Beacon Hill Garden Tour Proves to Be the Ultimate Perennial

By Caroline G. MacGillivray

May 20 was a glorious spring day that dawned on Beacon Hill with an uncanny tranquility.

The third Thursday of May usually arrived like clockwork and brought an enthusiastic swarm of two thousand people with it. From 1928 through 2019, members and friends of the Beacon Hill Garden Club had eagerly welcomed the throng into their gardens for the annual Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill Tour.

Filmmaker Sam Krueger and On-Camera Guide Ellen Hatscombe Whitney, with BHGC member Tracy Flannery.
A new garden featured in this year’s Virtual Tour.

This year the neighborhood felt hollow without the swarm of tour-goers, but the still air was not dead. The bursting energy of the crowd was replaced with the quiet electricity of work in progress. For in fact the garden gates were still open, but only to a film crew and a small group of devoted BHGC volunteers. Thanks to their efforts, garden tour fans near and far will have their day on Beacon Hill from the comfort of their own homes and through the power of technology.

Continuity is king on Beacon Hill; everyone who moves here makes a commitment to preserve its past for the benefit of its future. Gardens are passed from one owner to the next, each with a license to make the space their own. Their faithful stewardship has kept these gardens and their annual showcase worthy of each other. This rite of spring has endured the Great Depression and World War II; it has survived the century that many social traditions did not. The tour owes its longevity to the generations of neighbors who kept it alive, even when it would have been more convenient to set it aside.  

Lockdown measures went into effect just ten weeks before the 2020 tour, forcing a last-minute cancellation and ending the tour’s uninterrupted ninety-one-year streak. By mid-summer, it seemed likely that the pandemic would affect the 2021 tour as well. The BHGC, led by President Molly Sherden, had to find a way around COVID’s immovable obstacle: how to keep the tour tradition alive when it’s unsafe to gather in a crowd. 

Tour Co-Chairs Leslie Lucchina and Maureen Mellowes were tasked with exploring satisfactory alternatives to such a venerable event. The key to their search was to focus not on the “how,” but on the “why.” The twin missions of the Hidden Gardens Tour are to share Beacon Hill’s gardens for public enjoyment and to raise money for impactful organizations; in their minds, any means that could accomplish both would be viable.

Nine members had graciously volunteered their gardens for whatever form the tour might take. When it became clear that the best solution was digital, Lucchina and Mellowes hired Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Sam Kreuger (“Little Women”, “Knives Out”), to capture Beacon Hill for a filmed tour. Emily Lawrence signed on as the project’s director, with Ellen Hartshorne Whitney serving as the on-camera guide.

After a year that devastated so many Boston businesses, Lucchina and Mellowes thought their plan might die from lack of funding. That concern turned to relief when Fiduciary Trust wholeheartedly agreed to be the film’s sole sponsor. Their generous donation to fund the production means that all ticket proceeds can benefit the horticultural and conservation groups that rely on the Beacon Hill Garden Club’s support. 

With the creative and charitable missions secure, the production process took flight. Lucchina, Mellowes, and the film crew spent early spring weekends making advance visits to the gardens. From there, Kreuger assessed the ideal window to capture each space in its most radiant light. The third week of May, earmarked as “tour week” on Beacon Hill for so long, was spent filming. The production culminated on Thursday evening – the “would-have-been” tour day – with a sunset session on Louisburg Square. 

The end result of this lengthy process is a yet-to-be-named short film. From sunrise over Beacon Street to that sunset on Louisburg Square, the project will capture a day in the life of Beacon Hill. Two Louisburg Square gardens are new to the BHGC; three spaces inaccessible on the in-person tour are featured as digital exclusives. Five other gardens on Brimmer, Chestnut, Myrtle, Pinckney, and West Cedar Streets are tried-and-true tour favorites. The film will also include the recently renovated courtyard of a Chestnut Street condo building.

The BHGC hopes that this film will live on as a record of Beacon Hill at this historic time. For now, the filmed tour is adapting tradition to keep it alive. But that’s nothing new in our neighborhood. Beacon Hill’s ability to enhance and evolve – to change so that it can stay the same – has always been its secret to getting better with age.

Tickets are available at beaconhillgardenclub.org. Ticketholders will have unlimited streaming access to the video from June 30 to Dec. 31.

To reach Caroline G. MacGillivray, email her at [email protected]

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