O’Brien’s Market, 1911-1913 Dorchester Avenue / 175 Ashmont Street

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No. 7878 O’Brien’s Market, photograph May 6, 2006

No. 7877 O’Brien’s Market, photograph May 6, 2006.

O’Brien’s Market, 1911-1913 Dorchester Avenue / 175 Ashmont Street, is on the pending list for designation as a Boston Landmark.

O’Brien’s Market, built in 1884, is located in Peabody Square, a National Register-eligible district with an ensemble of buildings that together present a memorable commercial/residential node at the intersection of Dorchester Avenue, Talbot Avenue and Ashmont Street.

Brief History of Ashmont/Peabody Square

Early Years

The area called Ashmont, centered on Dorchester Avenue (built as a toll road in 1805 and made a free street in 1854) and Ashmont Street (laid out in 1849), remained largely unsettled from the 1630 founding of Dorchester until the early 1800s. From that time to the 1870s it was dominated by several large estates owned by prominent families of the time, located on hills on either side.

The western hill, now known as Ashmont Hill (Welles Hill in the 19th century), was the 100-acre estate of John Welles, a 1782 graduate of Harvard who was associated with Welles and Co., the first prominent American banking house in Paris; a prominent local politician; and a pioneer horticulturalist.  Welles died in 1850; the property was leased for a number of years and inherited in 1870 by his grandson, George Derby Welles, who was living in Paris.

The eastern hill, now known as Carruth’s Hill (Ashmont Hill in the 19th century), was the site of two estates. Between 1824 and 1878, the land north of Ashmont Street was the summer home of Chester Newhall, a prosperous boot and shoe manufacturer, and his family. After 1845 the southern portion of the hill was the home of Nathan Carruth, who earned his fortune through the West Indian trade, and later, as the first president of the Old Colony Railroad, built the line through Dorchester to the South Shore in 1845.  In 1870, the year of Dorchester’s annexation to Boston, Carruth was instrumental in routing the Shawmut Line, a branch of the Old Colony, through Ashmont to Milton.

Development Begins

Following annexation and the opening of Ashmont Station in 1872, these prominent landowners quickly moved to capitalize on their considerable real estate holdings, laying out streets and platting the land for residential development.  Drawn by the convenience of the railroad and the appeal of the “garden suburb” environment being created at Ashmont in large part due to the visionary plans of Welles and Nathan Carruth’s son, Herbert, well-to-do-businessmen and others began to build homes in the latest styles in the area, and a small, upper-middle-class village began to take form on the hills to either side of Peabody Square.  A handful of houses were built in the early 1870s, but a financial recession put a damper on activity, and it was only in the 1880s that construction came into full force. As a result, the majority of the significant houses in the area were built between the early 1880s and the turn of the century.  During that period the sound of hammers and saws was essentially unceasing. Between 1870 and 1920, the population of Dorchester increased from about 12,000 to 120,000. 

O’Brien’s Market

1911-1913 Dorchester Avenue/175 Ashmont Street

The surge in in residential development in the 1880s must have presented an attractive opportunity to offer household provisions to the area’s growing and affluent population. By 1884 there were several dozen homes in the immediate vicinity, and both Carruth’s Hill and Welles Hill were primed for further development. Thus it was that in 1884 Messrs. Frederick P. Jacques and George C. Griffin decided to open a grocery and produce market at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and Ashmont Street in what was then called Ashmont Square.

The two proprietors of what was initially called the Ashmont Market engaged the architect W. Whitney Lewis to design a building to accommodate their provisions business and also to provide two four-room residential suites for the proprietors on the upper floors.  (George O’Brien started out as a clerk in the store in 1895, later succeeding to the ownership of the business; hence the current and long-standing name of the building.)

It is not known whether Lewis was first drawn to the Ashmont area by Messrs. Jacques and Griffin or by Frank Fairbanks, a prosperous Boston hatter, for whom Lewis designed a house at 1 Fairfax Street in 1884 (along with several other houses in that neighborhood at the same time), but regardless, in the design of the market, Whitney Lewis placed the first significant building in Peabody Square.

