Jun 012017
 

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

Belmont Square B

I have a new guest post up at the Boston Preservation Alliance’s AllianceViews Blog. Check it out here.

It’s about Brophy Park, a small park in my neighborhood that seems to have an identity crisis. In many ways, it feels like an ordinary neighborhood park – there are benches, a drinking fountain, and a spruce tree that the neighborhood decorates with lights every Christmas. It’s a popular spot for dog walking – if you google “Brophy Park,” one of the first results is the park’s Foursquare page, which describes it as a “dog run.”

Belmont Square A

Even though it feels like a small, neighborhood park today, it turns out that Brophy Park has a more complicated historic identity. Originally named Belmont Square, it was designed 180 years ago not as a public park, but as a private garden square, a concept that came to Boston by way of London. Today, this history has largely been forgotten, and most Bostonians outside of East Boston aren’t even aware that Belmont Square exists. In fact, if it weren’t for the efforts of East Boston residents over the years, it’s unlikely that Belmont Square would have survived at all. Head over to the AllianceViews Blog for the full story.

Today, Belmont Square’s ambiguous identity has left us with a series of unresolved questions. Should the city manage Belmont Square as one small piece of a larger network of city parks, or does the square’s identity as a historic, urban landscape merit special treatment? Should decisions about the square’s future be made by residents through consensus, or should the city dictate changes to the square, as it has done in the past? And what should we even call this space – Brophy Park or Belmont Square? East Boston is in the middle of the biggest building boom the neighborhood has experienced in over a century. As the neighborhood changes around Brophy Park, finding answers to these questions will become crucial to preserving the square’s historic character.

Belmont Square C

Apr 032017
 

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

The Greek Revival style dominated American buildings for nearly 40 years. In the 1840s and 50s, hundreds of Greek Revival houses were built across the Jeffries Point neighborhood to accommodate East Boston’s growing population. But after the Civil War, the style fell out of fashion. The national mood had shifted. Greek Revival architecture, once considered a stately expression of civic pride, suddenly seemed stuffy, overly serious, and old-fashioned, a painful reminder of the country’s antebellum past.

After the trauma of the Civil War, Americans were ready for something new. They began choosing more and more elaborate and fanciful styles for their homes. Gone were the austere details and rigid symmetry of the Greek Revival era, and in their place builders added fancy carved details, asymmetrical rooflines, cupolas, and towers. It was a form of architectural escapism. Instead of a Greek temple, suddenly everyone wanted to live in an Italian villa or a Renaissance castle. It was the start of what we now think of as Victorian architecture.

In Jeffries Point, the pace of new construction slowed in the years after the Civil War as the population of East Boston began to level off. Even so, a few dozen Victorian houses were built in the neighborhood during this time. The easiest way to identify these houses is to look at the roof. While most of Jeffries Point’s earlier Greek Revival houses have side-gabled roofs, pitched from front to back with the roof ridge running parallel to the front of the house, the neighborhood’s Victorian houses are turned 90 degrees, so that the narrow end of the house faces forward. This change looked something like this:

Side vs End Gable

This reorientation, called an end house, actually originated during the Greek Revival era. Architects and builders began designing houses with the gable end facing forward because the triangular shape formed by the end of the roof allowed them to introduce decorative trim to form a pediment, the triangular roof shape found at the front of ancient Greek temples. Gable roofed end houses weren’t very popular in Jeffries Point during the Greek Revival era. There’s only one in the neighborhood, a well-preserved Greek Revival cottage dating to the 1840s.

Greek Revival End House

Even after the Greek Revival style went out of fashion, end houses, with the narrow end of the house facing forward, stuck around. They were especially convenient in urban neighborhoods like Jeffries Point because they allowed builders to build long, narrow houses that fit on tightly spaced lots. Restricted by these small lots, builders in Jeffries Point in the 1870s and 80s continued building the same basic, narrow, box-shaped houses they had built during the Greek Revival era. They simply traded classically-inspired Greek Revival details for new decorative elements inspired by Italian villas and other European architecture.

