825-829 Blue Avenue

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No. 14606 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue, photograph June 7, 2014.

National Register Statement of Significance

The buildings at 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue were erected in 1924 by Herman B. Barron, a real estate developer and house builder, to serve the growing population of working-class Jews in Roxbury and Dorchester. Located in the extreme northern part of Mattapan2 adjacent to Franklin Park, the property faces Blue Hill Avenue, a major north-south transportation corridor and the central artery of Jewish culture in the Boston area for much of the 20th century.

Between 1870 and 1900, the population of Dorchester (which includes Mattapan) rose from 12,000 to 80,000, as the extension and electrification of the streetcar lines made these areas increasingly accessible and convenient to downtown Boston. The first of two streams of Jewish migration within Boston contributed to this growth. Beginning in the late 1890s, many Boston Jews in the North End and West End were entering the middle class, and could afford to leave the crowded city conditions for the more suburban neighborhoods of Dorchester and upper Roxbury. A second stream in the early 1900s consisted of lower-middle-class and working-class families, many of whom were displaced after an April 12, 1908, fire in Chelsea. The fire destroyed 492 acres of this largely Jewish town in a matter of hours, and left 17,000 people homeless. The resulting increase in population in Roxbury and Dorchester drastically changed the built environment of the Blue Hill Avenue neighborhoods. Once characterized by single-family houses and large summer estates on large parcels, Dorchester and Roxbury at the turn of the 20th century saw the construction of more single-family houses, twin dwellings, triple-deckers, and apartment buildings designed to fill smaller lots.

The property on which 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue sits was the estate of Charles Newhall in 1874. A single dwelling house on the property was located on Canterbury Road, between Autumn (now Angell) and Calder Streets, facing northeast. By 1890, the City of Boston had acquired most of the land west of the house to complete Franklin Park. The Newhall property changed ownership, and by 1890 had been subdivided into 47 smaller lots, the majority of which were owned by George W. Nason and Thomas M. Babson. In 1904, Hugh Devine, an Irishman and liquor store owner, purchased two of the undeveloped corner lots on Blue Hill Avenue.

Jewish settlement in Roxbury and Dorchester during the late 19th and early 20th century developed in four major districts: the Blue Hill Avenue-Grove Hall neighborhood, Mount Bowdoin, the area around Elm Hill Avenue, and Mattapan. The number of civic and religious structures in these areas dramatically increased in order to serve the booming population. Between 1900 and 1910, the Blue Hill Avenue-Grove Hall district established itself first with the founding of the new Adath Jeshurun congregation and the construction in 1906 of its synagogue, both of which were essential components to the area’s growth. The synagogue is the central institution of Jewish life, connecting Jews and creating religious and cultural continuity by providing a place for worship, study, public assembly, socializing, social welfare, and celebrations of holiday and life cycle events. Thus, as Jews began moving into Roxbury and Dorchester, they established congregations, or new branches of their downtown Boston synagogues, to anchor their new communities. Construction of these synagogues, like Adath Jeshrun, was both a necessity for the neighborhood residents, and an important symbol of the prosperity of the middle-class Jews who initially settled in Roxbury and Dorchester.

As early as the mid 1910s, the middle-class community in Blue Hill Avenue-Grove Hall was becoming overwhelmed with thousands of lower-middle-class and working-class Jews, who initially chose to settle in areas with established congregations. As these new Jewish residents settled in and around the large, newly completed houses of worship in the Blue Hill Avenue-Grove Hall neighborhood, the more prosperous existing Jewish community began moving to other parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. Three new, largely middle-class, Jewish neighborhoods formed to the south along Blue Hill Avenue in Mount Bowdoin, Mattapan, and Elm Hill. Middle-class residents tended to purchase single-family houses removed from commercial and transportation activity. The lower-middle-class and working-class families moved into two-, three-, and multifamily structures constructed in close proximity to streetcar lines, which provided access to their workplaces.

