Old North Church / Christ Church – Fake News (1723-1745)

On my parent’s most recent visit we strolled along the Freedom Trail in search of pastries. (This is a pretty common occurrence if you come visit me; take note potential visitors). Turns out the freedom trail is great for those in search of sugar. At some point, we ended up in Old North Church and stumbled upon a fascinating display extolling the inaccuracies of the church’s perceived history.

And because fake news is ever present on our minds (or at least mine), it’s presence on the political scene as early as the Civil War and likely earlier stuck with me.

This is only a block away, so imagine how small those lantern lights would have been across the water.

A couple lanterns, hung for less than a minute, created a pivotal moment in American history. One if by land, two if by sea. At least that is what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the author of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” led us to believe.

At some point, but especially if you live anywhere relatively near Boston, elementary classes discuss Paul Revere’s ride (you can click here if you want a refresher). As a child, I believed Paul Revere instructed some patriots to signal using lanterns in the steeple of Old North church. Those lanterns served as a message on how the British were going to attack. After, armed with knowledge, he dashed off on his horse and raised the alarm. I believed him to be alone. He was the only hope. My classmates and I thought it was up to the single man of Paul Revere to save the nation with his knowledge.

If you look closely at this map, you can see the Boston of old was a little different in shape. That dark shape somewhere a little right of center was the North End. People settled there because it was easy to defend with just a slender land bridge from the south. The hills and even Old North Church in the North End would have been more prominent in the sky line, when Boston looked like this.

But, this paragraph contains the real facts. Revere definitely did not row across the water himself, before setting out on a tiring journey (even if it doesn’t look like a far distance in that map). Instead, two men helped. There were other riders. Two riders, Revere and a man by the name of William Dawes, were initially selected to transport the message. Others joined them later on their quest further along the trail.  In fact, later that same night, Revere was questioned by the British. In the process, his horse was requisitioned and he was forced to return to Lexington on foot. Revere never made it to Concord that night. Ultimately, it is a pretty good thing that he was never alone or the sole hope of the nation.

Turns out Paul Revere’s Ride as we believe it, is fake news at its finest. Longfellow, the writer of Paul Revere’s Ride, was watching his country on the brink of Civil War. He wanted to goad Northerners’ into thinking about what was happening and bring them to action. In his writing, he attempted to create a legend. Unfortunately for Dawes, because Revere had published a first hand account of his journey, and Dawes didn’t, it was Revere that became the hero.

Notice there is no mention of Dawes here, either.

Longfellow was completely aware of the falsehoods he was spreading. I think that is pretty important to note here. He had done his research. But he believed himself to be working for a larger goal. He was trying to remind Americans of their roots in the foundation of this country. He was trying to make patriots for the Civil War.

Ultimately, he succeeded. In 1818 when Revere died, there was no mention of his midnight ride in the obituary, instead only talk of his business. Paul Revere, before Longfellow got to him, was just a silversmith to most of the world. But because fake news is potent, even when it is indeed fake, historians promoted Longfellow’s poem for a long time. That’s why most of us today are unaware. Paul Revere was successful and he was even a hero, but he was not alone.
Behind this interesting history, stands a pretty old and time-worn structure. A structure who plays it’s own part in the lines of history books and Longfellow’s legend. It was there, that Paul Revere convinced a friend to hang the lanterns. Revere, a well-known man in the community, and a previous bell ringer at the church, still held some pull (get the pun? 😉 ).

 

Plain, simple, and expressive.

Besides the history that took place inside it’s walls, Old North Church is the longest standing church in Boston. So that alone, means it is worth a visit. 513, 654 Medford bricks in a double English bond pattern form walls that are two and a half feet thick.

In this church hang eight bells made in Gloucester England in 1744. The first bells cast for the British Empire in North America, if you believe the inscription on them (which turns out many do – although now I’m a little unsure because of the whole fake news thing).

The newest part of this old church is up where those bells hang. The storm of October 1804 damaged the original steeple beyond repair. Our good friend Charles Bulfinch (remember him from this: Massachusetts State House – ‘Federal’ Architecture (1795-1798) ) designed a replacement. The one you see today is not that one either. That one was destroyed by Hurricane Carol in 1954. Today, a new addition, combines elements from both two predecessors and has the original weathervane on top.

Although, Old North Church is now the oldest church, it was not the first. It didn’t even used to be called Old North Church. At one point, it was just referred to as North Church because turns out it’s real name is Christ Church. The interiors definitely bring you back to “old” though. Inside, you can see the original, high pew boxes that individual families would own. They were high because Boston was cold. Those high walls retained the heat from the hot coals or bricks keeping you warm on the floor during the mass. Your location said a lot. But so did how you furnished your box. As you walk the aisles, you can start to tell who was doing well in the Boston of old.

Fabric on walls, comfy pillows, all this said how wealthy you were.

A little bit ironically, Old North church was first built as an Anglican church with a TORY minister. The Tories were the people in support of the king in case you forgot your middle school history. This is one further reason why the architect chose an English design influence. The church, like its supporters in Boston, would adhere to the design influences of the old country. The puritanism of the day, held extensive design and decoration in check. Today, no hefty cherubs or stained glass are found. Instead, the structure of the church expresses itself. Usually, the structure expressing itself and restraint are modern concepts. But here, it is found because of the puritan influence.

Clean and Restrianed

Over a period of  twenty two years, Old North Church was constructed in a similar style to the Christopher Wren churches of England in the 1720s. Christopher Wren, a famous London architect inspired William Price, the architect here. Price believed Wren’s churches were elegant and classic. In the most sincere form of flattery (and one often used by architects of this time period), he made his own from Wren’s elements. The Anglican constituents, mostly hailing from England themselves were down with the plan.

Simple Altar

One of Wren’s main goals entailed letting all worshippers hear and see the service. I don’t think he could have predicted how much more important it would be for people to see the tower clearly. Only several years after construction, an old church caretaker would climb the 154 steps to the steeple to help patriots. In it’s own way, Old North Church sparked the American revolution. Not much architecture can say that.

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