In some cases, homeowners literally swapped out old, Greek Revival details for new, Victorian ones while renovating their houses. William Shattuck, a prosperous cabinetmaker, built a modest, Greek Revival house near the top of the hill in Jeffries Point sometime in the late 1840s. His house had a side-gabled roof and a flat front, and would’ve been pretty typical of middle-class Greek Revival houses built in the neighborhood at the time. But today, his house looks very different.

Shattuck House

Shattuck’s house is the red one on the right. The gray house next door was built at about the same time, possibly by the same builder. Originally, the two houses would’ve looked almost identical. The restored facade of the house next door still features Greek Revival details, but Shattuck’s house was Victorian-ized at some point after his death in 1875. The house’s new owners undertook a major renovation to update the house, adding stylish new details.

The biggest change was the addition of a two-story, angled window bay. New house framing techniques popularized after the Civil War made it quicker and easier for builders to add angled window bays to new houses. Window bays, which flood interior rooms with light and give the illusion of extra space, became wildly popular, so much so that they’re now often considered defining features of urban, Victorian houses. Window bays even came to be seen as a mark of status – no upscale house was complete without one.

During the renovation, Shattuck’s house also lost the straight lines and hard angles of its original Greek Revival details. Instead, the new owners chose whimsical Victorian flourishes – an elaborate front porch, brackets with curlicue designs along the roofline, and curvy trim with scrolls at the base around the attic-level dormers. The end result was a fashionable home that approximated the look of the new houses that were being built in the neighborhood at the time. Today, only the house’s square footprint and side-gabled roof give away its Greek Revival past.

Very few end houses with pitched, or gable, roofs were built in Jeffries Point. Instead, in the 1870s, builders adopted a new type of roof for the neighborhood’s end houses. The mansard roof, sometimes called a French roof at the time, provided a way to create a full third floor living space while still keeping the same basic proportions of the two-story-plus-attic gable end house.

mansard roof

Dozens of mansard end houses were built in Jeffries Point in the 1870s and 80s. Some were single, freestanding homes, but many were semi-detached double houses, two side-by-side houses that share a central wall.

Mansard Double House

Victorian architecture is actually made up of a variety of different styles. Mansard roofed houses are associated with a style that originated in France called Second Empire. Unlike some of the other Victorian styles, which were throw backs to old, Renaissance and Medieval architecture, Second Empire buildings were considered very modern at the time. The fact that the style originated in France only made it more fashionable. Aside from mansard roofs, which were usually clad in decoratively arranged slate tiles, Second Empire houses in Jeffries Point also feature paneled window bays, decorative brackets under the eaves, and small porches or entry hoods supported by scrolled brackets over the front door.

Scrolled Entry Hood

Mansard End House

Toward the end of the 19th century, factories began mass producing house parts. Builders and homeowners could simply look through a catalog and choose from a wide variety of affordable decorative bits to add to the front of a house. With all sorts of decorative house parts readily available, builders started adding more and more elaborate details to Jeffries Point’s houses.

Second Empire Double House

This trend culminated in the fanciful architecture of the neighborhood’s triple deckers. Triple deckers are a type of three-story apartment house, with one apartment per floor, that were built in New England cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With three apartments in a single building, triple deckers were more dense than any of the houses built before them in Jeffries Point. They were designed and built to house the neighborhood’s rapidly expanding European immigrant population. Triple deckers kept the same narrow, boxy shape and bay windows of earlier Victorian houses, but did away with pitched or mansard roofs and simply squared off the top floor and capped it with a flat roof to allow for a full, third-floor apartment.

Triple Decker

Earlier Victorian efforts to provide housing for poor and working people were often philanthropic ventures – rich people designing and building low income housing. At the time, these rich philanthropists thought that adding decorative elements to low income housing was morally wrong, even unhealthy for the people who lived there. As a result, many of these early low income houses were incredibly plain, completely devoid of decoration. But by the time triple deckers were being built in Jeffries Point for working class immigrant families, many of the neighborhood’s builders were recent immigrants themselves. Unlike the wealthy philanthropists who proceeded them, these immigrant builders paid attention to what their customers wanted – and, unsurprisingly, it turned out that poor and working people liked living in fashionable houses just as much as rich people.

