The Mt. Vernon Proprietors developed Boston’s Beacon Hill into the neighborhood we know today and in the process they shaped the way real estate development would function during the formative years of the United States as a nation. Although we can see their legacy in the development of Beacon hill, their contributions to real estate development in the United States is even greater. As what was probably the first real estate syndicate in America, their model shaped the way America was built.
A real estate syndicate is a group of investors pooling money and using the funds as a whole to fund real estate projects. The funds could be used to acquire property in its entirety or as an equity contribution to the project along with a mortgage, which would fund some portion of the project.
The Mt. Vernon Proprietors were founded in 1795 by Harrison Gray Otis, Jonathan Mason, Charles Ward Apthorp, and Joseph Woodward. Members of the group changed frequently, but partners included the famed architect Charles Bulfinch, Hepzibah Swan, William Scollay, Dr. Benjamin Joy, and Henry Jackson. In the same year they founded, the Mt. Vernon Proprietors bought an 18.5 acre cow pasture from an agent working on behalf of the painter John Singleton Copley, who had been living in England for the previous 20 years. When it took place, it was the largest land transaction that had taken place in Boston and included the land bordered today by Mt Vernon Street, Louisburg Square, down Pinckney Street to the Charles River, along the shoreline to Beacon Street, and up Beacon Street to Walnut Street, which connects with Mt. Vernon Street. This was such a large plot of land that it would be 30 years before Louisburg Square and the land west of it was laid out.
The majority of the tract was hilly pasture, not valuable until the Massachusetts State House was built at the top of Beacon Hill in 1798. The plot of land where the State House was to be built was bought from the heirs of John Hancock, the first Governor of Massachusetts and the man with the world’s most famous signature.
Harrison Gray Otis had been appointed to a town committee to select the new site of the Massachusetts State House and a scandal ensued when it was discovered he was involved in the purchase of the newly valuable land. John Singleton Copley protested the sale, but after a decade of legal arguments the sale was upheld.
The Mt. Vernon Proprietors planned to use their land as a new residential area for those whose fortunes had grown due to Boston’s merchant trade. The group’s surveyor, Mather Withington, and Charles Bulfinch created separate development plans, but both proposed large lots ranging from 60 by 160 to 100 by 200. Bulfinch’s plan focused on freestanding mansions with lots large enough for stables and gardens, as was common practice in the South End and West End at the time, and a few homes were built following Bulfinch’s specifications. Withington’s development plan was eventually chosen, a plan which proposed the laying of Mt. Vernon Street, Chestnut Street, Pinckney Street, and Walnut Street as they are today.
The work of laying the streets began in 1799, with the streets aligned in an east-west orientation with limited access from the less desirable North Slope, which was referred to as “Mt. Whoredom” at the time. During this early stage of development, Mount Vernon, the Western peak of Boston’s three hills cut by 50-60 feet. The country’s first gravity railroad was used to transport the dirt downhill and into the water, increasing the developer’s land by filling in the area now occupied by Charles Street and part of the Flat of the Hill.
The early homes built on the Mt. Vernon Proprietor land were of great dimensions, following the vision of Charles Bulfinch. Harrison Gray Otis commissioned Bulfinch to build a home at 85 Mt. Vernon Street. Bulfinch bought the parcel west of Otis in 1805 and divided it into the two lots at 87 and 89 Mt. Vernon Street on which he built large freestanding mansions with a shared driveway.
Along with these homes, the Massachusetts State House at the top of Beacon Hill was also designed by Charles Bulfinch. At the time architecture was more of a hobby than an occupation and Bulfinch was employed as a member of the city’s Board of Selectman and Boston’s Chief of Police. Although, Bulfinch would go on to become the first American to practice architecture as an occupation and he would design many more buildings around Boston before heading to Washington D.C. to work on the Capitol.
After the initial estate sized lots were sold and developed on Mt. Vernon Street, the Mt. Vernon Proprietors decided these homes were not in the best interest of their investment. Because of this the rest of the land was laid out in more dense blocks of row houses and even the gardens of the original estates were developed, thus the mansions at 89, 87, and 85 Mt. Vernon Street appear to be incorporated within a developed block.
Among the houses associated with the Mt. Vernon Proprietors surviving today are:
- 29A Chestnut Street, built on a speculative basis in 1799
- 70, 71, 72, 73, 75, and 74 Beacon Street were built in on a speculative basis in 1828 after being designed by architect Asher Benjamin.
Other homes in the Beacon Hill neighborhood are associated with individual members, but these represent efforts of the group.