Notebook Boston: An Insider’s View of Beantown

Boston: From the Paul Revere House and Faneuil Hall to the Union Oyster House and All Points In-between

One of the wonderful things that happens when you run several thousand expert-led walking tours in 37 cultural capitals around the world like we do at Context, is that you cultivate relationships with some truly remarkable people.  In recruiting the scholars who lead our tours, we look for learned individuals who have elevated to the top of their field in architecture, art history, the culinary arts and countless other cultural fields. We also cast an eye for individuals who are born ambassadors for their home cities and never tire of looking at landmarks such as the Paul Revere House and Faneuil Hall.  When you bring love of a hometown like Boston together with a natural curiosity stoked by educational accomplishment– an intoxicating magic happens.

Faneuil Hall
Faneuil Hall – Built 1742, Rebuilt 1762, Enlarged 1806

Tom Gastel, a practicing artist, architect, and Context scholar,  guides clients through Boston’s storied neighborhoods with a particular eye toward the city’s buildings – both historic and modern. His 2014 publication, Notebook Boston, collects many of Tom’s Boston sketches and takes readers on a visual journey to some of the city’s most storied buildings like Faneuil Hall, The Old North Church, and the Boston Public Library. We asked Tom to share a little more about his work and the city he calls home.

Beacon Street
53 – 55 Beacon Street, Boston, MA

You’ve illustrated nearly every corner of Boston. What is your favorite neighborhood?

My favorite neighborhood in Boston is the South End because of the mix of beautiful Victorian buildings, excellent restaurants, quaint cafes, cute boutique stores, and a lively art scene. But, strictly speaking architecturally, I also love the exquisite Victorians of the Back Bay with their French influences.

I also love the idiosyncrasies of the the North End – especially the labyrinth of metal fire escapes in the narrow spaces between buildings. Part of what makes the North End unusual is the people: everyone is a like character from a novel: The old Italian woman pulling her shopping cart;the friars walking to church dressed in simple robes;the gaggle of Coast Guard men and women walking to get lunch in the neighborhood;the new “old” men sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk talking and watching the street scene;the grocery clerk who hand picks the produce for you one customer at a time; and the spice shop which is a throwback to the early twentieth century when the North End was nearly 100% immigrant population.

John Singleton Copley
John Singleton Copley Sculpture – Copley Square

What inspires your artwork in pieces such as Faneuil Hall and Paul Revere House?

I often depict how buildings relate to their surroundings – the slope of the land or the curvature of the brick sidewalks and granite curbs. I also try to depict how buildings were constructed, and the details of that historic fabric. For example, showing exactly how the many colored stones of a foundation wall fit together. Gastel loves to explore simplicity in his art such asa stone lintel over a door or window, the keystone pattern of brick over a window, a the herringbone pattern of a sidewalk, a cast iron sewer lid set within a granite walkway or a downspout that leads to a brick channel within a brick sidewalk that spills out onto the street through a cut in the stone curb.

Here are a few of Tom’s favorite selections from Notebook Boston.

John Hancock Counting House
John Hancock Counting House, Long Wharf, Boston, MA

The Gardiner Building, erected in the 1760s and once home to John Hancock’s counting house, is the oldest surviving building on Boston’s famous Long Wharf. While the wharf functions today as dock for passenger ferries and sightseeing boats, it was once a busy place of business home to the famous Bunch-of-Grapes Tavern and John Singleton Copley’s mother’s tobacco shop where the painter spent much of his childhood.

Many famous happenings took place at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern.  In 1733, the first grand lodge of Masons in America was organized there by Boston tailor, Henry Price, receiving authority from Lord Montague, Grand Master of England.  After the siege of Boston in 1776, George Washington, Lafayette and General John Stark all stayed there.  And oddly enough, Ohio University, the first land grant university in the US, was founded at the tavern by Revolutionary War veterans Rufus Putnam, Benjamin Tupper, Samuel Holden Parsons and Manasseh Cutler.

Paul Revere House
Paul Revere and Pierce – Hichborn Houses
built 1680 and 1711 respectively
North End, Boston, MA

Built in 1680, the Paul Revere House was the colonial home of one of America’s most famous patriots. Located in Boston’s North End, the National Historic Landmark is now operated as a nonprofit museum by the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

The poem Paul Revere’s Ride, written in 1860 by the romantic poet and Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, cemented the patriot as a national hero.  Longfellow actually created the poem in an effort to keep the Union together in the lead up to the Civil War as part of a series of American Legends which included The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858).  Interestingly enough, the author knowingly took many liberties with the story of that famous ride which has unfortunately seeped into the American popular conscious as fact.  Most notably, Paul Revere was not alone on the midnight ride and was actually joined by two other patriots: Dr. Samuel Prescott and William Dawes.  It turns out, Revere is the best source for the account of the midnight ride and verifies the historical record in a deposition he gave after the revolutionary war and a letter he wrote to Jeremy Belknap.

Union Oyster House
Union Oyster House – established 1826, Boston, MA

Located at 41-43 Union Street, the Union Oyster House has been open to diners since 1826. Before its days as a restaurant, the building served a variety of tenants including Isaiah Thomas, who published his newspaper The Massachusetts Spy in 1771. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy classic New England fare like oysters, clams, and lobstaaaaaah.