Saturday, August 06, 2016
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Roxbury's History Print E-mail

Colonial and Revolutionary War-era Roxbury

altThe 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, originally called “Rocksberry” because of the many outcroppings of native Roxbury puddingstone, particularly in the Roxbury Highlands. The original boundaries of the town included the neighborhoods of West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and 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. 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. The apple orchard grew at the site of the current Orchard Gardens housing project.

altThe colonists also constructed 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 that 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.

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's Suburbanization
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.

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 horse-drawn 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.

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 were grand homes of wealthy industrialists who chose the tops of the hills in the Roxbury Highlands because of their views and breezes.

In the later years of the 19th century, the old farms and grand estates in the highlands were subdivided for housing. When electric trolley service began in 1887, more and more families poured into the neighborhood, creating a market for rowhouses and triple deckers as well as single-family homes.

Industry and Commerce
Even in colonial days, Lower Roxbury, located along Roxbury's border with the South End, had an industrial character with mills and tanneries. As the marshes were filled, factories and warehouses took their place. Workers' housing, usually wooden tenements and rowhouses, were also constructed in Lower Roxbury. The neighborhood also contains an example of model workers’ housing at Frederick Douglas Square (Greenwich, Warwick, and Sussex streets), small brick rowhouses built in the 1880s.

From Roxbury's earliest days, commerce centered at Dudley Station, where Washington, Warren, and Dudley streets cross. By the turn of the 20th century, the area had a bustling mix of department stores, residential hotels, silent movie theaters, banks, and even a bowling alley, all designed by prominent Boston architects in a rich mixture of revival styles. Dudley Station opened in 1901 as the southern terminus of the Boston Elevated Railway, which ran to Sullivan Square in Charlestown and later became part of the Orange Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

Dominating the intersection of Washington and Warren streets is the building which contained Ferdinand's Blue Store, a retailer once famous throughout New England. Designed by local architect John Lyman Faxon in a mixture of Baroque and Renaissance Revival styles, the five-story limestone and yellow brick building was completed in 1895, replacing a smaller, wood frame store on the same site. By the 1920s, Ferdinand's had grown to occupy four buildings, including the area's tallest, Ferdinand's Blue Store Addition, at 17-19 Warren Street.

Growth created the need for more municipal services, so the citizens of Roxbury voted to incorporate as a city in 1846 and then to become annexed to Boston in 1868. The demand for services was responsible for public works projects such as the Eustis Street Fire Station and the Cochituate Stand Pipe.

In addition to the small parks that dot the neighborhood, Roxbury had land available in 1885 to build the city's largest park. With its 527 acres, Franklin Park represents the ideal of a "country park," a place where city dwellers can find relief from the urban environment. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Franklin Park is the final jewel of the Emerald Necklace, the seven mile stretch of public parkland that begins at Boston Common.

20th Century to the Present Day
Until about 1900, Roxbury was a community of English, Irish, and German immigrants and their descendants. In the early 20th century, Roxbury diversified with the establishment of a Jewish community in the Grove Hall area along Blue Hill Avenue. Following the shift of Boston's Black community from Beacon Hill and the South End and a massive migration from Southern states to northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s, Roxbury became the center of the African-American community in Boston. alt

Social issues and the urban renewal programs of the 1960s and 1970s contributed to a decline in the neighborhood. However, recent grassroots efforts by residents have been the force behind revitalizing historic areas and creating Roxbury Heritage State Park. The relocation of the Orange Line and development of the Southwest Corridor Park spurred major investment, including Roxbury Community College, the Reggie Lewis Center, Renaissance Center, and the Islamic Society of Boston mosque. Proposed commercial development in Dudley Square, Jackson Square, and near Ruggles Station now promises reinvestment in the form of new housing, shopping, and related consumer services.

Images from:

The Town of Roxbury by Francis Drake Roxbury Crossing Historical Trust
Historical American Building Survey (HABS), Frank O.  Branzetti photographer (1941)
Boston Public Library Print Department
The Kings Handbook of Boston

Dillaway-Thomas House
Franklin Park Coalition

Articles from the Boston Globe and the Bay State Banner.