Dorchester Common

Dorchester Common

The following is from the AREA FORM from Boston Landmarks Commission prepared as part of 1994 Survey of Dorchester. Dated March, 1995 and recorded by Edward W. Gordon.

[Note: this reproduction of the information in the Boston Landmarks Area Form may have typographical errors, and for technical matters, the reader may want to consult a copy of the original, which is available at the Boston Landmarks Commission or the Dorchester Historical Society]

The Dorchester Common / First Parish Church area is architecturally significant primarily for its Cabot, Everett and Meade-designed First Parish Church (1897), a Colonial Revival masterpiece whose multi-stage steeple is one of the most memorable landmarks visible from Dorchester Bay’s shoreline. Dominating its immediate residential enclave, the First Parish Church overlooks the Dorchester Common which is the center piece of the area. Together with residences bordering the Church, Adams and East streets, the Dorchester Common retains much of the appearance of an early-to-mid 19th century New England village

evident in the 1847 engraved view of the First Parish Church and the Common by Lemuel S. Blackman. The Adams Street streetscape, in particular, exhibits housing from virtually every phase of Dorchester’s architectural development from a Federal single family house of the 1790s, through Italianate and Italianate Mansard dwellings to three-deckers of the c.1920s.

Variously known over time as the Dorchester Common, Dorchester Square and Rev. James Allen Common, this triangular green space is criss-crossed by paths and dotted with Norway Maple and Crab Apple trees. The rose granite obelisk commemorating Dorchester’s fallen Civil War heroes is located near the center of the Winter Street edge of the Common, directly across from the First Parish Church. The church’s grounds are enclosed by an elegant wrought iron fence. To the south of the church is a vacant lot which was the site of Lyceum Hall (1839 – 1956), an important focus for education and social activism within the community.

Perched on a high rise, 5 Adams Street is a stylish and substantial Italianate mansard residence whose front lawn sweeps down to a high rubble stone retaining wall. Clad with clapboards, this L-shaped, 1860s house is composed of a two- story, three-bay-by-two- bay main block and a two-bay-by-two-bay south ell. Both main block and ell are crowned by bell cast mansard roofs whose eaves are accented by saw cut brackets. At the center of the Adams Street facade are multi panel doors which open on to a small open porch retaining chamfered posts which support a flat roof.

Running from porch to lawn are a steep flight of stone steps. To the right of the entrance is a tall window set off by a cornice headed lintel. To the left of the porch is a polygonal bay; similarly rendered bays are in evidence at the center of the north wall and the side ell’s south wall. In general, windows are fully enframed and contain 2/2 wood sash. Rising from the roof slopes of the side walls are pairs of pedimented dormers while the main and rear facades each exhibit a trio of dormers; all of the dormers are of identical design. In addition to its role as a key component within the streetscape on the southwest side of the Dorchester Common, 5 Adams Street is also the centerpiece of a trio of Italianate Mansard houses which line a cul de sac off of Percival Street.

Standing side by side to the south of 5 Adams Street’s front lawn, 11 and 15 Adams Street are Italianate houses which have graced the southwest side of the Common since the mid nineteenth century. The less intact of the two houses, 11 Adams Street has been altered by vinyl siding and the addition of a full length, one-story enclosed porch which projects from the two-bay facade gable. The side walls of the T-shaped building are four bays deep. The two- story house culminates in a gable roof with return eaves which shelters a pair of arched windows.

Unlike 11 Adams Street, with its narrow end wall gable orientation to the street, 15 Adams Street stands with its longer, three- bay elevation overlooking Adams Street. Narrow north-south end walls rise two stories from a brick basement to an asphalt shingle-covered gable roof. Although its clapboards have been replaced by asphalt shingles, most of its original wooden elements remain intact. Projecting from the center of the main facade is an enclosed vestibule which is accessed via a short flight of concrete and brick stairs. Double doors are sheltered by a deep bracketed door hood which projects from the vestibules side walls; walls which exhibit wooden panels surmounted by narrow, arched, typically Italianate windows. Flanking the center entrance are pairs of windows with formal surrounds: windows containing 1/1 replacement sash rise from raised sills to bracketed, cornice headed lintels. The remaining windows are less formally treated, exhibiting simple raised wooden sills and surrounds. The house’s louvered shutters appear to be original. Projecting from the south end wall gable is a one-story polygonal bay exhibiting apron panels beneath its windows and a flat roof which surmounts a molded entablature.

