The Swan Houses

Swan Houses

Charles Bulfinch, 1804–1805

National Historic Landmark (number 13)

Hepzibah Swan, a Boston heiress, built these Federal houses and the stables at 50, 56, and 60 Mount Vernon Street as gifts to her three daughters upon their marriages in 1806, 1807, and 1817. Her first daughter to be married was Mrs. John Turner Sargent, who moved into 13 Chestnut Street in 1806. The deeds carry Mrs. Swan’s restriction that the roofs of the stables never be higher than 13 feet above the street, to retain the views of Mount Vernon Street from the Chestnut Street houses. A further restriction provides maintenance in perpetuity of a steeply sloped cattle ramp almost 9 feet wide from the stable yards to Mount Vernon Street so that the carriages and cattle of the three houses could go in and out. This survives intact.

Although Mrs. Swan had a Boston town house, she preferred to live in her elegant country house in Dorchester overlooking Dudley Street. Mrs. Swan’s husband, Colonel James Swan, was involved in shaky financial dealings in Europe and in 1798 returned to France, where he was put in debtors’ prison for the remaining twenty-two years of his life.

The houses are 25 feet wide, 50 feet deep, and four stories tall, plus basement and dormered attic. The simple brick façades are adorned with shuttered windows that reduce in height from the second story upward. The entry level of each house, defined by a granite foundation and a sandstone stringcourse at ceiling height, employs recessed arches around the ground-floor windows, a favorite Bulfinch treatment that serves to set off the more important second story of the house. The Adam-style entrance is defined by four slender fluted columns and a simple entablature. The door has sidelights. A front stair leads directly to the basement from the sidewalk.

Typical of Bulfinch, the interiors are simple, with ornament focused on the ceilings and mantels. In the original plan, still retained in number 13, the low-ceilinged entry level contains a reception hall with handsome stair on the left, a front dining room, and a large rear kitchen that overlooks the spacious garden. High-ceilinged double living rooms with classic but simple detailing and fine proportions are on the second-floor piano nobile, which has windows ornamented with wrought-iron railings. An arch with sliding double doors connects the double living rooms. The third floor contains two bedrooms, and the fourth floor has four servants’ rooms with an attic space above. No Bulfinch house had a bathroom, but the pipeless privy was common. The introduction of the service stairway was in part to service the commode chairs in bedrooms or dressing rooms.

Julia Ward Howe, author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” lived in number 13 for a short time and held meetings of the noted Radical Club there.