Tag Archives: Hammatt Billings

Fragments of the Plymouth Rock Canopy

1867 canopy over Plymouth Rock by Hammatt Billings, demolished 1920

Some years ago, I recall looking at some mystifying stone arches off to the side of the road at the entrance to a small industrial park in Plymouth. These fragments, nicely arranged like an over-sized rock garden, had a timeworn and monumental look to them, as though they really didn’t belong there at all. It’s a long, strange journey these pieces of granite have had.

Before the Civil War, Plymouth Rock was in two places at once. (Actually, to be precise, fairly significant chunks of it were scattered about in many museums, churches and private collections). But the two largest pieces, objects of great reverence, had long since split apart.

The rock broke in two when an attempt was made to move it in 1774. The upper portion was dragged to Town Square and eventually to Pilgrim Hall Museum. It sat out front of the building during the antebellum decades encircled by an elegant wrought iron fence. Back at the waterfront, the larger, lower portion had been all but buried by the construction of a wharf. It sat embedded in the dirt, almost invisible. Employees of nearby establishments used to sweep off the base when asked by tourists where it was.

In 1859, the Pilgrim Society purchased the bit of the wharf in which the base of Plymouth Rock lay. They decided that the spot, the supposed Landing Place of the Pilgrims, should be enclosed by a suitably majestic canopy. Artist and architect Hammatt Billings designed the canopy in the Tuscan style. The cornerstone was laid in 1859. Construction was delayed by the Civil War, but the monument was eventually finished in 1867.

The vault above the rock held bones accidentally disinterred every now and then from Coles Hill (overlooking the site of Plymouth Rock). It is generally agreed that Coles Hill was the first burying place of the Pilgrims and that the numerous settlers who died during the first tragic winter were buried in unmarked graves there.

Eventually, in 1880, the upper piece of the rock was carted from Pilgrim Hall and reunited with the base beneath the Billings canopy (today, just the upper portion is visible…the lower part is supposedly buried in the sand beneath). Visitors could walk through the open gates and have a seat on the famous rock if they wished. In 1920, in preparation for the tricentennial, it was decided that a larger canopy should be built. I have no particular issues with the classical revival canopy built at that time by Mead, McKim & White. But I think the old Victorian canopy was infinitely more handsome. I wish it were still there.

One of the four scallop shells taken from the Billings canopy and placed in front of the Forefathers Monument

Now here’s an odd thing. Apparently, when the Billings canopy was demolished, the fragments were simply dumped in the harbor. The four scallop shells that crowned the canopy were moved to the Monument to the Forefathers, about which I wrote in an earlier post. I should mention that scallop shells, since medieval times, have been the symbol of pilgrims. Those on their way to the Holy Land would wear a scallop shell around their neck. And, although the English settlers never really referred to themselves as pilgrims, William Bradford used the term once in his diary. In the 19th century, the term stuck and the scallop shell is now often used as a symbol for the Pilgrims of Plymouth.

So, the stone shells from the Billings canopy were placed at the beginning of the walkways leading to the Forefathers Monument. But otherwise, all that beautiful architecture was simply dumped.

Fast forward to 1968 when a long breakwater, or jetty, was being constructed in Plymouth harbor. During the construction, some of the pieces of the old Billings canopy, which had, by that time, been under water for about 48 years, were dredged up. The construction company saved them. And, eventually, some of the pieces found their way to this little industrial park in Plymouth. Some architectural fragments with some serious historical significance.

Having already begun this entry, this afternoon I went to the industrial park to get a photo. This would, of course, make the story more meaningful if one could see the fragments. To my surprise, they are gone.  I don’t know when that happened or where they went, but I think it’s a pity. I imagine they are in storage somewhere.

And so, the only small fragments of which I could get a photo are the scallop shells at the Forefathers Monument. I do hope the arches of the Billings canopy make a re-appearance at some point.

[Sources: William T. Davis, History of the Town of Plymouth, (1885), p. 174.]