Continuing southeastward along Adams Street is a trio of three deckers at 19, 21, 23 Adams Street that exemplify what architectural historian Arthur Krim calls Early Classic three deckers. According to Krim, the three deckers of Dorchester’s Early Classic period (1900-1910) exhibited Colonial Revival elements which “gave the three-decker a sense of classic proportion and balance, neutralizing the narrow massing of its side-entry row house plan.” Altered by the application of vinyl siding, these houses are rectangular in form with main facades composed of flat entrance and three-story polygonal bays. Each building has a one story entranc porch with Colonial Revival elements, including Tuscan columns. Main facades culminate in molded wooden cornices. In the case of 21 Adams Street, a good example of a Dorchester cornice is in evidence. Arthur Krim notes that “the Dorchester cornice was essentially a braced parapet with decorative pendant drops which framed the top of the street facade. This embellishment was derived from two sources: the double – bay Roxbury gabled three-decker of the 1890s; and the Queen Anne Revival bracing attached to the flat-roofed Dorchester form.” Standing in marked contrast to the pronounced verticality of the aforementioned early 20th century three deckers is the horizontality of the Federal style Lemuel S. Blackman House at 29 Adams Street. Reportedly built c 1820, this house has the distinction of being the only “brick ender” Federal residence in the Meeting House Hill area; the narrow north and south end walls of the main block are constructed of brick. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century in rural New England, it was fairly common to build hip roofed Federal style houses exhibiting two walls, usually end wall gables, constructed of brick while the remaining walls were clad with clapboards.  The reasons for the brief rage for “brick ender” construction are speculative, ranging from aesthetic predilections through considerations tied to impoved insulation and fire safety when chimneys are incorporated into these masonry walls.

Hemmed in by three deckers, facing a narrow front yard, 29 Adams Street rises two stories from a stone foundation to a low pitched hip roof. Covered with vinyl siding, the house is composed of a five-bay-by-two-bay main block and a one-bay-by-three bay side (southeast) ell. Projecting from the center of the main facade is an enclosed entrance porch which was evidently originally open judging by the free standing Doric post that holds up the northern end of the porch’s gable. An open porch projects from the side ell’s main elevation. Doric pilasters and a post support the porch’s roof. Two doors open on the side ell’s porch. One of the doors is located on the main block’s end wall while the second is in evidence at the center of the side ell’s main facade, retaining its original flanking Doric pilasters and cornice headed entablature. Windows exhibit a variety of sash configurations including 1/6/, 6/1 and original 6/6. To the rear of the house is along, rectangular, five-car masonry garage.

Next door to 29 Adams Street is a three decker at 33 Adams Street whose main facade has been drastically altered by the partial application of modern, false stone facing. The southernmost component in the southwestern segment of the Dorchester Common’s “frame” is the c. early 19th century Cape Cod cottage at 39 Adams Street. Situated on a low rise and standing with its broad, two-bay end wall gable facing Adams Street, its five-bay, main facade overlooks an asphalt paved drive way. The Cape Cod house made its first appearance in Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts around 1710. It is relatively rare to have early examples of this building type represented as far north as the Boston area, but given Adams Street’s status as a major link in a system of highways leading from the south shore it is perhaps not surprising to see its representation in the Meeting House Hill area. According to Lester Walker in American Shelters “The Cape Cod cottage is a successful indigenous solution to life in a harsh natural environment based on early American building methods. It is one of the most rational, functional designs for a house in the history of architecture. Early Cape Cod houses were built by ship’s carpenters as though they were land boats made to ride shifting sands and withstand lashing wind and rain storms; they were low and broad averaging twenty-five by forty feet with only seven foot ceiling height…. The Cape Cod had no projections or exterior extraneous decoration, so they could resist ocean gale forces.”

