Detail History of Bellevue House
History of Roxbury
Fort Hill Tower
The fort on Fort Hill was part of the Siege of Boston during the Revolution. The British troops were in the town and Gen. Washington's troops were deployed at various high spots surrounding Boston, to keep the Brits from coming out into the countryside. The fortifications at Fort Hill were simple earthworks — there was no stone fort, and no tower was built. Fort Hill commanded the only land exit from Boston — the narrow Roxbury Neck. Dorchester Heights was the primary fort of the siege and became more famous in history.
The Siege ended when Gen Henry Knox brought up large cannons captured at Fort Ticonderoga NY — his troops had dragged them all the way across New England in the snow. March 17 is still celebrated as Evacuation Day, when the British, seeing the cannons emplaced on Dorchester Heights, decided to leave town.
Roxbury was a separate town until the late 1860's — a leafy summer retreat for Boston businessmen. But gradually there came the demand that Roxbury merge with Boston. Real estate speculators were among those leading the campaign. One of the chief advantages of a merger would be access to Boston's municipal water system, rather than the wells the Roxburyites were using. The merger was voted through, and Roxbury became a neighborhood of Boston, as did other independent towns like Brighton.
One of the first signs of Roxbury's new status was the building of a water tank atop Fort Hill, by the Cochichuate Water Company. The tank, situated on the area's highest point, gave gravitational pressure to the system. Most towns today have water towers, and they look like... water towers. But in the ornate fashion of Victorian times, this one was disguised as some sort of medieval tower or minaret. There were iron stairs inside which spiraled around the water tank. You could climb up, and go out onto a balcony and get a splendid view of Boston.
Eventually the water tank was no longer needed, but people liked the tower, and it remained as a monument to the siege. A suitable brass plaque commemorated Washington's fort, and led many people to believe that Washington had built the tower (an engineering feat well beyond the means of the Continental Army). Some thought the tower was the fort. But it was really just a beautiful ex-water tower.
The tower fell into disrepair in the 1960's. The rusty door was padlocked. The white paint peeled away to reveal brick. The cast iron balcony became unsafe and was torn down, leaving a naked tower for much of the 1970's. Sometime around 1980 the City of Boston did a massive restoration project, replaced the balcony and spiffed things up.
ROXBURY AS A COUNTRY TOWN
The English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Company established a group of six villages, including Boston on the Shawmut Peninsula. Three miles south of Boston along the only land route to the peninsula, they founded Roxbury. The original boundaries of the town included the neighborhoods of Mission Hill, West Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain as well as present-day Roxbury.
Roxbury had many resources the colonists were looking for: open farmland, timber and stone for building, and the Stony Brook for water power. Additionally, its location on the only road to Boston gave the town an advantage in transportation and trade and a strategic military position. Roxbury was defined by its rocky hills, drumlins left by a prehistoric glacier. In the area of Roxbury Highlands are many outcroppings of native Roxbury puddingstone, a kind of composite rock used over the centuries in buildings throughout the Boston area.
The colonists soon began constructing buildings and roads that still define the neighborhood today. Washington, Dudley, Centre, Roxbury, and Warren streets were all laid out in the first years of settlement. The town center was located at John Eliot Square, where the first meetinghouse was built in 1632, with its burying ground nearby at the corner of Eustis and Washington streets. Other landmarks form early Roxbury are the three milestones that still mark Centre Street in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and West Roxbury, recording the distance to downtown Boston.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, farming was the basis of Roxbury's economy. The town was locally famous for its fruit trees, and noted varieties were developed on local farms-including the Roxbury Russet apple, particularly prized for cider. As the town grew, some fine residences were built that are now among the few 18th century houses remaining in Boston.
An 18th-century marker, known as the parting stone, is still embedded at the fork of Roxbury and Centre streets, pointing the ways to Brookline and Dedham.
The Dillaway-Thomas House (183 Roxbury Street) was built about 1750 as parsonage for the first Church, just across John Eliot Square. Surviving a series of fires, the house has been restored as part of Roxbury Heritage State Park. (Open to the public; 445-3399)
Roxbury also has a pre-Revolutionary mansion, the Shirley-Eustis House (31 Shirley Street). Built around 1747 for William Shirley, the royal governor of Massachusetts from 1741 to 1756, the house was confiscated by the colonists during the Revolution for use as a barracks and hospital. It was later purchased by Dr. William Eustis, a surgeon who was governor of Massachusetts in the 1820s. This National Historic Landmark is designed in the Georgian style of its time. (Open to the public; 442-2275.)
Roxbury's location and high hills made the town strategically important during the Revolutionary War. The colonists constructed a fort in the Roxbury Highlands in 1775 to help secure land access to Boston, and troops camped on the lawn of the First Church.
After the American victory, Roxbury's citizens faced the task of rebuilding much of their war-damaged community. One important project was the construction of the present First Church in Roxbury, built in 1804 on the site of the original 1632 meetinghouse in John Eliot Square.
ROXBURY BECOMES A SUBURB
In the first generations after the Revolution, American society went through many changes as cities grew and industries developed. This process included a new ideal of "the good life." Instead of living near their work in the city, people wanted to live in free-standing, single-family houses with yards and trees.
The front facade of the Georgian-style Shirley-Eustis House features giant pilasters, or flattened columns. Inside is a two-story salon for formal entertaining.
Changes in the economy and developments in transportation made it possible for many families to pursue this suburban ideal, and Roxbury was close enough to Boston to be a good choice. The first developments took place in the 1820s, when a horsedrawn bus line was established along Washington Street, linking Roxbury to Boston for commuters, and in 1835, when the railroad from Boston to Providence was sited along the Stony Brook Valley.
Soon Farmland began to be subdivided for single-family dwellings. Many of these handsome early frame houses were built in a style called the Greek Revival, modeled after columned Greek temples. This style caught the imagination of Americans because ancient Greece, like their new nation, was a republic rather than a monarchy. Many of these Greek Revival houses still line Highland Park and Mount Pleasant.
As the century went on, other times and places appealed to Americans, and various revival styles took root, with inspirations from Italy and France and from the Middle Ages. Many of the revival-style houses in Roxbury's early suburban days ere quite grand, the homes of wealthy industrialists who chose the tops of the hills in the Roxbury Highlands because of their views and breezes.
The pointed arches on Abbotsford's windows and main entrance are characteristics of the High Victorian Gothic style, inspired by the architecture of the Middle Ages.
One of the best examples of these early suburban houses is Abbotsford, now the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, at 300 Walnut Avenue. (Open to the public; 442-8614) This building is significant to Roxbury for several reasons. The most obvious is its beauty-it is a stately mansion that commands its site, and continues to be important to the community as the setting for the museum. In addition, it is built entirely of Roxbury puddingstone, a local building material. Finally, this building tells much about how people thought about their houses and their lives.
Designed by Boston architect Alden Frink for the prominent industrialist Aaron Davis Williams, Jr., Abbotsford was built in 1872 in the High Victorian Gothic style. Just as the American economy was becoming industrialized, many people looked with nostalgia to times before machines and factories. Ironically, Aaron Davis Williams, Jr., used his profits from industry to build a house that could remind him of a medieval castle.