Collins Building, 213-217 Washington Street

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No. 18683 Collins Building, 213-217 Washington Street, photograph May 9, 2016


The Collins Building possesses integrity of location, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. It is significant for its association with the development of the Mt. Bowdoin neighborhood and with the Jewish community that established itself in Dorchester in the early 20th century. For many years Jewish merchants and professionals operated their businesses at this location. The large third floor upper hall served the local community over the years as a function hall andmeeting place. The building also attains significance as the only 19th century commercial structure constructed in the dominantly residential Mt. Bowdoin section of the city. While commercial centers had grown up further north near Columbia Road and to the south at Codman Square (NRDIS), the Mt. Bowdoin neighborhood is known for its impressive housing stock on the hill. The Collins Building is one of the few non-residential historic buildings in the neighborhood that remains intact. It is of local significance and meets Criterion A for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Mt. Bowdoin is a small residential neighborhood, roughly bounded by Harvard St. to the south, Bowdoin St. to the east, Geneva Ave. to the north, and the Fairmount Branch commuter railroad lines to the west. Like many sections of Dorchester and adjoining Roxbury, the Mt. Bowdoin area remained fairly rural into the 19th century despite its proximity to downtown Boston. It was named for James Bowdoin, Revolutionary War patriot and Massachusetts governor in the late 1780s, who built a summer home on the southern slope of the hill, just southeast of where the Collins Building stands. In 1836 Bowdoin’s estate, which encompassed the hill and other land on the east side of Washington Street, was subdivided into 90 house lots, an event that was to shape future development of the area as a commuter suburb. Development gradually spread outward from the hill in the 19th and early 20th centuries, spurred in part by the arrival of commuter rail service (New York & New England Railroad) in the 1860s.

Much of the construction was undertaken by speculative developers, who erected pairs of rows of similar house. The lot on which the Collins Building stands was part of a larger parcel owned by Charles F. Collins at the end of the 19th century. In 1898 Collins subdivided the land on either side of Kilton Street (now Norwell Street), between Washington Street and the railroad, into house lots (5-47 Norwell Street). His original intention was to erect three-story dwellings (single and multi-family) on all the lots but he decided instead to reserve the corner lot for a large mixed-use commercial building. In March of 1898 Collins filed for a permit with the Boston Building Depart.thent to erect two three-family brick dwellings at 213-215-217 Washington Street (the Collins Building location) but abandoned the permit and the following month was granted another for the construction of the existing structure, which was to contain stores, offices, and a function hall.

Collins, a resident of 20 Trernlett Street, Dorchester, was. a “prominent real estate dealer” and bachelor (Dorchester Beacon, 2/28/1920). He was also the architect for the buildings he developed. While Boston city directories do not list Collins as an architect, the Boston Public Library architectural files have reference to a house he designed for himself  in 1896 at 2 Kilton Street. (It is not known if the house was ever built, but it appears not to have been.)

At the time the Collins Building was constructed, it was the only commercial building in the neighborhood. The only other structure that diverged from residential buildings was the Mt. Bowdoin Reading Room (ca. 1897), a branch of the Boston Public Library. This remains standing at the southeast corner of Washington and Eldon Streets. The Collins Building is typical of commercial buildings being constructed in urban centers at this time. It was not highly unusual to have a function hall in buildings of this type, particularly in town and neighborhood centers. Two examples of similar buildings are Palladio Hall and Hibernian Hall in Roxbury’s Dudley Square area (both NRIND), which both had retail space on the first floor, offices on the second, and a function hall above. It was an era when social clubs were abundant and sponsored greater numbers of public events, requiring large interior spaces. Many of the social clubs in urban centers were associated with particular ethnic groups, which had immigrated to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and established organizations that catered to customs brought from Europe.