39 Adams Street is sheathed with wood shingles. The eastern half of the house rests on a low, rubble stone basement while the western half is a few feet below the grade of Adams Street, its stone walls parged with stucco. Access to the center entrance is provided by a low flight of modern brick replacement stairs. Sheltering the front door is a Stick style shed roof with diagonal bracing and punched and cut decorative detail. Flanking the front door are windows containing

6/1 wood sash, sash configuration which is also exhibited by a pair of pedimented dormers at either end of the main facade’s roof slope. Single, standard size windows appear near the apex of the roof’s gables. Rising from the center of the roof ridge is a tall, brick chimney. The placement of the chimney provides clues to interior room arrangements. Returning to Lester Walker’s discussion of the Cape Cod cottage, he notes that ” inside, the rooms were clustered around a huge chimney that contained as many as four fire places, used for heating, cooking, and light. The attic level was partitioned into numerous tiny bedrooms, each with a single window in the gable wall.”

Across Adams Street, to the east, a stately, early 1800s Federal style house, presides over an ample corner lot. L-shaped in form, the main block of the former Saunders and Beach Academy a t 34 Adams Street rises from a two-course granite block foundation to a low hip roof. Projecting from the east wall is an angled, two-story, three-bay-by-one-bay. The main block’s Adams Street facade is five bays in length. The side walls are of unequal width, with the East Street wall measuring four-bays and the south elevation exhibiting five bays. Both the main and south elevations exhibit center entrances. Old photographs indicate that the front yard was terraced with two flights of wooden steps ascending from the entrance porch to a path leading to a wooden gate at the center of a picket fence. Currently, the terraced effect, path and fence are no longer in evidence, with the front and side yards situated atop a steep rise, accessed by a wooden stairway recently built at the corner of Adams and East Street.

Currently open, the main facade’s entrance porch is shown in a c. late 19th century photograph as having been enclosed by clapboards. The porch retains posts faced with engaged Tuscan columns, although the solid, paneled railing shown atop the porch is no longer extant. Slat work rails extend from the front posts to Doric pilasters on either side of the front door. A secondary entrance at the center of the five-bay south facade is flanked by slender Doric pilasters and surmounted by an elegant cornice headed entablature. The south entrance opens on to a porch whose Doric posts rise from a low platform; interspersed between wall and posts are slat work railings. These porch treatments do not appear to be original. In general, windows exhibit 6/6 wood sash. The main block culminates in a molded wooden cornice. Missing from the edges of the roof is an ornate balustrade which possessed solid and open panels containing delicate geometric tracery. Also missing are the tall chimneys which rose from the roofs north and south slopes. The interior of the old Academy building retains a few mantles, doors, dados and a basement bee hive oven dating from the early nineteenth century.

The northern segment of the Dorchester Common’s frame is anchored at its northwestern corner by a stylish and substantial late 1790s Late Georgian/ Federal style residence at 8 Church Street. The remaining Church Street streetscape along the Common’s northern edge is dominated by late 19th and early 20th century three decker houses. Much of the Common’s charm is dependent on the presence of 8 Church Street and the aforementioned Federal style Saunders and Beach Academy at 34 Adams Street, corner of East Street. With their distinctive, boxy and hip roofed forms, these houses are Federal style “pendants” which picturesquely anchor opposite sides of the Common. Together with the Colonial Revival First Unitarian Church and the Federal brick ender at 29 Adams Street, these houses recall a more pastoral phase of the Common’s history.

In terms of form, 8 Church Street is more Late Georgian than Federal. Measuring five-bays-by-five-bays, 8 Church Street, an original, two-story ell projects from its east wall; a later,one ¬story ell projects from the north wall. Rising two stories from a granite block basement to a hip roof, the main block’s corner are accented by Doric pilasters. Projecting from the centers of the formally finished Church and Eaton Square facades are small, Tuscan columned, gable roofed porches which appear to be original to the houses’s late 1790s construction. Originally open, each porch is enclosed by modern wooden panels and multi-light sash. At an undetermined date the porch overlooking Eaton Square has been extended, on either side, by the addition of lattice work platforms which are enclosed by low slat work railings. In general, windows are fully enframed and contain 6/6 wood sash. Substantial brick chimneys rise from the roof’s north and south slopes.

