Dorchester has almost four centuries of history, although there are only a few buildings and places left to connect it to its earliest years. Meeting House Hill is one of those places.
Dorchester was founded in 1630, when the colonists landed at Columbia Point and established a settlement at Uphams Corner. Meeting House Hill was established soon after, and the hilltop section looks like a traditional New England town common, with the a green surrounded by the First Parish Church (established 1631) and the Mather School (est. 1639), the oldest public elementary school in North America.
Ronan Park is the highest point in Dorchester. The 11-acre hilltop park is the highest point in Dorchester, with expansive views of the Boston Harbor that inspired Amy Lowell's poem, "Meeting-House Hill," in 1920. Many artists have painted the view from its summit, and the American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935) grew up on Olney Street. The park was designed by the Olmsted Brothers, the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Meeting House Hill encompasses some of Dorchester's most architecturally significant residential, ecclesiastical, and institutional buildings.
Historically, Meeting House Hill was bounded roughly by Bowdoin, Hancock and Freeport Streets, and by the farmland of the Great Lots to the south. Today, Geneva Avenue and Park Street form the approximate modern, southern border of the Hill itself because their generally east-west routes are on a level plain lying closest to the gradual incline of the Hill. This area contains buildings ranging from the late 1600s to the mid 1800s, as well as a cluster of substantial Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses on Percival and Potosi streets built after 1875. The southwestern half of the Hill, which includes Ronan park, was mostly developed after 1870.
Clusters of surviving Federal-era houses. During the early 1800s, Meeting House Hill assumed was a prosperous residential quarter with handsome Federal houses built on principal streets such as Adams, Church, East, High, and Winter streets.
Oliver Hall House (39 Adams St.) Built c.1840, this Greek Revival was home of cabinet maker Oliver Hall, who served in various public roles, including president of the Mattapan Bank, director of the Dorchester Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and on the building committee of Dorchester's now-lost treasure, Lyceum Hall.
75, 86, and 90 Church Street Probably built during the 1840s, these houses, together with granite gate posts, old stone walls, mature trees and the narrow dimensions of Church Street constitutes one of the most unspoiled pre-Civil War streetscapes in Dorchester.
Percival Street was built on the estate of John "Mad Jack" Percival (1779-1862), who capped his career as captain of Old Ironsides. As a youth, he worked as a cabin boy, and joined the Merchant Marine soon after. In Lisbon, he was impressed into service by the Royal Navy, led a successful uprising – and was impressed again, by the Dutch, on his homeward voyage. During the War of 1812, he captured several British ships and was promoted to lieutenant. After this, he was sent to the West Indies to break the pirates who were controlling trade in the region. Percival spent his later years on Meeting House Hill in a cottage, since demolished, at the corner of Bowdoin and Percival Streets. Built in 1797, Old Ironsides was scheduled for decommissioning and eventual scrapping in 1830, but was fortunately saved in part by the celebrated poem “Old Ironsides” by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., as well as the publicity from Percival's final voyage. A colorful character, Percival attracted the attention of several prominent writers, including Hawthorne and Melville. Indeed, Melville modeled his character Lieutenant Mad Jack after Percival.
Mary Jane Safford-Blake House. (5 Percival St.) Dorchester native Mary Jane Safford-Blake (1834-1891) was among the first, if not the first women gynecologists in this country, and later taught at Boston University. After the Civil War, she attended Heidelberg University in Germany with friend and fellow medical student Isabel Chapin Barrows, the first woman to work in the State Department, one of the first to study opthalmology at the University of Vienna, and later the first woman ophthalmologist in America.
Benjamin Cushing House. (32 Percival St.) Built c.1860, this is the last of the Mount Ida estate houses that once included the Capen, Harding-Collins, and Harris-Percival lands. The Italianate house has significant associations with Dr. Benjamin Cushing, a talented physician who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Academy. (34 Adams St.) housed Mrs. Saunders and Miss Beach?s Academy from 1804-1846. In 1804, Judith Saunders and Clementina Beach purchased for $4,500 the Federal house and a quarter-acre of land for their academy, which operated until 1846. The Academy's curriculum included "Reading, Writing, English Grammar, Arithmetic, Plain Sewing, Embroidery, Tambour, French Language, Painting, Geography, including the use of the globes."
While there are no subway stops within the neighborhood itself, Meeting House Hill has two Red Line stops nearby – Fields Corner and Savin Hill stops, in the respective neighborhoods.
The Puritans who settled Dorchester were part of the group which obtained a charter allowing the Massachusetts Bay Company to settle the land between the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. Part of this group sailed on March 20, 1630 aboard the Mary and John and landed on June 6, 1630 at a placed called “Mattapannock” (Columbia Point) by
the Indians. These settlers built houses and a meeting house nearby at a place later called Allen’s Plain (roughly where Pleasant Street is today). Before leaving for America, the colonists had determined that for purposes of mutual protection they would build closely together.
For this reason all settlers built homes within one-half mile of the meeting house on lots of four to six acres. South of what is now called Meeting House Hill, “Great Lots” (in what is now Central and Southern Dorchester) for general farm purposes were granted. Thus, the first roads built by the Dorchester settlers centered around the Meeting House (Cottage Street and Settlers’ Lane), led to the fortress atop Rock Hill (now Savin Hill) by way of Pleasant Street, to the Cow Pasture (Columbia Point) by way of Pond Street and Crescent Avenue, and to the Burying Ground by way of Burying Place Lane (now Stoughton Street).
Later, as the danger from the Indians disappeared, homes were erected on the “Great Lots” and the center of town life shifted to Meeting House Hill. This resulted in the building of new roads connecting other settlements and parts of Dorchester. Dudley Street connected Dorchester with the Roxbury settlement, and Boston Street connected
Dorchester Neck and Heights (now South Boston) with the main settlement. When Israel Stoughton set up a grist mill on the Neponset River, a road was built across the “Great Lots” connecting the original settlement with it. This became known as the Lower Road (now Adams Street).
