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From Home Design section of Boston Herald American, Saturday, April 9, 1977
The Story of Ashmont Hill: How Diverse Homeowners Developed Spirit; Self-Appreciation by Norman Janis
About the guest columnist: Norman Janis is a very proud resident of Ashmont Hill, Dorchester, about which he has written and spoken a considerable amount. He is a founding member of the Ashmont Hill Association. His highly personalized article can serve as an inspiration to other communities. Homes from Ashmont Hill are featured on the cover and pages 8, 9, 10 and 11 of Home/Design.
I was seven when my parents bought a big rooming house in a decaying seaside suburb of New York. It was rambling turn-of-the-century brown shingle structure, a former mayor?s mansion, a challenge and a delight for a boy-explorer: Inglenooks, cellars, coal-bins and other places to hide; big and little porches; mysterious back stairs that were now blocked off, and massive sliding doors that were now sealed shut. With my father?s help, I tried to imagine how one might have lived in such a house when it was still whole, before it was a rooming house and before its balustrades and wicker chairs were thick with a half-century of yearly white paint.
In 1970, at age 29, I had been living for five years in a bid, high-ceilinged, light-filled apartment above a store, in a seedy but pleasant part of East Cambridge. The rent was $75. There was a big cultivatable year, grape arbors over neighboring porches and driveways, and all sorts of ethnic foods to buy along the street. I would probably still be there, but the ?Harvard community? kept moving Eastward. Rents were doubling and tripling. I decided to buy a house.
I had little money but grand ideas: My new dwelling would have to be cheap but also exciting to my imagination. This was a problem, but of a kind I enjoy trying to solve. My parents had managed an ocean view by renting out rooms in Rockaway Beach. I had found high ceilings over an Inman Square junk shop. Architectural romance need not always be expensive.
No one I knew was living in Dorchester in 1970. My impressions of the place were based on very little. I had passed through on the Expressway and seen rows of triple-deckers. One summer I had worked nights hosing down ice cream trucks at a garage on Columbia Road. I had a vague idea from TV and newspapers that Dorchester was dangerous and decaying.
In looking for a house, I noticed the low Dorchester prices in the ads, but figured this meant lack of desirability. I continued to pursue architectural ecstacy in East Cambridge and Charlestown. Then, by some fluke of a real estate broker?s mind, a Dorchester ad appeared one April Sunday which stressed, not plumbing, wiring and FHA financing, but 12 rooms with oak floors and oak reception hall.
Monday, I took a 15-minute subway ride from my downtown office to Ashmont and found my way to a nearby hilltop, where stood a very nice turn-of-the-century shingle and clapboard house. It had views of the Blue Hills to the South, the city skyline to the North, and the harbor to the East. It had nooks and bays, handsome oak front stairs, modest maple back stairs, and oak sliding doors that still worked. The whole hilltop seemed to be covered with houses like my Rockaway rooming house, but wonderfully intact and set in large well-tended gardens. The tree-lined street was clean and amazingly quiet. The MBTA and Dorchester Avenue traffic were just down the hill but could not be heard. I had somehow stumbled into a peaceful enclave of past time preserved.
I had found architectural romance.
Was there some horrible flaw in this bargain Brigadoon? For a week or two, I walked and drove through Dorchester streets, collected information at City Hall, and spoke to prospective neighbors. Clearly, there was a good deal of decay?houses abandoned or damaged by fire and not rebuilt, stores standing empty, tacky commercial structures obtruding into residential sections. But it was not worse than what I was used to. Probably anyone who grew up in Northeastern cities after World War II and who did not flee has come to terms with some degree of urban decay and may even regard it as part of his soul?s comfort.
I heard the worst things about Dorchester from people who had never set foot there or had left in the centrifugal ?50s. I heard moderately favorable or neutral things from people who lived there. Nobody said anything really good. I felt it was important for the ultimate well-being of this hilltop that its occupants know and say how pleasant it is to live there, but for the meanwhile, I could fill that in for myself. I bought the house.
