Otis House

The Beacon Hill Proprietors

Mrs. James Swan (Hepzibah Clarke) by Gilbert Stuart, 1808. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


By the late eighteenth century, the northern slope of “Copley’s Hill” had become a small, isolated, rough-and-tumble community called West Boston. During the British occupation it was frequented by so many soldiers that it became known as “Mount Whoredom.” Beginning in 1799 the western summit of Beacon Hill had been shorn and laid out in house lots — the work of a real estate syndicate called the Mount Vernon Proprietors, originally made up of five prominent Bostonians: Harrison Gray Otis, Charles Bulfinch, Jonathan Mason, William Scollay, and Joseph Woodward. It later included others such as Hepzibah Swan, a woman of wealth who was developing prime properties on Chestnut Street. Ms. Swan’s participation was deemed “unofficial,” as women’s participation in such business endeavors were considered inappropriate at the time.


The Second Harrison Gray Otis Residence, c. 1800


Perhaps one of the best known chapters of the association, which survived for almost thirty years, was the purchase of land owned by artist John Singleton Copley, who claimed that the Proprietors tricked him into selling his land at too low of a price. Copley initiated legal proceedings and tried to withdraw from the agreement, but the contract was ultimately declared binding and the Proprietors prevailed.