Not much remains of one of Roxbury’s once grand rural estates, but as there is some left, I want to feature it before it’s all gone, possibly any day now! Horatio Harris was born in Dorchester (present-day South Boston) in 1821 and ran a prominent auction house in Boston. He built his country estate in Roxbury beginning in 1857 in the Gothic Revival style, adding on and updating numerous times. During the Civil War, the firm of Horatio Harris & Co. obtained the contract to sell at auction all goods which were confiscated by the United States’ land or naval forces and brought to Boston. He made a lot of money and added to his land holdings and estate house in Roxbury. The mansion’s construction was timely as Roxbury was transitioning from a rural town, with farms and country estates of wealthy Boston merchants, to a streetcar suburb, increasing the land value of his holdings. The estate included nearly 30 acres of meandering paths, a lake with an island, outbuildings, and an observation tower – one of which remain today besides the ruin of the former mansion. Horatio died in 1876, in the decades following his death, his heirs began subdividing the estate, developing some and selling other plots off for houselots. By the early 1900s, Jewish people began moving into Roxbury, mixing with the predominantly Yankee population. By 1915, the Harris manor house was owned by the Hebrew Alliance of Roxbury, Inc. By the 1920s, they expanded facilities, adding a school building to the front of the former Harris Mansion, completely obscuring the facade of the old estate. In the 1940s, the upper stories were removed. Seemingly the death knell of the old Harris Villa was a fire in 2019, which gutted much of the remaining original fabric of the estate. All that remains is a bay window, some window trim details and a Gothic porte-cochere at the rear of the estate. See it before it’s too late!
Howard Athenaeum // 1846-1962
One of the more iconic theater buildings to ever stand in Boston was the Howard Athenaeum, later the Old Howard, which stood on the former Howard Street in Downtown Boston. The origins of the building begin in 1843, when a flimsy, tent was built to serve as a church for the small Millerite sect. The small but loyal congregation eventually abandoned the site following disappointment with the minister’s promise that the world would end in 1844. After Armageddon failed to materialize, the founder of the sect, William Miller, an ex-Deputy Sheriff from Poultney, Vermont, was discredited and the Millerites moved on. After running their former minister out of town, several church members (who had given up all their worldly possessions in preparation for their trip to heaven,) decided to recoup some of their losses by selling the property to Messers Boyd and Beard, who opened a theater here in 1845. A fire destroyed the structure, and it was replaced by a larger, fireproof building that same year. The new building was constructed in 1845 and was designed by architect Isaiah Rogers in the Gothic Revival style with massive granite blocks from Quincy.
The Howard Athenaeum saw many iconic performers and historical events in its 100 years. A young John Wilkes Booth, played Hamlet at the Howard before becoming famous for a more nefarious deed in Washington in 1865. Also, Sarah Parker Remond, a Black anti-slavery activist and lecturer with the American Anti-Slavery Society (and later a medical doctor), had bought a ticket through the mail for the Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale, but, upon arriving, refused to sit in a segregated section for the show. She was forcibly removed and pushed down a flight of stairs. She eventually won a desegregation lawsuit against the managers of the Howard Athenaeum and received $500 in a settlement.
The theater was quickly deemed obsolete and second-tier compared to more modern theatres built nearby. By the mid-20th century, the Old Howard was largely featuring burlesque shows. To keep bringing in audiences, the burlesque performances got more risqué with each year. As a result, the Boston vice squad made the Old Howard the object of their attention. The Boston Vice squad made a 16 mm film during one of their raids in 1953 and captured on film the performance by “Irma the Body”. This film footage resulted in an indecency hearing which eventually led to the closing of the Old Howard in 1953. A fire a few years later along with Urban Renewal led to the demolition of the Old Howard by 1962. Like the former Suffolk Savings Bank (featured previously), the present Center Plaza Building is on the site.
United States Hotel, Boston // 1839-1930
On August 18, 1929, the United States Hotel in Downtown Boston closed its doors for good. Once housing and feeding over 700 guests per night, the hotel saw severely declining numbers by the time of the Great Depression. Construction on the hotel commenced in 1837, and it was completed two years later in 1839. The hotel was operated by the Messrs. Holman and Clark, who saw an immediate success due to the hotel’s location central to Boston’s major train stations. The hotel (which first contained 300 rooms) did so well that the building was expanded numerous times with undulating additions to maximize light and air into the many rooms. At the hotel, over 150 employees served the guests at their rooms, the dining halls, bathing facilities or the stables which had drivers ready at a moments notice. The United States Hotel was one of the finest establishments in Boston and was thought to be the largest in the country by the middle of the 19th century. The size and amenities however was the downfall of the iconic hotel as Boston’s train stations saw fewer passengers in the early decades of the 20th century. Owners of the hotel sought to squeeze out every last dollar from the complex before they locked her up for good, hosting an auction on everything from beds to a chair said to have been sat on by Charles Dickens during his stay. The hotel was razed in 1930.