It stands on Ocean Street. Partial views of the fairly distant harbor seemed to justify the name, though not overwhelmingly. But doubts about its rightness evaporated the first foggy day: I stepped out on the porch and smelled sea air and hears seagulls.
My new neighbors were diverse: Yankees and Poles; Irish Baptists and Episcopalians as well as Catholics; French-Canadians, Greeks and, what was new for me, quite a lot of Lithuanians. There were no Jews or blacks, but I did my part to make up the first lack (after a couple of years I had some help) and other people soon came along to make up the second.
Almost everyone was cordial and helpful, but they did not seem to for a cohesive community. Most had lived here for a long time and knew their neighbors, but they were making up their minds privately. There had been rioting and burning in Codman Square (very close by) a couple of years before, and the presumption was fairly heavy that fear was the chief common emotion, though there was not much talk even about that. Pride or pleasure in the neighborhood were expressed guardedly, if at all. The future did not look bright; moving away was being considered seriously by many.
Romas and Rima Brickus, who lived next door, quickly became my friends. They had been on Ocean Street for a few years and knew no place they would rather live. But Dorchester?s bad reputation exerted pressure on them through the opinions and advice of friends, and through fear that property in Dorchester meant financial loss someday. They had been looking at houses in Milton and Westwood, but they regarded my arrival as validation of their desire to stay: I had freely chosen to live here. Could we magnify the effect of that choice?
We thought the excited interest of a newcomer might infect others. We invited neighbors to a meeting at the Brickus house. I told how I had come to Ocean Street and how beautiful and special a place it seemed to me to be. I estimated that my house would cost three or four times as much in Cambridge or Brookline. I suggested that there were many people like myself in Cambridge and elsewhere who valued big, old houses and peaceful streets and nearness to the heart of the city, and who should know our neighborhood existed. This first meeting was in November 1970.
The response was good.
Our neighbors might actually have been waiting for someone to persuade them to be more optimistic. The would not allow themselves to be convinced, but the did listen and talk. We planned for future meetings but knew that we needed a focus.
The focus must be a positive one. Once Dorchester neighbors had begun to talk more freely with each other, the principal subject might be fear and the measures adopted, negative and defensive. We needed projects to generate pride and pleasure. By spring 1971 we had many ideas, and the best of them was simple: To make our neighborhood known. How to do that was simple, too, once we had thought of it, at any rate: A house tour.
The idea of a house tour was no great novelty in the world, of course, but in the vicinity of Ashmont Station it strained the imagination. Our neighbors who had magnificent oak stairwells and marble fireplaces and stained glass windows and brass gaslight fixtures, said: ?Who would want to come to DORchester to look at OUR houses??
Under the skepticism we detected a desire to be proved wrong. Our neighbors were cautious in word but cooperative in deed as we set about using a house tour to put the neighborhood on the map.
To be on a map you must have a name. The neighborhood topographically defined by our hill had been nameless. We called it ?Ashmont Hill? (an obvious choice, though I, as a linguist, had misgivings about the redundancy of ?-mont? and ?hill.?) By fall 1971 the Ashmont Hill Association was meeting monthly, each time a at different house and planning a house tour for the spring.
We worked hard on that house-tour, challenged by our neighbors? friendly skepticism and the world?s indifference. I began studying late 19th Century architecture: One needs to know if one is to show and tell. I discovered that architectural historian Vincent Scully had named a category to which the Rockaway rooming house and some Ashmont Hill houses belonged the ?shingle style.? I wrote thousands of words: Publicity filers; a half-hour architectural historical lecture to accompany a slide show; a detailed tour-guide; press releases for the Dorchester Argus-Citizen and any other newspaper that would use them (they were not so receptive then?the also seemed to say, ?Who would go to Dorchester to look at houses)??
