Fowler Clark Farm, 487 Norfolk Street, Mattapan

, , ,

No. 15437 Illustration of the Fowler Clark Farm from Historic Boston Incorporated, 2015.

Historic Boston Inc., North Bennett Street School, The Trust for Public Land, and the urban Farming Institute of Boston opened the newly-restored Fowler Clark Epstein Farm in 2018.  The $3.6 million renewal of the farm creates a new headquarters for the Urban Farming Institute of Boston and supports farmer training, public education programs, a farmers market and demonstration kitchen.

The property has had only five owners over 240 years.  The house’s first owner and presumably its builder was Samuel Fowler who farmed 11 acres in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In 1895, the property was subdivided into house lots, leaving the mansion house and barn on the smaller home lot of a little over half an acre.

The property was designated a Boston Landmark in 2005.  The Boston Landmarks Commission Landmark Designation calls the property “a rare remaining, highly intact agricultural setting the typified the vernacular landscape of pre-Civil War Boston.”  The designation also says, “The Fowler-Clark farmhouse is one of just four farmhouses that date to between 1786 and 1806 identified in Boston, and may be the oldest of the four.”

The following is from the Boston Landmarks Commission study report:

Setting: Dorchester’s Agricultural Roots

The Fowler-Clark farm dates to the period in which Mattapan was a village of the independent town of Dorchester. Prior to being annexed to the city of Boston in 1870, Dorchester had a long history of agricultural productivity. Shortly after European settlement of the town in 1630, descriptions of Dorchester highlighted the cultivation of the land. These include the following seventeenth century testimonials: “…well wooded and watered; very good arable grounds and hay-ground; fair cornfields and pleasant gardens, with kitchen gardens, In this plantation is a great many cattle, as kine, goats, and swine;” and “orchards and gardens, full of fruit-trees, plenty of corn-land, although much of it hath been long in tillage, yet hath it ordinarily good crops; the number of trees are near upon 1500. Cowes and other Cattell of that kinde about 450;” and “Six miles beyond Braintree lieth Dorchester, a frontier town pleasantly seated… beautified with fair orchards and gardens, having also plenty of corn-land and store of cattle counted the greatest town heretofore in New England.” 

This agricultural heritage, firmly established in the seventeenth century, continued until well into the nineteenth century. Illustrations and descriptions of Dorchester from the early nineteenth century depict a town characterized by agriculture. In 1839, John Heyward’s description of Dorchester in his New England Gazetteer; Containing Descriptions of All the States, Counties and Towns in New England, echoes those of his predecessors: “The soil of Dorchester is rocky, but very fertile and under a high state of cultivation. It is exceedingly productive, particularly of vegetables, fruits and flowers….Its hill tops and valleys are decked with farm houses and tasteful villas, and nowhere can be found the union of town and country enjoyments more complete.”8 Corroborating this description, Edward Baker’s map of Dorchester and Milton drawn in 1831 illustrates acres of open land with signs of domestication and cultivation. Advancements in transportation and annexation to the city of Boston in the mid and late nineteenth century initiated the transformation of Dorchester from an agricultural town to a street-car suburb. Large swaths of land were subdivided and densely developed. However, all of Dorchester did not transform at once. Norfolk Street near the Fowler-Clark farm retained its large lots, and spotty development through the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, however, only remnants of its agricultural settlement, including the Fowler-Clark farm, remained.

