Arriving on Boston's Beacon Hill, with its brick and cobblestone streets, working gaslights, and rows of 19th-century townhouses, is like landing in a hand-tinted postcard. This cozy enclave has long been known for its elegant Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian architecture and famous ex-residents like Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. It is also known for its profusion of shops selling extraordinary antiques and, in the past few years, more contemporary decorative arts. Not just the city's elite and wandering tourists but discerning collectors and designers are drawn to these shops, all within walking distance of one another and a handful of tony cafés and restaurants. Without digging out your passport, you can have as much fun on Beacon Hill as you would walking the Left Bank.
Charles Street is the area's traditional antiques row. In the vast, loftlike space at Devonia Antiques, a wealth of mostly English china and Continental crystal is laid out on great dining tables that seem to go on forever. "Everything you see," explains owner Lori Hedtler, "was made a hundred years ago for the American market—which still wants it." Among the riches we spied a completely gilded Minton Turtle bowl ($595), made in the days when Boston Brahmins had white-gloved servants ladling out their turtle soup. Goblets from 1880 to 1920 ($150- $850) included handblown Venetian glass as well as pieces from Baccarat, Hawkes, and Dorflinger. For serious collectors, there was a 60-piece pâte-sur-pâte Minton service custom-made for Tiffany around 1910 and signed by the artist, Albion Birks ($75,000). Hedtler's eye for the best in table art has earned her a following beyond Boston; her pieces can also be found at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. At 43 Charles St., 2nd floor; 617-523-8313; www.devonia-antiques.com.
Down the street, Polly Latham Asian Art's window beckons with a sampling of 17th- to 19th-century Chinese and Japanese export porcelains. Inside the old-Boston-genteel shop, wooden cases display rare finds like a ca. 1805 Orange Fitzhugh pattern plate with an American- eagle decoration ($10,500), a Raspberry Fitzhugh plate ($5,500), and a pair of ca. 1700 Japanese Arita barber's bowls ($4,900). Those in the know will covet the wonderful Chinese export Qing and Kang Xi porcelains, including famille rose, Imari, and armorials. For everyone else there are perfect gifts, like an agate snuff bottle ($450) or a Peking-glass belt buckle ($250). At 96 Charles St.; 617-723-7009; www.pollylatham.com.
Eugene Galleries, Inc. has been on Charles Street for 48 years. A small shop that looks like Henry Higgins' library, it specializes in 19th-century copper- and steel-plate engravings (1870s hand-colored steel engravings of American city views: $65-$140), botanical prints, and old maps (one of Mantua from the 17th century with cartouches and original color: $450 framed). In the "treasure box" on the counter, presided over for 23 years by owner Barbara Fischer, you'll find prints and postcards for $1 apiece—as with all treasure chests, you never know what you may find inside. At 76 Charles St.; 617-227-3062.
Long the trade secret of architects and decorators, hardware purveyor extraordinaire E. R. Butler & Co. opened its first retail store last December on Charles Street. The shop is an inspired concept, mixing the elegant contemporary porcelain of Ted Muehling and jewelry of Gabriella Kiss with artful antique, reproduction, and new hardware displayed like jewels for the home. A standout: reproductions of Enoch Robinson's classic 19th-century mercury-glass doorknobs. Showcased in drawer after drawer, each hinge, pull, and lock perfectly illustrates how God is in the details. At 38 Charles St.; 617-722-0230; www.erbutler.com.
Once a homogeneous antiques row, Charles Street is being infiltrated by bold new shops offering wares with a more contemporary look. When good opened last year in what had been an antiques-stuffed space, owner Paul Niski says locals would walk into the bright, fresh gallery and ask, "When is the rest of your merchandise coming in?" The changing exhibits of antique, vintage, and one-off art works old and new show an editor's fine eye. When we visited, Botanica was the theme, elaborated through works like pressed botanicals from Swedish herbariums, photographic nature sketches by Don Freeman, and photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt. Planned for fall: Exotica, featuring contemporary Indian miniatures and travel photography from the turn of the 19th century. Always on display: vintage and new ceramics and glassware, including works by Russel Wright ($15-$95) and Eva Zeisal (vintage and reproductions, $18-$250); and pottery like '20s and '30s Mobach pieces ($275-$450). $ At 88 Charles St.; 617-722-9200.