Triple Decker Front Door

With inexpensive, factory-produced house parts readily available, these builders added a wide range of decorative elements to their triple deckers – elaborately paneled window bays, scrolled brackets under the eaves, carved garland and wreath decorations, fluted pillars to support the front porch, palladian windows. So many of these decorated triple deckers were built across Boston that people began to think of them as commonplace. But recently there’s been a revival of interest in these buildings. They’ve stood the test of time, providing affordable housing and multigenerational living arrangements to Bostonians for over a century. And with their elaborate decorative details, they deliver character in spades, making up an important part of the charm of many of Boston’s historic neighborhoods, including Jeffries Point. The city of Boston has even officially recognized their value, introducing the 3D program to provide grants, loans, and subsidies to triple decker owners to help them maintain and preserve their houses. What’s more, preserving and reusing Boston’s triple deckers is an important way to help alleviate the city’s housing shortage – in many cases, triple deckers are more dense than modern, mid-rise apartment buildings on a per-square-foot basis, offering more units of housing in the same amount of space.

At the beginning of the 20th century, as the Victorian period came to a close, Jeffries Point continued to evolve. As the neighborhood’s population continued to expand, most of the formerly single family townhouses were divided into apartments with one apartment per floor, following the triple decker model. Many of the pitched roofs on the neighborhood’s earliest Greek Revival buildings were squared off to make room for a top floor apartment. Oversized, pressed metal cornices were added along the roofline, mimicking the style of the brick tenements that were being built across Boston at the time.

pressed metal cornice

By 1925, very few open lots remained in Jeffries Point. The neighborhood had taken on its present-day character, a vibrant mixture of Greek Revival and Victorian style houses, built from different materials, and modified over time to suit the needs of a changing population.

Mar 112017
 

Nearly all of the houses in Jeffries Point were built between 1840 and 1900. Builders constructed all sorts of different styles and types of houses across the neighborhood during this time. And in the decades since, homeowners have continued to make changes to their houses to suit their own tastes and needs. The end result is a patchwork of houses in different sizes and shapes, built from different materials at different times.

Although there’s a lot of architectural diversity in Jeffries Point, many of the neighborhood’s houses share some basic similarities. Take a house and strip away all of the superficial bits – the siding and finishes, the ornamental details, the window bays and dormers, even the shape of the roof – and you’re left with the house’s essential structure, its size, shape, and layout. Architects sometimes call this basic structure a house’s “form”.

Most of the houses in Jeffries Point have the same fundamental form. It looks something like this:

Urban House FormIt’s essentially a box. The facade is tall and narrow, two or three stories high, and set close to the street. Inside, there are two or three rooms per floor, positioned one behind the other. The front door is off to one side, and there are three street-facing windows on the upper levels. This was by far the most common urban house form built in America during the 19th century – think Brooklyn’s brownstones, Philadelphia’s row houses, San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, even many of the brick tenements in Boston’s North End. The repetition of this form across Jeffries Point is a big part of what gives the neighborhood its distinctive character. Over the years, builders in Jeffries Point took this basic house form and added different roof shapes and decorative details, giving us the architecturally diverse neighborhood we see today.

Jeffries Point houses

All of these little decorative details and variations make the neighborhood’s houses unique and interesting. If we look closely at these details, we can estimate a house’s age, and learn about how the neighborhood has changed over time as different architectural styles came into fashion.

Let’s start at the beginning. The oldest houses in Jeffries Point were built in the 1840s and 50s. The easiest way to identify these early houses is to look at the roof. If a house has a pitched roof with the roof ridge running parallel to the front of the house, odds are it was built before the Civil War. This kind of roof is called a side-gabled roof. It looks something like this:

Side Gabled HouseThere are a handful of exceptions to this rule in the neighborhood, but it’s a good starting point for estimating a house’s age in Jeffries Point.

Nearly all of these early side-gabled houses were built in the Greek Revival style, one of the first truly American architectural styles. By the early 1800s, after years of copying the latest architectural trends from Europe, Americans were ready to assert their newly-won independence with their own national architectural style. They looked to ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, for inspiration. By the 1840s, the style was everywhere. It was used for almost every type of building – cottages, mansions, banks, churches, courthouses, schools, even outhouses. In their purest form, Greek Revival buildings are essentially copies of ancient Greek ruins, like the Parthenon, with huge columns supporting a triangular shape at the end of the roof called a pediment – think of the front of the White House, or Quincy Market in Boston.