Of the three decker housing bordering the Common’s northern edge, the trio at 16-22 Church Street and the quartet at 34-40 Church Street are           noteworthy for their “Dorchester cornices” and Queen Anne porches, respectively. Swathed in wood shingles and retaining its original Classical Revival elements, 22 Church Street is the more intact of its group. Its main facade enlivened by a pair of polygonal, three-story bays, its three tier front porch exhibits rubble stone walls and piers, clustered Tuscan columns and slat work railings. Broad belt courses visually separate the floors, providing horizontal accents which counter the verticality of the three decker form. Side walls extend four bays northward from Church Street to three tier porches at the rear of the building. 22 Church Street culminates in the Dorchester cornice, as defined by Arthur Krim in the three deckers of Dorchester.

Although covered with asphalt shingles, 34-40 Church Street deserves mention as three deckers which retain their distinctive one-story front porches which project from flat entrance bays located to the left of three-story polygonal bays. Accessed by short flights of wooden stairs, these porches exhibit turned posts, slat work railings and spindle-accented transoms surmounted by narrow entablatures and flat roofs.

Historical Narrative

The Dorchester Common / First Parish Church area atop Meeting House Hill ranks among the most historically significant enclaves within the City of Boston. Like Boston Common (1634) and harlestown’s Old Training Field (c. 1640), the Dorchester Common (c. 1800) is significant as an intact example of a town common, a distinctly New England type of open space whose basic configuration has prevailed over the pressures of real estate development.

A meeting house has been located on or near the site of the present First Unitarian Church since the 1670s. The current Cabot, Everett and Meade-designed First Unitarian Church (1897), is the sixth church of this religious society and is the fourth church to occupy part or all of the present church’s site.

The area also has significant historical associations with the evolution of various modes of Boston

education including: public grammar, private academy and adult Lyceum-sponsored education.

Although the Mather School is discussed within a separate survey area, it should be noted that it is the direct descendant of the first school built in America, the first school in America to be supported by direct taxation and the longest continually operating grammer school in the nation. A former school building which falls squarely within the boundaries of the area is the Sauders and Beach Academy at 34 Adams Street.

Founded as early as 1802, the academy provided young women with rare educational opportunities and is considered to be the oldest technical school for women in the United States. No longer extant, the temple form Lyceum Hall stood to the south of the First Parish Church from 1838 until its demolition in 1956. Originally constructed as a community cultural and educational center, it was host to famous orators including Dorothea Dix, Edward Everett, William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker.

Despite the importance of institutions located within or near the boundaries of the area, the Dorchester Common / First Parish Church area is primarily a residential area. Several residences in the area have significant historical associations with old Dorchester families including Blackmans, Halls, Popes, and Swans.

Although the oldest buildings in the area are residences dating to the late 1790s and early 1800s, several buildings were erected on Meeting House Hill as early as the 1660s. Founded in 1630, the early settlement of Dorchester was located on Allen’s Plain (Pleasant Street and vicinity) and Savin Hill, both in north eastern Dorchester. The settlement’s school house stood on Meeting House Hill’s Winter Street before 1668. At least two settlers, George Proctor and John Holman maintained homesteads on the Hill’s lower slopes. The story of Meeting House Hill’s really begins with the relocation of the First Parish Church c. 1673 from the corner of Pond and Pleasant Street to the top of Meeting House Hill. From the first settlement of Dorchester in 1630, until 1816, Dorchester’s Meeting House was the focus of Town Government as well as its house of worship.

A second meeting house was constructed on the Hill in 1677 at a cost of 200 pounds. The meeting house bolstered the Hill’s prominence and centrality in town affairs. In 1743, the third meeting house of the town was built, replacing the earlier structure. It was located a little south of the present First Church; the Soldier’s Monument marks the spot of its eastern entrance. This building was 20 or 30 feet long, 46 feet wide and had a tower 14 feet square and a steeple that was 104 feet high to the weather vane. At that time, the law required that each citizen should take part in or contribute to “raising the Meeting-hows”. The third meeting house was enlarged in 1795 by dividing it along the ridge-pole, moving one-half of it fourteen feet, and the tower and steeple seven feet, and uniting the two parts with new materials.

Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris, rector of the First Parish Church from 1793-1836, presided over the area’s Federal period “golden age”; an era characterized by prosperity, religious controversy and the encouragement of a variety of approaches to educating the local populace. Born in

Charlestown , MA in 1768, Rev. Harris’s family resided in Lancaster , MA during the Revolutionary War. Graduating from Harvard in 1787, Rev. Harris was a respected Classical scholar who spoke both Latin and Greek and was also an early local historian.

During the 1790s, the Harris family purchased a large tract, on Bird’s Hill, one hill to the west of Meeting House Hill, and built an estate called “Mount Ida”.  During the early 1800s, the First Parish Church’s parishioners were swept up in controversies regarding religious doctrine; a New England-wide upheaval in the Congregational Church known as “the Great Schism”. The more conservative wing of the First Parish Church known as the Trinitarians established their own (Second) church at Codman Square in 1806. Rev. Harris was the spiritual leader of the more liberal Unitarians. In 1816, the fifth Meeting House was built as Dorchester’s First Unitarian Church.

Although Harris’ fifth Church burned in 1896 and his Mount Ida estate was dismantled during the 1910s, the Reverend undoubtedly visited the Pope-Preston-Swan House at 8 Church Street. Built c. 1798, 8 Church Street may have been the first house built on the First Parish Church’s lands that were subdivided and sold during the late 1790s and early 1800s. This turn of events represents the first systematic development of Meeting House Hill as well as the beginnings of the Dorchester Common’s current configuration. Prior to the First Parish Church’s real estate venture, the Common was part of a more extensive tract of upland pasture that covered much of “the Hill” and, since the 17th century, had been set aside for the benefit of Dorchester’s families. The Town of Dorchester hired “husbandman” Mather Withington to survey the area. During the early 1800s, Withington was responsible for the first street grid in South Boston. Norfolk County deeds indicate that local builders Frederick and William Pope were responsible for the construction of 8 Church Street and most likely other early residences in the area.

On May 14, 1798, Frederick and William Pope of Dorchester paid the town $226 for a lot of land on Meeting House Hill. Presumably built during the spring and summer of 1798, the south elevation of the house overlooks the Dorchester Common while the west elevation had a view of Eaton’s Tavern at Eaton Square. In December 1803, a house on the lot is first mentioned in a deed that records the sale of this property by the Popes to Sarah Preston for $4,000. Upon the death of Sarah Preston in March 1808, 8 Church Street was inherited by the First Parish Church “to be used by the church for the benefit of the Pastor or Ministers of said church” (Norfolk deeds 111:9). Given that Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris had his own residence on Bird Hill, it is not clear how the church used Sarah Preston’s legacy. In 1836, Rev. Harris died and 8 Church Street was sold by the church to William D. Swan, a member of the Boston firm of Swan, Brewer and Tileston, book sellers. William D. Swan was part of a sizable clan of Swans who lived in the Meeting House Hill area during the 19th and early 20th centuries. By the mid 19th century, Samuel Swan, William’s son (?) owned the property. In November, 1867, Samuel Swan sold the house to Francis H. Swan for $6,000. During the 1870s and 1880s, Francis H. Swan’s occupation is listed as “paymaster, U.S.Navy.” Around the turn of the century, 8 Church Street was inherited by Sarah Swan. Between 1904 and 1910, the house was purchased by the Catholic Club of Boston. At some point during the 1920s, the Club sold the old Pope-Preston-Swan House to Bernard Kelley, proprietor of Bernard Kelley and Son Funeral Home. The Kelly family operated 8 Church Street as a funeral home until at least the mid 1960s. According to Anthony Sammarco, 8 Church Street currently houses a Roman Catholic social services agency.

Probably dating to the early 1800s, 39 Adams Street was evidently built for the Hall family of cabinetmakers. During the mid 19th century it was the residence of cabinet or furniture maker Oliver Hall. He was a selectman for fifteen years, a town treasurer for ten years and an assessor. He also served as the president of the Mattapan Bank and was a director of the Dorchester Mutual Fire Insurance Company. Hall also had considerable real estate holdings in Dorchester,

particularly in the vicinity of Hall’s Court, later Hecla Street. Oliver Hall’s heirs acquired the property around 1890. By 1918, Margaret A. Ingersoll owned the house. By 1930, Joseph Sacco,

Historical Narrative

Typically, these embroideries depicted Bibilical and pastoral scenes. One of the most fashionable expressions of the school girl’s skill in this technique was the mourning picture which at the time, was considered more fashionable than sad or morbid. Examples of embroidery from Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach’s Academy are in the collections of Winterthur Museum in Delaware. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Old Sturbridge Village as well as in private collections. The Academy flourished for four decades until Mrs. Saunders death in 1841. Five years later, Miss Beach sold the school’s building to the May family and retired to Hingham, MA.