Suffolk Savings Bank // 1906-1967
The Suffolk Savings Bank for Seamen and Others was incorporated in 1833 as a banking institution catered to seamen and merchants who received their earnings after a trip in cash, and wanted a secure place to store their funds. At the time, these men were among the richest in the city, and the bank did very well. It later became a national bank in 1865 and membership boomed. The bank grew and grew until the early 20th century, and it needed a new banking house that showcased their stability, but also provide a visual embodiment of the security their institution provides. The bank’s board hired world-renowned architect Cass Gilbert to design a new building, which would be located on one of the busiest corners in Downtown Boston at the corner of Tremont Street and Pemberton Square. The Classical Revival building was constructed of Hallowell Granite and featured four monumental columns recessed into the Tremont Street facade. Minimal windows allowed for security, while a domed skylight covered in a cap provided light into the rounded banking room below. Inside, the walls and floors were of marble with a tile coffered ceiling. The building lasted until 1965 when Urban Renewal brought the wrecking ball. The bank was demolished by 1967 for the present Center Plaza building in Government Center.
Toy Theatre // 1914-1922
When the Toy Theatre on Lime Street in Beacon Hill (last post) was formed in the early 20th century, the members of the small (but growing) theatre group of well-connected artists and actors had their sights on something with permanence. By 1914, the group had funding and acquired land on Dartmouth street, a block away from Copley Square, and ground was broken to build a large new theatre. The fashionable Colonial Revival style building featured a large rounded bay and was constructed of brick and limestone. The theatre group could not support the building, and it was rebranded as the Copley Theatre within a couple years. Continuing the bad luck, the City of Boston decided to extend Stuart Street by 1921, and this building was along the proposed route. The street was extended and a new “Copley Theatre” was built on Stuart Street, a stone’s throw from this building. And so goes the short-lived history of the Toy Theatre.
Everett Schoolhouse // 1860-1965
The Everett Schoolhouse opened in 1860 as Boston’s most modern school at the time, serving students in the South End and Roxbury. The school was located on Northampton Street, just off Tremont Street, and stood four stories with lawns surrounding it. The building was architecturally beautiful, with brick walls and stone trim and basement, large double-hung windows, and a slate roof capped by a bell tower. The building was so special, the opening ceremonies were documented in the New York Times in 1860. The school was named after Edward Everett (1794-1865), a Boston-native who served as a U.S. Senator, the 15th Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, and United States Secretary of State. He also taught at Harvard University and served as its president. My favorite tidbit of history on Edward Everett is that he was a great orator, and was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863, where he spoke for over two hours—immediately before President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous two-minute Gettysburg Address! The Everett Schoolhouse in Boston saw thousands of children graduate before a fire on the top floor of the building in 1965 and subsequent water damage from fire hoses necessitated its demolition.
Brattle Street Church // 1772-1872
Boston’s constant churning of development has given us amazing architectural landmarks, and incredibly unfathomable architectural loss. One of such cases of loss is the former Brattle Street Church which was located on Brattle Street, roughly where the main entrance to Boston City Hall is located today. Demolition of significant architecture in Boston began way before the period of Urban Renewal in the mid-20th century, and the loss of the Brattle Street Church in Downtown Boston showcases this. The Brattle Street Church had been founded in the 1690s by a group of merchants seeking an alternative to the authority exercised by Increase and Cotton Mather in Boston’s existing congregations. Despite these beginnings, the church remained Congregational through the 18th century. At the time of the Revolution, Brattle Street counted such figures as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and John and Abigail Adams among its parishioners. The original wooden church was replaced in 1772 by this stunning brick building, designed by Thomas Dawes. Just years after the doors opened, the American Revolution upended life in Boston. This building was a survivor, and was apparently hit by cannon-fire by the American batteries at the siege of Boston. A cannonball can be seen lodged into the building at the second floor, to the right of the Palladian window. After the American Civil War, development of the Back Bay led to a shifting population away from the downtown core, and a new church was erected for the congregation, the Brattle Square Church, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. This church was demolished in 1872, just 100 years after it opened its doors and took a cannon for America.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Townhouse // 1860
In 1860, David Stewart, a merchant from New York, built a townhouse on Beacon Street in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood as a wedding present for his twenty year old daughter, Isabella Stewart, and her new husband, John (Jack) Lowell Gardner. The house was originally numbered 126 Beacon, but re-numbered as 152 Beacon ca. 1862 when homes were built on the south side of the street. The home was the city dwelling of the young couple, who also owned “Green Hill” in Brookline, and an estate on the North Shore. Isabella Stewart Gardner began amassing a large collection of art and their Back Bay home was insufficient to display it all. In 1880, John purchased the neighboring home at 150 Beacon from Andrew Robeson, a wealthy merchant from Fall River, who’s main home is now the headquarters of the Fall River Historical Society. Soon thereafter they combined the two houses, with the address of 152 Beacon, to provide greater space for the display of the growing art collection being assembled by Isabella. After her husband’s death in late 1898, Isabella Gardner pursued plans for a new home that would provide a suitable setting for her art collection. She purchased land in the Fenway and began construction on her mansion, Fenway Court, now the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. One year after completion of Fenway Court, the two townhomes were purchased by Eben Draper, who razed them for his mansion in 1904 (see last post).