The Jewish population in Mattapan organized their first congregation, Hadrath Israel, in 1911. By 1917, a second synagogue, Agudath Israel, was established further south in the Blue Hill Avenue corridor. In 1915, Hadrath Israel purchased land for the construction of a new synagogue; the proposed synagogue was never built, and the congregation instead moved into a former Baptist church on Woodrow Avenue. Although neither of these congregations constructed a permanent structure before 1920, the district “contained the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods in Dorchester.” In addition to Hathrath Israel and Agudath Israel, the northern portion of Mattapan near Franklin Park became home to an array of other Jewish institutions between 1910 and 1920. Chevra Chai Odom was created in 1915 in the building vacated by Hadrath Israel; and Congregation Linas Hazedek on Michigan Avenue was established in 1917. Both served the growing number of Jews in the Franklin Park area. These groups and two institutions, the Home for Destitute Jewish Children (established 1910, NR pending) and the Temple Beth El Hebrew School (started 1917), made the northern part of portions of Mattapan a desirable place to create housing for the expanding Jewish enclave along Blue Hill Avenue.

Immediate Neighborhood

Between 1910 and 1920, nearly all of the properties of the former Newhall estate were filled with one- and two-family, wood-frame houses. However, the prominent parcels owned by Hugh Devine at the corners of Calder Street and Blue Hill Avenue, and Canterbury Road and Blue Hill Avenue remained unimproved in 1920 at the time of Devine’s death. In 1924, four years after his death, the property was cleared in probate and deeded to Herman B. Barron.

Herman B. Barron arrived in the United States from Lithuania in 1904, at the age of 23, and initially lived with his cousin Louis Weinstein on Lauriat Street in the heart of Mattapan. Weinstein and several other family members living in the house were builders specializing in cornice work. Although he married Celia Epstein in Philadelphia in 1909, the census in the following year indicates that Barron was out of work as a carpenter for several months and living with family but without his wife until establishing himself.  

By 1914, Herman Barron was living with his wife and son, Edward, on Woodrow Avenue, not far from the newly located Hadrath Israel and Agudath Israel synagogues. His career in the United States may have begun as a house carpenter, but Barron quickly turned to real estate development in the Mattapan and Roxbury neighborhoods. In 1915, he was the owner of record for construction of five brick stores along Intervale Street in Grove Hall. The next year, those buildings and additional property were sold, and eventually became a local park and playground. Also in 1915, Barron purchased a lot of land on Magnolia Street in Grove Hall and constructed a house, where he lived in 1920 with his growing family. In 1918 he was working for Hugh Nawn Construction Company in Roxbury.

The influx of new Jewish residents to Dorchester during the 1910s and 1920s led to many speculative apartment developments. In the northern portions of Dorchester and in Roxbury developers typically created traditional wood-frame, three-story apartments and single-family houses along residential side streets, and substantial brick apartment complexes and commercial buildings on lots facing primary transportation routes.

In early 1924, Barron filed a building permit for 825 and 829 Blue Hill Avenue with the City of Boston, and construction was underway by April of that year. Barron selected Samuel S. Levy, Jr., a prolific architect of apartment buildings throughout the Boston area. The design for the buildings conformed to the irregular-sized lot at the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Calder Street, but took on many of the Colonial Revival characteristics found both in apartment buildings of the area and in the architect’s previous work.

Samuel Levy

Samuel S. Levy, Jr. (1885-1936) was born in Russia and arrived in the United States with his mother and father at the age of four. His family lived in Brookhaven, New York, until his father, a tailor, moved them to Boston between 1895 and 1900. By 1910, he was listed as an architect and lived with his parents and siblings on Wayland Street, in the Grove Hall section of Roxbury. Nothing is known of Samuel S. Levy’s schooling in architecture, but his early career was greatly affected and assisted by the massive 1908 fire that destroyed much of the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Chelsea in Boston.

Levy’s first known building, the Julius Cohen Apartments at 481-483 Broadway in Chelsea, led to a plethora of commissions for the young architect. Between 1911 and 1916, Levy filed permits for at least 30 building projects in Chelsea. Those buildings included both small commerical and mixed-use buildings along Broadway, and residential apartment buildings along Chester, Chestnut, Grove, Hawthorn, and Shurtleff streets. All of Levy’s early designs incorporated Colonial Revival decorative elements, and nearly all were constructed of brick. The architect’s early experience in Chelsea honed his technique for producing the ubiquitous three-story, brick, triple-decker apartment buildings found throughout the Boston area. In addition to his long list of groups of buildings in Chelsea, Levy worked on a handful of stand-alone projects in East Boston, Brighton, and Brookline between 1912 and 1915, all owned by developers for whom he also worked in Chelsea.