The Peabody Square “Ensemble”

O’Brien’s Market is a critical element in the collection of buildings that make up Ashmont’s historic village center in Peabody Square, an assemblage of 19th century structures that is National Register-eligible and exceptional in the quality and diversity of its components.  In addition to the Market, Peabody Square comprises:

The Hotel Argyle (1882-92), an architecturally complementary building to O’Brien’s, and an adjoining red-brick stable directly across the street (166-170 Ashmont Street).  The buildings were likely designed by Lewis; the stable was was remodeled to a car barn in 1910 by architects Guy and Proctor.

The Ashmont Block (1892), which housed club rooms and a large, second-floor function hall, designed by local architect-builder H.M. Wallis (164 Ashmont Street).

All Saints Church, Episcopal (1892-1894), designed by Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Goodhue.  All Saints was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Property with National Significance in 1980 (NR #80000678) ; the 2012 Historic Structures Report prepared as part of the church’s recent restoration recommended that its status be upgraded to National Historic Landmark, which the parish intends to pursue.

Peabody Square Park (1893), a green space in the center of Peabody Square with horse-watering trough.

The Peabody Square Fire House (1895), designed by City Architect Edmund Wheelwright.

The Peabody Apartment Building (1895-1896), designed by Edwin J. Lewis, Jr.  (no relation to W. Whitney Lewis), who also designed numerous houses, primarily in the Shingle Style, in both Ashmont Hill and Carruth’s Hill. The Peabody was individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, as a Property with Historic Significance for Architecture, Community Planning and Development (NR#01000872).

The Peabody Square Clock (1909), designed by William Downer Austin and manufactured by the E. Howard Clock Company.  It was designated a Boston Landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission on November 1, 1983.

This remarkable and coherent ensemble of buildings and structures satisfies the National Trust’s Criteria for Evaluation A and C and might also be designated a Boston Landmark District (Criteria A and D).  Each of the buildings is makes an essential contribution to the character of the Square, which enhances the neighborhoods surrounding the square as some of the most desirable in Boston.  (See also MACRIS BOS.EA, Carruth Street-Peabody Square.)

The reworking of the Boston Zoning Code in 2013 eliminated Article 52, the Dorchester Avenue Neighborhood District, which had specifically identified Peabody Square as a Neighborhood Design Overlay District deserving more intensive design review; Peabody Square is now included within the Carruth Street/Peabody Square NDOD in Article 62 (Dorchester Neighborhood District), with much less specificity provided about the importance of Peabody Square itself.  However, it is worth noting the description that appeared in Article 52:

    1.     Peabody Square Neighborhood Design Overlay District. Peabody Square is located in the Ashmont section of Dorchester and is created by the intersection of Dorchester and Talbot Avenues and Ashmont and Bushnell Streets. The square is marked by the presence of a street clock designed by architect William Downes (sic) Austin and erected in 1909. Peabody Square is a commercial area surrounded by several buildings of various vintages including an 1884 Queen Anne shingle-style building of architectural importance (emphasis added), a circa-1900 Jacobean-style apartment house, and an 1893 Romanesque-style fire station.

Architectural Description

The 2.5-story commercial/residential block anchors the southwest corner of Dorchester Avenue and Ashmont Street. The structure is composed of a brick first floor, with a series of arched  openings, while its upper floors are clad with wood shingles.  The main facade facing Dorchester Avenue exhibits an off-center oriel on the second floor.  The Ashmont Street wall is treated as a wide octagonal component which culminates in a low, polygonal, towered segment capped by a pyramidal roof.  Its main facade features an off-center gable containing a band of three small square windows; sand and pebble surface treatments cover portions of the gable.  Small terra cotta balls set into the gable’s sandy surfaces provide the lettering for both the date of construction (“1884” ) and circular and swirling decorative forms.  The ridges of the intersecting gables are accented by terra cotta elements.

The building is described more fancifully but no less accurately by noted architectural historian Douglass Shand Tucci in Ashmont (Dorchester, 1991):

“A red brick ground-story market with shingled upper residential stories, where at first, as was the custom of the day, the proprietors lived, each in his own four-room suite, no building could have set a better tone for the village center it inaugurated, Victorian fantasy!  There is ‘checkerboard’ brick patterning, formed by the interplay of receding and projecting bricks so as to animate the facade, especially in raking light; rough-faced red sandstone, worked particularly in the buttress offsets into robust shouldering profiles; decorative shingling in varying patterns; clapboards and stucco and fanciful ‘rock’ scrollwork designs set in the stucco and centering on the numerals 1884 (the year the foundation stone was laid); all crowned by steeply pitched roofs and curiously shaped dormers and tall chimney stacks with picturesque chimney pots and a wonderful terra-cotta cresting that is almost the profile of frosting on a wedding cake.”