Greek Revival Origins

In the 1840s, everyone wanted in on the Greek Revival trend, but unfortunately, not everyone had the means to live in a Greek temple. So builders in Jeffries Point took the standard urban house form, the tall, narrow box, and dressed it up with some Greek-inspired details. The pediment, that triangular roof shape often found on Greek temples, was scaled down and used as trim over windows and doors, essentially turning each opening in a building into a mini temple front.

Greek Revival Window

Massive Greek columns were reimagined as chunky vertical trim, called pilasters, surrounding doorways and at the corners of buildings. In general, Greek Revival houses have a lot of broad, flat surfaces and simple, bold decoration.

Greek Revival Front Door

When it came to building materials and finishes, builders in Jeffries Point had to get creative. Greek ruins are made out of stone, usually marble. But in 19th-century Boston, stone was just too expensive for the average house. Instead, the neighborhood’s houses were constructed from wood or brick. But builders still found ways to get that Greek temple look. They painted wooden, clapboard siding white or gray to give the impression of marble. Front doors and window sashes were painted black or dark green so that they receded into the background, making openings in the facade look dark and empty, like a Greek ruin. Stone trim and accents were added to brick buildings – brownstone, a soft, local sandstone that’s easy to carve, was especially popular for door surrounds and window sills and lintels. Gray-speckled, local granite was used as a stand-in for marble, but because it was heavy and expensive, it was usually limited to the front of a house’s foundation and the front steps.

Greek Revival Front Door 2

These creative reinventions of ancient Greek architectural elements using locally available materials are hallmarks of the American Greek Revival style, and many of these architectural details can still be found in Jeffries Point today.

Greek Revival Detached Townhouse

The simplest Greek Revival houses built in the neighborhood were worker’s cottages. These small, one or two-story houses were usually built with just a handful of simple decorative elements – wide window sills and lintels, or a broad, flat band under the roofline, for example. Dozens of these little houses were built across Jeffries Point in the 1840s and 50s to provide affordable housing for factory and shipyard workers. Because they were so simple to start with, many of these houses look pretty nondescript today. We often forget how old they are, and unfortunately, because they’re so small and plain, these workers’ cottages are now increasingly vulnerable to demolition. Workers' Cottages There were plenty of larger, fancier houses built in Jeffries Point during the Greek Revival period as well. Some of the most luxurious are brick bow-front townhouses. Bow-fronts are defined by a curved window bow that runs the entire height of the facade.

Greek Revival Bowfronts

I think it’s a simple, graceful design, although I’m especially partial to this kind of house since I live in one. A lot of 19th century Bostonians agreed with me. Thousands of bow-fronts were built across the city in a variety of styles for middle and upper class residents throughout the 19th century – Boston’s South End, for example, is made up almost entirely of row after row of attached brick bow-fronts dating to the mid-to-late-1800s. But in Jeffries Point, almost all of the bow-fronts were built in the 1840s and 50s with side-gabled roofs in the Greek Revival style, making them some of the oldest examples of this house type in Boston (the oldest surviving bow-fronts, from the 1820s, are in the Beacon Hill neighborhood).

East Boston Bow-Fronts 2

Almost all of the bow-fronts in Jeffries Point have raised basements. Sometimes called garden levels or English basements, these lower levels rise a half-story above the ground. They’re usually clad in granite to contrast with the rest of the facade and provide some visual weight that helps ground the tall, narrow buildings. But the primary purpose of the raised basement is to elevate the main living area on the first floor above street level. In the 1840s, when these buildings were built, the neighborhood’s streets were unpaved dirt. Passing horses kicked up clouds of dust and left behind piles of manure. Placing the living room above street level allowed residents to open their windows in the summer without inviting dust and filth from the street into their houses. An elevated first floor also provides a measure of privacy in a dense, urban environment. Even after the neighborhood’s streets were paved sometime in the 1860s or 70s, raised basements remained popular, and builders have continued to incorporate them in new houses right up to the present day.

