In 1904, when Henry James returned to the United States -- after two decades abroad -- to revisit the scenes of his past, he encountered buildings everywhere with whom he fell into talk. (Only in fairy tales, said W.H. Auden of "The American Scene," the book in which James recorded these impressions, does one find so many odd conversations of this kind.) More often than not, these meetings with the newer buildings of the day contributed to stirring up the rich regrets with which his account is laced, for everywhere he went James found the disease of change disfiguring the land and cityscape.

In the course of his brief stay in Boston, the house in which he had lived at 13 Ashburton Place on the top of Beacon Hill, for example, was demolished to make way for the yellow brick expansion of the Massachusetts State House, an act that he called the "brutal effacement . . . of the whole precious past."

Were an observer walking around downtown Boston today to strike up a conversation with the older buildings -- and were they in a confiding mood -- he too would have matters for regret. Change in Boston is once again in the ascendancy. The high-rise and the arrogant marble of new hotels are everywhere displacing the old, threatening the connection between past and present. Walkers of the Freedom Trail -- the most famous of Boston walks, which takes one through the city's Revolutionary War landmarks -- will discover this for themselves.

Richardson's 1877 Trinity Church at Copley Square, a monument of 19th-century American Romanesque architecture, might well confess to feeling pain at the prospects before it. Trinity's rough stone fac,ade has learned to live cheek by jowl with the John Hancock tower, a playful high-rise of some 60 stories that practices illusionist tricks on passers-by and whose glass offers Trinity impressionistic reflections of itself. Now it appears that Trinity must also accommodate itself to the New England Life Insurance Co.'s plan to build a double-towered monster on its doorstep.

But not all conversations would be dismaying. The old Quincy Market, built in 1825-26 and set opposite Faneuil Hall in Dock Square, would surely express pleasure in its recent role as a consumer shrine after so many years of decay and neglect as a general produce market. The 1889-91 Exchange Building at the corner of Congress and State streets, whose granite fac,ade has been happily joined to a soaring tower of darkened mirrors, also might express satisfaction with the new state of things.

For James, the losses attendant upon change were not merely visual and esthetic; above all, they were moral and psychological. Of the demolition of his quarters at Ashburton Place, he wrote that it was as if "the bottom had fallen out of one's biography." James had lived in Boston as a young man, and what was lost or at least diminished was a sense of place.

Bostonians possess a keen sense of place. They identify themselves with the city. Because cityscape and biography here are bound up together so precisely, Bostonians often are more alert than others to the necessity of preserving the inherited city from the erosions of progress. It remains to be seen, however, whether that sense of place retains enough vitality to withstand the current frenzy of development.

In the centennial year of 1876, orator Wendell Phillips asked a group of preservationists the perennial question: "What does Boston mean?" He was speaking to a restive audience gathered at the Old South Meeting House; they were considering how they might save the church from the savage hands of commercial development. An abolitionist before the Civil War and an orator of power whose specialty was the ad hominem attack, Phillips answered his rhetorical query by presenting a political definition of Boston. The city, he said, had always meant a "jealousy of power" -- a wariness of governmental authority -- and a willingness to support good causes.

Phillips' definition is exemplified by the stops along Boston's famed Freedom Trail, most of whose landmarks memorialize the city's role in overthrowing British rule in North America. A red trace in the sidewalk that extends for more than a mile, the Freedom Trail will take the intrepid walker from Beacon Hill, through the North End's narrow streets -- pungent with the odors of South Italian cooking and made narrower by the convivial practice of double parking -- across the Charles River to the top of Bunker Hill. The definition proclaims that Boston is where the Revolution began, where its principles have been nurtured and best maintained.

Such is our habit of looking upon the colonial past as a pageant of wigs and knee breeches that walkers following the red trace may not realize their steps are being directed toward sites of power struggles. But many of the manifestations of power on the Freedom Trail speak clearly enough: The Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the warship Constitution ("Old Ironsides") signify power in elemental and unmistakable terms.

Other and less immediately recognizable forms of power also are represented on the Freedom Trail. Most notably, there is the power of oratory. The art of employing the spoken word so as to move men and women to action is today often derided, but the Founding Fathers thought it a form of power peculiarly suited to the Republic, which would live by persuasion, not coercion.

The exercise of oratory in Boston by Phillips and others in the 19th century is associated with Faneuil Hall, but in the 18th century its seating capacity was smaller than that of the Old South Meeting House at the corner of Washington and Milk streets. The latter, therefore, became the site of the largest and most momentous of pre-Revolutionary War gatherings. It was there in 1775 that Joseph Warren, in the presence of a contingent of British regulars, challenged the Empire with an oration thick with images of blood and gore. Killed a few months later at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren was the first martyr of the Revolution and was second only to Washington as an exemplar of public virtue -- a man who put the common good over private interests.