A pioneer of River Street, now a prime retail address, Madeleine Gens moved to her storefront 12 years ago, when "everyone treated this like an alley." Today she not only holds the fort at Charles River Antiques but also designs gardens and decorates "second homes," she says, for clients. ("It's about being relaxed, not being perfect, stuffy and staid.") In this charming, chock-filled space, which has been discovered by the likes of Mario Buatta, we found an exquisite set of French glazed-earthenware dishes in butter yellow ($600), buckets brimming with replated European hotel silver ($45-$350), French fish traps and birdcages transformed into hanging lanterns ($475-$675), and pillows in antique toiles backed by vintage French linen sheets ($300-$450 per pair). Gens freshens antique furniture with upholstery of crisp Belgium linen or prewashed muslin, and delights in "conjuring up furniture out of old pieces" like the salvaged balusters that become legs for coffee tables. At 45 River St.; 617-367-3244.
Michael Carter of Carter & Co. also divides his time between his shop (across from Gens') and decorating projects like the Victorian rooms of the Charles Street Inn. In the year they've been open, he and design associate James Mahoney have created an airy showcase for Continental Neoclassical furniture that's a prime haunt of collectors. In the pint-sized space we found a cabinet full of Creil creamware ($45-$1,200), a 19th-century Neoclassical French daybed ($3,800), and a curvaceous painted Swedish tall-case clock ($3,400). "I like pieces that have a sculptural quality to them," Carter says. $ At 44 River St.; 617-227-5343.
At Helen Higgins' 37 River Street, late-17th- to early-19th-century European furniture, porcelains, textiles, and needlework are displayed in vignettes that evoke their past lives in great houses. Among the treasures coaxed from the drawers of a French fruitwood commode were a piece of 18th-century Chinese export silk painted with delicate roses ($750); and a swath of 17th-century French upholstery trim combining silk, blue satin with metallic-thread embroidery, and a jasmine fringe ($2,400). Beside an 18th-century Italian armoire with painted decoration ($48,000) rested a pair of 18th-century giltwood wings ($6,500) that must have launched a beefy angel. At 37 River St.; 617-723-5654.
The eponymous owner of the Chestnut Street shop Stephen Score Antiques is revered by his peers as well as clients who come from across the country for his American country furniture and folk art, primitive portraiture, and things like weathervanes and whirligigs—"anything that looks like a child might have done it," he says. Alongside a magnificent blue-and-white spatterware coffeepot with an eagle transfer ($1,800), a rare 19th-century elephant weathervane ($62,000), and a larger-than-life limestone dog sweet enough to pet ($45,000),we saw a humble-looking table that Score told us was "probably one of the best tavern tables in America," priced at $85,000. "You've got to see it for what it is: an extraordinary sculptural object," he said, adding, "This is the crossover for a lot of people, to see abstraction as anticipating contemporary art." $ At 73 Chestnut St.; 617-227-9192.
By the time Victoria Munroe Fine Art opened on Beacon Street last year in what was once Oliver Wendell Holmes' townhouse, the inaugural exhibition of 18th-century hand-painted drawings from India had nearly sold out. When we visited, curators and collectors were making pilgrimages to this serene space for French Garden Designs 1730-1915, delicately rendered landscape architects' drawings ($800-$8,000). Scheduled for September is Principal Ports of the Mediterranean, a collection of 18th-century French anchorage charts in watercolor and ink. Before moving to Boston, Munroe ran a Manhattan art gallery; thanks to life's quirks, she'll be transporting her family and her shop back to New York at the end of September. So if you're in Boston, hurry in; in New York, stay tuned. $ At 59 Beacon St.; 617-523-0661; www.victoriamunroefineart.com.
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