Bow-fronts weren’t the only upscale housing built in Jeffries Point during the Greek Revival period. Many of the neighborhood’s double houses, made up of two attached, side-by-side single houses, are just as elegant. The area’s Greek Revival double houses are usually two stories high and share a single, side-gabled roof, with the front doors paired at the center, giving the outward appearance of a single, large, symmetrical house. Although these houses were shared by two families, each with a private entrance, they were considered suitable houses for middle and upper class families, so they often feature upscale decorative finishes.

Greek Revival Double House

Greek Revival Double Houses

Most of the neighborhood’s Greek Revival houses are still standing over 160 years after they were built. In fact, as I’ve learned more about Jeffries Point’s architecture over the past year or so, I’ve started noticing these early, side-gabled houses all over the neighborhood. Many of these houses have changed over the years – original wooden decorative details have been lost to rot, and homeowners have altered their houses to better suit their needs, adding additional living space and modern features like artificial siding, asphalt shingle roofs, and aluminum gutters. But even with these changes, the neighborhood’s oldest houses are easily recognizable, with their flat, three-window-wide facades and side-gabled roofs.

side gabled 2

side gabled 4

side gabled 5

Greek Revival Brick Row

The rooflines on some of the area’s side-gabled houses have changed over the years. In some cases, wide, double shed dormers replaced narrow, single dormers. And in other cases, the pitch of the roof was changed to provide a full story of living space at the attic level.

side gabled 3

side gabled 1

Jeffries Point has one of the highest concentrations of wood-frame Greek Revival houses in Boston. As some of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood, these Greek Revival houses are an important part of the neighborhood’s character. But as Jeffries Point continued to expand during the 1860s and beyond, builders turned to a variety of different house styles with increasingly elaborate and fanciful architectural details. More on that next time.

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

Mar 072017
 
 March 7, 2017  Exterior 8 Responses »

Front Door

Renovating the living room was one of the first major projects I undertook after moving into the condo. As my contractor, Gregg, started removing wallpaper and scraping old paint, he came across large swaths of water-damaged plaster and rotten woodwork along the front wall of the building. At the time, I assumed this was old water damage from a leak that had since been fixed. Gregg patched up the walls, replaced the rotten woodwork, and we moved on.

Then, a few months later after a day of heavy rain, I noticed water dripping down the front windows in between the actual windows and the storm windows. This didn’t seem normal, but I was still in denial at this point. Before long, my neighbors also started noticing evidence of leaks along the front of the building – water stains, crumbling plaster, and rotten woodwork. And then there were the puddles of water that accumulated at the front of the cellar after it rained.

Not wanting to deal with the implications of this overwhelming evidence, my neighbors and I instead decided to take the let’s-wait-and-see-maybe-the-problem-will-take-care-of-itself? approach. Of course, the problem didn’t take care of itself. The turning point came a little over a year ago when I came home one dark and stormy night to the drip, splat sound of water leaking onto my living room floor. The water was dripping through cracks in the woodwork surrounding the front windows and running over the trim onto the floor. After scrambling for towels and buckets, I got the situation under control. My downstairs neighbor had it even worse. His front windows were transformed into an unwelcome water feature, with gallons of water cascading over the sills during the night.

After this great flood incident, we were finally convinced that something needed to be done. According to some google research, the source of the leaks was either the roof, the exterior brick masonry, or, less likely, the gutter. We decided to start with the masonry. The first mason who looked at the front of the building described the brickwork as “swiss cheese like.” It seemed that we’d found the source of the leaks.

brick

Brick buildings occasionally need to be repointed, a labor-intensive process that involves chiseling out the mortar joints between each brick to a depth of about 1/4 inch and then refilling the joints with fresh mortar. Mortar lasts about 40 or 50 years before it begins to weather, crack, and fall out of the joints. Apparently it had been well over 50 years since the front of our building was repointed, and it’s possible that the facade had never been repointed in the 165 years since the building was constructed.