During World War I, Samuel Levy’s work focus, like that of many others, was pushed toward the industrial sector. He worked as an architect for the Hood Rubber Company in Watertown, which greatly expanded their facilities to provide products, tires, shoes, helmets, and boots for the war effort. By 1920, the company employed 10,000 people and had several dozen buildings in operation, now demolished. After the war, Levy produced a commercial building in Watertown (608-616 Mount Auburn Street) and three single-family houses of different styles on Verndale Street in Brookline, before turning his architectural practice back to brick apartment-building construction.

Like his earlier Chelsea projects, most of Samuel S. Levy’s commissions during the 1920s were generally for Jewish developers and housed Jewish tenants. However, unlike his early career, those projects were now focused on the rising population in Roxbury, Dorchester, and the suburbs west of Boston. From 1924 until 1929, Samuel Levy produced at least twenty-one apartment buildings in Dorchester, Roxbury, Brookline, Jamaica Plain, and Newton. For some of these, his younger brother Bernard (Barney) Levy appears as the architect of record on neighboring apartment buildings, and it is likely that they worked together in securing and completing work.

Most of Samuel Levy’s postwar apartment buildings show a more refined use of Colonial Revival details. His later buildings look less like the traditional three-story apartment houses in the Boston area, with extended bays featuring harder corners, proper proportions, and greater ornamental details. In 1928 Levy designed arguably his most important building, the Congregation Ezrath Israel Synagogue building in Malden (demolished). The large, brick building on Bryant Street included more Art Deco features than Levy’s traditional commissions. Unfortunately, the synagogue was one of his last works, and his career appears to have ended abruptly with the onset of the Great Depression. There are no records of commissions after 1929, and he lists no office location or profession in directories after 1930. Census records, city directories, and Bromley Atlases indicate that Levy purchased a home at 257 Warren Street in 1930 but retained ownership of the single-family house at 607 Morton Avenue, his residence for the ten years prior. He lived at the property on Warren Street, half of a duplex, with his wife until her death in 1934. Levy died two years later in December of 1936.

It is likely that Samuel Levy’s continual professional success and Herman Barron’s business interests were maintained in part by their participation in the local Jewish institutions like the Adath Jeshurun congregation. The synagogue is the central institution of Jewish life, connecting Jews, and creating religious and cultural continuity by providing a place for worship, study, public assembly, socializing, social welfare, and celebrations of holiday and life-cycle events. In the developing neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester, it was also a place that solidified business relationships within the community. Levy and Barron were members of the Adath Jeshurun congregation, and are buried with their wives in the synagogue’s cemetery. The leaders responsible for construction of the Adath Jeshurun synagogue––Davis Krokyn, Nathan Pinanski, Joseph Rudnick, and Myer Dana–– were all members of the real estate business and former members of the North End’s Baldwin Place Shul. According to David Kaufman, the congregation wanted their new building constructed in 1906 to “reflect their interest in property development and the affluence that had started to come their way.”

The apartment buildings at 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue are an example of Levy’s later work, and are architecturally similar to his other projects from this time. His designs throughout his career embody the Colonial Revival style, but show small shifts in architectural fashion from classical ornamental details to simplified modern design and principles. The use of Colonial Revival architectural elements at 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue provided traditional forms with which his client, the developer, and the potential residents could identify. With speculative developers looking to create housing communities for rising middle-class immigrants, Colonial Revival forms were a comfortable way to market the properties to the upwardly mobile. Colonial Revival buildings place heavy emphasis on the entrances, windows, and cornices. The 825­829 Blue Hill Avenue apartment buildings have ornate entrances that feature ornamental pilasters, pediments, and brackets inspired by American Georgian and English Adam precedents.