See also MACRIS BOS.5953, Jacques and Griffin’s Market, commonly called O’Brien’s Market. (WHERE SHOULD THIS GO?)

The Architect: William Whitney Lewis

Born in Manchester, England, in 1850/1, William Whitney Lewis was came to the United States at an early age; he studied at Boston Boys’ High School in Philadelphia and then joined one of the first classes at the School of Architecture at MIT, which was founded in 1865.  After training as a draftsman in the Boston office of Cummings and Sears, from 1868 to 1875, Lewis formed his own practice in 1876 with an office in downtown Boston, specializing in residential architecture, for which there was a growing demand both in the Back Bay and in the emerging “garden suburbs” such as Dorchester, and beyond. 

According to Richard Herndon in Boston of Today (Boston, 1892), while Lewis developed a national following, he was best known for his “elaborate houses in Boston, Lowell, Long Beach, Philadelphia and Manchester-by-the-Sea.” He designed more than 20 houses in the Back Bay alone, including nine on Commonwealth Avenue. He also designed a number of houses in the Ashmont section of Dorchester, the Sears Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, and the stables for residential buildings in Brookline (all now recognized within Brookline’s various historic districts), and for the Harvard Veterinary School. A Fellow of the Boston Society of Architects, he was an active member of Boston’s notable architectural community. Lewis died in Cohasset, MA, in 1933.

It is clear that Lewis was prolific in his Boston practice, and most of his work is located here, but it would merit investigation to search out projects beyond local ones in places such as Philadelphia and Long Beach and determine what was meant by a “national following,” as described by Herndon above.

Significance of the Building

Purpose-built Market/Apartment Building

O’Brien’s Market is possibly the earliest example of a purpose-built neighborhood market with apartments on the upper floors to be found in Massachusetts and perhaps in New England.   While row-style buildings in dense urban settings sometimes included ground-floor commercial space with apartments above, in more “suburban” areas such as Dorchester, the practice was (and sometimes still is) to modify an existing building to accommodate a market or other business, or to construct a building solely for commercial use.

Just two blocks from O’Brien’s Market, a single-family residence at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and Fuller Street had been converted several years earlier to provide space for a market on the first floor with apartments above.  Other conversions appeared in other parts of Dorchester as well as in cities everywhere in the United States. 

Architectural Merit

The concept of a mixed-use building in a suburban area was innovative, in itself. Beyond that, Lewis successfully met the challenge of designing a building of an architectural style and domestic scale that is consistent and compatible with the developing neighborhood around it, while making a statement about the solidity and respectability of the business that it housed.  The combination of Queen Anne elements of lightness and whimsy are grounded by the brick and brownstone first floor with its Richardsonian Romanesque arches.

An addition made in the 1980s to add a retail space to the left of the original building respected the original architecture, with brick facing and arches;  the sympathetic addition does not detract from the significance or integrity of the original structure.

O’Brien’s Market is very similar to a building near the corner of Marlborough and Exeter streets in the Back Bay designed by Lewis in 1885, the year after O’Brien’s was built.  It was praised extravagantly by Donlyn Lyndon in his Boston: The City Observed (New York; 1982):

“Prestidigitation,” declares Lyndon of Lewis’s design skills: “he sure could juggle.  This building has more decisions in the air at one time than any other in Boston…. It’s great entertainment.”  So is O’Brien’s.  Among the similarities are the enormous glass-filled arches that dominate both buildings, the extensive use of brick trimmed with brownstone, and, above all, the way that at each building the ground was scooped away at the corner to form a kind of moat or light well for thereby became a more usable basement story: a feature at once practical and picturesque.  Douglass Shand Tucci, also in his book, Ashmont, notes that O’Brien’s Market is “worthy of comparison with the better-known S.S. Pierce block at Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Greater Boston’s other splendid late 19th century market building.” 

