Throwback Thursday: When Beacon Hill’s Sidewalks Were Almost Paved

‘Let them have bricks.’

beacon hill bricks

Photo via Lively Days: Some Memoirs by Margaret Homer Shurcliff

One particularly stressful morning in 1947 on Beacon Hill’s West Cedar St., Mrs. Walter Dewey hurriedly got dressed, flew down the front steps of her home, and plopped herself on the brick sidewalk.

She laid down, covering as much of the sidewalk as she could with her outstretched body. From her window, Dewey had seen a worker throw some of the sidewalk’s bricks in a truck, and she wasn’t about to let him take any more.

Was a Beacon Hill sidewalk without bricks a Beacon Hill sidewalk at all?

Not according to Dewey and the many others who vehemently opposed a new decision by Mayor James Curley to pave the neighborhood’s sidewalks with cement. So, a battle ensued—a battle of the bricks.

The April 1947 “battle of the bricks” was a battle well fought—and won—by the ladies of Beacon Hill. It was chronicled in part by Margaret Homer Shurcliff, the youngest daughter of Dr. Arthur and Elizabeth Nichols. The Nichols family lived at 55 Mount Vernon St., now the site of the Nichols House Museum.

In her memoirs, Lively Days, Shurcliff vividly details Dewey’s predicament, other instances of ardent brick protest, and the following delegation of petitioners at City Hall. Shurcliff describes the beginnings of the brick battle:

The residents for several days had passively watched a noisy bulldozer dig up their narrow street, leaving exposed only deep, slimy mud out of which stuck, like periscopes, iron pipes terminated with square caps.

But when huge trucks arrived and batches of lively workers began to attack the sidewalks, tossing the precious bricks into the trucks, housewives, children, and grandmothers appeared with chairs and rugs and sat down to guard their time-honored bricks from vandalism.

After successfully protecting their grass-free front yards, the ladies boarded a bus for City Hall, ready to fight. The New York Times had ridiculed the wealthy, female protesters, according to Historic New England. But the women had their strongly-worded letters read out loud, and even received backup from the Boston Society of Architects.

“Then spoke the Street Commissioner,” writes Shurcliff. “[He said] the bricks were old and crumbly (cries of ‘NO’).”

Shurcliff says the Commissioner reasoned there were no more bricklayers to lay new bricks. Then, a resident named Mrs. Patterson offered to lay her own bricks. Mayor Curley argued the brick sidewalks caused accidents and costly damage suits. Another protester proved no accidents had occurred on Beacon Hill. There was quite a bit of back and forth.

But once this impassioned debate between petitioners and Mayor Curley came to an end, Shurcliff writes that the mayor ultimately concedes.

“Let them have bricks,” reads his quote. “You can’t sweep back the ocean with a broom.”

Thanks, ladies.