the United States
Stop 7. Central Burying Ground
The Central Burying Ground was Boston’s 4th cemetery, established in 1756 to help with the overcrowding of burials at King’s Chapel, Copp’s Hill and the Granary Burying Ground. It was located in the least desirable section of the common, furthest away from the market center of town. It is located on Boylston Street between Tremont Street and Charles Street.
Buried in the grounds are British common soldiers who died during the occupation of Boston and Americans from the Battle of Bunker Hill. Famous burials include the artist Gilbert Stuart, painter of the famed portraits of George Washington and Martha Washington, the composer William Billings, Samuel Sprague, who was a participant in the Boston Tea Party and fought in the American Revolutionary War, and his son, Charles Sprague, one of America's earliest poets.
The large free standing structure, “the Dell”, houses the remains of the graves that were moved to accommodate the extension of Boylston Street to connect with Tremont Street and required removing a row of the tombs in 1836.
There is a large mass grave with a slate tablet and three boundary stones that house the remains of the British soldiers that were uncovered during the 1894 excavation of the nation’s first subway line under Boylston Street.
Stop 8. 55 Boylston Place (old Public Library Building)
In 1854 Boston opened its first free public library in a former school house on Mason Street but almost from the start it was obvious that this was too small so 7 months later a new library building was planned. In 1858 a new stand-alone building was completed with an Italian edifice housing 70,000 volumes at 55 Boylston St. After 20 years the library required an even bigger space and the McKim Building was built in Copley Square. In 1899 the building at Boylston St was demolished. Emerson College now occupies this location.
Stop 9. Public Garden
The Public Garden was established in 1837 and became the nation’s first public botanical garden. The garden was designed along the lines of a Victorian landscape garden. Each year over 26,000 tulips are planted to bloom in the Spring and the garden is an incredible showcase of Boston’s Fall Foliage with the wide variety of trees planted in the park.
In Colonial times this area was a tidal marshland, connected to the Charles River. In 1794, the city, leased an area that would become Charles Street to be used as a ropewalk, or a place for rope manufacturing, after a fire had burnt down their previous location. A condition of the lease was that the rope manufacturers had to build a seawall and to start filling in the land that would become the Public Garden. Much of the landfill came from Mount Vernon, a hill in Beacon Hill, which no longer exists because its dirt was completely removed for land fill.
In 1821 the Mill Dam was built along Beacon Street from Charles Street to Brookline to provide water power for the mills and factories but turned the marshes into mudflats. In 1837 the City Council received a petition from a private association of seventeen Bostonians to establish a botanical garden on this uninviting ground. The Council promptly leased about twenty acres to the group, incorporated as “Proprietors of the Botanic Garden in Boston,” and in 1838 the area was first designated as the Public Garden.
In the 1950s and 60s the park suffered from neglect and deteriorated almost beyond saving. In 1970 the Friends of the Public Garden were formed to preserve and enhance the Public Garden and the Boston Common and Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Daily free tours of the Public Garden are offered through this group.
Stop 10. Swan Boats
In the center of the park is a 4 acre pond that is the home to many ducks and a few swans. The Swan Boats are a popular tourist attraction operated on the pond allowing groups of people to relax sitting on a boat with an ornamental white swan at the rear and be pedaled around the pond by a tour guide.
The boats were created and have been operated by one family, the Pagets, for over 100 years. In the 1870s Robert Paget was granted a boat for hire license by the City of Boston and boat rowing in the Public Garden became popular in the summertime. In 1877 with the growing popularity of the bicycle, Paget introduced a foot-propelled paddle wheel attachment and used a Swan to cover the captain of the boat. The current fleet consists of six boats, the oldest of which was built in 1910.
The trip takes about 15 minutes. $4 per adult, $2.50 per child.
Stop 11. "Make Way for Ducklings" Statues
The "Make Way for Ducklings" statues, near Charles and Beacon Streets, are one of the most famous statues in Boston. They are inspired by Robert McCluskey's 1941 book about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard and their adventures while finding a safe place to hatch and raise their offspring in and around the Public Garden. Boston-area sculptor Nancy Schön designed the bronze duck sculptures which depict Mrs. Mallard leading her ducklings.
Stop 12. Cheers (Bull & Finch Pub)
(84 beacon st, cheersboston.com)
Founded in 1969 as the Bull & Finch Pub the façade of this neighborhood bar was used in the 1982-1993 sitcom, Cheers. Only the exterior of the bar was used in the series, the inside was quite different. In 2002 the bar was officially renamed “Cheers Beacon Hill”.
Stop 13. Statue of George Washington.
There are many statues located around the Public Garden but the most notable is the very large equestrian statue of George Washington, dominating the western entrance to the park, which was unveiled in 1869 and sculpted out of bronze by Thomas Ball, and is considered one of the best equestrian statues in America.
Washington was given the control of the Revolutionary army starting in Boston where he lead the army to drive the British Soldiers out of Boston by a daring overnight fortification of a hill in Dorchester Heights which gave the colonial soldiers the high grounds to train their cannons on the British.