Influence on Later Developments

With this new building type, Lewis very likely changed the American landscape by setting an example for others to follow. In addition to O’Brien’s Market, Lewis designed a very similar building at 194 Washington Street in Dorchester to accommodate the Mount Bowdoin Reading Room and other commercial ventures, again with apartments on the upper floors. (This building, while still standing, has been drastically and unfortunately modified over the years.) His designs for both buildings appeared in American Architect & Building News on July 24, 1886, an influential publication followed by the architectural profession.

Since Lewis’s designs predated the S.S. Pierce block, referenced above, by well over a decade, it seems very likely that they were considered by the architect of that later project and by the architects of other market/residential buildings throughout New England. 

Threats to the Building

New Development in Peabody Square Makes Historic Buildings Vulnerable

The reconstruction of the Ashmont MBTA Station and the construction of the adjacent, transit-oriented residential/commercial building, The Carruth, were the first major projects in Peabody Square in many years.  Since these projects were completed, there has been a further, dramatic increase in new development in the immediate area of Peabody Square.  These include:

  • the Treadmark residential/commercial building, now under construction on the former site of Ashmont Tire, at Dorchester Avenue and Fuller Street
  • a new residential building to be built on the Odwin Learning Center site at 1943 Dorchester Avenue opposite The Carruth
  • a new residential building at the Boston Home on Dorchester Avenue a few block south of Peabody Square
  • Ashmont Landing (rental units at Dorchester Avenue and Beale Street)
  • condominiums in the former R.B. Cooke Moving Company building on Dorchester Avenue just north of Peabody Square
  • stated intentions by Feeney Brothers Construction to develop the so-called “NStar parcel” just south of The Carruth

In addition, there is an increasingly strong market for the exceptional and well-preserved late 19th-century houses in the adjacent Ashmont Hill and Ashmont-Adams (Carruth’s Hill) neighborhoods…with several properties recently selling for $1 million or more, a phenomenon unheard of in the past.

All this activity is generally viewed as positive and welcomed, and no project to date has involved the loss of an existing structure of significant architectural or historic value. However, the pressure for new development all along Dorchester Avenue is evident and growing, and with its proximity to public transportation, the amenities such as restaurants and speciality shops that have opened, and the strong real estate market in the surrounding neighborhoods, Peabody Square is perhaps more vulnerable to real estate pressures than other stretches of the avenue.  All of these factors are cause for concern as to the vulnerability of the historic resources in Peabody Square to inappropriate modification or, more drastically, demolition.

Peabody Square and its many important structures merit designation as an Architectural Landmark District, but that is a longer-term undertaking.  The loss of any historic building in Peabody Square would seriously diminish its character and architectural diversity, and likely jeopardize its qualification as an Architectural District. However, as the oldest building, one of the most architecturally distinctive structures, and the most likely to be scrutinized for its development potential due to its location and relatively recent change in ownership, it is critical that the O’Brien’s Market building be recognized and protected for its essential contribution to the overall ensemble of Peabody Square and as the first step towards designation of the Square as a Historic District.

Peabody Square is the vital focus and anchor for neighborhoods all around it; its architectural character is essential to the identity of the Greater Ashmont area. The character and diversity of its architecture capture the almost 150-year development history of the area, from the earliest homes on Carruth’s and Welles hills to the present day; from O’Brien’s Market, established when the community was just beginning to grow, to the soaring Ashmont Station, which marks the revitalization of the area with its emphasis on public transportation.  New buildings have been designed to be complementary and compatible with the older historic buildings—it is the play and contrast of old and new that give Peabody Square its extraordinary character and vibrancy—which will benefit residents and businesses as well as the City of Boston for generations to come.  If we lose any one element of the historic village ensemble. it would diminish and undercut he quality and character of what remains.

Further Study Needed

Additional research is needed into the following; other areas of potential interest may emerge in the process:

  • the O’Brien’s Market building’s significance as a prototype for residential/commercial buildings in urban nodes that are designed to fit the local domestic scale
  • Peabody Square’s role as the model for an urban node
  • the practice and projects of Whitney Lewis beyond his work in Boston.

Only with further study can the real significance of this historic building in the context of a significant ensemble of buildings that form Peabody Square be detailed and confirmed, in order to designate the building a Boston Landmark.


Posted on

March 23, 2020