South End Landmark District Has Complicated Past

News South End
Street-level view west-southwest of (left to right) 42-46 Union Park, located between Shawmut Avenue to the southeast and Tremont Street to the northwest, ca. 1870-1900.
Street-level view west-southwest of (left to right) 42-46 Union Park, located between Shawmut Avenue to the southeast and Tremont Street to the northwest, ca. 1870-1900. Courtesy of the Bostonian Society

This is the sixth in a nine-part series on about historic districts in the city of Boston.

Part of the “Boston Neck,’’ the South End was the one of the first large-scale, planned residential neighborhoods in Boston.

According to the Boston Landmarks Commission, the main development in the South End was between 1850 and 1873, after marshland was filled in to construct single-family row houses that were meant for the wealthy.

But before that, according to a South End District Study Committee Report from 1983, the South End was merely a strip of land connecting the Shawmut Peninsula, which housed downtown Boston, to the mainland. It was referred to as the Neck Lands. Once the population in Boston began to grow, it was decided that the Neck needed to be filled in, and a neighborhood was rigidly planned.

The report quoted Charles Bulfinch, the chairman of the Board of Selectmen in March 1801, saying:

“‘In which the land was divided into streets and lots, the streets being regular and drawn at right angles; and to introduce variety, a large circular place was left to be ornamented by trees, which the committee said would add to the beauty of the town at large and be particularly advantageous to the inhabitants of that park, the neck.’’’

Land gradually began to be filled in, divided into squares, and eventually houses were built. The original plan for these houses was that they were supposed to be on big plots of land with ample space surrounding them.

“What happened was, initially when the city was in the earliest stages of planning, even before landfill, there was a push to create large landed estates on the Boston Neck,’’ said Stacen Goldman, the executive director of the South End Historical Society. “It was not an effective use of the space. In the 1840s it became clear that was not effective.’’

One house, the Deacon house, was built in 1848 in the manner originally intended by city planners, but the plan was redone in 1849, according to the committee’s report. Instead of large estates, the grid of streets was filled with row houses, which still form the backbone of the area’s architectural unity. The plan also included space for a significant number of parks, many of which you can still see today.

“The South End was for the upper middle class families, and you can see the American dream in the city,’’ Goldman said. “You can see the bridge between suburbia and the city, and that’s how the South End was first used when people were moving there.’’

But then came the Panic of 1873, which was a nationwide financial crisis brought about by the closing of a banking firm heavily invested in the widespread railroad construction at the time.

“Shortly after the buildings were constructed, the recession and panic occurred,’’ said Meghan Hanrahan Richard, the preservation planner for the South End Landmark District Commission. “So they were only single family homes for a short period of time. They turned to lodging houses.’’

Street-level view of the demolition of a building located on the south side of Broadway near Washington Street. Rubble and debris covers the lot where a building once stood in May 1907. —Courtesy of The Bostonian Society

Once lodging houses took over and housing prices decreased, the South End became primarily an immigrant neighborhood filled with members of the working class.

That demographic remained through World War II. Goldman said the Panic was not the only driving force behind this long-term demographic shift.

“There was the fact that other neighborhoods became more accessible,’’ she said. With the creation of better trains going from the suburbs into the city, or the “street car suburb,’’ according to Goldman, upper middle-class families were able to move farther away and still get into the city for work.

She called it a “mass exodus of first wave South Enders.’’

Along with this exodus, and the lowering of real estate costs, came an influx of businesses and industries to the South End, according to the committee’s report. The area continued to decline as a residential neighborhood and most residents who wanted to live in the city moved to Back Bay.

The trend intensified after World War II, according to the Landmarks Commission study. Some people also moved during this time against their will, Goldman said.

“People start losing their homes in the mid 20th century because of urban renewal projects,’’ she said. “Whole neighborhoods were razed.’’

The study committee’s report said that after recognizing the danger of urban renewal projects (and seeing what had happened in the West End when most of it was demolished), residents in the South End, which were organized into a variety of neighborhood associations, fought against demolition. Middle-class residents also moved back into the district. These neighborhood associations added a unique quality to the South End.