At some point, someone tuck pointed the facade, a process that involves smearing a layer of fresh mortar on top of the mortar joints without cutting away the old mortar first. Tuck pointing is, at best, a stop gap measure. Since the new mortar doesn’t form a good bond with the old mortar, it too will crack and fall away within two or three years, which is exactly what happened on our building.

Because repointing is an expensive, labor-intensive process, we wanted to make sure it was done properly. And because our building is 165 years old, I soon learned that it would require special treatment. Most modern brick isn’t structural, it’s just a veneer placed over a wood or steel frame that holds the building up. But the exterior walls of my building are brick all the way through – it’s the only thing holding up the roof. In order to remain structurally sound, my building’s brick walls need the flexibility to shift and expand slightly over time, as the temperature changes and the building settles. It turns out that the mortar is a crucial part of this flexibility.

In any brick wall, the mortar needs to be softer than the brick to allow the bricks to move and expand over time. If the mortar is too hard, the bricks will eventually crack and chip. In the mid-19th century when my building was built, bricks were much softer than they are today, and instead of the cement-based mortar we use now, 19th century masons used soft mortar with a high lime and sand content. A similar custom-mixed mortar needs to be used to repoint historic brickwork. 19th century brickwork also looks different than newer brick walls, the bricks themselves are smaller and the mortar joints are narrower. Masons need to take extra care to preserve this look while repointing. Because of these special considerations, we decided to look for a mason that specializes in restoring historic brickwork. Since there are so many old, brick buildings in Boston, it turns out that there are a lot of masons who do this kind of work. After speaking to a few of them, we settled on MS Masonry.

My building’s facade has a lot of brownstone trim – sills, lintels, and pilasters and entablature surrounding the front door. Builders in the 19th century loved brownstone – it looks good, it’s locally available, and it’s soft and easy to carve into elaborate, decorative shapes. But it’s actually a terrible building material. It’s a type of sandstone, and it erodes when exposed to the elements. The brownstone bits on the front of my building had been painted to slow down the erosion process, but they were still beginning to wear away in spots.

brownstone erosion 1

brownstone erosion 2

So while the masons were repointing the facade, we decided to go ahead and have them restore the weathered brownstone trim as well. The restoration process involved chipping away all of the loose and crumbling stone to reach a solid surface. The masons then refaced the stone trim using a stucco technique. They applied a special type of cement and sculpted the decorative details to recreate the original surface. Finally, they repainted the refaced trim to approximate the look of brownstone – we chose Benjamin Moore Whitall Brown, a gray-brown that’s about the same color as natural brownstone. Here’s some in progress shots of the brownstone restoration around the front door.

Brownstone Restoration Progress

brownstone restoration progress 2

brownstone restoration progress 3

In the end, the entire restoration turned out great. The restored trim looks crisp and sharp, as it was originally intended to be. And now that the trim has been returned to its original brownstone color, the entire building looks more stately and dignified. The repointed brickwork looks about the same as it did before it was repointed, a sign of a sensitive restoration. And most importantly, in the months since the facade was repointed, the cellar seems to have dried out and we haven’t noticed water leaking into the front of the building.

Lintel

The front of the building has come a long way since I moved in. Four years ago, the front entrance looked like this:

Front Door 2

And here it is after I repainted the front door and reglazed the transom window:

Front Door After

And finally, here’s the front entrance today, with newly restored brownstone trim:

Greek Revival Front Door 2

Feb 112017
 
 February 11, 2017  Historic Preservation 2 Responses »

When we left off last time, it was 1837, and Jeffries Point was a sparsely settled spit of land in the middle of Boston Harbor. The East Boston Company was busy filling in marshland, laying out a grid of wide, straight streets, and trying to convince investors and real estate developers to buy into the new neighborhood. They had big plans for the area, but by 1837, they’d only managed to convince a handful of people to build homes in Jeffries Point. This 1837 map shows just how empty the neighborhood was:

Jeffries Point 1837_1

No one was sure how the fledgling neighborhood would develop, or whether it would succeed at all. At the time, the East Boston Company had two competing visions of the neighborhood’s future. On the one hand, they saw East Boston as a future center of commerce and industry – an urban neighborhood, densely settled with factories, piers, shipyards, and housing for working and middle class families. On the other hand, they were marketing the neighborhood as a sparsely-settled, upscale, resort community where wealthy Bostonians could build fancy summer homes to take advantage of the island’s cool sea breezes and harbor views, all within a short steamboat ride of downtown. It’s unclear whether the East Boston Company actually thought that these two visions of the neighborhood were compatible, or whether they simply decided to pursue both development strategies simultaneously to hedge their bets.