During the mid-to-late 19th century, 34 East Street was variously owned by Mays and Kellets until the heirs of Martha R. May sold the former Academy building to Annie A. and Joseph L. Herm He was a “heating engineer” and the proprietor of the J. L. Hern Engineering Company which seems to have been housed in the rear ell of 34 Adams Street. As late as 1965, Mrs. Ann Hern is listed at this address. The building currently houses a Baptist religious society.

Returning briefly to the story of the First Parish Church, later the First Unitarian Church, it should be noted that the predecessor building to the current church was the scene of considerable anti-slavery activity Anti Slavery Association whose purpose was to speak out against the evils of African American servitude in the southern United States. The anti slavery sermons of the church’s minister, Nathaniel Hall, caused great comment. According to Dorchester historian Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, “it was said that no other pulpit in America was more expertly or more powerfully outspoken on behalf of human freedmen in the most critical day of the anti slavery struggle.”

As previously noted, the students of the Saunders and Beach Academy were encouraged to attend lecture programs held at Lyceum Hall. Although no longer extant, mention should be made of this architecturally noteworthy building and historically significant local institution which once stood just to the west of the First Parish Church. Built in 1839, Lyceum Hall was a three-bay- by-four-bay temple form Greek Revival building. Together with the First Parish Church, the Lyceum, with its pedimented Ionic portico, memorably enclosed the east side of the Dorchester Common. Funded by the members of the First Parish Church for the purposes of edifying Dorchester citizens via lectures and music programs, the Lyceum brought the community together intellectually and socially. Speeches by Dorchester native and national statesman Edward Everett, anti slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison, prison reformer Dorothea Dix (sister-in-law of the Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris) and philosopher Theodore Parker attracted concerned citizens from miles around to the little lecture hall on Meeting House Hill.

Lyceum Hall figured significantly in the lives of Dorchester men who fought in the Civil War. The Hall was used as a recruitment station at the beginning of the war. During “the war of the Rebellion” as the Civil War was called in the north, the interior of Lyceum Hall was set up with work tables. Here, the women of the community cut cloth bandages for soldiers wounded in the fighting. Lyceum Hall was also the place where returning heroes were received at war’s end.

After the war, it was used by local schools for mechanical arts, woodworking and other purposes. In 1891, the City of Boston purchased the hall and used it as a primary school. After the Depression, Lyceum Hall, once the scene of lectures by the famous educator, Horace Mann and Harvard professors, as well as light entertainment by the Germania Band, fell into disuse. Offered to the then relatively new Old Sturbridge Village living history museum, Lyceum Hall was demolished in 1955 before it could be saved for posterity. The Lyceum Hall’s disappearance is one of the great loses sustained by Dorchester’s built environment during the mid-20th century. Its pillars, however, are said to have been salvaged and stored by the First Parish Church.



Between the early 1800s and the Civil War, the Dorchester Common’s original purpose as a grazing area for the livestock of the community was gradually transformed into an ornamental park used for political gatherings, promenading and other forms of passive recreation. The 1847 view of the Dorchester Common suggests that its transition from barn yard to park had only recently begun. Blackman depicts a green space criss crossed by dirt paths and dotted with immature trees that required low wooden enclosures to insure their stability; the considerable girth of mature trees bordering the Church Street edge of the Common contrast with the fragility of the open space’s young trees.  Blackman indicates that the park land extended across Winter street to include the grounds of the First Parish Church and Lyceum. By the late 1860s the Dorchester Common was called Dorchester Square and its role as a formal park had been reinforced by the construction of the Dorchester Soldiers Monument opposite the entrance to the First Parish Church.

