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The Heroic Last-Minute Rescue of the Old South Meeting House

The Old South Meeting House in its early days as a museum. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

The Old South Meeting House in its early days as a museum. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Of all the dramatic events that took place at the Old South Meeting House, the battle to save it from destruction in 1876 was one of the hardest fought.

The odds against saving the revered building seemed impossible. Historic preservation was virtually unknown then. The cost of buying the land was prohibitive. The meeting house itself was a shabby artifact, the sidewalk in front of it crowded with peddlers and hawkers.

And time was running short.

At the last minute, Boston’s 19th century leaders stepped in to save the legacy of their 18th century forbears. They used the same tools to save the Old South Meeting House as those that had made it historic: rhetoric, organization, patriotism and civic action. And they couldn't have done it without the ladies.

It was the first successful effort to preserve a historic building in New England – and one of the first in the United States.

Old South History

The Old South Meeting House was built in 1729 as a Puritan meeting house. Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for taking part in the Salem Witch Trials there. Benjamin Franklin was baptized on the site. Phyllis Wheatley thought about freedom while attending services at Old South.

Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley.

Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley.

In the run-up to the American Revolution, colonists often gathered at the Old South Meeting House to protest British rule. At a time when Boston's population was 20,000, overflowing crowds came to hear James Otis, Joseph Warren, John Hancock and Samuel Adams denounce the tea tax, impressment and the Boston Massacre. On Dec. 16, 1773, 4,000 angry colonists showed up at Faneuil Hall to discuss the tea crisis. Faneuil Hall couldn't hold them all, so as many as 6,000 gathered at Old South before adjourning to Griffin’s Wharf for the Boston Tea Party.

Samuel Adams understood the historical importance of the old Puritan meeting house: : “The transactions at Liberty Tree were treated with scorn and ridicule,” he wrote, “but when they heard of the resolutions in the Old South Meeting-house, the place whence the orders issued for the removal of the troops in 1770, they put on grave countenances.”

The British understood its importance, too. During the Siege of Boston, the British vandalized symbols of the patriotic cause. They stole  William Bradford's 1620 manuscript Of Plymouth Plantation, hidden in Old South's tower. And they turned the Old South Meeting House into a riding school for Gen. John Burgoyne, gutting the interior, burning the pews and dumping loads of dirt and gravel on the floor. It took eight years to restore the building.  Lowell Warren, once president of the Old South Association, said, “My wife swears she can still smell the British horses in the stairwell.”

Old South Meeting House, American Revolution interior in Boston. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia.

Old South Meeting House, American Revolution interior in Boston. Licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia.

A century later the Old South Meeting House narrowly escaped destruction when the Great Fire of 1872 swept through Boston, burning 65 acres of the city, destroying 776 buildings and killing 30 people.  “I heard the Old South clock strike,” said an eyewitness. “I don’t know what hour, and I know the thought came into my mind that perhaps it would never strike again.” It was only the timely arrival of a fire engine from Portsmouth, N.H., that saved the old building.

A Lot of Lead

After the Great Fire. The Old South Meeting House is in the background. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

After the Great Fire. The Old South Meeting House is in the background. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library.

Snobbery almost destroyed what a raging inferno could not. By 1877, the neighborhood had grown crowded and noisy, and the congregation decided to build a new church in the fashionable new Back Bay neighborhood. They moved historic artifacts, including the bell, into the New Old South Meeting House and put the land up for sale.

The building itself was auctioned off on June 8, 1876 for $1,350 – the value of its parts. “The spire is covered with copper, and there is a lot of lead on roof and belfry, and the roof is covered with imported Welch slate,” read the advertisement promoting the auction. Removal was to be completed within 60 days.

All seemed lost. The clock had been removed, the masonry was under attack and copper was being taken from the building when George W. Simmons & Son, prominent Boston businessmen, stepped in and bought the right to hold the building uninjured for seven days. Simmons posted these words on the clock tower:

The Eleventh Hour!

