Another push to give the governor a home of our own

Would the Hancock house have made the best governor’s mansion?

What does Massachusetts have in common with Idaho? Hint: the same thing Arizona has with Vermont, and Rhode Island with California. The distinction is a governor’s mansion – or rather, the lack thereof, despite efforts over the years to establish one in Dedham, Roxbury, and Boston (see “Where the heck is the governor’s mansion,” and “What might have been,” CW, Fall ’99). “It’s a distinction,” says William Fowler, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, “to hold on to.”

Yet another effort to give the governor a home of his own (other than his own) is underway, this time intending to make Brookwood Farm, the estate of Henry Saltonstall Howe, the residence of future Bay State governors. Sen. Brian Joyce, the Milton Democrat who spearheads the effort, knows the issue is controversial, so much so that no governor, certainly, would want his fingerprints on the move.

“We could make it effective one or two administrations forward,” says Joyce. “Nobody has to touch it.”

Howe, who died in 1994, left his house, on 70 acres, nestled at the foot of the Blue Hills, to the state. Joyce feels that the state has “ignored” Howe’s wish that it serve as the “official residence” of the Commonwealth’s chief executive. “I cringe when people call it a governor’s mansion,” Joyce says. “It’s a governor’s residence, or an official residence, and it’s really fairly modest.”

Courtesy of the Bostonian Society/Old State House

Although the Special Commission for the Purpose of Considering a Governor’s Residence at Brookwood Farm, a body created by the Legislature in 2003, was due to report in February, the deadline was extended indefinitely. In the meantime, Brookwood Farm is, in effect, a ward of the state, which took possession a decade ago. “We’re already maintaining the property,” says Joyce. “We have a park ranger living in the house.”

“I don’t see any evidence the administration of the Commonwealth has been hampered by the lack of a governor’s mansion,” says Fowler. But the historian does look back fondly upon the original governor’s mansion: the home of John Hancock.

“In its heyday,” the two-and-a-half-story Georgian mansion on Beacon Street, overlooking the Boston Common, “was the social and political capital of the Commonwealth,” says Fowler, author of The Baron of Beacon Hill, a 1979 biography of Hancock. “This is the place that saw the constant comings and goings of generals and admirals and politicians. It was a magnificent home; everyone wanted to pay homage to the great man, John Hancock.”

Another try for an ‘official residence’ is underway.

And much homage was paid, to the place and to the man. During the State House centennial in 1898, a Worcester legislator, Alfred Seelye Roe, recounted a story abolitionist Wendell Phillips told about an old Southerner he brought, decades before, beneath the house’s “ancient rooftree.”

“As the gentleman stepped upon the slab worn by thousands of passing feet, and reflected that through that very doorway had gone so many times the President of the Continental Congress, overcome by his emotions, he said, ‘You must excuse me, but the presence of so much recalling the venerable past quite unmans me, and I must sit for a moment to recover myself.’”

Jane Holtz Kay, author of Lost Boston, quotes an unnamed 19th-century Bostonian as saying, “no stranger who felt the patriotic impulse failed to pay [the Hancock house] a visit.”

As venerated as it was, in 1863 the city sold Hancock’s house for $125,000 to a pair of Bostonians who demolished it and erected a row of French Second Empire brownstones in its place. Boston had lost a landmark and a piece of its history, although nobody seemed to notice at the time.

“It was an age before historic preservation,” Fowler says. “It was in the midst of the Civil War; the public’s attention was riveted upon other things.”

The city sold Hancock’s house for $125,000 in 1863.

Only 30 years later, however, the people of Massachusetts knew what they had in the Hancock house, even if only in memory. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, when states constructed pavilions showcasing their history and industry, Massachusetts spent $50,000 to build a full-scale replica of the Hancock house, which was, Roe observed, “by common consent, the most visited state building there.”

In 1917, Gov. Samuel W. McCall proposed a replica of the Hancock house in its original footprint, on Beacon Street in front of the State House. “Nearly 30 states now have houses for their governor,” he said to the Legislature on January 21, 1918. “A restored Hancock house would furnish an inexpensive and dignified residence for future governors.” If it wasn’t “used as a Governor’s House,” he said, “it could be availed of for the State’s business.”

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McCall’s proposal to resurrect the Hancock place as a governor’s residence went nowhere, as has every other attempt to provide a governor’s mansion. But it does raise the question: If it hadn’t been destroyed in the first place, might a preserved or restored Hancock house, in the shadow of the State House, have served as the official residence to this day?

“It probably would,” says Fowler. “Although I wonder why anyone would want to live over the store.”

James V. Horrigan is a writer living in Boston.