Despite its Irish name, the early 20th century tenants of the Collins Building are representative of the large number of Jewish families that resided nearby at this time. As was the case in many sections of Dorchester, Jewish families accounted for a significant portion of the local population and their culture dramatically influenced the character of Dorchester in the first half of the 20th century. The area roughly bounded by Franklin Park to the west, Franklin Field to the south, the Mt. Bowdoin Hill to the east, and Columbia Road to the north was one of the earliest Jewish enclaves to emerge in Dorchester, preceded only by the Grove Hall settlement in the vicinity of Blue Hill Ave. between Quincy and Warren Sts. Jewish settlement then took root in Mt. Bowdoin below Columbia Rd., between Blue Hill Ave. and Washington St., and Mattapan in the Blue Hill Ave. vicinity between Morton St. and Franklin Field. In 1900 there were approximately 100-200 Jewish families living in all of Dorchester and Upper Roxbury. Five years later the number of families in that same area grew to the point where there were roughly 4,000 Jews is residence, most in the Grove Hall neighborhood. By 1915 four of the five synagogues built in Boston neighborhoods were located in this area, and as of 1920 22% of the population of Dorchester and Upper Roxbury, about 44,000, was Jewish.

Blue Hill Ave. became a corridor of Jewish families stretching from Mattapan Square northward into the Highland Park section of Roxbury. A walk down Blue Hill Avenue

was described by one writer as “a visit to a foreign country.” (Russell, p. 23)  It was
common to encounter bearded men in long coats and yarmulkes and old women with shaitel wings wrapped in shawls, all speaking Yiddish as they swarmed the pushcarts and carts with Kosher signage and foreign wares. At its peak in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Jewish population figure for Dorchester and Upper Roxbury reached a high of about 77,000, half the Jewish population in the Boston area. At one time there were some 40 synagogues in Dorchester and Upper Roxbury, together with numerous Hebrew schools, Jewish day schools, a Hebrew High School and College, a Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), community centers, and function halls.

By 1900 Mt. Bowdoin had become a well developed middle-class neighborhood, with many fine single and multi-family dwellings. In 1910 about 300 Jewish families were living in the district that extends between Mt. Bowdoin and Franklin Park. In some sections of this district the Jewish population was as high as 65%. Many of the earliest Jewish settlers in the neighborhood were members of the Beth El congregation, which met in a public hall on Washington Street near the railroad between 1908-1910. In 1910 the congregation, with a membership of about 60 families, began construction of a new synagogue on Fowler Street (two blocks west of the Collins Building). At the time, the Jewish Advocate reported, “the new synagogue, when erected, will be the first one in the Dorchester district.” The Boston City Directory of 1930 attests to the large number of Jewish families that had moved to the Washington Street/Bowdoin Avenue vicinity, an area previously dominated by the Irish.

When completed in 1898, the Collins Building held two stores at the first floor, several offices at the second floor, and a large function hall occupying most of the third floor. This division of space and use remained unchanged into the mid-20th century. The third floor was known as Bowdoin Hall until about 1910 when the name was changed to Mt. Bowdoin Hall. By 1918 the building was owned by Jacob Sidman who operated a grocery store there. Aside from Sidman, the earliest known occupants of the building include the Mt. Bowdoin Auto Repairing Company, operated by Mathew Freedman and Joseph Brenner of Chelsea. The Anthony Press, Great A & P Tea Company (grocery), Samuel Sidman shoes, and tailor Rubin Cohen were all tenants in 1930. By 1932 the function hall was known as the New Washington Auditorium. Jacob Sidman owned the building as late as 1933. By 1942 the hall was known as Silver Manor and was operated by Charles Rubin, a caterer with the company Louis Rubin & Sons. Rubin Cohen remained a tenant, along with the Oakes Ticket Company (printers); two other spaces were listed as “vacant” in city directories. By 1944 the property had been acquired by John Rubin. In 1953 the title passed from Robert Kelley to Helen S. Swartz. Her husband husband, Henry D. Swartz, had the legal occupancy changed toallow for light manufacturing and the assembly of plastic covers for pillows, mattresses, etc. The third floor hall has remained a large open space since its construction and over the years has served as a meeting place and function hall for local organizations and residents. In the 1960s the building was owned by Hyman Karlsberg. The property was eventually taken by the City of Boston in 1980 for nonpayment of taxes.

The neighborhood has seen dramatic decline since the mid-20th century. Today much of the architecture suffers from neglect, vandalism, and vacancy. The Collins Building was passed on to the private sector as part of city efforts to encourage revitalization in the neighborhood in 1998. It is currently being rehabilitated using federal investment tax credits. It will have a mixed use, to include retail stores at the first floor and residential apartments above.


Posted on

April 9, 2020