Men and Women of Massachusetts!

Does Boston desire the humiliation which is to-day a part of her history since she has allowed the memorial to be sold under the hammer"

Shall the Old South Be Saved?

Simmons bought just enough time so others could organize the fight. On the sixth day, his son helped arrange an extraordinary public gathering at the old meeting house. Every seat was filled and in the gallery sat the ladies of Boston sat in the gallery.

Their challenge was daunting: They needed to raise $400,000, an enormous sum, to buy the land on which the meeting house stood.

Several people spoke, and then abolitionist crusader Wendell Phillips took the platform and gave the speech of his lifetime. An eyewitness reported on the remarkable oration:

Wendell Phillips, by Matthew Brady

Wendell Phillips, by Matthew Brady

The memories of the past crowded to his mind, and he spoke as if pleading for the life of one condemned unjustly. The mantle of the Revolution seemed to have fallen upon him, and he appeared to be the natural successor of Samuel Adams.

(Read the speech here.)

Then and there, the people of Boston started a fund to save the Old South Meeting House and collected several thousand dollars on the spot.

Twenty Ladies of Boston

On July 13, 1876, the congregation's leaders agreed to postpone the sale of the meeting house for two months, but the buyers had to come up with $420,000 and ask for no further delay.

It seemed an impossible task, as Boston’s wealthy citizens were in the country or at the seashore during the summer. What’s more, there was no precedent. No historic building had ever been saved from destruction in New England.

Then the ladies stepped in.

Twenty wealthy Boston women bought the building for $3,500, more than twice what the owner had paid for its scrap value. They proposed to restore the meeting house, and to move it somewhere if the land couldn’t be purchased.

The Old South Meeting House in 1898

The Old South Meeting House in 1898

For a while nothing seemed to happen. One summer day the fire department put the old clock back in the tower, but the public was mystified how or why. Then on Oct. 18, 1876, the paper were passed for the preservationists to buy the Old South Meeting House for a down payment of $100,000, a first mortgage of $225,000 and a second mortgage of $75,000.

Eventually the donor of the $100,000 down payment was revealed: Mary Tileston Hemenway, the wealthiest woman in Boston. Her husband had died in July on a trip to Cuba.  “American history is to us the most interesting and the most important history in the world, if we would only open our eyes to it and look at it in the right way,” she said. “I will help people to look at it in the right way.”

Still, the hawkers and peddlers had to be thrown out and the building had to be cleaned and restored. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes,Sr., and Louisa May Alcott took to the meeting house stage to plead for support. Others plunged into a frenzy of meetings, crafts fairs, balls and poetry-writing to raise money.

Membership on a committee to restore the Old South Meeting House became a status symbol. "Not to have been a member of some committee, proves you to be of the common people,” commented a newspaper writer.

Mary Sawyer Tyler, then living in Somerville, sold bits of wool for the cause. Sixty years earlier she had been a Massachusetts farm girl whose little lamb followed her to school one day. Mary Had A Little Lamb was by then a well-known poem. Mary still had two pairs of stockings knit from the lamb’s fleece. She unraveled them, cut them into short pieces, attached them to cards with her autograph on them and sold them.

On April 9, 1877, a great ball was held in the Boston Music Hall. It was 'one of the most extensive and elegant balls ever given in Massachusetts,’ and it raised $2,500.

The Old South Association was formed and opened the Old South Meeting House as a museum in 1877. It launched an educational program in American history and citizenship. It published primary documents from American history as Old South Leaflets. Students from all over the country and the world came to “Children’s Hour” activities, Young People’s Lectures and essay contests.

Old South clock being painted, early 20th century. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Old South clock being painted, early 20th century. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

They're still coming. The Old South Meeting House is open daily from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. For more information click here.

With thanks to History of the Old South Meeting-house in Boston, Volume 50; Volume 282, By Everett Watson Burdett.

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