Stop 14. Back Bay / Newbury Street
The Back Bay area of Boston was originally a tidal bay between Cambridge and Boston. In 1814 a dam, mill dam, was built to harness the tidal flows (and the dam was also a toll road connecting Boston to Watertown) but was not successful. In 1857 a new project was begun to fill in Mill Pond which by 1882 resulted in the Bay Back built on reclaimed land.
The Back Bay was a planned area, allowing for broad streets and building restrictions which resulted in rows of similar harmonious brownstones.
Newbury Street became the commercial street in the Back Bay and is now filled with trendy restaurants and retail stores.
Stop 15. Arlington Street Church
(20 Arlington Street, https://www.ascboston.org)
The Arlington Street Church is a Unitarian Universalist church across from the Public Garden. The congregation began as a group of Scots-Irish Calvinists in 1729 and built their first church on Federal Street in 1744. When the Back Bay area was being created using landfill in the 1850s, the congregation voted to move into what would be the first public building constructed in this area. They had this church, designed by Arthur Gilman, architect for the Old Boston City Hall, completed in 1861. The building is supported by 999 wooden pilings driven into the mud of Back Bay.
The main sanctuary space has 16 large-scale stained-glass windows installed by Tiffany Studios from 1899 to 1929. This is believed to be the largest collection of Tiffany windows in any one church and they display Tiffany's special glassmaking techniques including confetti glass, iridescent glass, 3D-textured "drapery glass", pastel colors for "painting in glass", and the trademark opalescent “Favrile” glass. There are as many as six or seven layers of glass in a Tiffany window, producing visual textures that would otherwise have to be painted in.
In the 1960s, the congregation became active in the Civil Rights Movement and one of its members, James Reeb, was murdered during a march in Selma, Alabama. In 2004, Reverend Kim K. Crawford Harvie officiated the first legal state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States.
The church is open to the general public from 10 to 3 daily (closed Tuesdays) and on Sundays from 1 to 4pm. There are guided and self-guided tours available with a $5 admission per person.
Stop 16. 234 Berkley St (Boston Museum of Natural History forerunner of the Museum of Science)
In 1830 a collection of men who wished to share scientific interests founded the Boston Society of Natural History which became more commonly known as the Boston Museum of Natural History. As the museum grew, the trustees looked for a larger space and moved into the 234 Berkley St building in 1862 which was designed by William Preston. Almost 100 years later as the museum outgrew this space, they moved into their current location in 1951. The Berkley St. building is now a retail store.
Stop 17. Berkley Building (Old John Hancock Building)
(200 Berkeley Street)
The John Hancock Insurance Company had this 26 story building built in 1947 using the architecture firm Cram and Ferguson to design its Art Deco styling. Until 1964 the Berkley Building was the second-tallest building in the city, one foot shorter than the 496-foot Custom House Tower. At the top of the pyramid style roof, a large 60 foot illuminated spire broadcasts light patterns each night indicating the weather forecast (steady blue, clear view. flashing blue, clouds due. steady red, rain ahead. flashing red, snow instead).
Stop 18. 200 Clarendon Street (John Hancock Tower)
(200 Clarendon St)
200 Clarendon Street, previously known as the John Hancock Tower, is a 62-story, 790-foot skyscraper designed by Henry N. Cobb of I. M. Pei & Partners. The John Hancock Insurance Company had this building built as their new headquarters which opened in 1976 as and remains the tallest building in Boston. The parallelogram shape makes the corners of the tower appear very sharp and the highly-reflective window glass is tinted slightly blue, which results in the tower having only a subtle contrast with the sky on a clear day.
The building is widely known for its prominent structural flaws including an analysis that the entire building could overturn under a certain wind loads. The opening of the building was delayed from 1971 to 1976 partially due to the replacement of its signature blue windows which had started to detach and fall to the ground.
There is an observation deck that was a tourist destination but this has been closed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Stop 19. Copley Square
Named for painter John Singleton Copley (one of the most famous artists in Colonial America), Copley Square is a public plaza in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. Prior to 1883 it was known as Art Square due to its many cultural institutions, some of which remain today.
Stop 20. Trinity Church
(206 Clarendon St, trinitychurchboston.org)
Trinity Church is a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts which was founded in 1733 and was located on Summer Street. The church burned down during the Great Boston Fire of 1872 and Rector Phillips Brooks had this current church built on Copley Square which was completed in 1877.
The church and parish house were designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and are the birthplace and archetype of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, characterized by a clay roof, polychromy, rough stone, heavy arches, and a massive tower. In the early 1800s the Back Bay contained mud flats and had been filled in during the middle of that century. Before building the church, approximately 4,500 wooden piles had to be driven through 30 feet of gravel fill, silt, and clay and still to this day are kept wet by the Back Bay’s water table and would rot if exposed to air.
