Boston at the turn of the 19th century, halfway between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, was not a city overburdened with civic modesty. Often referred to by residents with such phrases as ''the Christian Sparta'' and the ''Athens of America,'' its citizens were characterized by family pride, some wealth, and much public spirit.
The feeling of the time was elegantly expressed in bricks and mortar by local architect Charles Bulfinch, in a style named Federal after the fledgling republic. Bulfinch was a wealthy man who had traveled in Europe but had no formal training as an architect. This was not a disadvantage at the time as there were no architects in Boston - nor even any books on the subject. Bulfinch based his style on the Georgian and found his tastes and talents in demand. The result was the development of a district of unusual charm and grace, Beacon Hill.
Nearly two centuries later Beacon Hill is a grid of picturesque and charming streets that run down the Hill from Bulfinch's most visible monument, which crowns it - the State House. A number of other Bulfinch works - houses all - are still to be found there.
One of several groups whose members today show off Beacon Hill to visitors is Boston by Foot, a nonprofit all-volunteer organization founded seven years ago. Tours are available on weekends and some weekdays, May through October, and two guides accompany each group. There is no need to make reservations in advance, though tickets may be purchased from Bostix, the ticket booth at Quincy Market.
My docent, Candy Ahearn, and I began our tour under the statue of Robert Gould Shaw, on the corner of Boston Common opposite the State House. Robert Gould Shaw was a Beacon Hill resident who led the first regiment of Free Blacks to enlist during the Civil War; he died with many of his men in the Battle for Fort Wagner in Charleston. His Saint-Gaudens monument, in bronze, is ''famous around the world for its feeling of motion,'' said Ms. Ahearn.
As we admired the gold dome of the State House, gleaming on a rare sunny spring day, Ms. Ahearn discussed the founding of Boston in 1630, when Boston was ''huddled very close to the waterfront. Colonists didn't travel much beyond the Old State House area, which they called the North End. It wasn't until the end of the 17th century that they even considered moving farther in.''
However, from the very beginning there was one settler on Beacon Hill, the Rev. William Blackstone (or Blaxton), a Cambridge University scholar who lived by a spring of clear water with a large library of books, said Ms. Ahearn. Blackstone inspired Van Wyck Brooks in his book ''The Flowering of New England''(1815-1865) to observe that ''There have been books on the slope of Beacon Hill when the wolves still howled on the summit.''
When the State House (completed 1798) was built, said Ms. Ahearn, it was the only building in this area. Cows, of course, grazed on the roughly 50-acre Common, which is still the same size though the cows are long gone. The State House, she pointed out, is a beautiful example of Federal architecture, with its arched windows, use of wrought iron (brought over as ballast on ships), columns and pilasters, and emphasis on the second floor, where all the most important rooms are.
After admiring the pine cone on the gold dome, dating from the time that Maine, whose symbol it is, was part of Massachusetts, we cut through the State House to view an obelisk placed in a parking lot in memory of the original ship's mast-and-bucket-of-tar that gave Beacon Hill its name.
Shortly after the State House was built, Ms. Ahearn continued as we strolled down Mount Vernon St., it became plain to a group of six prominent Bostonians, who called themselves the Mount Vernon Proprietors, that the land around it would be profitable for speculation. ''They thought that people like themselves would like freestanding houses in a rural setting,'' she said.
She pointed down to the foot of Hancock Street to the first Harrison Gray Otis House, now the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which is open to the public. Otis, mayor of Boston (1829-31), was the first politician to invite his supporters to inaugural balls, said Ms. Ahearn. He owned three Bulfinch-designed houses in the Beacon Hill area in rapid succession. ''He moved around to wherever the best neighborhood was.''
The great world events of the day exerted a distinct influence on the architecture of Beacon Hill. The six Mount Vernon Proprietors had intended to build freestanding houses, but the Jefferson Embargo of 1807, a result of the Napoleonic War and a cause of the War of 1812, ruined trade for people in Boston. Speculators moved in and filled in the spaces in between the free-standing houses. ''They ended up with rowhouses, then they started building rowhouses,'' said Ms. Ahearn.
We passed by No. 56 Mount Vernon, restricted to one story because Mrs. Hepzibah Swan, another Mount Vernon Proprietor, didn't want to affect her neighbor's view - ''They were all very fond of each other.''
As we stood in front of No. 85, the last freestanding house on the hill and the second home of the restless Harrison Gray Otis, a cheerful bearded man passed by and said, ''That's the house they used in (the Steve McQueen movie) 'The Thomas Crown Affair.' ''
Actually, Beacon Hill combines history, mystery (all those hidden gardens), snobbery (still), and literary associations with a consistent charm that nonetheless spans three distinct architectural styles. Look for the arched entranceway with fanlights for the Federal style (1800 to 20), said Ms. Ahearn. The post-and-lintel doorway (characterized by vertical supports and horizontal beams, as opposed to arches) indicates Greek Revival (1830s to midcentury), while Victorian architecture, in general, is heavier and eclectic. Many older buildings here boast bowfronts and ateliers (1850s through 90s), which are Victorian additions. This was always a fashionable area, and its residents always had the latest of everything, she said.