I solicited help from Robert Rettig, then director of the Boston Landmarks Commission. He wrote a short paper ?Background and Significance of Ashmont Hill, Dorchester.? to be distributed at the tour. It narrated the real estate development of Ashmont Hill from 1870 on, and closed optimistically: ?Today, Ashmont Hill survives remarkably intact from its original period. Now that houses of the 1890s, with their ample scale and their fine interior woodwork, are becoming popular again, there is hope that this neighborhood will retain its stability and will attract new residents who care about its architectural and environmental character ? it can continue to be a source of pride to its residents and delight to its visitors.?
His hopeful statement were, in fact, a forecast.
The results of the house tour more than justified our efforts. Several hundred people came, from Dorchester, Boston, Maine and New Hampshire.
We hared architectural historians marvel at our houses and streets and praise our presentation; we heard people from other Dorchester neighborhoods say to each other: ?We should be doing something like this!?
In the years since, we have seen Ashmont Hill televised, written up in guidebooks and cited by City Hall. We have played host to national Victorian Society tours and observed camera-laden Japanese tourists gazing curiously at our houses. We have watched other Dorchester neighborhoods follow our example, organizing and promoting themselves in positive ways. The Landmarks Commission is at present considering the designation of Ashmont Hill as an architectural conservation district. The name ?Ashmont Hill? has been picked up by real estate brokers and by the press. Dozens of people have knocked on our doors. They want to live here. Is there anything available to buy or rent?
For the neighborhood, there was a sense of triumph after the house tour. It gave us momentum as a community. The Ashmont Hill Association is still meeting monthly, each time at a different house and with a different chairman. We have had garage sales, a second house tour (1973) and June picnics; we have had confrontations with the Public Facilities Department, consultations with the MBTA about the Ashmont Station renovations, and good working relationships wit the Station 11 police and with the Dorchester Little City Hall; we have had Christmas caroling and house concerts. This year, some people who were not yet here in 1973 are organizing a third house-tour?they missed the first two and feel deprived.
There is confident, open acknowledgment now on Ashmont Hill that we live in a good place.
It is a friendly place, too. Sometimes on spring afternoons the four-minute walk from Ashmont Station to my house takes an h our: Someone is working in a garden, I top to talk. Others come along, soon people have clustered on the sidewalk, and then perhaps we walk a little further up the hill to see how someone else is doing. One could spend one?s life on such a street.
Editor?s Note: The next Ashmont Hill House tour, featuring 10 homes, including the Weis? house which is featured on pages 8 and 9, will be Sunday, May 22, from noon to 5 pm. The tour begins at 65 Welles Avenue.
There is a $3 charge but pre-registration is not necessart. Call 282-6369 for information.
Boston Landmarks Commission
BACKGROUND AND SIGNIFICANCE OF ASHMONT HILL, DORCHESTER
Ashmont Hill comes as a surprise to most people from outside Dorchester and even to some from within. The topography of the hill, the broad, tree-shaded streets, and the ample, well-preserved houses form a residential neighborhood of considerable quality and interest. In an era of exodus to the suburbs, it is gratifying to find such an enclave within the Boston city limits, especially one so conveniently located near a major rapid transit line to downtown.
Ashmont Hill did not just happen; it was the result of careful planning. Part of the larger pattern of suburbanization of Roxbury and Dorchester after their annexation to Boston around 1870, Ashmont HUI was the creation of one man, George Derby Welles, and his attorney and agent, Edward Ingersoll Browne.
In 1870, at the age of twenty-six, George D. Welles inherited a substantial amount of property from his grandfather, John Welles, who had died in 1855. The property included the Welles mansion on Washington Street (now the site of the Pierce School) and much additional land, including all of what is now Ashmont Hill. Welles wasted no time in developing his Dorchester property. Living far from the scene, in Paris, he entrusted his affairs to Edward Browne, who handled all real estate transactions connected with the development. The first step was a land survey and lot subdivision plan, prepared in 1871 by surveyor H. W. Wilson. Before this subdivision, there were no streets at all in the large area bounded by Dorchester Avenue, Centre Street, Washington Street, and Ashmont Street. Wilson's plan provided for Welles Avenue, Walton, Harley, Roslin, Ocean, and Alban Streets (plus others outside the neighborhood) and divided all of Welles' property into 6,000-square-foot lots.
