Dorchester was founded in 1630, several months before the city of Boston. The original settlement included lands that are now the neighborhoods of South Boston and Hyde Park, and the towns of Canton, Dedham, Foxboro, Milton, Sharon, Stoughton, and Wrentham. The town remained a rural farming community until it was annexed to Boston in 1870.
Each of Dorchester’s villages has played a part in its history: Mattapan, Neponset, Cedar Grove, Lower Mills, Peabody Square, Field’s Corner/Commercial Point, Codman Square, Franklin Park/Franklin Field, Meeting-House Hill, Glover’s Corner/Savin Hill, Grove Hall, Upham’s Corner, and Edward Everett Square/Columbia. Dorchester’s residents have seen and participated in every event in the country’s history including the Salem witch trials, the King Philip War in 1675-76, the French & Indian War, Shay’s Rebellion and many others.
The town was first to use public tax money for the support of its schools. Dorchester was the first in organizing the New England town government, choosing twelve men in 1633 as selectmen or townsmen. The first grist mill was started on the Dorchester bank of the Neponset River by Israel Stoughton in 1634. Walter Baker & Co., the chocolate manufacturer, was for many years the major employer in the town. Dorchester once contained the only powder-mill, the only paper-mill, the only cracker manufactory, the only chocolate-mill and the only playing-card manufactory in the whole country. Shipbuilding began on the river as early as 1640. In 1832 a syndicate equipped four ships to pursue whale and cod fishery, and built twenty more schooners at Commercial Point. The Putnam Nail Company began the manufacture of horseshoe nails in the 1860s, and in the 1890s the company employed 400 to 500 workers, producing nearly ten tons of nails each day. Many fruits that became popular in the 19th century came from Dorchester: The Downer cherry; the Andrews, Frederick, Clapp, Harris, and Clapp’s Favorite pears; the Dorchester blackberry; and the President Wilder strawberry.
Dorchester has had many residents whose names have become famous. Richard Mather, pastor of the First Church from 1636 to 1669; John Codman, first pastor of the Second Church whose tenure lasted 40 years; and Father Peter Ronan, the prime mover behind the construction of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church are some of its most well-known religious figures. Some of the names recognizable from manufacturing include James Baker and Walter Baker from the chocolate business; Roswell Gleason, a pewter and silver manufacturer; and George Henderson of the Dorchester Pottery. Artists include Robert Ball-Hughes, an internationally known sculptor; Edmund Tarbell, painter of American impressionism; and Chansonnetta Stanley Emmons, photographer of rural scenes in the latter part of the 19th century.
Our writers include Oliver Optic (William Taylor Adams), author of hundreds of children’s books; Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton, poet of the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and Maria Cummins, author of The Lamplighter. The town’s most well-known activists, Lucy Stone and her daughter Alice Stone Blackwell, were active in many spheres, especially advocating the rights of women. Horticulturists include Samuel Downer, Marshall Pinckney Wilder and the Clap family, whose Clapp’s Favorite pear is still popular. Judith Foster Saunders and Clementina Beach were proprietors of an academy for young women on Meeting-House Hill. Edward Everett, the statesman, was born in Dorchester and lived there, while William Monroe Trotter who battled racial discrimination all his life came to Dorchester as an adult, and his house on Sawyer Avenue has become a National Historic Landmark.
Dorchester’s architecture is justly famous. All Saints Church designed by Ralph Adams Cram in 1892 was the model for American parish church architecture for the next 50 years. St. Peter’s Church is a magnificent example of 19th century American Gothic Revival. The former Girls’ Latin School built as Dorchester High School in 1899 in the Renaissance Revival style has been converted into the Latin Academy apartments. The first settlers of the town are represented by two surviving 17th century houses, the Blake House, ca. 1648, in Richardson Park on Columbia Road, owned by the Dorchester Historical Society and the Pierce House, ca. 1683, on Oakton Avenue, owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Examples of 18th century homes and Federal era and Greek Revival buildings are scattered throughout Dorchester. Dorchester is especially famous for neighborhoods with architecturally designed homes from the second half of the 19th century. Its architects include Edwin J. Lewis, Jr., John A. Fox and Luther Briggs, Jr. among many others. The three-family home of the late 19th to early 20th centuries exists in Dorchester in every imaginable design, ranging from the Peabody at Ashmont Street and Dorchester Avenue, a building designed as a series of attached brick 3 family homes, to the freestanding three-decker. A walking tour of nearly any neighborhood will reveal a variety of building elements with appealing designs: original decorative shingles, stained glass, columns, and brackets.
