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My First Home: Life in the ‘Big House’

My First Home Boston Dorchester
After the original homeowners died, the Dorchester property was turned into a stylish hotel.

Anyone passing through the neighborhood where I grew up might not pay much attention to two mustard-colored town houses set on a corner lot near the Southeast Expressway. They are attractive but unexceptional, blending comfortably with the rest of the properties in the community. Such was not the case when a grand Italianate mansard home stood there, dominating the area and intriguing those who resided within and passersby alike. Members of my extended family, children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants who once lived there, dubbed it the Big House.

It was built in the 1860s for a well-to-do Boston merchant who hired architect Luther Briggs Jr., noted for designing distinctive homes in the “new suburbs’’ that grew up around the railroad in Dorchester during the mid-19th century. Briggs was commissioned to plan a waterfront home where the merchant and his wife could relax during their senior years. The project was launched during the Civil War. Speculation has it that hidden passages in the cellar were constructed to hide fugitive slaves, although by the time the structure was completed, the war was over.

The next chapter in the story of my first home involves its conversion, after the deaths of the original owners, into a stylish hotel. During this period, a classic photo of the house was taken — later a bittersweet reminder to me of its elegant past. I came by the picture serendipitously. One Saturday morning, a white-haired gentleman knocked on the door and introduced himself to my family. He shared his memories of spending summers at the gracious hotel that was now our decaying home. He later sent us a negative of the house in its heyday. My aunt had prints made for everyone in the family.

After the hotel closed, my grandfather rented the house and later purchased it. By the mid-20th century, when my father inherited the house, it had been awkwardly divided into five apartments. The larger of the first-floor apartments, where I lived, was memorable. The ceilings were 13 feet high. The mantel in the former library was marble, and the bronze chandelier was encircled with sculptures of Dante and Shakespeare. A massive mirror dominated the old ballroom with its beautiful plaster medallions and crown molding. The other apartments were nondescript and largely functional.

For all its charisma, the Big House was daunting to maintain. The coal furnace had an insatiable appetite. The rocky alley leading to the street took hours to clear after snowstorms. The pipes froze, the ceilings leaked, and the piazzas rotted. During a hurricane in the 1950s, dozens of panes of glass shattered; the willow tree in the front yard toppled. My father and uncles struggled mightily to right the tree and replace the broken windows.

The end of the Big House was not pretty. As my father’s health deteriorated, the tax bills mounted. In the mid-1960s, he sold the property to a developer who planned to build town houses on the site. They were a long time coming. A fire destroyed the house. The land lay unattended for years, wild and neglected. Eventually, the town houses were finished, and once again the property looks respectable, with nary a trace of the “splendid mansion’’ that stood there for a century, dominating the neighborhood and at once both charming and bedeviling its residents.

Anita Danker, an adjunct professor and writer, lives in Framingham.Send comments to danker54@rcn.com and a 550-word essay on your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.