Boston Is Neglecting Its Historic Attractions

Tourists spend millions visiting our centuries-old sites, helping to create thousands of jobs. Preserving our heritage, in other words, makes not just cultural but economic sense. So why aren't we doing it better?

preserving boston historical sites

Illustration by C.J. Burton

I’m in Paul Revere’s upstairs chamber, contemplating his bed. He left it one morning in April 1775, and that night took his famous ride. On this tour of the Paul Revere House, in the North End, I also learn that he was married twice, and had eight children with each wife. It’s an intimate space to be in, so I’m surprised to see a small table at the foot of the bed, set for company. The guide, standing quietly by the wall, explains that it was common during Revere’s time to entertain guests in your bedroom.

We make a quick run through the house, 15 minutes tops, over the same 332-year-old floors that Revere and his family used to walk on. Then we head outside to the courtyard, to look at a 900-pound bell he cast. It’s late August, the end of the tourist season, and as I leave, the woman at the ticket booth tells me that the number of visitors has begun to slow. Today she’s counted only 50 people per hour. Only? During the height of summer, she says, they see 200 an hour. Perhaps it’s Revere’s fame, or the proximity to the fine cannoli, or the fact that admission costs just $3.50 (about the same as a ricotta-filled plain shell), but this is one of the most-visited sites on the Freedom Trail. Each year, some 250,000 people buy tickets, which helps to pay for staff salaries, utilities, and other operating costs, all of which total just under $1 million a year.

The Revere House covers its day-to-day expenses just fine. But we’re talking about downtown Boston’s oldest building here. According to the Paul Revere Memorial Association, the structure will need $500,000 in preservation work over the next few years, and the association also hopes to raise $4 million to buy the building next door to create a visitor’s center. Who’s going to pay for all of that?

It’s not clear. Unlike federally owned treasures such as the Bunker Hill Monument, the U.S.S. Constitution, and the Dorchester Heights Monument, the Revere House isn’t guaranteed any city, state, or federal funding. The same holds true for many of the other Freedom Trail sites, among them the Old State House and Old South Meeting House. These landmarks survive through a combination of earned income (admissions, membership fees); contributed income (donations from individuals, grants, and foundations); and endowment income. But add that all up, and it’s not enough to pay the bills, especially since the 2008 economic downturn, which decimated endowments. “There are limits to the amount of money that’s available,” says Nina Zannieri, the executive director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association.

In other eras, the state might have been willing to chip in. But given the current state of the economy, with children needing food and their parents needing work, convincing legislators to increase, or even maintain, funding for historical attractions and cultural institutions is—according to Anita Walker, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council—“not pretty.”

This is horribly shortsighted. History is an integral part of Boston’s identity. Look on the cover of any travel guide to the city, and you’ll find an image of Old State, Old South, Faneuil Hall, or some other monument from our past. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Center for Urban Policy Research, at Rutgers University, “heritage travelers” spend an estimated $2.5 billion annually in Massachusetts—much of it, naturally, in Boston. All told, historical preservation and heritage tourism support something like 86,000 jobs in the state.

Without much government money available to them, our historical sites have to depend on the largesse of corporate and private donors. Surely the wealthy elite in this most civilized of cities can be counted on for support, right? Actually, yes. They’re shelling out money hand over fist—to the Museum of Fine Arts, at least. In the summer of 2010, the museum took in more than $33 million in gifts, including a $10 million corporate gift from Bank of America. That year it also completed an expansion and opened a new Art of the Americas Wing, supported by $504 million in fundraising. Today the MFA is one of the largest privately funded institutions in the country.

Just think about what a small fraction of that money could have done for our many other historical attractions. The problem is, nobody these days is interested in supporting the routine upkeep of sites that have been around for centuries. You get no public accolades for giving money to repair a heating system, repaint walls, or shore up a foundation. That stuff may be necessary, but it’s boring. Somebody else can do it.

What’s happening today, says Kirsten Alexander, a marketing consultant who has worked with local historical institutions such as the Boston Athenaeum and Historic New England, is that everybody’s on the lookout for “sexier ways of giving.” Everybody wants a very visible return on investment. As Alexander puts it, donors want to be able to say, “I paid for the new roof that got blown off in that hurricane.”

Even the city and the state are starting to think this way. Consider the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, dramatically (sexily) destroyed 11 years ago by a fire. The museum reopened this past June after a $28 million complete makeover. That’s real money—$18 million of which came as a loan from the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (an independent public authority of the state), and $3 million of which came as a grant from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.