We took a quick stroll around Louisburg Square, (planned around 1820 and an excellent example of Greek Revival) taking an especially hard look at No. 10, where Louisa May Alcott lived for the last three years of her life. The buildings here were built by speculators and not all at once, and yet they have subtle consistency of style.
''Chestnut Street has the reputation of being the most beautiful,'' said Ms. Ahearn, as we wound our way toward it. Julia Ward Howe lived at No. 13 when she wrote ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' (though she did not write it here). Her house, with 15 and 17, were designed, exquisitely, by Bulfinch. They belonged to the thoughtful Mrs. Swan mentioned earlier, and her daughters.
Mr. Swan was not a Mount Vernon Proprietor; being a privateer, he was seldom at home. At one point in his career, Mr. Swan offered to give wealthy Parisians, in danger during the French Revolution, passage to the US; his clients were sometimes captured before they could make it to the boat, and their goods arrived without them. The Swan collection of 18th century French furniture and metalwork can be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts to this day.
Last, we headed back to Beacon Street to admire Harrison Gray Otis's third house, 45 Beacon, now the home of the American Meteorological Society. As we sat in the sunshine, watching skateboarders and strollers, Ms. Ahearn read a passage from ''Beacon Hill: A Walking Tour,'' by A. McVoy McIntyre (Little, Brown, Boston, $4.95): ''One must agree with Henry James that . . . Beacon Street is grand; Chestnut beautiful; Pinckney characterful; West Cedar intimate; but Mount Vernon expresses that 'long view' which a Bostonian likes to take as well as see. . . .'' Practical details
Boston by Foot's Beacon Hill tour is held Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 10 a.m., Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:30, and Sundays at 2 p.m. Meet at the foot of the State House steps. Tours are $4 for adults, $2 for children. If you can't make the tour, buy a copy of Mr. McIntyre's book; he is one of the teachers of the docents, and his book is full of historical perceptions and amusing anecdotes. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe (''Boston born though not bred, '' observes Mr. McIntyre) referred to his native city as Frogpondium, after a local landmark and, presumably, the nature of the social life there.
Boston by Foot also has tours of Copley Square and the North End, and special tours for children. For more information, call (617) 367-2345.
The Historic Neighborhoods Foundation also has tours of the North End and Beacon Hill, but its great extravaganza this year is a ''Duckling's Day,'' held May 15 in honor of ''Make Way for Ducklings,'' by Robert McCloskey. There will be a parade, and the author will be on hand. Boston Common, between 1 and 5. The foundation also offers a regular Make Way for Ducklings Tour for children aged 5 and up (May 7 to June 25, Saturdays at 11; July 8 to Aug. 27, also Fridays at 11 ). Meet at the information kiosk at the Common. Tours are $4 for adults, children, $3.50. Says spokesman Nina Meyer, ''We get three- and four-year-olds who know every word of the book.''(Call (617) 426-1898 to verify tours, which are not guaranteed, and send a check and a stamped self addressed envelope in advance to 92 South Street, Boston 02111).
Of course, the energetic first time visitor to Boston should consider exploring at least a part of the walk-it-yourself Freedom Trail, which takes in 16 historic sights, including the site of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere's house (the oldest house in Boston (1676) and one of the few wooden ones remaining), and the USS Constitution. Maps are available for $1 at the information kiosk on the Common.
If you are interested in antiques, wander up Charles Street, which has more antiques shops than any other street in Boston. Pause to admire the Charles Street Meeting House, built by Baptists when the Charles ran along Charles Street; they used the river for immersions. Longfellow referred to its clock in his poem, ''The Bridge'': ''I stood on the bridge at midnight/ as the clock was striking the hour.''
If you do not care for antiques, I suggest deserting Beacon Hill for adjacent Back Bay and crossing the Public Garden for scones and tea sandwiches (between 3 and 5:30) on the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Arlington Street. If this doesn't appeal, try strolling up Newbury Street with its abundance of boutiques and art galleries.
The first Harrison Gray Otis House (141 Cambridge Street) has guided tours at 10, 11, 1, 2, and 3. Admission, $2 for adults, children, 50 cents.
The Bulfinch-designed Nichols House Museum at 55 Mount Vernon Street, is open to the public Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 1 to 5; admission is $1.
Wear comfortable shoes for all of the above tours, which abound in brick sidewalks and cobblestones and involve a great deal of walking! Cabs are most often found on Park Street (by the kiosk - the subway is also nearby) and on Boylston Street.