The Farm

The Fowler-Clark farm reflects Dorchester’s rich agricultural history, with a long line of yeoman tilling the land. While the property today is known as the Clark Farm, so named for the Clark family who were its stewards for over a century, probate records indicate that the property as it remains today originated with Samuel Fowler, a Dorchester yeoman, who lived on and farmed the property with his family in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1786, Samuel Fowler, his father, Stephen Fowler, and his brothers Stephen and Jesse Fowler, inherited a significant sum of land from Samuel’s grandfather, Stephen Fowler, a veteran of the Revolutionary War.9 The property divided among Stephen Fowler’s descendants included approximately 330 acres, at least two houses, and several barns.10 Samuel Fowler’s portion included a farm called, “Stiles’s place,” which included approximately thirty-five acres and a barn. No buildings other than the barn were mentioned in the description of Samuel’s inheritance, nor in the description of “Stiles’s farm” in the inventory of his grandfather’s property.11 By 1806 when Samuel Fowler died, however, he left an 11 and one quarter acre parcel, one third of his estate, with “all the buildings thereon,”12 to his wife, Mary. The parcel, which would pass to the Clarks three decades later, included a “mantion [sic] house and barn.”13 While the probate records indicate that the house appeared on the property between 1786 and 1806, local lore has suggested that the house may have been moved to the property, leaving the possibility that the building predates the 1786-1806 estimated date of construction. (Moving houses was a relatively common occurrence and would not diminish the significance of a building so long associated with its current location).

The single pile massing of the main house, central chimney, five bay façade, 12/12, double-hung, wood sash, and pedimented entry porch are representative features of houses constructed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Massachusetts. Illustrative of the property’s agricultural occupation at this time were Samuel Fowler’s possessions at the time of his death, farming utensils, an ox yoke, four bushels of corn, potatoes, turnips, a cow, a pig, and hay among them. 14

Mary Fowler sold the eleven and one quarter acres of property including the house and barn that comprised her inheritance in 1810 to her son, Samuel Fowler, Jr., for five hundred dollars. Following Samuel Fowler, Jr.’s death ten years later, the 11 and one quarter acre parcel was divided into sevenths. Four sevenths of the property, including the house and barn were sold at auction, and the remaining three sevenths were divided among Samuel Fowler, Jr.’s, living siblings and their heirs, Sally (Sarah) Pratt, Susannah Fowler, and Lucy Hall’s sons, William and John Hall.15

Sally Pratt and Susana Fowler, together with Sally’s husband, Otis Pratt, sold their two shares in 1822 to Samuel Baker, yeoman, and his wife Patience.16 A year later, Samuel Baker acquired the additional four sevenths of the original Fowler parcel, including the house and barn, at public auction.17 In 1824, the Bakers sold the six sevenths of the eleven and a quarter acre parcel they had acquired and “all the buildings thereon” to Daniel Sanderson, another Dorchester yeoman, 18 who purchased the final share in the original parcel from the guardian of William and John Hall later that year.

The farm began its long association with the Clark family in 1837 when Daniel Sanderson and his wife Alma sold the original Fowler parcel comprising “about twelve acres” to Mary B. Clark, wife of Henry Clark, “with dwelling house and outbuilding thereon” for $1400.20 The outbuilding mentioned in the deed is probably not the existing outbuilding. Tax records indicate the Clarks had 2 barns on the property, in addition to the house, from 1850-1855. Between 1855 and 1861, however, a stable was constructed. The form of the existing outbuilding is consistent with a stable constructed in the mid nineteenth century. The first illustrated record of the Clark property depicts a house and a single, large, outbuilding sited in the location of the existing house and stable in 1874.

According to the 1860 census, additional inhabitants of the property during this period included James and Mary Clark’s son, Henry, a grocer, and the Stevens family—a family of four, some of whom appeared to serve as laborers on the farm and others to work in the grocery business, presumably with Henry Clark, Jr.

Henry Clark Jr. married Mary J. Clark with whom he had two children, James Henry Clark and Mary H. Clark. By 1870 when the next census was recorded, Henry Clark, Jr. had died and his wife and children continued their residence on the farm with his parents. They were also joined by this time by Mary J. Clark’s brother, Charles Worthington, who labored on the farm. With the death of Henry Clark, Sr., in 1872 and Mary B. Clark shortly thereafter in 1875, the farm passed to Mary J. Clark and her son, James Henry Clark, Mary H. Clark having died in childhood. Mary J. Clark and James Henry Clark appear on city atlases as co-owners of the Clark property through 1933, though James Henry Clark, his wife Alice, and their five children resided down the street at 523 Norfolk Street, and James Henry worked as a salesman in a wholesale store.

