Mattapan Square

Mattapan Square

[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]

Although overwhelmingly commercial, the Mattapan Square area’s greatest architectural resource is the Church of the Holy Spirit, a Gothic Revival building designed bythe Boston architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden. The remainder of the district represents commercial blocks which date primarily to the 1910s and 20s, a period spurred by the increased use of automobiles. These mostly 1-2 story commercial blocks are more significant when viewed as a whole rather than individually. For the purposes of this survey, this area is bounded on the north by the northern lot lines of 1593 to 1609 Blue Hill Avenue and 1586-1600A Blue Hill Avenue, on the east by the back lot lines of 1586 to 1600A Blue Hill Avenue and the median strip of Blue Hill Avenue south to the intersection of Cummins Highway and Blue Hill Avenue. The southern boundary is the Neponset River, behind #s 522 to 542 River Street. The western boundary is a rather irregular line that follows the southwestern line of the Church of the Holy Spirit’s lot, jogs north along the back lot lines of Rockdale Street, turns south along Cummins Highway crossing this highway and then turning north along the back lot lines of 509 to 1593 Blue Hill Avenue.Thewestern side of Blue Hill Avenue, from Mattapan Square to 1593 Blue Hill Avenue (interupted by Fairway Street) presents an unbroken expanse of one-two story masonry commercial blocks, characterized by restrained Georgian and Classical Revival surface treatments.The eastern side of Blue is consistent in terms of noteworthy design treatments, but nevertheless, 1596-1600A Blue Hill Avenue should be included as a five store commercial block with pleasing ornamental panels on its low parapet. The group of stores numbered1621-1671 Blue Hill Avenue provide evidence that aesthetically pleasing roof lines and parspet treatments cango a long way toward improving the appearance of a commercial streetscape—here the success  of pedimented and curving forms along the parapets of these one and two story buildings have a positive designon the streetscape (#1643-49 representing a successful new infill structure). The most architecturally significant commercial block in this area is 1621-1631 Blue Hill Avenue; a 2-story brick and cast stone trimmed commercial block is formally finished on two sides and is characterized by expanses of Doric pilaster interspered by hiys crritaz.iing storewindows on the ground floor and pairs of standard size windows on the second floor. Its cornice exhibits well rendered string and dentil courses. The Georgian/ Classical Revival Shawmut Bank Building at 1617 Blue Hill Avenue is a red brick and wood trimmed structure which anchors the northwest corner of Farr and BlueHill Avenue and features a main facade characterized by a broad pedimented supported by four Tuscan Revival columns. The main entrance is surmounted by a broken scroll pediment. The 2-story commercial buildin a: 1601 Blue Hill Avenue exhibits Art Deco treatment of its stylized piers, dentils and parapet. Forming the southernedge of the districtand backing up to the Neponset River is the Mattapan Square Building at 524 River Street. Situated across the street from the Church of the Holy Spirit, this commercial block continues the materials and design sensibilities evident around the corner in the Blue Hill Avenue stores. The Mattapan Square Building consists of a 2-story, 5-store component and a 1-story, 3-store component. The two- story segment exhibits a center entrance flanked by Doric pilasters which are surmounted by an entablature which reads “Mattapan Square Building.

Built in 1886, The Church of the Holy Spirit at 525 River Street is symbolic of the rise of a later wave of ecclesiastical Gothicism which would have a nation-wide impact on church design and had its roots In Dorchester’s late 19th century Gothic Revival churches. According to architectural historian Douglass Shand Tucci, Arthur Rotch, partner in the important Boston architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden “did not envision a cathedra Rather he conceived of the idea of designing a puddingstone church surrounded by natural puddingstone foundations, in a large park, where the rocky landscape would draw together the puddingstone of church and grounds into  a very “rural” ensemble, and the overall design concept is indeed very sensitive to the topography of the site.’ This church is constructed of Roxbury puddingstone and has the plan of a Greek cross. The tower presents an unforgettable image , squat, square and capped by a pyramidal roof with flared eaves. Indeed, the roof has a Japanese sensibility which is subtle and difficult to articulate.The proportions and great charismatic presence of the tower evidently speaks to Cram’s as much as Roach’s involvement in this project and is in line with his great emphasis on memorable massing and proportions of church towers as seen at All Saints Ashmont in the 1890s. Projecting from the front and side facades of the tower are gable roofs which enclose half- timbered surface treatments that serve to Medievalize thisbuilding in pleasingly rustic ways. Twenty five years after the completion of this church, Ralph Adams Cram designed the adjacent, more utilitarian -appearing parish hall.


