The last-minute rescue of Old South Meeting House in 1876 was the first successful preservation effort in New England - and one of the very first in the United States.
After the American Revolution, the congregation restored the Old South Meeting House and used it again as a church. Despite its growing status as an historical landmark, the very survival of the building was threatened in the 1870s. The first threat came from fire, when almost all of downtown Boston was destroyed in a huge three-day blaze in November of 1872 known as The Great Boston Fire. The Old South Meeting House almost burned down; 40 acres of downtown Boston across Milk Street were lost.
Even before the fire, Old South’s congregation was considering leaving their venerable building. Many congregations had already left the crowded, noisy downtown area. Old South’s congregation decided to build a new church in fashionable Copley Square in the newly-created neighborhood of Back Bay - and sell their old home.
The 1729 Old South Meeting House was put on the auction block and a local newspaper advertised the sale:
All the materials above the level of the sidewalks except the Corner Stone and the Clock in the Tower, of this ancient and historical landmark building, which has now come under the auctioneer’s hammer, and will be disposed of on Thursday, June 8, 1876, at 12 o’clock noon on the premises, on the corner of Washington and Milk Streets. The spire is covered with copper, and there is a lot of lead on roof and belfry, and the roof is covered with imported Welch slate. 60 days will be allowed for the removal. Terms cash.
The proud Old South Meeting House was auctioned off for the paltry sum of $1,350 for the value of its materials. The valuable downtown lot would then be freed for sale or lease.
Copper was being removed from the building when a determined group of “twenty women of Boston” organized to stop the demolition and raise funds to save the building from the wrecker’s ball.
They enlisted famous Bostonians, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Louisa May Alcott to rally people to help. Rousing speeches by abolitionist Wendell Phillips and others moved audiences to pledge funds needed to save this historic landmark. Their combined efforts raised over $400,000 – an enormous sum in the 1870’s – to purchase the building and its land. It was the first time that a public building in the United States was saved because of its association with nationally important historical events.
The Old South Meeting House was saved and opened to the public as a museum and meeting place in 1877 by the Old South Association. It was one of the nation's earliest museums of American history.
Old South launched an ambitious educational programs in American history and citizenship and began to publish primary documents from American history as “Old South Leaflets”. Events such as “Children’s Hour” activities, Young People’s Lectures and essay contests drew hundreds of students of all ages who crowded into the Meeting House. Old South’s lively mix of citizenship lectures, projects and events gained national renown. Programs modeled on the "Old South Work" spread to other American cities.
Today the preservation of the 1729 Old South Meeting House is an ongoing project that is supported by many committed individuals and organizations. You can help preserve this building for future generations by becoming a member or making a contribution.
Below are some notable recent preservation projects:
- In 2014 a project to paint, preserve and restore the steeple and exterior windows of Old South Meeting House was completed, funded by the National Park Service Repair and Restoration Program.
- In 2011 an award-winning project to return a bell to the Meeting House was made possible through the generous support of the Storrow family, which funded both the purchase and installation of an 1801 Paul Revere bell.
- In 2009 an award-winning project to preserve and restore the 1766 Old South Meeting House tower clock was completed. It is the oldest American-made tower clock still operating in its original location.
About The Tower Clock: The magnificent Old South Meeting House tower clock was created by Gawen Brown, the leading tall case clock maker in New England before 1780. Gawen Brown created Old South’s tower clock in 1766 and exhibited it to overwhelming approval; it was regaled in the press as “a Master Piece of the land [and an] honor to America.” Brown wanted to install his clock in the tower of the Old South Meeting House - the largest building and most prominent place in all of colonial Boston. In 1770 the Town of Boston agreed to install and maintain the clock at Old South Meeting House. (Boston continued to maintain and wind the clock until 1928, when it was turned over to the non-profit Old South Meeting House!) The Boston Gazette proclaimed in 1770, “The Great Clock at Dr. Sewall’s Meeting-House, made by Gawen Brown of this Town, goes with such Regularity and Exactness, that for this fourteen weeks it has lost but two minutes of Time.” Today, the clock is still wound by hand each week and we strive to keep time to the same standard.
About the Paul Revere Bell: The 876-pound bronze bell that now strikes the Gawen Brown tower clock was made at the Paul Revere & Sons Bell & Cannon Foundry in Boston in 1801. Created for the town of Westborough, Massachusetts,the bell rang out from a series of churches in the town, ending up at the town's First Baptist Church. In 2007 the trustees of the church closed their doors. After determining there was no way to keep the Paul Revere Bell in Westborough, the church trustees decided the best way to preserve the bell was to bring it back to the place where it was created – Boston - where it could be connected to the historic Old South Meeting House Tower Clock and ring out for all to enjoy. The 1801 Paul Revere Bell bell was installed in the Old South Meeting House tower on October 16, 2011 in a grand ceremony.