Overlooking the Boston Common, the William Hickling Prescott House at 55 Beacon St. is not only a time capsule that allows visors to explore Boston’s past, but also unbeknownst to many, it has served as the Boston headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America for nearly 75 years.
The Prescott House and adjoining, “mirror-image” townhouse at 54 Beacon St., were designed by American architect Asher Benjamin and built for Boston merchant James Smith Colburn in 1808. Both buildings are distinguished by their two bow-fronts, ornate, iron balconies and other Federal-style features.
While Archer is often overlooked today when compared to the venerable Charles Bulfinch, they were considered professional rivals during their lifetimes, according to Melissa Thorndike, chairwoman of the William Hickling Prescott House’s Docent Committee and a member of the Colonial Dames, a national group of women «who came to reside in an American Colony before 1776, and whose services were rendered during the Colonial Period.»
Widely regarded as the first great American historian, William Hickling Prescott lived at 55 Beacon St. from 1845 to 1959. During this time, Thorndike said Prescott essentially doubled the floor-space of 55 Beacon St. when he built a rear addition, which included a second-floor library, as well as the third-floor study where he wrote his books “Conquest of Peru” and “Philip II.”
Prescott died 1859, but his wife continued to live at the residence until her death 10 years later, after which her nephew Franklin Gordon Dexter bought the home. Modifications made during the Dexter family’s tenure in the home included replacing the original, spiral staircase with the colonial revival staircase that remains today.
In 1944, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America purchased the house, and it was designated a National Historic Landmark 20 years later.
The house has undergone extensive renovations since its construction, so Thorndike describes it as a “worked-in, lived-in” museum that has served as a personal residence for several generations of three families. “It has evolved into what you see today…and that reflects the country’s timeline,” she said.
Thorndike added that a house of this scope and size on Beacon Hill that hasn’t been subdivided into condos is a rare find, let alone one that is open to the public.
The Prescott House also boasts one of the largest costume collections in U.S., with garments dating back to the 18th century. It is stored on the top level of the five-story building in an air-conditioned storage space while the fourth floor serves as office space for the Dames. (The first three stories are viewable to the public, however.)
Meanwhile, Thorndike describes her role at the Prescott House as a perfect fit, given her interest in the past, as well as her curious nature.
“I love history and old houses,” Thorndike said. “I like to poke around in door and closets where I’m not supposed to be.”
Now through October, the William Hickling Prescott House is open on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m., with tours starting 15 minutes past the hour and on select Wednesdays during the summer. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for seniors while children under 12 are admitted free. For more information, visit www.nscdama.org or call 617-742-3190.