Meeting House Hill was settled in the 17th century by Puritans who arrived on the Mary and John. It was originally called Rocky Hill, after the puddingstone outcroppings along its eastern slope. Most of the earliest homes in Dorchester were built on Savin Hill and Allens Plain (now the intersection of Pond, Cottage, and Pleasant Streets), but by 1668 there were at least two homesteads and a schoolhouse on the lower slope of Rocky Hill. Both the First Parish Church and the Mather School, named for its pastor, were originally located on Allens Plain. In 1673, oxen were used to move the church to the top of what came to be known as Meeting House Hill. The Mather School was rebuilt near the church in 1694.
The First Parish Church has been rebuilt several times, and became a Unitarian church in the early 19th century under Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris. The current structure was built in 1897. The church overlooks a small triangular park, originally called Dorchester Common, now named for the late pastor Reverend James K. Allen. A granite monument to Dorchester's fallen Civil War soldiers was erected there in 1867.
Meeting House Hill was originally called Rocky Hill due to pudding stone outcroppings on its eastern slope. Although the bulk of Dorchester?s 17th century dwellings were located on Allens Plain, now Pleasant Street and vicinity, and at Savin Hill, Meeting House Hill was not totally devoid of structures. The settlement's school house stood on Winter Street before 1668, while at least two settlers, George Proctor and John Holman, maintained homesteads on the Hill's lower slopes. The story of Meeting House Hill really begins with the relocation of the First Parish Church ca. 1673 from the corner of Pond and Pleasant Streets to the top of Meeting House Hill. The Meeting house bolstered the Hill's prominence and centrality in town affairs. In 1743, the third meeting-house of the town was built, replacing the earlier structure. It was located a little south of the present First Parish Church; the Soldier's Monument marks the spot of its eastern entrance. This building was 20 or 30 feet long, 46 feet wide and had a tower 14 feet square and a steeple that was 104 feet high to the weather vane. At that time, the law required that each citizen should take part in or contribute to "raising the Meeting-hows?. This Meeting House was enlarged in 1795 by dividing it along the ridge-pole, moving one-half of it fourteen feet, and the tower and steeple seven feet and uniting the two parts by new materials. Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris (1793-1835) brought great changes within the Congregational Church. Known as the "Great Schism," this religious controversy of the first quarter of the 19th century divided the church, with the conservative Unitarians remaining on Meeting House Hill and the more liberal Trinitarians establishing a new or Second Church at Codman Square under the Reverend John Codman. The Reverend Harris was born in 1768 and was graduated from Harvard in 1787. According to Orcutt, he was remembered for his abilities as a scholar, writer, poetic sensibility, keen wit and genial nature. Despite the religious controversies of this period, Harris' 43 years on Meeting House Hill by all accounts were a kind of golden age and it was against this back drop that Meeting House Hill's oldest extant housing was built.
The beginning of the pastorate of Rev. Thaddeus Mason Harris (1793-1835) ushered in a kind of spiritual ?golden age? on Meeting House Hill that was not, however, without controversy. Rev. Harris?s congregation became embroiled in the ?Great Schism,? an early 19th century religious controversy which divided Congregational churches along liberal and conservative theological lines. The liberal Unitarians remained on Meeting House Hill while the more orthodox Trinitarians established a new or Second Church at Codman Square under the Reverend John Codman in 1806. The Reverend Harris was born in 1768 and was graduated from Harvard in 1787. According to Orcutt, he was remembered ?for his abilities as a scholar, writer, poetic sensibility, keen wit and genial nature.? After his retirement from preaching in 1835 he devoted the last decade of his life to researching the history of Dorchester.
The First Parish Church of 1743 and 1795 was "injured in a violent storm" of September, 1815 and was replaced during the following year by a new house of worship. In one newspaper account of its dedication, it was noted that the edifice is finished in a masterly manner, and is an honor to the town. The steeple in particular, is considered a most beautiful specimen of architecture, makes a graceful appearance, and from its elevated situation, as well as its towering height, is seen to advantage from the neighboring towns. The present wooden First Parish Unitarian Church on Winter street was constructed in 1897, by the architectural firm of Cabot, Everett and Mead of Boston. This firm was responsible for the Renaissance Revival Arlington Public Library (1892).Rising to a height of , the steeple of the First Parish Church is as a major landmark on the Dorchester skyline. Against all odds, given the dense residential development of the turn-of-the-century, this church, together with the Dorchester Common and a handful of Federal period houses provides a glimpse of an early 19th century rural center. The date of the Dorchester Common's origins is unclear but local histories all note that it has long been used as a park. Although Eaton Square, adjacent to the common on the west, has a Victorian sensibility due in part to its cast iron fountain and proximity to St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church (1872), it was, in fact, the center of the community at the time of the Revolution. Located on Eaton Square was Eaton's Tavern before which the Dorchester wagoners assembled on the eve of the fortification of Dorchester Heights. By the early 1830s the Eaton Tavern had been moved and an ornamental park was set out on its site. The present cast iron fountain may be a successor to the one given c. 1840 [actually somewhat later] by Emily Fifield in memory of Theodore Lyman, Mayor of Boston from 1834-35.
Lyceum Hall, next door to the First Parish Church, was an important center of the community for many years. The Greek Revival-style public meeting hall was built in 1838 and dedicated in 1840. The Lyceum hosted lectures, dances, school classes, and other public gatherings. Local women's abolition groups met there, and it served as a recruiting depot for the Union Army during the Civil War. It became a special needs school in 1891, and was demolished in 1955.