A visit to the Old South Meeting House, now a museum filled with interesting exhibits and information on Boston's Freedom Trail, puts you in the very spot where a secret code shouted to a crowd triggered the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
The Georgian brick building you see today was built in 1729-30 to replace a simple wooden structure built by the congregation, a group of dissenters from Boston's First Church (read more about that here) in 1669.
Like other Puritan meeting houses, Old South's design rejects ornate Anglican church embellishments. Windows are clear glass, not stained. The interior is plain. Even the brick is laid in a simple Flemish bond pattern.
Today, the Meeting House's design seems appealingly elegant in its simplicity. The tower, topped with a belfry, steeple, and gilded weather vane, soars upward for 183 feet. The 1768 brass, wood, and iron tower clock in the belfry, which you can see in the photos above and below, still keeps excellent time.
Freedom Trail Tours & Old South Meeting House
Many Freedom Trail Tours go past Old South Meeting House and include commentary about its role in American history. You can easily visit on your own after the tour - count on spending 1-2 hours there.
On the night of December 16, 1773, five thousand Colonists gathered in Boston's Old South Meeting House to learn the fate of three ships hoping to unload British tea on Boston's docks.
At stake was the right of England to tax the Colonists - and among the crowd members of the Sons of Liberty, a group opposed to English rule and taxation.
The English government had declared the Colonists would owe tax the moment they unloaded the tea onto the docks - so the Colonists were determined to prevent this.
Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, representing the English king, was just as determined to get the tea unloaded.
After three weeks of almost daily negotiations to find a legal way not to pay the tax, the Colonists made one more plea to the Governor to allow the ships to leave the harbor and return to England with the tea.
But as the Colonists waited that night, they learned the Governor had refused.
As news about the Governor's refusal spread through the Old South Meeting House, Samuel Adams shouted secret code words to his fellow Sons of Liberty members: "This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!"
The Sons of Liberty leapt into action.
Quickly disguising themselves as Mohawk Indians, they raced down to Griffin's Wharf where the ships were anchored. Many others joined them along the way.
They divided into three groups, each boarding a ship and heaving a total of 342 chests of tea worth over $1 million in today's dollars into Boston Harbor - an event the other Colonies quickly dubbed "the Boston Tea Party."
And on this evening, the American Revolution against British rule began.
The gathering that preceded the Boston Tea Party would be enough to ensure the Old South Meeting House's place on the Freedom Trail.
However, as the largest public meeting space in Colonial Boston, the Old South Meeting House hosted numerous other pre-Revolutionary gatherings, such as an annual tradition started on March 5 1771 to promote revolution against the British by commemorating the Boston Massacre with a speech by leading Patriots such as John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren.
One of the most dramatic speeches occurred in 1775 when Dr. Warren arrived to give the annual Boston Massacre oration dressed dramatically in a white toga - the attire of a free-born Roman man. With crowds at the Old South Meeting House overflowing into the streets, British soldiers tried to prevent Warren from entering by blocking the stairs.
Still dressed in his toga, Warren climbed up a ladder, entered through a back window, and proceeded with his speech. Meanwhile, a British plot to massacre Warren, Hancock, Sam Adams, and others that night failed when the Redcoat who was supposed throw an egg as a signal to draw swords accidentally tripped on his way to the Meeting House and broke the egg before he got there.
However, the British took revenge against Dr. Warren three months later, targeting and killing him during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Old South Meeting House is part of several Boston walking tours: the Freedom Trail, the Boston Women's Heritage Trail, and the Literary Trail.
The museum features a number of informative and fascinating exhibits focused on events that happened here.
The "Voices of Protest" exhibit uses lifelike figures and interactive exhibits to tell the history of the Old South Meeting House.
"If These Walls Could Speak..." takes you through the American Revolution history events that have occurred here. During this multimedia presentation, you'll experience Boston Tea Party speeches, the British Siege of Boston, and the close call with the wrecking ball.
Other activities focus especially on children - a scavenger hunt, an activity kit that explores 18th century activities through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, and many special programs designed to make history come alive.
The Old South Museum Shop is a good place to find excellent books on the history of Boston and New England products such as bayberry candles.
The Museum Shop carries reasonably priced, authentic-looking Colonial hats in children's sizes - ladies' mob caps in white cotton and men's tricorne hats in black felt, as well as a number of other Colonial-era reproductions.
Old South Meeting House is located at the edge of Downtown Crossing - so if you're hungry, you'll find lots of wonderful places to eat nearby, including the popular fruit stand in front of Old South.
Directions for Old South Meeting House
- Location: 310 Washington Street, near School Street intersection, Downtown Boston on the Freedom Trail
- Cost and Hours: Daily, except for major holidays. Admission fee. Check the Old South website for details: www.osmh.org
- More information: 617-482-6439
- Getting there by subway: Green Line/Government Center, Blue and Orange Lines/State, Red Line/Downtown Crossing
- Park: Boston Common Garage is convenient
The historic Omni Parker House Hotel (shown in photo) is close to Old South Meeting House as well as other Freedom Trail sites in this historic part of Downtown Boston:
More top hotels near this part of the Freedom Trail in Boston's Historic Downtown: