Modern architecture can often compliment and blend into the context of historic neighborhoods, and this example in Boston’s South End neighborhood is one of the best examples locally. In 2002, developers eyed a long-vacant lot on the busy Mass. Ave corridor through the South End and began designs of a contextual addition to the streetscape. Dolezal Architecture was tasked with designing a modern residential building that would comply with local historic district regulations, a balance that can be difficult to accomplish. Employing traditional masonry, solid-to-void ratios, massing, and bays, but in a modern context, the building blends in with its surroundings yet is architecturally interesting. The building contains ten condos in a single building which reads more like two distinct structures.
Jonas Chickering (1798-1853) was born in New Hampshire and eventually moved to Boston to work as a cabinet-maker. In 1823, Chickering formed a partnership with piano maker James Stewart and they began production of high-quality pianos. The partnership dissolved and Jonas partnered with wealthy shipbuilder and merchant John Mackay, using his factory for piano and organ production. John Mackay was lost at sea in 1841, and Chickering mortgaged the factory and bought out the Mackay’s shares, taking full ownership of the operation. In 1852, the factory burned, and was a complete loss. Undeterred, Chickering rebuilt, but in the rapidly developing South End neighborhood of Boston, hiring Edwin Payson to design a massive new steam-powered factory of fireproof construction. Jonas Chickering died before he could see the completion of his new factory, which opened in 1853 to great fanfare. The Italianate style building was bustling with over 400 employees when Chickering & Co. was the largest piano manufacturer in the United States in the middle of the 19th century, but was later surpassed in the 1860s by Steinway. From 1860-1868 space in the building was the location of the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company, who made over 100,000 rifles for the U.S. Army around the time of the Civil War. The Chickering and Sons Company moved out of the building by 1928 and the structure was occupied until 1973-4; when the building was rehabilitated by Brunner/Cott and Associates and subdivided into apartments and work and exhibit spaces for musicians, artists, and craftsmen, making this one of the earliest examples of adaptive reuse of an industrial building in Boston.
Located at the prominent corner of Mass Ave and Tremont Street in Boston’s South End neighborhood, this beautiful apartment building has long caught my eye, but I finally got around to looking up its history! The building was constructed in 1896-7 by Albert Geiger, a real estate developer who sold the completed building to a Josiah P. C. Marshall. The building is Classical Revival in style and had eleven suites for rental. The blond brick building with Indiana limestone trim are gorgeous, but the showstoppers are the metal bay windows with decorative wreaths and garlands.
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.
Newcastle Court in Boston’s South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhoods is one of the finest apartment buildings in the city built in the early 20th century. The complex is U-shaped with a central courtyard off Columbus Street, to provide air and natural light in all bedrooms and units of the building. Newcastle Court was built by builder/developer Israel Nesson, who was credited as building the first fireproof apartment building in the city. Nesson and his family built and owned apartment buildings all over Boston and Cambridge, and operated many of them as landlords with massive real estate holdings. Newcastle Court stands out for the garden courtyard set behind the gate. At the back of the courtyard, the building has a raised parapet at the roof, which encompasses a clock. Many of the units retain the original stained glass windows, which are AMAZING!
Just a block away from the Women’s Service Club Building (last post) on Mass. Ave in Boston, you’ll find this landmark, with both architectural and cultural significance. The townhouse (along with the house next door) was built around 1860 for William and Martha Carnes. William Rice Carnes was a fine lumber importer and furniture maker, bringing in high-quality mahogany and rosewood to Boston, aligning with the Victorian era housing and furniture boom here, he made a lot of money. Inside his home, he showcased the quality and durability of his product, much of which remains today. It is believed that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, with the connected basements of the two houses (#558 and #560) providing an easier escape in the event of a slave-catcher coming by. After William died, the property eventually sold to Nathaniel W. Farwell of Maine on October 29, 1868. The Farwell family occupied the house only until 1910, and as evidence of the decline of the South End, it stood empty until 1920 when it was sold to the League of Women for Community Service, a pioneering Black women’s organization. The League emerged from the ‘30s and ‘40s and as late as the 1950s as a safe place and a popular gathering place for African Americans in Boston. Many hotels at the time were not willing to accommodate Black patrons or charged so much that events there were unattainable. Coretta Scott King lived in the home while she attended college at the New England Conservatory and honed her amazing singing skills. It is at the home that she and Martin Luther King Jr. – then a student at Boston University – likely had dates and began their courtship. The LWCS has recently received funding through grants to preserve and restore the landmark to her former glory.