Though parcels adjoining the Fowler-Clark farm were beginning to be subdivided in the last years of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of the land surrounding the Fowler-Clark farm remained sparsely developed with farmhouses and outbuildings scattered on large parcels of land through the 1880s and mid 1890s. By 1895, however, electric streetcar lines were making outlying districts more easily accessible, and James Henry Clark and his mother followed the lead of many Dorchester landowners and subdivided the roughly twelve acre estate into sixty-one lots. Between 1910 and 1918, the majority of the Clark-owned lots, and those in their immediate vicinity were sold and developed.

Mary J. Clark died in 1932, leaving the property in the hands of James Henry and his wife Alice. James Henry Clark retained the property until 1940 when he sold the house and stable to Gertrude Miller and Grace Miller Hunt, who, in-turn, sold the property a year later to Jorge and Ida Epstein. The Ida G. Epstein Trust remains the current owner and Ida Epstein and her son currently reside in the house.

The only notable exterior changes to the house recorded with the City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department occurred during the Epstein’s stewardship. These included an application to remove a one story ell and to shingle the house in 1942, and to add a one story wood and stone ell in 1967.

While the acreage that comprised the Fowler-Clark farm is substantially diminished from its original expanse, it retains its character nonetheless. This is due in part to the siting of the buildings on the remaining property. The house and stable are set back substantially from Norfolk Street, and do not lie parallel to the road, but rather are angled slightly away from it, further indication that the house probably predates the official laying out of Norfolk Street in 1803-1804.23 Though overgrown, the frontage lends the property a pastoral quality, unique in the densely developed neighborhood. Additionally, the half acre on which the buildings stand, though only a fraction of the original farm, appears sizable in its context. The integrity of this siting, together with the age of the buildings, serve as a very tangible reminder of a time when this area was sparsely developed and agricultural practices characterized the landscape.

Architectural Significance

The house and stable that comprise the Fowler-Clark farm are outstanding examples of vernacular architecture reflective of Boston’s agricultural past. Their integrity of form and location distinguish them from their immediate surroundings but also from most buildings in the city of Boston. While eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings are plentiful in Boston, detached dwelling houses on large lots on with outbuildings associated with their agricultural past in their original arrangement, are not. The Fowler-Clark farmhouse is one of just four farmhouses that date to between 1786 and 1806 identified in Boston, and may be the oldest of the four.24 Of the four, two retain outbuildings associated with their agricultural past. Such intact properties are exceedingly rare and highly valuable for study. Vernacular landscapes such as the Fowler-Clark farm, defined here as farm buildings which retain a recognizable relationship to the land, reflect the broad patterns of development and life affiliated with the general population, rather than a select, privileged few. For many years, the contributions of such cultural landscapes to the field of architectural history were overlooked.

Currently however, vernacular landscapes are prized for what they reveal about the people and environments from which they derived.

Many vernacular buildings in Boston, including some of the oldest examples, have been obscured over time by encroaching development and insensitive alterations, making them difficult to identify. Even well preserved older buildings, like the James Blake House on East Cottage Street in Dorchester, and the Paul Revere House on North Square in Boston’s North End, though recognizable as seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings, have been heavily altered from their original states.25 The Fowler-Clark farm, by comparison, is especially remarkable for its high degree of integrity. While the one story addition to the rear of the house dates to the 1960s, the form and massing of the original single pile dwelling remain the main identifying feature. Original fenestration patterns and sash further distinguish the building. Though a much later building, the stable too retains its architectural integrity. Lastly, the original siting of the pair of buildings lends an additional level of distinction.

While vernacular agricultural properties are well represented throughout the Commonwealth, very few of these properties remain in urban centers. Just twelve properties with agricultural heritages that date between 1786 and 1806 have been identified in Boston, Fall River, Lowell, New Bedford, Springfield, and Worcester. Of those properties, only one was built before 1790, thus, the Fowler-Clark farm may predate many of these properties. The Fowler-Clark farm’s survival in Boston, one of the densest urban centers in the state, provides a rare opportunity to evaluate Boston’s agricultural heritage, the ramifications of which were felt throughout the Commonwealth and the region as descendants of early settlers dispersed throughout New England.


Posted on

March 20, 2020