Around the time of the American Revolution, one of the best known buildings in Boston was the Hancock House, also known as the Hancock Manor or Mansion. It was the residence of John Hancock, the famous revolutionary leader and signer of the Declaration of Independence who was also the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after independence.
The grand house was located on Beacon Hill, across the street from Boston Common and near today’s State House, the Massachusetts state capitol building in the heart of Boston. The house was built in 1737 by Thomas Hancock, who was John Hancock’s uncle and one of the richest men in New England.
Mulberry, Peach and Apricot Trees in the Orchard; Madeira in the Cellar
The Hancock house was one of the grandest in town. It was three stories and was made of granite blocks, with brownstone trim at the corners. It had no fewer than fifty-three windows—including the dormers. Its entrance was wide and paneled. Its staircase was broad with carved, spiral balusters. In the family room, the wallpaper was a parade of peacocks, macaws, squirrels, fruit, and flowers.
In the parlor, the wallpaper featured tufts of wool and cotton. An array of oil portraits, mahogany furniture, brass candlesticks were displayed in the downstairs warmed by three hearths and including a room just for the china. Upstairs were a master bedroom, guestroom, and two smaller bedrooms. Under the roof were storage and quarters for staff: Thomas Hancock had five black slaves and two white servants. Meanwhile, the cellar was stocked with the best Madeira money could buy. Outside the house was an orchard that included mulberry, peach, and apricot trees.
When Thomas died, he left the house to his widow, who promptly turned it over to nephew John, whom she had raised as a son. John had grown up in the house since about age seven and he lived in it for many years before and after the Revolution.
The only time John Hancock didn’t live in the house was during the Siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776, when British troops were bottled up in Boston surrounded by the newly formed American army. Then the house was occupied by British General James Grant who had blustered that every New England town along the coast should be left in ruins. But Grant proved a considerate tenant and left the mansion in good shape.
Hancock Intended to Give Mansion to Massachusetts
John Hancock intended to give the landmark on Beacon Hill to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But he never completed arrangements: Notes about his wishes were found under his pillow the day he died in 1793. The house remained in the Hancock family, winding up in the hands of John Hancock’s nephew, also named John Hancock, who died in 1859. That John Hancock expressed a wish in his will that the house remain in the family. In the hope that delay might promote thoughtful arrangements for the property, he stipulated that the house not be sold until four years after his death.
Those wishes were tossed aside. The family immediately presented the commonwealth with an offer to sell the property for $100,000. The governor suggested that the house be bought and—conveniently situated next to the new State House—be used as the governor’s mansion. The legislature approved the purchase but then went along with the stipulation of a committee that the house never be used as a governor’s mansion. Time went by and the purchase was never completed.
So, in 1863, the family sold the land under the house to two men and offered to give the house and all its contents to the city. The city dithered. The city thought about moving it across the street to the Common for about $17,000. But what about the precedent that would set—of putting a building in this public park? Some pledges of money for the move came in, but it was not enough, and the city had little enthusiasm for pursuing the matter further. The way was clear to tear down the historic mansion to make room for two new mansions.
Replica in Ticonderoga, New York
Before demolition, architect John Hubbard Sturgis took careful measurements and made exact drawings of the building. Those enabled the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—unwilling to save the house in 1863—to build a replica of the house for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago thirty years later. Another replica was built in Ticonderoga, New York, in 1925-26 and served for a time as the headquarters of the New York State Historical Association. The structure still stands and now serves as the library and museum of the Ticonderoga Historical Society.