This historic rowhouse in the South End of Boston was home to the Women’s Service Club, a social and volunteer organization made up of Black women to uplift Black Bostonians of varied backgrounds, including soldiers, students, migrants and mothers. “464,” as some locals admiringly called it, was formed in the early 20th century as Boston. The city, once known as “Freedom’s Birthplace” and the “Athens of America” as a hub of abolitionist activity leading up to the Civil War, saw extreme segregation in housing and education for its Black residents by the early 20th century. From this, local activist Mary Evans Wilson organized a knitting group in 1917 to support soldiers of color fighting in World War I. An estimated 350 women joined the group, donating their talents to produce scarves and gloves for servicemen. Humanitarianism guided the activity of the Women’s Service Club’s over the next half century. This building was purchased in 1919 and operated as part-meeting space and part-settlement house. “A Home Away from Home,” as some described it, the building offered affordable shelter to female workers, migrants, and college students barred from on-campus housing due to racist policies. One of the club’s most prominent members was Melnea Cass (1896–1978), who served as its President for more than fifteen years. Cass initiated the Homemakers Training Program which certified domestic workers so they would be assured a liveable minimum wage, social security and other benefits. The club continues to do great work, but could use funding to restore the landmark building!
Boston’s South End neighborhood has so much history that NEEDS to be showcased. From the repetitive architecture of beautiful brick and stone bowfronts, to the history of African American activism, enterprise, and stories, the neighborhood is a gem of Boston. This building was constructed around 1865 for Thomas H. Snow (1833-1908) as his home. Snow was a wine and spirit merchant who had a store in Faneuil Hall Square. While that is interesting, Mr. Snow is not the highlight of this building, that comes later in 1899, when the building was rented to Madame Mary L. Johnson, a wig maker, scientific scalp specialist, and hair culturist. Mary Johnson and her husband, Dr. W. Alexander Johnson, were Black and ran one of just 200 Black-owned businesses in the city of Boston by the beginning of the 20th century. At their storefront, they sold hair goods at Johnson’s Hair Store. Sold all over the United States since 1900, their famous “Johnson Hair Food” was “the most scientific pomade yet discovered for growing, beautifying and softening the hair,” they claimed. In connection with their hair product outfit, Madame Johnson operated Johnson’s School of Beauty Culture, where a variety of services including manicuring, shampooing, scalp massage, facial massage, hairdressing, and scalp treatment were offered. The school provided young Black women in Boston technical training and skills, which there were limited options at the time. Mr. Johnson also was President of the Boston Negro Business League, which helped bolster Black businesses at the turn of the century.
The Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church sits on the border of the South End and Lower Roxbury neighborhoods and is a great example of how the area evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries. The beautiful Romanesque Revival building was constructed in 1885 as the first synagogue of Congregation Adath Israel, which was founded in 1854. The congregation sought more space from its current location, and a closer place of worship for many of the German Jews who settled in Boston’s South End. They built this synagogue in 1885 and eventually moved west to a new Kenmore Square synagogue less than thirty years later as the neighborhood’s demographics began to shift. In 1903, the A.M.E. Zion Church purchased the former synagogue as their new home. This congregation had its beginnings in 1838 when seventeen African Americans withdrew from the communion of the Methodist Episcopal Church, then located on Joy Street in Beacon Hill. This group of Black worshippers wanted more religious freedom and desired to become part parcel of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion connection under the leadership of their own race. For many years, this church was the largest and principal Black church in the city of Boston. In 1903, shortly after moving to Columbus Avenue, the church experienced what was called the “Boston Riot.” The church hosted a debate between Booker T. Washington and William Monroe Trotter, editor and publisher of the “Boston Guardian”. Trotter, a Black Bostonian, opposed the gradual conservative approach to civil and political rights as promulgated by Mr. Washington. The debate took place on July 3, 1903 and the church was packed with over 2,000 spectators. Shortly after the opening prayer by Pastor McMullen of the AME Church, Washington was introduced. A disturbance then erupted with Trotter eventually being arrested for disturbing the peace. This building is the oldest synagogue building in Massachusetts and has been a center of Black life in Boston ever since the beginning of the 20th century.
One building in Boston that has always perplexed me is this round church building. It echoes Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel in Cambridge, but is much heavier and plain. After over an hour of researching, I finally found out some history behind it! The church was constructed in the South Cove Redevelopment area, an urban renewal program run by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now BPDA) as a sort of “slum” clearance near Chinatown. The Church of All Nations was founded in the South End in 1917, housed in a Gothic Revival chapel that was seized by eminent domain for the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension and demolished in 1963. The congregation met in temporary quarters on Arlington Street until the new church was constructed in 1975. Records show that the congregation hired famed Modernist architect Bertram Goldberg as early as 1967 to design a new chapel, set in a new public park. The original plans called for a square building with a massive “steeple” incorporated as the entire roof. For some reason (possibly funding and changing demands for the church), the final design was a little more mundane. The cylindrical church is clad in dark glazed brick with a cross raised in the brickwork. The church suffered from a dwindling congregation in its location, and now appear to rent out the building. One of my favorite local architecture firms Touloukian Touloukian, Inc., re-imagined the site as a new residential tower. It would be one of the few beautiful new buildings in Boston in the past decade or two. Can we please make this happen?!