Its close proximity to the ocean, with refreshing breezes throughout the summer months, superb views from its elevated points of Boston Bay, and harbor of unrivalled beauty, combining the freedom and delights of the country with the advantages and privileges of the city, pure invigorating air, good drainage, –all these features are steadily drawing the most desirable class of home builders. Most of its territory is occupied by handsome and attractive private residences, with extensive grounds, beautiful lawns, and shade trees around them.
Dorchester was annexed by Boston in pieces beginning on March 6, 1804 and ending with complete annexation to the city of Boston after a plebiscite was held in Boston and Dorchester on June 22, 1869. As a result, Dorchester officially became part of Boston on January 3, 1870. This is also the historic reason that Dorchester Heights is today considered part of South Boston, not modern-day Dorchester, since it was part of the cession of Dorchester to Boston in 1804. Additional parts of Dorchester were ceded to Quincy (in 1792, 1814, 1819, and 1855) and portions of the original town of Dorchester became the separate towns of Hyde Park (1868 and later annexed to Boston in 1912), Milton (1662), and Stoughton (1726).
In 1895, Frederick Law Olmstead architect of the Boston Public Garden/Emerald Necklace and Central Park was commissioned to create Dorchester Park, to be an urban forest for the residents of a growing Dorchester.
In 1904, the Dorchester Historical Society incorporated "Dorchester Day" which commemorated the settlement of Dorchester in 1630. An annual event, Dorchester Day is a tableau of community events, highlighted by such activities as the Landing Day Observance, the Dorchester Day Parade along Dorchester Avenue the first Sunday in June, and as a grand finale, the Community Banquet.
Dorchester remained an independent town until 1870, when it annexed to Boston. If it were an independent town, it would be among the top five Massachusetts cities by population, with 120,000 people (cite Providence, etc.)
Yet hundreds of Victorian houses survived and are now attracting fresh interest and a wave of restorations. As one of America’s original “railroad suburbs,” Dorchester was developed almost entirely before the arrival of the automobile, making the neighborhood a rarity in urban America. The houses, closely massed and proximate to rail (now the Red Line of the MBTA), represent the work of some of Boston’s best 19th-century architects, with wood the building material of choice. Indeed, if the South End is a sonata of brick, the Back Bay a symphony of granite, marble, brick, and brownstone, Dorchester is a concerto in wood. Whether it be Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Stick Style, Swiss Cottage, Queen Anne, Shingle Style, or Colonial Revival some of the finest representations of these architectural fashions can be found cheek by jowl in Dorchester’s many pockets of Victorian splendor. It makes a fascinating contrast to see what Boston’s architects designed simultaneously in the Back Bay and in Dorchester, and how much freer they were to indulge their craft when liberated from the strictures of the Back Bay townhouse regimen.
4 Melville Avenue in Melville Park: the Merrihew House. A Queen Anne confection fit for Currier & Ives.
102 Ocean Street on Ashmont Hill in Dorchester: The Sunflower House by architect Samuel Brown for Edward Lynch built in 1891. The waved shingling on the walls and the patterned scrollwork on the porch of particular note.
242 Savin Hill Avenue in Savin Hill, the William Worthington House from the 1860s. A grand Stick Style home, recently renovated.
Every month, more homes are being renovated to their original glory. As Boston real estate prices escalate and commutes from the outer suburbs elongate, interest grows in the trove of Victorian gems 20 minutes by subway to the heart of downtown Boston. Tragically, some of Dorchester’s most historic and most imposing manors were needlessly demolished in the last century, yet in the new century the town pulses with a renewed energy. Small wonder Trulia marked it as a “hot neighborhood” for 2013.
14 Peverell Street on Jones Hill, the Edward Burbank House from 1895. A turreted Queen Anne with unparalleled views of Boston.
Andrew F. Saxe, a consulting executive with a degree in History from Harvard University, moved to Dorchester in 2008 with his partner after more than a decade in Boston’s South End. Intrigued by the rich collection of Victorian homes, he began photographing and researching them. Combining his photos of extant houses with the superlative collection of historic photographs owned by the Dorchester Historical Society, Saxe created his book, Dorchester’s Hidden Treasures: The Ascent and Revival of the Railroad Suburb. He is currently seeking a publisher. The Dorchester Historical Society invited him to join its board. Andrew Saxe can be reached at email@example.com.
To see more pictures of Dorchester’s important architectural landmarks of the past go to the Dorchester Historical Society’s blog or their Google Group where you can review archives of the historical society’s “Dorchester Illustration of Day” blog postings.