Meetinghouse Hill

Meetinghouse Hill

[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]

Meeting House Hill encompasses some of Dorchester’s most architecturally significant residential, ecclesiastical and institutional buildings. The principal focal point of this area by virtue of its siting atop Meeting House Hill and its distinctive Colonial Revival steeple is the First Parish Church.This church overlooks Dorchester Park which is crisscrossed by paths and contains a Civil War Monument in the form of a granite-obelisk on plinth. Just to the west of Dorchester Park is a small triangular park called Eaton Square. On the south side of Eaton Square is massive granite St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church (long shorn of its original steeple), the other high profile ecclesiastical landmark in the area. Historically, Meeting House Hill was bounded roughly by highways to its west, north and east–currently called Bowdoin. Hancock and Freeport Streets, respectively—and by the large planting area of the Great Lots to the south. Geneva Avenue and Park Street form the approximate modern, southern border of the Hill because their generally east-west routes arc on a level plain lying closest to the gradual incline of the Hill. For the purposes of this survey, Meeting House Hill ‘s historic area has been divided roughly in half with the southwestern area called Ronan Park West. The southwestern half of the Hill which includes Ronan Park, tends to represent post 1870 development, while the survey area called Meeting House Hill speaks to the area’s late 17th-mid 19th century development (with some stylish and substantial post -1875 housing on Potosi and Percival Streets included in this area). The Meeting House Hill Area also encompasses the gritty urban streetscapes of Bowdoin and Coleman Streets.

Historical Narrative

Meeting House Hill was originally called Rocky Hill due to pudding stone out-croppings on its eastern slope. Although the bulk of Dorchester’s 17th century dwellings were located on Aliens Plain , now Pleasant Street and vicinity, and at Savin Hill, Meeting House Hill was not totally devoid of structures. The settlement’s school house stood on Winter Street before 1668, while at least two settlers, George Proctor and John Holman, maintained homesteads on the Hill’s lower slopes. By the early 1700s, Meeting House Hill was Dorchester’s only fully developed summit. This development was inextricably bound with the c. 1673 relocation of the First Parish Church from the corner of Pond and Pleasant Streets to the top of Meeting House Hill. 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 Parish 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”. This 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 by new materials.

By the end of the 18th century, roads entirely encircled Meeting House Hill. Adams Street (then Lower Road) connected the First Parish with Quincy. Hancock Street, on the northeast side of the hill dates to the mid-late 17th century. By 1804, Dorchester Avenue, a Federal period toll road connected Meeting House Hill to Lower Mills to the South and Boston to the north. Judging by the scale of the Federal houses of this area, Meeting House Hill enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity during the early nineteenth century.

The beginning of the pastorate of Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris (1793-1835) ushered in a kind of spiritual and cultural “golden age” on Meeting House Hill” that was not, however without controversy.

Rev. Harris’s congregation became embroiled in the “Great Schism”, an early 19th century religious controversy which divided Congregational churches along liberal and conservative theological lines.The liberal Unitarians remained on Meeting House Hill while the more orthodox Trinitarians established a new or Second Church at Codman Square under the Reverend John Colman in 1806. The Reverend Harris was born in 1768 and was graduated from Harvard in 1787. According to Orcutt, he was remembered “for his abilities as a scholar, writer, poetic sensibility, keen wit and genial nature”. After his retirement from preaching in 1835 he devoted the last decade of his life to researching the history of Dorchester.

The First Parish Church of 1743 and 1795 was “injured in a violent storm” of September, 1815 and was replaced during the following year by a new house of worship. In one newspaper account of its dedication, it was noted that “The edifice is finished in a masterly manner, and is an honor to the town. The steeple in particular, is considered a most beautiful specimen of architecture, makes a graceful appearance, and, from its elevated situation, as well as its towering height, is seen to advantage from the neighboring towns.” The present wooden First Parish Unitarian Church on Winter Street was constructed in 1897, by the architectural firm of Cabot, Everett and Mead of Boston. This firm was responsible for the Renaissance Revival Arlington Public Library (1892).Rising to a height of 120′, the steeple of the First Parish Church is as a major landmark on the Dorchester “skyline”. Against all odds, given the dense residential development of the turn- of -the- century,this church, together with the Dorchester Common and a handful of Federal period houses provides a glimpse of an early 19th century rural center. The date of the Dorchester Common’s origins is unclear but local histories all note that it has long been used as a park. Although Eaton Square, adjacent to the common on the west, has a Victorian sensibility due in part to its cast iron fountain and proximity to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church (1872), it was, in fact, the center of the community at the time of the Revolution. Located on Eaton Square was Eaton’s Tavern , before which the Dorchester wagoners assembled on the eve of the fortification of Dorchester Heights. By the early 1830s the Eaton Tavern had been removed and an ornamental park was set out on its site. The present cast iron fountain may be a successor to the one given c. 1840 by Emily Fifield in memory of Theodore Lyman, Mayor of Boston from 1834-35.

During the early 19th century, Meeting House Hill assumed an architectural identity recognizable as a prosperous residential quarter with handsome Federal houses built on principal streets such as Church, Winter, High, Fast and Adams Streets. For example, the c. early 1800s William D. Swan house at 8 Church Street exemplifies the kind of handsome Federal 5-bay, double pile residence that was being built for the gentry of Meeting House Hill. In his youth, Swan was employed as a mechanic. While still a young man, he taught in the public schools of Dorchester, Charlestown and Boston. Later in life he became a book seller with the firm of Hickling Swan and Brewer and was “one of the prime movers in publishing Worcester’s Dictionary.” He published many schoolbooks, including the popular Hilliard’s Reader. 8 Church Street remained in the Swan family until the turn-of-the-century. During the 1910s and 20s, it housed the Catholic Club of Dorchester. By the 1930s, it was owned by the Thomas B. Kelly family of Kelly’s Funeral Home.

It was during this period that Meeting House Hill began to figure prominently within the annals of American women’s history. In 1804, Judith Saunders and Clementina Beach purchased from William and Frederick Pope a house and a quarter acre of land on “the corner of the road from Milton to Boston and the road to the seashore” or what is today the corner of Adams and East Street. The house was built by lumber merchants and sold for $4,500.00

Still standing at 34 Adams Street, this five bay, double pile Federal building housed Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach’s Academy from 1804 until 1846. The Academy’s curriculum included “Reading, Writing, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Plain Sewing, Embroidery, Tambour, French Language, Painting, Geography, including the use of the Globes”. The academy’s high standards attracted girls from as far away as Mississippi and enrolled upwards of thirty-six boarders. The academy was described as “very spacious, the accommodations excellent and the situation admirable and remarkably healthy.” A pew was reserved in the First Parish Church for the young ladies of the school.

The school is perhaps best remembered in antiquarian circles for the superb embroideries created by the girls, typically depicting Biblical or classically inspired stories as well as mourning scenes to memorialize deceased relatives.Mrs. Saunders died in 1841 and Miss Beach closed the Academy in 1846, moving to Hingham. The property passed to the May family.

The Blackman House at 29 Adams Street was built in 1820 and was for many years the home of the artist Lemuel Blackman . His best-known work is a landscape of Meeting House Hill, painted during the early 19th century. During the Revolution, Blackman had been a soldier in Captain James Robinson’s Company, which belonged to the regiment commanded by Ezra Badlam, Esq.

In 1838, The Lyceum Hall (demolished) was built with contributions of the members of the First Parish Church. Dedicated in 1840, The Lyceum’s main facade was characterized by a monumental Ionic portico with a low pedimented attic. Erected just to the east of the First Parrish Church, its foundation was composed of puddingstone quarried from Meeting House Hill’s ledgy terrain. Throughout the nineteenth century, the hall was the site of educational lectures, demonstrations, dances, and military drills. In this building work tables were set up for women who cut cloth bandages for the army during the Civil War. After the war, it was used by local schools for mechanical arts, woodworking and other purposes. 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 losses sustained by Dorchester’s built environment during the mid-20th century. Its pillars, however, were salvaged and stored by the church.

The residence of one of the Lyceum Hall’s building committee members, Oliver Hall, is still extant at 39 Adams Street. This altered Greek Revival house of c. 1840 was the home of cabinet 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.

The Greek Revival style was employed in the design of houses on the eastern segment of Church Street, originally called Highland during the nineteenth century. Further research is needed on the gable front houses numbered 75, 86 and 90 Church Street. Probably built during the 1840s, these houses , together with granite gate posts, old stone walls, mature trees and the narrow dimensions of Church Street constitutes one of the most unspoiled pre-Civil War streetscapes in Dorchester. This section of Church Street, durng the mid 19th century was home to Brookses, Munroes and Glovers.

The Meeting House Hill area also encompasses the northeastern slopes of Mount Ida (see also the Ronan Park Wes. area). The section bisected by Percival Street was once part of the estates of the Percival and Cushing families. As early as 1800, a cottage inhabited by Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris of the First Parrish Church stood on the site of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. During the mid-19th century, the former Harris House was known as “Percival Cottage”, home to “Mad Jack” Percival, Captain of the frigate USS Constitution or Old Ironsides. Known for his heroics feats at sea, Percival, as a youth, joined the Merchant Marine and was impressed into serving on the British vessel “Epervier”. Although escape from such servitude was rare, Percival managed the impossible and escaped by placing a revolver at a sentry’s head. During the War of 1812, his service to the American cause was deemed to be so extraordinary that he was presented with a ceremonial sword by the United States Congress. After the War of 1812. Percival was sent to the West Indies to break the vice -like grip of pirates over trade in this region.

Percival spent his later years on Meeting House Hill in the old cottage (demolished) at the corner of Bowdoin and Percival Streets. Percival died in 1862, the street named in his honor was subsequently set out over his acreage, and a discrete development of Italianate/Mansard residences overlooking Adams Street but numbered 5 and 6 Percival Street were built c. 1865-70. These houses shared a circular cul de sac driveway off of Percival Street.

5 Percival Street has significant historical associations with Dorchester native Dr. Mary Jane Safford-Blake. Dr. Safford-Blake was among the first, if not the first women gynecologists in this country. She specialized in the care of the poor and indigent females of the inner city, which at that point did not mean Dorchester but the impoverished, immigrant inner core of Boston–the North, South, and West Ends and the South Bay area of South Boston. While living at 5 Percival Street during the early 1870s, Mary Jane Safford Blake became estranged from her husband James Blake and enrolled in medical school in New York. She attended Heidelberg University in Germany with friend and fellow medical student Isabel Chapin Barrows, the first woman ophthalmologist in America. By 1874. Mary Safford-Blake was one of only two professors in the gynecological field at Boston University; sheis listed in a catalogue as teaching a course called “Diseases of Women”. By the mid 1880s, 5 Percival Street had passed from the divorced Blakes, to a Margaret Billings. Dr. Safford -Blake went on to conduct medical research and became involved in an effort to free Catherine Breshkovsky from a Tsarist prison. Known as “The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution” Breshkovsky dictated her memoirs through Safford-Blake’s friend Isabel Chapin Barrows who spoke fluent Russian. Dorchester diarist Alice Stone Blackwell then edited and published Breshkovskys memoirs in her book “The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution”. Safford-Blake traveled to Moscow and secured the “little grandmother’s” release from prison.

Set back facing an ample lawn and providing a glimpse of a well-to -do mid-19th century gentleman’s estate is 32 Percival Street. This Italianate house has significant historical associations with Dr. Benjamin Cushing, who by all accounts was a brilliant physician who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Stationed at Fortress Monroe at Hampton Beach, Virginia, he returned after the war to his Dorchester estate valued at $16,000.00 in 1869.By 1874, this 96, 267 square foot estate encompassed three large stables as well as 32 Percival. Built c. 1860. This house is all that remains of Mount Ida’s nineteenth century “mansion house estates” that included the Harris-Percival, Capen and Harding-Collins houses (see Ronan Park West area). 32 Percival passed from Cushings’ heirs at the turn-of -the-century to Mary E. Churchill. The Churchill family owned this house until at least the early 1930s.

St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church at 309 Bowdoin Street majestically presides over a complex encompassing a convent and rectory. This fine example of Norman Gothic Revival architecture was designed by the preeminent 19th century Cathlolic church architect Patrick C. Keeley. Built in 1872 on the site of the Percival cottage, its construction represents a major water shed in Dorchester’s history. First and foremost, the construction of a Roman Catholic Church across from the First Parish Congregational Church signaled a lessening, if not complete cessation of hostilities between Yankee Protestants and Irish Catholics in Dorchester; during the mid- 1850s, an effort to establish a Catholic house of worship on Washington Street, near Codman Square, resulted in the destruction of the partially finished church by an anti- Catholic gang. The construction of St. Peter’s meant that the Catholics of northern Dorchester did not have to travel to St. Gregory’s R. C. Church at Dorchester Lower Mills to worship. St. Peter’s was the vision of Father Peter Ronan. The puddingstone materials for the church were quarried on the church’s lot which cost $12.000.00 to purchase. Constructed at a cost of $130,000.00, St. Peter’s has a capacity of 2500 people. The rectory on this property was built in 1885. Dorchester architect William McGinty designed St.Peter’s Convent and Parochial School at 307 and 280 Bowdoin Street , respectively, at the turn-of-the-century .

Further research is needed on two impressive groups of row houses in this area. Both the Italianate/ Mansard 33 to 97 Coleman Street and the Queen Anne/ Romanesque Revival 266 to 274 Bowdoin Street represent an urban house type never again constructed within this area The 1874 Atlas shows Coleman Street lined on both sides with the vacant lots of projected row houses suggesting a construction date of c. 1875. These lots were part of a development bordering Clark, Coleman, Bowdoin and Hamilton Streets, but only the northwest sides of Coleman and Bowdoin Streets were built up with row houses. The Bowdoin group appears to date to c. 1890.

Between 1890 and 1930, the remaining remnants of estates, side gardens and vacant lots were subdivided to accommodate residences ranging from the substantial Queen Anne and Colonial Revival residences of Percival and Potosi Streets to the three deckers bordering Fifield Street and parts of Church, East and Fox streets.

1/3 Potosi Street ranks among the finest examples of the Georgian Revival style in Dorchester. It was built during the early 1900s on one of 15 lots bordering Potosi street owned by Edward Gately. Prior to Gately ‘s subdivision, this house’s lot had been part of the Capen estate. By 1910, it was owned by Katherine L. Merrick. By the early 1930s,  F. A. York, President of the Yourk Lumber Co. owned this house and 4,000 square foot lot.


Posted on

June 18, 2022

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