Boston: Leading the Way Since 1634

From public libraries and gardens to the first African Meeting House, Boston has a rich history of innovation.

Boston’s historical significance draws American and international visitors year after year. At the same time, it is a forward-looking city—one whose longevity and firsts have helped shape American life and culture.

BOSTON COMMON 

City parks conjure up visions of picnics and strolls in bucolic surroundings. Yet, Boston Common, the nation’s oldest city park, began as a place for cattle grazing and includes a history of public hangings, riots, recruitment rallies and protests. Founded in 1634, Boston Common’s 50 acres sit at the north end of the Emerald Necklace system of city parks.

Today, the Common is used for concerts, softball games, ice-skating and jogging. But a walk through the park will take you past memorials and monuments that offer a glimpse into the remarkable story of America’s first city park. More than 1,000 British Redcoats camped on Boston Common in 1775, and during the Civil War, anti-slavery protests took place on the Common.

BOSTON PUBLIC GARDEN

Credit also belongs to Boston for the nation’s first botanical garden, established in 1837. The 24-acre Victorian-style English garden includes showy blooms, meandering paths and a picturesque pond. Swan Boats, which began in 1877, conduct visitors across the four-acre pond.

Throughout the Public Garden, there are monuments and statues, the most notable the 1869 statue of George Washington. The oldest statue is the 1846 Ether Monument, a 40-foot marble and granite statue and fountain near the northwest corner of the garden, commemorating the use of ether in anesthesia.

BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY

An outstanding example of architecture, the Boston Public Library racks up a number of firsts: it was the world’s first free municipal library, it created the first children’s room in the nation and it was the first to open library branches (establishing 22 branches between 1870 and 1900).

The library is a magnificent example of Beaux Arts design. Its exterior boasts a copper cornice with alternating seashells and dolphins, 33 medallions between window arches and the carved head of Minerva. The lobby impresses with marble floors inlaid with brass designs, three aisles of vaulted ceilings decorated in mosaic tile and Roman motifs. Bates Hall, the second-floor reading room, boasts a carved limestone balcony, a 50-foot-high barrel vault ceiling and English oak bookcases.

Today, you can take one of the free daily public tours of its exceptional art and architecture and see this stunning building up close.

AFRICAN MEETING HOUSE

The African Meeting House, located near the Massachusetts State House, was the first of its kind in the nation and is the oldest remaining black church building. Built in 1806 primarily by and for black Bostonians, the African Meeting House played a pivotal role, operating as a place of worship for the African Baptist Church of Boston and as a center of educational, cultural and political efforts for the black community.

The African School held classes for children until 1835, when the Abiel Smith School was built next door. Abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah Grimke and Frederick Douglass spoke at the meeting house, and in 1863, it served as a recruiting station for the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Regiment, the Union’s first official African-American regiment during the Civil War.

The African Meeting House is a National Historic Landmark acquired and maintained by the Museum of African American History. The Museum offers tours, educational programs and events that promote black heritage.

FENWAY PARK

Built in 1912, Fenway Park is the oldest existing Major League stadium still in use and one of the smallest—and most revered. It seats about 36,000 people and cost $685,000 to build. In 2012, the 100-year-old park was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the Green Monster, Fenway Park’s 37-foot wall, is identified with Boston as surely as Big Ben is in London and the Eiffel Tower is in Paris,” says Gordon Edes, Boston Red Sox strategic communications adviser and Red Sox historian. “For many of our fans, Fenway Park is one of those enduring places linking generations, conjuring memories for our newest fans as surely as it did for their parents and grandparents before them.”

BOSTON DRAGON BOAT FESTIVAL

In a more recent “first,” Boston is home to the first Dragon Boat festival in the U.S.

In 1979, the Boston Dragon Boat Festival began as a small community event to promote Chinese culture through a 2,000-year-old Chinese festival. Today, it draws more than 30,000 spectators and participants annually.

Dragon boat races take place the second Sunday in June on the Charles River, where 70 or more teams race in colorfully decorated 39-foot Hong Kong-style boats. The winning team goes on to compete in regional and world races. The festival also includes performances from various Asian cultures, such as a Beijing Opera performance in 2018 and Asian food.

UNION OYSTER HOUSE

Finish exploring Boston “firsts” with a meal at the Union Oyster House, a National Historic Landmark set in a 1704 building on the Freedom Trail. Established in 1826, Union Oyster House is the oldest U.S. restaurant in continuous service, and the first in the U.S. to introduce toothpicks.

Amazingly, the restaurant has had just three owners since 1826. Famous customers include American statesman Daniel Webster, who reportedly wolfed down six plates of oysters daily, accompanied by copious amounts of brandy and water. Presidents including Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, as well as famous movie stars and top musicians have stopped in to slurp oysters. JFK’s favorite booth in the upstairs dining room has been dedicated to his memory.

Lynn Waalkes
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