Appropriate infill construction can be a very difficult thing to accomplish, with some developments hitting the mark and others adversely impacting the historic neighborhoods where they were built. Boston is home to many examples of both occurrences, but I wanted to share a very successful infill project in the South End neighborhood, Langham Court. As the South End resurfaced as a desirable neighborhood, long-time residents were priced out, which led to the Boston Redevelopment Authority to fund projects to provide much-needed housing for the local community. This site which once housed over 20 townhouses, was razed by the 1960s in a period of urban renewal where existing housing was deemed unsafe and inadequate. The local design firm of Goody/Clancy was hired, and they masterfully designed a U-shaped complex of 84 mixed-income units that fits well within its surroundings. The design exhibits dormers, bays, arched and vaulted entries, a combination of mansard and flat roofs, stringer courses and textured brickwork, and a palette of well chosen materials all at a scale that blends in the 1990s building to its surroundings which came nearly 150 years prior. The complex remains as a testament to good-quality design even for affordable housing, which notoriously gets the short end of the stick design-wise.
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.
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.
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.
On September 15, 1847, a ship carrying 66 men and women and children docked at Long Wharf in Boston. This group of ex-slaves, led by Rev. Peter Randolph, emancipated by their former slave master Carter H. Edlow from the Brandon Plantation in Prince Georges County, Virginia. Members of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society, led by William Lloyd Garrison met the newcomers and made them welcome by securing lodging and work for self-support. The group settled in the South End on Ottaway Court not far from the Holy Cross Cathedral. The group first joined the Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston before establishing their own congregation. They eventually occupied this church in 1887, the building was designed by architect Nathaniel Bradlee in 1860, which was built for what was then the Third Presbyterian Church of Boston. The church has remained here for nearly 150 years, seeing the rapid change in the neighborhood. The church building accommodated meetings including the Professional Black Women’s Business Club, which bolstered Black women in business, many members owned stores in the South End. Many members left the area amid growing gentrification in the 1980s and 1990s, and from that, the aging population remaining made keeping the doors open difficult. Sadly, the church relocated out of the building in 2020 and appears to have sold the building, leaving its future uncertain.
Adjacent to the Susie King Taylor House on Holyoke Street in the South End neighborhood of Boston, the Harriet Tubman House has long served the Black community of Boston. The Harriet Tubman Crusaders, an African American branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Boston, created the first Harriet Tubman House in 1904 as a residence Black females who had recently migrated from the South. The Harriet Tubman House took in young female boarders, providing them with food, clothing, shelter, and friendship while they adjusted to their new environment. It later adapted to provide housing for Black female students who were not allowed to live in the traditional student dormitories at some Boston-area colleges. The Crusaders rented a home on Holyoke Street until 1909 when member Julia O. Henson donated her own townhouse at 25 Holyoke Street as a permanent headquarters for the organization’s expanding programs. Harriet Tubman visited Boston several times in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often staying with Julia Henson at this home. In 1960, the Harriet Tubman House merged with other settlement houses in the area to form the United South End Settlements (USES) and in 1976 USES erected a modern building at the corner of Columbus and Massachusetts Avenues, which was designed by Black architect Donald Stull. The 1976 building was recently demolished, despite massive outcry, for a luxury condo development… Shocker.