Architectural Ambler: South End Historic District

Signature block-long rows of oriel and bow-front brick rowhouses at Boston's South End

Signature block-long rows of oriel and bow-front brick rowhouses at Boston’s South End

The South End of Boston is the largest extant enclave of urban Victorian residential architecture in the country. Declared a National Register Historic District in 1973, and a Boston Landmark District in 1983, the South End is one of Boston’s most distinctive neighborhoods. Signature block-long rows of oriel- and bow-fronted brick rowhouses with high stoops and decorative wrought-iron railings ensure a highly-admired architectural cohesiveness that spreads across 500 acres of inner-city fabric.

The history of the South End is not quite as seamless as the facades, however. The current urban renaissance of the South End – lively with many shops and restaurants, artists’ studios and galleries, and residents from all walks of life – is only a couple of decades old, and follows many more decades of urban blight and poverty. But before the blight was a bright beginning; in the late 1850s and 1860s, the South End was Boston’s most fashionable place to live.

Like much of Boston, the South End was built on reclaimed land created by infilling Boston’s muddy tidal flats with imported earth. Prior to the early 19th century, Boston occupied only a small peninsula that jutted out from the mainland into the bay, and which was connected to Roxbury, its closest neighbor, by a narrow causeway (known as the “Boston Neck”) that often flooded at high tide.

Beginning in the 1830s, the tidal flats south of the neck were infilled with land brought in by the railroad from nearby towns on the mainland. The neck became Washington Street, which, along with Tremont Street, became one of the main thoroughfares of the South End.

The South End’s streets were laid out on the reclaimed land in 1848 in a loose grid that allowed for the insertion of 11 residential parks into the urban fabric. Modeled after similar small parks in London, the parks served as communal gardens for the residents of adjacent rowhouses. The idea of the residential park had been introduced to Boston by Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State Capitol, in his early 19th-century plans for Beacon Hill. Having proven its popularity on Beacon Hill, the residential park became a key element in the planning of the South End.

Union Park and Shawmut Avenue

Union Park and Shawmut Avenue

Tremont Street and Union Park

Tremont Street and Union Park

Constructed between 1857 and 1859, Union Park (at Union Park Street between Tremont and Shawmut streets) is the oldest residential park in the South End. An oblong, rectangular garden with curved corners and decorative fountains sits in the middle of street, and traffic flows around it. The rows of brick houses lining the two long sides of the park curve around its corners, and tall, elegant stoops and attractive oriel window bays distinguish one rowhouse from another.

Like most houses in the South End, the Union Park rowhouses were built speculatively by real estate developers, and upon strong timbers submerged in the mud of the reclaimed land. Rowhouses were designed in the latest styles – ItalianateSecond EmpireGothic RevivalGreek Revival, and Queen Anne– but were conservatively embellished to appeal to Boston’s genteel upper- and upper-middle class residents. City restrictions on rowhouse height, material, style, form, and setback from the street helped to ensure architectural coherence and structural quality.

In the late 1850s and 1860s, many members of the Bostonian elite – including bankers, industrialists, and two mayors – settled in the South End. With them came their servants, many of whom inhabited smaller rowhouses built along narrow alleyways – such as Gray and Appleton streets, a few blocks from Union Park. These rowhouses were generally two or three stories in height, with flat-fronted facades and plain sandstone trim. Stoops, if present, were narrow and often built right into the rowhouses themselves.

Washington Street near Worcester Square

Washington Street near Worcester Square

But the South End’s early heyday was short-lived. By the 1870s, the first of the stately row- and townhouses of the Parisian-inspired Back Bay – built on reclaimed land north of the neck – were ready for occupancy. Privileged Bostonians once again decamped en masse to the latest fashionable addresses in the Back Bay, and the South End became passé.

Making matters worse, the Panic of 1873 led to many mortgage foreclosures in the South End. The price of its real estate dropped, and lower- and working-class families moved in. By the 1880s, the South End was home to a large immigrant population, with residents from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Greece, Lebanon, and China. By the turn of the century, it was also a center of African-American culture and jazz music.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Cathedral of the Holy Cross

To serve many of the new arrivals, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross was completed in 1875 at the corner of Union Park and Washington streets. With walls of colorful Roxbury puddingstone (the official stone of Massachusetts – named after its resemblance to the fruit-studded English steamed pudding, and quarried from nearby Roxbury) and stained glass windows from Munich, it was the largest Roman Catholic Church in the country at the time of its construction, and comparable in size to Westminster Abbey.

Cyclorama Dome Interior

Cyclorama Dome Interior

And a few blocks away, as a sort of pre-cinema form of entertainment, the round, steel-truss-domed Cyclorama was constructed in 1884 to exhibit a circular painting of the Battle of Gettysburg. The painting, which stood 50 feet tall and 400 feet in circumference, was so popular that it was moved five years later to the Gettysburg National Military Park, but the space continued to be used for entertainment purposes. Today, it is used for exhibitions and performances organized by the Boston Center for the Arts.

But growing poverty in the South End could not be stifled by paintings and religion. By the turn of the century, most of the district’s rowhouses had been turned into lodging or boarding houses, and tenements and settlement houses (Boston’s first) were sprinkled throughout the district. Poverty continued into the middle of the 20th century, and by the 1960s, the South End was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston.

Yet, the residents that stuck around remained proud of their architectural heritage. The South End Historical Society formed in 1966 to preserve the historic fabric of the neighborhood, and by the 1990s, South End’s urban renaissance was in full swing. Be sure to check it out the next time you’re in Boston.

For more information on the South End, please visit the website of the South End Historical Society, and the Boston Discovery Guide.

The Architectural Ambler is a monthly publication of the Trust for Architectural Easements, one of the largest preservation easement-holding organizations in the nation. To learn more about the Trust, its programs, and the historic preservation easement program, please visit the Trust’s website, or call 888-821-2107. To suggest a historic district for profiling in a future Architectural Ambler, email architecturalambler@architecturaltrust.org. The Trust welcomes your comments and suggestions.

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