By the mid 1920s, many middle- and upper-middle-class Jews began to leave Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan for the nearby Boston suburbs, especially Brookline. As Gerald Gamm notes, the conditions in towns like Brookline and Newton recreated “the rural ideal that had brought an earlier generation of suburbanites to upper Roxbury and Dorchester. Suburban homes were a refuge from the busyness and hustle of urban life, from the European immigrants and black migrants who huddled in urban neighborhoods.” Two additional factors spurred the migration to Brookline and Newton: the rise of the automobile, and federal housing programs of the 1930s. The automobile allowed people to commute into the city from increasingly distant residential areas, freeing those that could afford a car from dependence on streetcar routes. Federal housing programs in the 1930s contributed to the exodus by actively guiding middle-class homeowners away from urban housing and toward single-family, suburban homes. Although the population of Roxbury and Dorchester increased sixteen percent between 1920 and 1930, the populations of Brookline and Newton increased 26 and 42 percent, respectively, during the same period.

As middle- and upper-middle-class Jews began to leave, lower-middle- and working-class Jews replaced them. These new residents inherited a network of institutions that had been constructed between 1905 and 1925––a period that oversaw the most substantial construction of synagogues, schools, and community halls ever built in Roxbury or Dorchester. Overall, the population of the Jewish community, especially along Blue Hill Avenue, increased during the 1920s despite the exodus of upper-middle- and middle-class Jews. Housing developments like the apartments at 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue created space for the newly arriving population.

In 1930, six years after it was built, all of the fifteen households in the buildings at 825 and 829 Blue Hill Avenue had at least one first-generation immigrant, with all but two of eastern European and Jewish descent. Only two families, one German and one English, did not list Yiddish as their language. The residents were middle- and working-class. Professions listed in the census include: clothing salesman, clothing manufacturer, dentist, junk collector, cigar factory packer, lawyer, fruit packer, and musician.

The Jewish community of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan reached a population of 77,000 in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which was approximately half of the entire Jewish population in the Boston area, and ten percent of Boston’s total population. Census tract data from the 1940s depicts a swath encompassing the area’s three major transportation routes–– Seaver Street, Columbia Road, and Blue Hill Avenue––where the percentage of Jewish residents was between 85 and 100 percent of the population (Figure 2). Adjacent areas on the census tract map as far east as Dorchester Avenue and as far north as Quincy Street, indicate that between 35 and 85 percent of the residents were Jewish.

By 1940, more than half of the households represented at 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue continued to have at least one first-generation immigrant, the vast majority of them from Russia. Most of the residents at that time had lived in the building for at least five years, and a handful had been there at least ten years. Like the original tenants, most residents were working- and lower-middle-class professionals: salesmen, store owners, painters, manufacturing workers, a librarian, an undertaker, and numerous “managers.” This consistency in population mirrored the rest of the surrounding neighborhoods. Despite a slight overall decline in population, the Jewish community in Roxbury and Dorchester was still the largest in New England through the late 1940s and early 1950s. In fact, the 1950 population was almost twice that of the Jewish communities in Brookline, Brighton, and Newton combined.

However, the change in demographics of the Jewish residents did eventually affect the Blue Hill corridor. At first, middle-and upper-middle-class Jews who were migrating from Roxbury and Dorchester to the suburbs continued to be active in their urban congregations, because membership rules for synagogues do not limit participation based on geography. Not only did the new suburban residents remain active, but many continued in their leadership roles with these institutions. As Gerald Gamm writes, many middle-class Jews in suburbs like Brookline and Newton “continued to celebrate weddings in those institutions, to send their children to school in those institutions, and to participate in the social and communal life that centered on those institutions.” However, as suburban Jewish families settled in their new houses, they began to establish new institutions that were more convenient than their former urban synagogues. The construction of suburban  contributions from their well-to-do members. During the late 1960s and 1970s a large percentage of the Jewish population in Mattapan dispersed, as immigrants and working-class African Americans moved into the neighborhood.

The apartments at 825-829 Blue Hill Avenue experienced a similar change with the neighborhood. The majority of residents listed in the 1960 city directory continued to have traditionally Jewish surnames, but greater diversity shows with each passing year. In 1972, the buildings were acquired by Abrams Realty Corporation and rehabilitated. Although there have been changes to the ownership grouping, the apartments have been owned and managed by the same owners for the last four decades. Additional rehabilitation took place in the buildings in 1988, which modernized finishes in the units and in common spaces.

The property continues to operate as affordable apartment units and is fully occupied. A recently completed rehabilitation utilized state and federal historic tax credits, and was the impetus for listing in the National Register. The rehabilitation updated kitchens, bathrooms, and finishes, while retaining the historic character of the property.



Posted on

April 8, 2020