The house at 55 Beacon Street was built on land that once belonged to the renowned portrait painter John Singleton Copley. The building—including the attached 54 Beacon Street—was designed in the Federal style by Asher Benjamin and completed in 1808. Initially built for a wealthy Boston merchant, the house was purchased by William Hickling Prescott in 1845, and he lived there until his death.
Prescott was born in Salem, grandson of the Revolutionary War hero William Prescott. He began his education at an early age and attended Harvard in 1811 (though he would accumulate nearly a half-dozen additional honorary degrees in his lifetime, including from Oxford and Columbia University). The year he was set to graduate, a hard crust of bread thrown in a dining room food fight did irreparable damage to his left eye. Not long after, an infection in his right eye rendered him virtually blind.
Returning to the US from a European tour, Prescott determined that he could not see well enough to pursue a career in law; instead, he spent several years listening to books read aloud by his friends, family, and new wife, Susan Amory, the daughter of Thomas Coffin Amory. These readings sparked an interest in history, which began with broad research but was narrowed into the study of Spanish history by Prescott’s friend and famed Hispanist George Ticknor, who read aloud his lectures for Prescott. Because of his blindness, Prescott employed a personal assistant and a noctograph, a device with wire guides invented to help the blind write. He would compose several seminal volumes of Spanish and South American history in this fashion, including The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru. For these works, he is considered the first American scientific historian.
Prescott built an addition to the house for his considerable library, which contained over 5,000 volumes, many of which were mailed to him. Today, the building is a National Historic Landmark, a museum, and the headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, which purchased the building in the 1940s.