Either way, if we fast forward to 1851, it becomes clear which strategy won out.

Jeffries Point 1851

In just 14 years, Jeffries Point had become a radically different place. Hundreds of new houses – represented by dark gray rectangles on the map – had been constructed one after the next across the neighborhood. Landfill operations and construction of new piers had nearly doubled the neighborhood’s usable land area. And a new railroad connected the Jeffries Point waterfront to Salem and other towns to the north. Although it never really took off as a summer resort community, the neighborhood was booming.

In many ways, Jeffries Point’s rapid success was a result of its geography. The neighborhood’s southern waterfront not only faces downtown Boston across the harbor, it’s also situated along a natural deep water channel that can accommodate large ships. The East Boston Company and early investors in the neighborhood capitalized on this natural shipping channel by constructing large piers, shipyards, and warehouses along the waterfront.

Their timing couldn’t have been better. In the late 1840s, just as development in Jeffries Point was taking off, the California Gold Rush began. As tens of thousands of people from around the world descended on the California goldfields, demand spiked for fast transportation of goods and people from the East Coast to California and back. Since the first transcontinental railroad wouldn’t be completed for another 20 years, most of this demand was met by ships sailing the ‘Golden Route’ around the bottom of South America and up the west coast to San Francisco. And with direct access to a deep water shipping channel and plenty of room to expand, the new port along the East Boston waterfront happened to be well-positioned to exploit this new demand for shipping.

As shipyards, machine shops, warehouses, and shipping terminals sprung up along the Jeffries Point waterfront,  hundreds of workers moved to the neighborhood. And since these workers needed a place to live, developers built hundreds of new houses. In 1851, most of these new houses were concentrated along the southern and western edges of the neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the booming waterfront. This 1848 engraving gives a sense of what the Jeffries Point waterfront looked like at the time (in the foreground):

View of Boston 1848

The East Boston Company originally laid out lots in a variety of sizes designed to accommodate different types of housing – dense, affordable houses on smaller lots, and expensive suburban estates and summer homes on larger lots. But by 1851, the neighborhood had begun to look fairly uniform, with row after row of narrow, closely-spaced houses built across small and large lots alike. Looking at the map, it’s almost as if the original lot lines had begun to disappear. As with so many things, the reason for this change was money.

Faced with skyrocketing demand for new housing, real estate developers and many of the neighborhood’s land owners decided to cash in. They maximized the value of their land by subdividing the original lots, squeezing as many as five houses side-by-side along the front of a single lot. By 1851, Sumner Street was lined with small, narrow houses.

Sumner Street 1851

Some developers even constructed a second row of houses directly behind the first, along the rear property line, accessible only by walking through the narrow gaps between street-facing houses. In a time before zoning codes existed, developers ignored the fire and safety risks that come with this kind of ultra-dense, inaccessible development. Even so, many of these rear-lot houses survive today.

Other developers took advantage of the neighborhood’s deep lots by running dead-end alleyways between some of the larger lots. These private alleyways provided access to the rear of the lot, allowing developers to build tightly packed houses along the lot’s entire depth. Located in lot 136, Hooten Court was an early example of this kind of development.

Lamson Hooten Courts

Modern apartment buildings didn’t exist in the 1840s, but these private alleyways, lined with small workers’ cottages built one after the next, served a similar purpose, providing dense, affordable housing for urban, working families. A number of these alleyways still exist in Jeffries Point, several with their original houses intact. Over the years, these clusters of small houses have fostered close-knit communities, miniature neighborhoods within the larger Jeffries Point.