Street-level view northeast of Chester Square, located between Tremont Street to the west-northwest and Shawmut Avenue to the east-southeast, ca. 1854. —Courtesy of The Bostonian Society

“It is very unique and not something you see in many other places,’’ Goldman said. “A lot of it has to do with the parks and green spaces. Neighborhood Associations pop up around gardens.’’

These squares, according to the Landmarks Commission, are equivalent to “English Parks, and represent a 19th century pattern in Boston urban planning,’’ creating intimacy within the district.

Goldman said that each of the South End parks is unique– some are owned by the city, some are kept up by residents, and some have urban gardens.

According to the district guidelines, the South End is the largest urban Victorian neighborhood in the country and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The South End became a Landmark District and Protection Area in 1983.

Architectural Styles

The South End is mainly known for two different building types, according to the Landmarks Commission: “a double basement, bow-fronted row house with a mansard roof or a low basement, flat-fronted row house faced with brick and often adorned with a projecting oriel window.’’

Though much of the neighborhood does look uniform at first glance, Goldman wanted to make it clear: Not all row houses are the same.

“A row house is not a style; it’s a type of building,’’ she said. “People come in and look at row houses and think they all look the same, but when you look closer, you see a lot of details.’’

The most common architectural styles you can find in the South End are:

– Italianate style: According to the study committee’s report this is the most common house style in the South End. It’s known for a bow front, an emphasis on asymmetry and “fanciful, inventive detail to create a picturesque effect.’’

– Greek revival: The South End’s oldest homes are built in this style, and it is known for, “simple lines, severity in ornamentation, and use of columns or pilasters and pediments to frame the doorways.’’

– Renaissance revival: According to the Landmarks Commission, this style is “characterized by symmetry, cubical massing, and the use of large scale ornaments.’’

– Second Empire style: This is Old City Hall’s style and typically features “a symmetrical arrangement of wings and pavilions projecting from the main façade.’’

Famous Sites in the South End

– Porter Houses (1724 Washington St.): These houses are unlike most of what you will find in the South End. According to the city of Boston, a few federal style mansions were build in the neighborhood, two of which were these back-to-back houses built for William Porter in 1806. Goldman said that Porter had them built for him and his son. These are the oldest houses in the South End and are now condos.

Street-level view southeast of Allen House, located at 1682 Washington Street at Worcester Square (1966). —Courtesy of The Bostonian Society

– Allen House (1682 Washington St.): According to The Bostonian Society, this fashionable home was built in 1859 for a furniture dealer named Aaron Hall Allen, and it is a blend of Italianate and French Second Empire styles. Over time, the building has been home to a variety of social clubs and now it is a condo building.

– Hotel Alexandria (1759-1769 Washington St.): Purchased by the Church of Scientology in 2008 for $4.5 million, this abandoned building was supposed to be renovated, saved, and reused. But this past December, the Church has decided it will not go according to plan, and the building is back on the market, according to the Boston Business Journal.

– Churches: Cathedral of the Holy Cross (1400 Washington St.) and the Church of the Immaculate Conception (775 Harrison Ave.) are both sites to be seen in the South End. The latter is now apartments.

Street-level view east-northeast of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, located at 1400 Washington Street between Union Park Street to the northeast and Malden Street to the southwest, ca. 1875. —Courtesy of The Bostonian Society


What makes the Landmark Commission’s regulations for this district unique is that there are two sets: one for the district itself and another for the protection area around it.

Richard, the district’s preservation planner, said that the Landmark Commission decides if a district is an architectural conservation district or a landmark district. Landmark districts, like the South End, have “guidelines that are more strict and have a higher level of significance,’’ Richard said.

Street-level view north of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, located at the northwest corner of Harrison Avenue and East Concord Streets, ca. 1865. —Courtesy of The Bostonian Society

But the South End also has a protection area surrounding it.

“The protection area has five standards and guidelines,’’ Richard said. “It was established to help protect visual impact of [new] buildings.’’

The protection area protects views to and from the South End by regulating the height of new buildings– these guidelines are limited to new construction.

Any questions, concerns, or proposals for exterior change should be brought up with the Boston Landmarks Commission.