The Dorchester Common’s Soldiers Monument was dedicated on September 17, 1867. Funded by the the First Parish Church’s Pick Wick Club, its design was provided by Boston architect Benjamin F. Dwight. The Pick Wick Club was a social and literary club founded in 1856 “to promote social interaction, interest in literature and current events. Pick Wick members selected a plinth surmounted by a granite obelisk exhibiting the names of fallen local heroes.

During the mid to late 19th century, the south west side of the Dorchester Common attained its present remarkable appearance which chronicles a century of Dorchester residential design and construction. Houses dating to the mid 19th century in this linear ensemble includes 5, 11, and 15 Adams Street. Built during the 1860s, the Italianate Mansard house at 5 Adams Street was built for Dr. Mary Jane Safford- Blake and James Blake. Dr. Safford-Blake was among the first, if not the first women gynecologist in this country.  She specialized in the care of the poor and indigent females of the inner city, meaning the North, South and West Ends and the South Bay section of South Boston. Around 1870, she abandoned her comfortable upper middle class existence at 5 Adams Street in favor of enrollment in medical school in New York City. Following medical school, Mrs. Safford-Blake, still estranged from her husband, attended Heidelberg University in Germany with friend and fellow medical student Isabel Chapin Barrows, the first woman opthamologist in America. By the mid 1870s, Mary Safford-Blake was one of only two professors in the gynecological field at Boston University.she is listed in a catalogue as teaching “Diseases of Women”. Dr. Safford-Blake went on to become a medical researcher and political activist. She mounted an effort to free Tsarist critic Catherine Breshkovsky from prison. Known as “the Little Grandmother” of the Russian Revolution, Breshkovsky dictated her memoirs through Safford-Blake’s friend Isabel Chapin Barrows who was proficcient in the Russian language. Safford-Blake traveled to Moscow and was among those who helped secure the release of “the Little Grandmother.” Back in Dorchester, another Safford-Blake friend, diarist Alice Stone Blackwell edited and published Breshkovskys memoirs.

By the mid 1880s, 5 Adams Street had passed from the divorced Blakes to Miss Margaret C. Billings. By 1894, Amelia A. Libby owned this property. Ellen M. Kingsley owned 5 Adams Street from the early 1900s until the 1920s. By 1930, Dr. Patrick Kingsley owned the house and by mid century, funeral director Thomas F. Foley Jr. is listed at this address.

Extant by 1850, the Italianate houses at 11 and 15 Adams Street were owned during the 1870s by Lucy C. Bryant and the Misses Harriet and Sarah C. Blaney, respectively. In 1884 members of the Sanford and Blaney families owned 11 and 15 Adams Street. By 1894, William W. Lord owned 11 Adams Street and 15 Adams Street was owned by Charles Blaney. Blaney retained ownership of the property until it was purchased by Jeremiah H. Fennesey c, 1919- 1915. It was Fennesey who built the three decker next door at 19 Adams Street by 1918. Members of the Lord family owned 11 Adams Street until the 1920s. Later owners included Howard P. Kempton (1930s) and Mrs. Annie G. S weenie (1950s).

Returning to the history of the First Parish or First Unitarian Church, the fifth meeting house burned in 1896. In 1897, the present, sixth meeting house was built on the site of its predecessor from designs provided by Cabot, Everett and Meade of Boston. Judging by Douglas Shand Tucci’s comprehensive list of church architects in Church Building in Boston 1720-1970, Dorchester’s First Parish or First Unitarian Church was the only ecclesiastical edifice designed in the Boston area by this firm. Cabot Everett and Mead were responsible for the design of the Renaissance Revival Arlington Public Library (1892). The church possesses “bells which were cast in England during the 1700s” , an Italian red mahogany pulpit which is said to date to the mid 18th century as well as artifacts and furnishings dating from the 18th to early 20th century.

According to Anthony M. Sammarco, the vestry, at the rear of the church’s sanctuary was designed by Edwin J. Lewis Jr. He was a Dorchester resident and M.I.T. graduate who served an apprenticeship with the important Boston architectural firm of Peabody and Stearns. From 1897 until 1937, he pursued an independent career designing residences, commercial buildings and over forty Unitarian Churches. Although he was a specialist in the Medieval Revival style, designing a dozen or more fine residences in this architectural mode in the Ashmont and Ashmont Hill neighborhoods of Dorchester, the Dorchester First Parish Church vestry illustrates his proficiency in the Colonial Revival style.