Trinity was voted the finest work of American architecture in an 1886 poll conducted by The American Architect and Building News and 100 years later remained the only building from this initial top ten to remain in a similar poll by the American Institute of Architects.
The interior murals, which cover over 21,500 square feet, were completed entirely by American artists. John La Farge helped to establish his reputation by painting his first mural in the church in 1873 and by creating four of the stained glass windows.
Trinity Church offers one-hour tours of the interior Tuesday through Sunday by expert volunteers, tickets can be purchased at the church’s welcome center. A free guided tour is offered on Sundays at 11:15am. Audio tours are offered and there is a self-guided tour during opening hours.
Stop 21. The Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel
(138 St. James Avenue, https://www.fairmont.com/copley-plaza-boston/)
The Copley Plaza Hotel, one of Boston’s most well-known hotels and a site of Boston’s social life, was opened in 1912 built on the site of the demolished Museum of Fine Arts original building. The seven-floor hotel is constructed of limestone and buff brick in the Beaux-Arts style.
The entrance hallway has been called "Peacock Alley" since the 1920s due to its 21-foot high gilded coffered ceiling with matching Empire style crystal chandeliers and Italian marble columns. Much of the classical architecture and decor has been preserved, including the back-to-back "P" monogram.
In 1996, the hotel was renamed as the Fairmont Copley Plaza.
Stop 22. Boston Public Library (McKim Building)
(230 Dartmouth St, https://www.bpl.org/locations/3/)
Boston Public Library was founded in 1852 and opened its first location in 1854 in two rooms in the Adams School on Mason Street. A new building was built at 55 Boylston Street in 1858 but it too grew too small. Architect Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White designed and built this building which opened in 1895. It was the first major Beaux Arts building in the United States, and it was also the first large-scale urban library building in the nation. The library was proclaimed a "palace for the people" and included lavish decorations, a children's room (the first in the nation), and a central courtyard surrounded by an arcaded gallery in the manner of a Renaissance cloister.
The grand staircase leads from the lobby to the building’s second floor. A pair of lions, sculpted by Louis Saint-Gaudens, sits on the staircase and was a gift from the second and the twentieth Massachusetts volunteer infantries in the Civil War. Due to the time pressure of installing the marble lions they were left unpolished although through the year’s patrons rubbing the tails for good luck have revealed the yellow Siena marble tones. The eight panels at the top of the staircase were painted by French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, one of the greatest muralists of the 19th century, and were his only murals outside of France.
The main reading room, Bates Hall, is named after the library’s first major benefactor, Joshua Bates, and
spans the Dartmouth Street length of the McKim building and supports an impressive, 50-foot-high barrel vault ceiling. The hall’s English oak bookcases and tables have been in use almost every day since the building’s opening in 1895.
The Leventhal Map Center is located on the first floor and includes an exhibition gallery, a public learning center with research books and a reading room for rare map research. On the 2nd floor is a wonderful children’s library and on the third floor is a gallery that artist John Singer Sargent spent 29 years of his career painting its murals. There are 3 different cafes located within the library. Free daily tours are offered by the library (https://www.bpl.org/visit-central-library/art-tours/). The library offers a variety of free programming throughout the year including summer concerts in their courtyard.
Stop 23. Old South Church
(645 Boylston Street)
The Old South Church is one of the oldest religious communities in the US, founded in 1669, created by Congregationalist dissenters from Boston's First Church. The congregation first met in the Cedar Meeting House (1670) and then at the Old South Meeting House (1729).
The congregation moved into the Old South Church in 1873. The building was designed in the Gothic Revival style by Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears (they also designed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.)
A good part of the interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany although much of his work was covered up in a 1950s renovation but in the 1980s a restoration was made to return it to how it looked in the 1800s.
A trademark feature of the Old South Church is the campanile, or the tall tower, which is 246 feet tall and is visible from several different Boston neighborhoods. The original tower had begun to list in the 1920s due to faulty footings and piles anchored in the soft former swampland so it was dismantled and rebuilt in a similar style but with steel pilings in the 1930s.
Old South Church is the owner of one of eleven remaining first-edition copies of the Bay Psalm Book which was the first book printed in what would become the United States. The copy of this book is housed in the Rare Books Department of the Boston Public Library.
Stop 24. Prudential Tower
(800 Boylston Street)
The international style skyscraper was completed in 1964 with 52 floors at 749 feet making it at that time the tallest building in the world outside of New York City and ending the Custom House Tower's 59-year reign as the tallest building in Boston. It’s currently the 2nd tallest building in Boston behind 200 Clarendon (but if you include the radio mast the Prudential Tower would be taller). There has been a restaurant on the 52nd floor and Boston’s tallest opened observation deck on the 50th floor, but the owner of the building announced that both would close in April 2020 and that a new observatory and other attraction(s) will be built.
The tower is part of the 23 acre Prudential Center which is in indoor shopping mall housing over 60 retail stores and restaurants. Before it was built, this site had been a switching yard for the Boston and Albany Railroad.