Mattapan Square has significant historical associations with the development of early 19th century transportation improvements, i.e. the setting out of the Brush Hill Turnpike in 1804-1809. This area encompasses Rotch and Tilden’s remarkable late 19th century masterpiece, the Church of the Holy Spirit. The building of this church in 1886 also marks the first recorded association with church design of the important Gothicist Ralph Adams Cram. From the 1920’s to the 60’s, this area of Mattapan was populated by a thriving Jewish community. To a lesser extent it is important as a node of commercial buildings that was geared to the rising automobile trade during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Mattapan Square is situated on the northern banks of the Neponset River at a point just before the river widens on its way between Milton and Dorchester. Prior to 1800, Mattapan Square, represented a back woods crossroads with the southwest – north east Norfolk Street intersecting with the east-west River Street. Following the winding course of the Neponset River, River Street began as an Indian trail, having been in place long before English settlement. Colonial and Federal period travelers had to pass through Mattapan Square on their way to and from northern and eastern Dorchester, Quincy , Canton and Dedham. The traffic through Mattapan Square picked up slightly when the Brush Hill Turnpike was set out through the area in 1804. Frederick J. Wood, in the Turnpikes of New England notes that “The broad boulevard called Blue Hill Avenue, extending from Grove Hall past Franklin Park to Mattapan, and the beautiful road through Milton to the westerlyfoot of the Great Blue Hill is the legacy left us by the Brush Hill Turnpike.” At that time Mattapan Square and vicinity were considered to be far out in the wilderness. It was hoped that the turnpike would immediately open up this area to development. Originally slated to be a toll road, the turnpike was not a success, due in part to an act passed by the State Legislature prohibiting applying the toll to “anyone on military duty, on religious duty, coming to or from any grist mill or on the common or ordinary business of family concerns, or from anyone who had not been out of town with a loaded team or carriage.” Additionally, the Brush Hill Turnpike Corporation assumed the maintenance of the old bridge of 1733. These exceptions to the rule of toll payment almost laughably applied to just about everyone who would have cause to travel New England roads in the early 19th century. The prospects for success for the Brush Hill Turnpike were slim because it was not projected as a through route to any large place. Frederic J. Wood notes that “beyond Mattapan, which was but nothing then, the route lead through and ended in unbroken woods.” The Brush hill Corporation existed until as late as 1856 at which time the corporation relinquished its rights to the northern end of the Turnpike between Mattapan Square and Grove Hall. From 1857 -1870 this part of the old “pike” was called “Grove Hall Avenue” and it became known as Blue Hill Avenue in 1870 at the time of Dorchester’s annexation to Boston.

By 1850, the Dorchester and Milton Railroad passed through Mattapan Square, hooking up further east with the Old Colony Railroad. The depot was located at the south eastern side of the square, site of the current MBTA Red Line trolley station. By 1850 there were at least a dozen wood structures at Mattapan Square including residences and small shops. Mattapan Square remained a cross roads of modest housing until as late as 1915.

The Church of the Holy Spirit at # 525 River Street is a memorial church to a distinguished Bostonian of the mid 19th century, Benjamin Rotch, husband of Annie Bigelow Lawrence, the eldest daughter of the diplomat, Abbott Lawrence. The Lawrences and Bigelows had long histories as benefactors of Harvard and M.I.T. This was the family that established the Rotch Fellowship at M.I.T., the first architectural scholarship established in the U.S. A family member, Arthur Rotch, of the distinguished Boston architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden was hired to provide designs for the church (architects of Back Bay town houses including 211 Commonwealth Avenue). Holy Spirit represented Ralph Adams Cram’s first association with church design.

Another important later phase of this area’s development was the influx of a Jewish population after 1900 and the rise of the automobile trade as a profitable avenue of commerce. Providing physical links with these developments is the node of one- and two- story commercial blocks along River Street and Blue Hill Avenue, between the Neponset River and Babson Street’s intersection with Blue Hill Avenue.

After 1900, Eastern European Jews from Boston’s North End began to settle along Blue Hill Avenue between Mattapan Square and Grove Hall. Franklin Field and ML Bowdoin became home to middle – class Jews seeking a better life in suburban Dorchester and Roxbury. By the mid 1920s, this Jewish middle class began to move farther out into the suburbs to be replaced by a less affluent Jewish community. Before migrating, however, this affluent Jewish middle class established businesses and built commercial blocks at Mattapan Square, Grove Hall and in other sections of Roxbury/Dorchester. A major landmark from this period which has been altered to accomadate an electrical supply store is the former Oriental Theatre at 1601 Blue Hill Avenue. It was built in 1933 from designs provided by F. A. Norcross.

The Oriental Theatre replaced three wooden structures and a stable representative of the area’s transformation from wood to masonry during the 1920s and 1930s.

1621-1631 Blue Hill Avenue was built between 1920 and 1930, replacing a frame building owned by an Arnos Hollingsworth in 1918. Tenants in this commercial block in 1933 included Peter Schonarth, Delicatessen. Louis Morosini, Fruit, Blue Hill Cafeteria and Edwin Electric Light Co.

Another prominent 1920s structure was The Mattapan Square Building at 524 River Street. In 1918, four wooden buildings owned by Joseph A. Hersey were located on this lot that “backs up”to the Neponset River. Tenants of this business block in 1933 include Raymond N. Copeland, dentist, Phillip A. Henneberry, dentist, Marshall L. Barnard, real estate, Seymour I. Zonn, physician,  Attilio D. Daddario, contractor, Adellina Celli, dress maker. New England School and Music Store and  Richard C. McManus, real estate.


Posted on

June 18, 2022

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