Land sales began in 1872, and house construction soon followed. By the time of the Hopkins atlas of 1874, there were seven houses on Ashmont Hill, several of them built for Welles as a stimulus to development One of these was 67-69 Ocean Street, at the head of Roslin Street. Each half of this "double cottage house" (as the deeds describe it) was leased in 1874 at $350 per year, with an option to purchase at $6,500. Two other houses built for Welles were in similarly key positions: Roslin Street at the head of Harley Street and Harley at the head of Walton. Howard Houghton built on the northwest corner of Roslin and Ocean Streets, Maxwell Lowry on the southeast corner of Welles Avenue and Harley Street ( a house later remodeled into the mansion of "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald). George Tatro built twin mansard cottages at 48 and 52 Welles Avenue.
The Depression of 1873 had its effect on the Welles development, although land sales continued. Sixteen houses were built between 1874 and 1884. After the initial examples to set the tone of the neighborhood, Welles himself did not build more houses but rather simply sold lots, often taking back purchase-money mortgages from the buyers. To insure the desired residential character, certain "stipulations and agreements" were included in every deed of sale. These restrictions provided that for twenty years from January 1, 1872, there could be no "buildings or parts thereof used or occupied for any other purpose than dwelling houses and private streets belonging to the same and buildings usually appurtenant to dwelling houses; that for the same period no building or part of any and no fence over six feet high shall be erected within twenty feet"of the street (thirty feet on Ocean Street), "except that doorsteps, porticos, cornices, piazzas and bay windows may project into said reserved spaces."
Although the subdivision plan of 1871 showed 6,000-square-foot lots, most purchasers bought more than 6,000 square feet, and from the beginning the actual lot lines bore little resemblance to those of the original plan. Building stepped up considerably in the later 1880's and 1890's. Between 1884 and 1894, one hundred houses were built on Ashmont Hill; between 1894 and 1904, sixty. Since the 160 houses of these two decades are a substantial majority of the 220 houses in the neighborhood today, the architecture of Ashmont Hill has a decidedly 1890's character. Subsequent years brought only token construction: 1904-1918, fifteen houses; 1918-1933, fifteen houses (mostly two-family houses and three-deckers); and 1933-1972, eight houses (five on the site of the Fitzgerald mansion).
The major houses of Ashmont Hill are on the high ground of Ocean Street, Alban Street, and a portion of Welles Avenue. Many of these substantial houses still have their separate stables at the back of the lot. The lower slope of Ashmont Hill, toward Washington and Ashmont Streets, developed more densely. In 1893, the original subdivision plan was altered here, and Montrose, Mellen, and Waldorf Streets were created. H. W. Williams was again the surveyor, and the same Welles restrictions were written into every deed (with a minimum setback of ten feet rather than twenty). Since the twenty-year period beginning January 1, 1872 had elapsed, a ten-year period from January 1, 1892, was established. Although the lots here are smaller than on top of the hill (smaller, indeed than the original 6,000-square-foot size in many cases), the houses are still predominantly of the 1890's, maintaining the basic architectural character of Ashmont Hill, though with more vernacular examples.
Today, Ashmont Hill survives remarkably intact from its original period. Now that houses of the 1890's, with their ample scale and their fine interior woodwork, are becoming popular again, there is hope that this neighborhood will retain its stability and will attract new residents who care about its architectural and environmental character. The staff of the Boston Landmarks Commission considers Ashmont Hill, especially the Ocean-Alban-Welles Avenue section, to be a prime candidate for designation as an architectural conservation district, should a mechanism for such designation be created through legislation. Whether or not Ashmont Hill becomes a legally protected district, however, it can continue to be a source of pride to its residents and delight to its visitors.
Robert B. Rettig
Boston Landmarks Commission
May 20, 1972
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Created: January 2, 2010 Modified: January 5, 2010