Virtue is still another form of power to be found on the Freedom Trail. Although few today would give it credence as a form of power, it was held in great awe by Americans of the early Republic. Character, wrote Daniel Webster in 1817, is power, and public virtue is character.

The walker of the Freedom Trail might be surprised to learn that Wendell Phillips and the other preservationists were not trying to save the Old South Meeting House simply because they thought it beautiful or even a fitting example of early 18th-century meeting-house architecture. In fact, they thought it an architectural embarrassment. Nor were they moved by considerations of religious piety. What Phillips felt was at stake in the proposed demolition of the church was the legacy of the Revolution.

The Old South had been a stage on which Joseph Warren and Samuel Adams and other men of virtue had acted out the revolutionary drama, thereby encouraging their own generation and subsequent generations of Americans. The red-brick walls that commerce would tear down evoked the spirit of these men.

The preservationists considered their age a corrupt one. (The centennial came around at a time when American spirits were drooping under rascality in Washington and a depression.) The Old South, Phillips assured his listeners, could heal the body politic by bringing its members into communion with the virtuous dead.

The grandchildren of the revolutionary generation of Bostonians were inclined to answer the question "What does Boston mean?" in cultural rather than political terms. It is they who, beginning in the 1820s, presented Boston as the Athens of America. They transformed the bookish religion of the Puritans into a religion of books. They conceived of themselves as Greeks in an American world of barbarians.

The most obvious physical expression of this idea is Harvard University, but it lies outside of Boston and is in any case too distant for all but the most dedicated walker. Equally appropriate and more readily accessible to the walker of the Freedom Trail is the Boston Athenaeum, which lies on Beacon Street, just down the hill from the State House.

Founded in 1807, as a private library, exclusive in membership, its proprietary shares have been handed down from one generation to the next. James delighted in the refinement of its Renaissance facade and referred to it as "this honoured haunt of all the most civilized -- library, gallery, temple of culture, the place that was to Boston at large as Boston at large was to the rest of New England . . ."

The definition of Boston as the Athens of America reflected the interests of upper-class Bostonians (the "Brahmins") in the 19th century. But by the time of James' visit in 1904, Boston had become, so far as the world of literature was concerned, a backwater. Creativity had gone elsewhere. James noted regretfully that the Athenaeum had been flanked by buildings that rose above and pressed upon it: ". . . the temple of culture looked only rueful and snubbed, hopelessly down in the world."

New energies, however, were abroad in Boston in these years, and they would produce yet another definition of the city. By the turn of the century the Irish were establishing their durable hegemony in city affairs and were proposing an answer to the question posed earlier by Phillips at the Old South. For them, as for him, the essential meaning of the city was political. But their answer expressed not an ideology but a drama: the rise of the once-powerless Irish to power and the overthrow of their oppressors.

The oppressors in question were the Brahmins of the Athenaeum, the descendants of the Warrens and Adamses of 1775. The heroes of the Irish drama were not remote but contemporary figures: John F. (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald, who became the city's mayor in the second year of James' visit to the United States, and James Michael Curley, who would hold that office repeatedly in the decades that followed.

Today, walkers to the Quincy Market will find two bronze statues of Curley in a small park fronting on Union Street, just across from Faneuil Hall and the statue of the grave Samuel Adams. One presents Curley standing, oratorical; the other displays him lounging on a park bench. Neither presents the Curley of fact, for he was a restless and ruthless man of formidable intelligence, not at all this benign senior citizen, whiling away the hours in the company of sparrows, pigeons and other idlers.

Those who walk the Freedom Trail find that all the significant buildings lie clustered near one another in the few short blocks that separate the State House from the Old South. And for those of minimal energy, for whom standing is preferable to walking, the State House may be a sufficient object of attention.

The land upon which the State House stands was purchased from the estate of John Hancock; the cornerstone was laid by Samuel Adams on July 4, 1795. The architect was Charles Bulfinch, one of the first to give meaning to Boston as a place of culture. Like the City Hall, the State House was long the object of Irish ambitions. Curley himself occupied it as governor during the hard times of the early 1930s.

Some buildings grow younger as they grow older. Completed in 1798, the State House was born middle-aged. Balanced and harmonious in its parts, aristocratic in the Corinthian columns of the portico, sober and restrained in its assertion that here resides the sovereignty of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the State House expressed fully the 18th century's notion of the decorum appropriate to the gentleman of maturity.

But today when one ascends the steps at the north end of the Common and looks up into the rosy and golden glow of Bulfinch's fac,ade, the effect is not one of sobriety and age but of youth and incandescent lightness.

A conversation with the State House would perhaps lead one to conclude that this joyous building reflects a society always undergoing rebirth as new groups -- in accordance with Phillips' definition that Boston is "jealousy of power" -- repeatedly emerge to challenge the old guard.