The late afternoon sun at Jamaica Pond always highlights a relic of the American past probably unnoticed by many who walk or jog by. A free - stone staircase of 25 steps and a landing stretches from the west side of the only private residence left from the era before the creation of the Park, Pinebank Mansion built in 1879, down along the Pond’s slope to the shore path.
Brief inquiry in a leafless season allows the relic to tell its tale from the text on it: “From The Terrace of the John Hancock Mansion.” This home, one of the noblest in colonial New England, was located west of the State House (towards Charles St.) and was, unfortunately, demolished for the wing of the State House in 1863. Its site today is commemorated by a small plaque on the State House wall noting the site.
It’s a pity the plaque contains no picture of the house, since views of it exist. It was built in 1737 by Thomas Hancock, merchant - prince and uncle of the Commonwealth’s first governor, and was known for its substantial manner in building and grace and its fine views from atop Beacon Hill. This fine house was British headquarters until the evacuation of Boston in March 1776 and thus received little damage.
Here Hancock entertained many notables including French Admiral D’Etaing and George Washington and here he died in 1793. It was built on an extensive lot surrounded by a low stone wall topped with a wooden fence and planted with gardens and orchards with the site of the future State House serving as a pasture.
The Jamaica Pond staircase first served to make the ascent of the crown of Beacon Hill easier. Just as some houses’ items were bought by private parties when the heirs were unable to present the house in fine condition to city or state, so the staircase was bought by the Perkinses to serve as a connector to their summit.
Nevertheless, in his own lifetime the man with the famous signature had a connection with Jamaica Plain. Hancock kept two summer homes - one only a short distance away on the shore of Jamaica Pond and the other across Boston Bay at Point Shirley. Hancock’s local home was near Jamaica Pond along Eliot Street. The estate first belonged to Dr. Lemuel Hayward, a pioneer in vaccination, and was purchased with shares in Hancock’s Long Wharf for a summer residence in 1780 after Hancock’s work in the Continental Congress ended.
The structure was humble: one and one - half stories in height but covering much footage and shaded by Linden trees. Another house was built there by the governor’s nephew, Thomas, in 1800, who lived there until selling it to Nathaniel Curtis, a prominent local landowner.
Neither Hancock dwelling survives. John Hancock left the area soon after his arrival to avoid meeting the local minister, Dr. Gordon, who publicly faulted Hancock for his poor handling of Harvard College’s finances during the Revolution. Yet by a curious irony the man with the most famous signature is still here, highlighted every day the sun sets, in a way he never expected.
Copyright 1987 © Jamaica Plain Historical Society/Walter H. Marx
Editor’s note: Our thanks to John Anderson who pointed out that that John Hancock’s House was not demolished to make room for a wing of the State House. It was demolished to make room for two brownstone private residences belonging to Mr. Gardner Brewer and Mr. James Beebe. The wing of the State House currently occupying the former space of the Hancock Mansion was built in 1914-17.