Boston’s Province House, Vanished Residence of Royal Governors

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1715

The great mansion near Old South was a historic landmark and architectural gem of colonial New England. Gone since 1922, but famous weather vane survives.

Time and urban development have not been kind to the remnants of colonial Boston. Among the great old buildings that have disappeared was the Province House, which from most of the years from 1716 to 1776 was the residence of royal governors of Massachusetts.

Brick Mansion at Marlborough and Milk

The brick mansion on Marlborough (now Washington) Street at Milk had three main stories with a third story under a steep slanting roof. Over the third story was a large attic with dormer windows. Topping the roof was with an eight-sided cupola and, atop the cupola, was a famous Indian archer weather vane—which, according to author Nathaniel Hawthorne, “bedazzled the eyes of those who looked upward, like an angel of the sun.”

Experts speculate that the mansion at one time may have had curved gables in the Dutch style. Because of the connection with royal authority and the American Revolution, the building was historically significant. It was also architecturally important as a rare and magnificent example of an elegant 17th-century residence in America.

Merchant Peter Sergeant built the house and rented it out as early as 1699 to the province for the use of the governor, the Earl of Bellomont. Later governors lived elsewhere, but, after Sergeant died in 1714, Governor Samuel Schute moved into the residence in 1716. The province bought the house the next year and for most of the years until independence it was occupied by governors or acting governors.

Thomas Hutchinson Did Not Live There

Thomas Hutchinson, acting governor during the Boston Massacre and governor at the time of the Tea Party, did not live in the Province House. He had his own mansion in town. The last royal governor, Thomas Gage, lived in the house but was not living there at the time of the British evacuation in 1776. The last occupant under royal rule was General William Howe.

After the British left, the mansion was taken over by the independent government of Massachusetts and occupied by the government’s Committee on Accounts. The Boston town treasurer rented out part of the house as a residence. Later the state treasurer lived there and used it as his office. The state Council and other officials also later used the building.

Parts of the property were sold after 1795 to help pay for the new Massachusetts State House. The buyer of the building itself defaulted on payment, however, and the house returned to the state and was then again occupied by the state treasurer.

About 1806, the house was leased out and used as a boarding house. Unmarried sisters Temperance and Mercy Cook operated it as a boarding house starting about 1825. According to tradition, the sisters not only warmed beds with warming pans but also “in guileless simplicity” tucked in their guests “in good old fashioned style.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Legends of the Province House

In 1835, the structure was a tavern known appropriately as “Old Province House.” During this period, Nathaniel Hawthorne described its state of decay and faded grandeur in detail in Legends of The Province House. He was told “any jar or motion was apt to shake down the dust of ages out of the ceiling of one chamber upon the floor of than beneath it.”

In the 1850s the building became Ordway Hall with black minstrel shows as the featured entertainment. That era ended on October 25, 1864, when a fire destroyed the interior, leaving only the walls still standing.

Appleton’s Efforts to Save Building

The building reemerged from the 1860s to the 1920s as a lodging house and a place for tradesmen’s shops. Starting about 1910, preservationist William Sumner Appleton worked to save the building. Such features as a third-floor fireplace made it remarkable: “No house of this period built of brick exists anywhere in an American city.” But efforts to save the building failed. Having survived tumult and flames over almost 250 years, The Province House could stand not up to the winds of commerce: Wrecking balls demolished the structure in 1922 to make way for an office building and movie theater.

One surviving relic of the building is the the famous Indian Archer weather vane, now in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.