Field Trip :: Copp's Hill

Copp's Hill Burying Ground - Photos by Ian Hester

By Ian Hester, BArch Candidate

One of the challenges of urban design is knowing how much to build, and when to leave open space. Parks and other forms of landscapes undoubtedly add value to surrounding neighborhoods and the architecture within them by diversifying the built environment and providing places for contemplation and relaxation.

Pathway through the Burying Ground

The North End of Boston, with its narrow and tightly winding European-style streets, has several open spaces sprinkled throughout it, most notably on Copp's Hill, where the Burying Ground and the adjacent Copp's Hill Terrace combine to provide visitors and local residents with two different calm and peaceful retreats from the bustling city.
Copp's Hill Terrace

If the hill is approached from the city side, one first reaches Copp's Hill Burying Ground, an historic cemetery founded in 1659 that is part of the Freedom Trail. The sloping hill with numerous trees and rolling lines of small tombstones makes a beautiful landscape.  It is simultaneously secluded from the city by the shift in environment and is connected to the city by its various views to iconic moments such as the Old North Church, Bunker Hill Monument, Zakim Bridge and the TD Garden, the latter two of which feel like anachronisms from inside the Burying Ground.
Relaxing at Copp's Hill Burying Ground, with the Zakim Bridge in the distance

Approaching the hill from Commercial Street along the water provides a much different visitor experience. From this direction one begins at the very bottom of the hill and faces a staircase up to Copp's Hill Terrace, a park designed in the 1890s by Charles Eliot of Olmsted, Eliot, and Olmsted. Although the two open spaces are indubitably congruous, they offer quite different atmospheres and feelings. While the cemetery encourages movement and views within the space, Copp's Hill Terrace is designed in a way that suggests one sits and looks out from the site towards the water of the Mystic River. The wrought iron benches among stone walls and iron balustrades give off a feeling of strength while remaining complementary to the cemetery.
Lower entrance to Copp's Hill Terrace

Copp's Hill is a fascinating place to visit, especially with a sketchbook. The views and sight lines created by the trees, tombstones, and walls and railings are quite interesting to study in terms of landscapes, and the interaction that visitors and local residents have with the spaces is quite intriguing regarding urban design and the psychological aspects of the relationship between architecture and open space.

The next time you are in the North End, take a little bit of time to check out Copp's Hill. This is a nice place to walk or bike to, but you can also take the T to North Station and walk down Causeway until it turns into Commercial Street, or you can drive and park along the streets in the area such as Hull Street. Be sure to remember your sketchbook!