The Bellevue Apartments occupy a prime corner at the top of Beacon Street, facing the Boston Athenaeum and across Bowdoin Street from the State House. With such distinguished and attention-getting neighbors, passers by often ignore the old Hotel Bellevue despite its impressive size.
Nine Stories but Easy to Miss
How can one just ignore a nine-story limestone and brick building with frontage that runs down one of Boston’s most iconic streets? Two reasons:
- Several restaurants and a convenience store take up most of the street frontage. These businesses also have terraces—unusual for Beacon Hill—that make the structure recede from the street.
- People pay the most attention to what they can see walking down the street and the building at 21 Beacon Street only pulls the eye upward if you are curious.
The Governor’s Mansion
The plot of land on which it is built has its own history. Few people know that this corner once held the mansion belonging to Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin, who held office during Shay’s Rebellion. After Gov. Bowdoin’s death in 1790, investors tore down the house and replaced it with the Bellevue Hotel. In turn, that structure was demolished to make way for the Hotel Bellevue. This reverse naming demonstrates either an early attempt at branding or a lack of imagination on the part of the investors.
In 1983, developers converted the structure into the Bellevue Apartments, offering boutique luxury condominiums for sale or rent at somewhat less than top-of-the-hill prices.
History of the Hotel Bellevue
The current structure went up in 1899 as Boston’s most luxurious hotel. It moved up the hill to Number 21 from the hotel’s former location at 17 Beacon Street—an address that no longer exists. (I don’t know whether it had a different name in that spot.)
Management advertised the Hotel Bellevue’s state-of-the-art amenities, including innovations such as electricity (even in the closets!), running water, en-suite bathrooms, the city’s first roof garden, a café, and Boston’s first elevator for people, or “passenger lift.” A 24-hour telephone system linked guests with long-distance destinations. As an elite hotel, the Bellevue provided its residents with “European floor plans, unexcelled cuisine, and excellent music.”
In addition, they promoted the hotel’s location at the top of Beacon Hill as, “the highest elevation in the city.” This appealed to health-conscious visitors who wanted to avoid the city’s “bad air” at a time when air pollution included horse waste and the “miasma theory” of disease transmission was still popular. Rates started at $1.50 per night.
The Hotels’ Famous Guests
Like many hotels of the period, the two Hotels Bellevue housed some of Boston ‘s political and literary royalty.
- Author Louisa May Alcott stayed at the original hotel while completing her novel, “Little Women.” For nearly 16 years (1868-1884), she used the Bellevue Hotel as a “secret getaway.” It gave her a retreat from domesticity where she could write in peace and quiet.
- After WWII, John F. Kennedy lived in the Hotel Bellevue while planning his first congressional campaign. Kennedy initially lived at the Bellevue, where his grandfather John F. Fitzgerald, former Boston Mayor and U.S. Congressmen, was spending his retirement years. (JFK had a two-bedroom apartment and Honey Fitz lived down the hall.) Then-Senator Kennedy later moved next door to an apartment at 122 Bowdoin Street.
- In the 1950s, a detective show named after this prestigious address appeared on TV. It was sponsored by Kent cigarettes.
- Other guests included aviator Charles Lindbergh and inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
The French Influence
The 19th-century firm of Peabody and Stearns designed the Hotel Bellevue, while Putnam and Cox created a later addition on Bowdoin Street. Peabody and Stearns constructed the building from brick and limestone in a combination of Beaux Arts and Classical Revival styles.
The elaborate carvings around the door—which rise three stories—and the window surrounds reflect the French influence of the École de Beaux Arts in Paris on Robert Swain Peabody, who studied there.
We also see French influence in the use of scrolls, shells, and acanthus leaves in the borders and the “mascarons,” or carved stone faces, on the window cornices.(My husband and I saw a lot of these mascarons in Bordeaux, which has over 3,000 of them. They result from decades of prosperous merchants keeping up with les Jones.)
Once past the building’s dark stone exterior, guests enter a central lobby that is a large open space with marble floors, brightly lit by dramatic skylights. As the Bellevue Apartments is a private residence, curious guests can proceed no further without an invitation. You can see pictures of the rooms online, however.
The Top of Beacon Street
The stretch of Beacon Street between Tremont and Park streets is narrow and frequently in shadow, making It easy to walk on past the Hotel Bellevue without craning your neck. But take a few moments to check out the mascarons and the ornate stonework, particularly around the main door the next time you’re on Beacon Hill.
While you’re at it, here are a few more buildings in the neighborhood worth visiting.