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THE BOWDOIN MANSION-HOUSE ESTATE
BY virtue of a deed bearing the date June 3, 1756, John Erving, of Boston, sold to James Bowdoin a lot of land bounded southeasterly in front on Beacon Street, one hundred and thirty-seven feet; southwesterly on land formerly of the widow Rogers; and northwesterly on land of Mrs. Middlecott, sixty-seven feet, to Mr. Lynde’s Corner where a locust tree then stood; with a dwelling-house and other buildings.1 Here, at the eastern corner of Beacon and Bowdoin Streets, Governor Bowdoin made his home. John Erving (1693-1786) was of Scottish lineage, and became one of the most prominent of American merchants. He was Colonel of the Boston Regiment, and a member of the Governor’s Council for twenty years. Being in sympathy with the Loyalist element in the community, he retired from public life at the outbreak of the Revolution. His daughter, Elizabeth, married Governor Bowdoin. In September, 1765, Colonel Erving served on a committee to wait upon the Honorable Adam Gorden, M.P., who was then on a tour in America. The committee was charged with felicitating his lordship, in the name of the Town, upon his safe arrival; and was instructed to bespeak his kind influence in favor of the Town and Province; especially in regard to the new Parliamentary Regulations, which so nearly affected the Rights, as well as the Trade of the American Colonies; and which had created such universal uneasiness among His Majesty’s loyal subjects on this continent.
Again, in April, 1776, the Honorable John Erving was chosen one of a committee to draw up Resolutions, expressing the gratitude felt by the people of Boston toward those patriots on the other side of the water, whose endeavors had secured the Liberties of America by the happy Repeal of the Stamp Act.
The Bowdoin Mansion, as well as the adjoining Bromfield house, was set back from the street, and was reached by a flight of stone steps. A spacious garden extended over the brow of the hill, and down its northern declivity as far as the present Ashburton Place. The Honorable James Bowdoin, LL.D. (1726-90), Harvard, 1745, was of French Hugenot ancestry. He was President of the Constitutional Convention of Massachusetts, and served two years as Governor. In the latter capacity he showed great resolution in quelling Shays’s Rebellion. Governor Bowdoin was the first President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and from him Bowdoin College derived its name. He was described by the celebrated traveller and patriot, Jean Pierre Brissot de Warville, “‘a brisk little Frenchman,” who visited the United States in 1778, as “a man of universal talents, combining the virtues of a magistrate with profound erudition; as a public servant, he always retained the confidence of his fellow citizens.” By his will, dated March 23, 1789, Governor Bowdoin devised the Mansion-House estate, including a portion of the land formerly belonging to his father-in-law, John Erving, to his son, James Bowdoin, Junior; reserving the use of the same for Madam Bowdoin during her life.
James Bowdoin, Junior (1752-1811), after graduating at Harvard in 1771, at the age of nineteen, went abroad, and passed a year at Oxford University. He was with General Washington on Dorchester Heights, March 17, 1776; and crossed over to Boston with the Commander-in-Chief on that day, which marked the departure of the British soldiers, and of the large company of aristocratic Loyalists who accompanied them. James Bowdoin, Junior, was a man of wealth, liberal education, and scholarly tastes. He gave much attention to agriculture, and to the breeding of fine horses and cattle. In public life he served as Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Spain, and as Associate Minister to the French Court. Under his will, dated June 4, 1811, he bequeathed his works of art, together with his library and philosophical appliances, to Bowdoin College. The Beacon Street homestead passed to his nephew, James Temple Bowdoin. The Bowdoin line is extinct in Boston, but the name is perpetuated in the College, and in three public thoroughfares within the Metropolitan District.
At one time a keen controversy developed regarding the ownership of the estate, between James Temple Bowdoin and the authorities of Bowdoin College. Choosing a time when the mansion was vacant, a large body of workmen, acting in behalf of the College, took possession of the premises and hastily constructed a temporary wooden building. Thereupon the agents of Mr. Bowdoin proceeded to remove the obnoxious structure; and these proceedings met with public approval, as a distinct alleviation of the monotony of everyday life.2 On October 27, 1843, James Temple Bowdoin, Gentleman, sold the homestead to Theodore Chase, merchant, for $9030.30. Mr. Chase occupied the mansion for about seventeen years; and his widow continued to reside there until her death in 1884. On May 19th of that year, her sons, Theodore and George Bigelow Chase, conveyed the premises to the American Unitarian Association.
The front of the Bowdoin house has been described as having a covering of “smoothened deal boards.” The main entrance and the window frames were ornamented with carvings. A spacious window over the front door afforded an excellent vantage-point for the display of a large illuminated transparency, with suitable inscriptions, during patriotic evening celebrations or other popular demonstrations.
1 Gleaner Articles, No. 39.
2 Gleaner Articles, No. 39.