Old South Meeting House

An archival lithograph depicting the Boston Tea Party
The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor

N. Currier lithograph, 1846. Courtesy Library of Congress.

 

"Boston Harbor a teapot tonight!"

On December 16, 1773, as many as 5,000 colonists packed this building to resist a shipment of taxed tea. After hours of negotiations, the people failed to come to a resolution with the royal government. A signal must have been given soon after, for some 150 men with soot on their faces and varying interpretations of American Indian dress stormed out of buildings nearby and made their way to the tea ships at Griffin's Wharf. After hours of work, the men destroyed 342 chests of the imported tea. This resistance would be seen as treason by the British Crown, and the punishments would bring war closer than ever.

 
 
A two story brick church building with arched windows. At the front of the Meeting House is an attached brick belltower with a wood and weathered copper steeple. The tower has a clock face.

The History of Old South Meeting House

When the Old South Meeting House was built in 1729, its Puritan congregation could not foresee the role it would play in American history. In colonial times, statesman Benjamin Franklin was baptized here. Phillis Wheatley, the first published black poet, was a member, as were patriots James Otis, Thomas Cushing, and William Dawes. When rumblings started to shake the colonies and the Revolution grew imminent, patriots flocked to Old South to debate the most pressing issues of the day. They argued about the Boston Massacre, and they protested impressment of American sailors into the British Navy. And then, on the night of December 16, 1773, they acted. Some 5,000 angry colonists gathered at Old South to protest a tax on tea. When the negotiations failed, disguised men took action and destroyed over 1.5 million dollars worth of tea in today's money.

The punishment for the Boston Tea Party meant a return of British soldiers, a closure of the economically vital Boston Harbor, and many restrictions to local government and public meetings by June of 1774. War broke out hardly a year after this punishment for the Tea Party took place. During the occupation of Boston by British troops, the British avenged the night of the tea party by turning Old South into a riding stable. They ripped out the pews, installed a bar in the first balcony, and used Old South as a riding school for the British Cavalry. Though the British forces evacuated Boston in the March of 1776, it wasn't until 1783 that Old South was at last restored by the congregation as a place of worship.

A century later, and after surviving the 1872 Great Fire of Boston, the Old South congregation sold the building and moved to Boston's Back Bay neighborhood. Old South narrowly escaped the wrecking ball as a result of one of the first successful efforts to preserve a historic structure. Leaders in the effort were philanthropist Mary Hemenway, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and the writers Julia Ward Howe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The movement to save Old South helped to usher in the nation's historic preservation movement, which has led to the preservation of thousands of historically significant buildings nationwide.

Old South Meeting House Today

Since 1877, Old South has served as a museum, historic site, educational institution, and a sanctuary for free speech. In the 1920s, Old South enacted a policy to grant the use of the building to groups otherwise denied a public platform. Old South continues to serve as a catalyst for intellectual thought and energy by sponsoring public forums, debates, concerts and theatrical presentations year round. It's ongoing exhibit "Voices of Protest" tells the inspiring, sometimes disturbing, and frequently controversial story of the Old South Meeting House through the voices of the men and women whose achievements have shaped its history.

To learn more about the puritan meeting house turned revolutionary hall, visit the Old South Meeting House website.

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Mailing Address:

Charlestown Navy Yard
Boston , MA 02129

Phone:

(617) 242-5601
Charlestown Navy Yard Visitor Center

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