The 1897 Colonial Revival design of the First Unitarian Church preserved for the enjoyment of future generations the Dorchester Common’s antique, quintessential New England image of the white washed, steeple-topped church on the village green. At the same time, the construction of three deckers along the Adams and Church streets edges of the Common were reminders that urban building types and density were transforming virtually every section of Dorchester by the turn-of-the-century. Further research is needed on the three decker housing bordering the Dorchester Common. Mostly altered and not particularly architecturally distinguished, the three deckers numbered 19, 21 and 23 Adams Street were built on a lot that contained a substantial, pre-1850 House owned by Eaton Tavern owner Ebenezer Eaton. These three-family buildings were built between 1904-1910 near the height of the three decker building boom in Dorchester. According to Arthur Krim, “over 1,500 three-deckers were built in Dorchester between 1900 and 1910 as the opening of the electric trolley lines further increased opportunity for the average family to leave Boston proper.” By 1910, 19 Adams Street was owned by James G. Fennessey. Tenants listed at this address in 1930 included Thomas J. Crocker “helper, James T. Donohoe, machinist and James L. Thompson, foreman. By mid century, occupants of 19 Adams Street included Irish families headed by Michael J. Molloy, Mary E. Fitzgerald and James J. O’Brien.

21 Adams Street was owned by Mary E. F. Fitzgerald from the early 1900s until at least 1918. Tenants residing here in 1930 included Mrs. Mary L. Driscoll, Robert E. Gorman, painter and Frank H. Yout who was the foreman of an enterprise at 93 Stoughton Street. By 1950, Daniel Fitzgerald, Thomas F. Kilroy and Mrs. Catherine Maraga were in residence at 21 Adams Street.

Mary L. Gavin owned 23 Adams Street from the early 1900s until at least the 1920s. During the 1930s Albert Gavin, Arthur Gavin, clerk, Daniel J. Gavin, carpenter and Richard R. O’Meara, policeman, lived here.

Between 1874 and 1884, the southern eastern half of the Samuel Swan house’s lot at 29 Adams Street was purchased by A.H. Glover to accommodate the construction of two dwelling houses. The existence of these houses was short lived as the three decker numbered 33 Adams Street was built on the lot around 1900 for John H. Giblin. By 1910, FrancisJ. Giblin was listed as the house’s owner. Tenants of the building in 1930 included James T. Brennan, John H. Cauley, physician and Elmer G. Merril, carpenter. By 1950, the entire building was occupied by widows and unmarried women including: Katherine M. Brennan, Mrs. Catherine Griggs, Mrs. Marie Nichols, Mrs. Jane M. Lord and Mary A. Starkey.

Turning to the three deckers of Church Street it should be noted that prior to the construction of this multi-family housing between 1895 and 1910, there were only two Federal period houses bordering the north side of Church Street between Eaton Square and High Streets (8 Church Street and the no longer extant house of William W. Shephard at the northeast corner of Church and Fifield streets). The three-deckers numbered 10 and 12 Church Street were built c.1904-1910 in the side yard of Susan Swan’s 8 Church Street. By 1910, 10 Church Street was owned by Peter Chapleck while E. C. and M.A. Murphy owned 12 Church Street. By 1918, E.J. McGowan owned 10 Church Street and the Murphys are still listed asthe owners of 12 Church Street.

Between 1904 and 1910, the four three deckers numbered 16 to 22 Church Street replaced the house and attached stables of the early 1800s William W. Swan House. With the exception of the Ledux family at 22 Church Street, the early owners and probably the tenants were of irish heritage; owners included: Mary A. Mc Carthy (#16); J.W. Boyle (#18); and William 0′ Connell (#20).

The seven three deckers numbered 28 to 40 Church street, between Winter and High Streets, are the oldest examples of this residential building type in the Dorchester Common / First Parish area. Built in 1895, this group’s builder was J. Edward Sheehan. He is mentioned in Arthur Krim’s The Three Deckers of Dorchester as having been part of the early group of notable early builders of three Dorchester builders. Further research is


Posted on

June 13, 2022

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