Jeffries Point in 1851 was an emerging neighborhood of narrow, tightly-spaced houses, many occupying just 20-25 feet of street frontage. Even though there was plenty of open space left, the neighborhood had taken on a definite urban character. If we overlay a map of the neighborhood’s current buildings (in pink) over the 1851 map, it immediately becomes clear that most of the houses that existed in 1851 still exist today (click the map to expand). A few of the houses have been demolished or replaced, and others have been added on to – rear additions are particularly common – but, amazingly, the majority of these 166-plus-year-old houses are still standing.

Jeffries Point Buildings 1851

If we fast forward another 23 years to 1874, the East Boston Company’s luck had held, and the neighborhood had continued to expand.

Jeffries Point 1874

Through the 1850s and into the 1860s, this growth was again fueled by the demand for shipping created by the California Gold Rush and the country’s westward expansion. Beginning in the 1840s, several young shipbuilders set up shipyards along the East Boston waterfront. Up until this time, shipbuilding had been more art than science, often relying on inherited traditions and guesswork. These new East Boston shipbuilders were some of the first to introduce scientific rigor and evidence-based engineering to their craft. During the two decades between 1850 and 1870, East Boston shipyards produced some of the fastest and most technologically advanced wooden sailing ships ever built, ushering in the golden age of the clippership.

Shipwrights, carpenters, sailmakers, and other skilled artisans, many of them from the Canadian Maritime Provinces, moved to the neighborhood in droves to work in East Boston’s world-renowned shipyards. As housing was constructed across Jeffries Point for this rapidly growing workforce, the neighborhood continued to become more dense.

The shipbuilding boom also brought a new level of prosperity to Jeffries Point. The hilltop area surrounding Belmont Square has long been considered one of East Boston’s most desirable residential enclaves, and during the clippership era, it was home to some of East Boston’s wealthiest residents, including Samuel Hall, the first shipbuilder to move to East Boston and one of the most famous clippership builders of his day, who lived in the grand townhouse that still stands at 199 Webster Street. By 1874, some of the neighborhood’s largest houses had been built around Belmont Square. In another sign of the area’s exclusivity, many of these houses feature generous street setbacks and large side and rear yards, making the area noticeably less dense than the areas of working and middle class housing that surround it.

Belmont Square 1874

By 1870, the clippership boom had begun to collapse. Clipperships sacrifice cargo space for speed, and as technological and economic conditions shifted, this tradeoff no longer made sense. Railroads, which crisscrossed the country by 1870, offered fast, reliable cargo transportation, and the shipping industry was increasingly dominated by large, iron steamships. As the age of wooden sailing ships drew to a close, more than half of the workers who had been employed by East Boston shipyards left the neighborhood.

Despite this mass exodus, the neighborhood continued to expand. Although some of the old shipyards took on ship repair work and new machine shops and iron foundries opened along the waterfront to support the new iron shipbuilding industry, the neighborhood’s industrial economy would never fully recover. Instead, by the late 19th century, the primary driver of growth in the neighborhood was immigration.

In the 1840s, the Cunard Line built its first American passenger ship terminal on the Jeffries Point waterfront. Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of European immigrants arrived at the Cunard Terminal in Jeffries Point, and many of them chose to settle in the neighborhood.

Jeffries Point Cunard Wharf

Immigrants from England, Ireland, and Canada were the first to arrive, but by 1874, an increasing number of immigrants were from southern and eastern Europe. Looking at the 1874 map, the most obvious evidence of this surge in European immigration is the Catholic Church of the Assumption, built around 1870 just north of Belmont Square to serve the rapidly expanding Catholic immigrant community. As the population of the neighborhood grew, developers continued building new housing. By the early 20th century, very few open lots remained in Jeffries Point.

We often think of globalization as a new phenomenon. But for its entire 180-year history, Jeffries Point has been shaped by global forces. The neighborhood flourished early on thanks to the discovery of gold 3000 miles away in California. And for nearly a century-and-a-half, Jeffries Point has continued to grow and reinvent itself as thousands of immigrants from across the globe have made homes in the neighborhood. This legacy lives on in the neighborhood’s buildings and streetscapes – because residents chose to preserve and adapt existing buildings rather than demolish and replace them, the vast majority of buildings ever constructed in Jeffries Point are still standing today.

I’ll leave you with the 1874 map of Jeffries Point with current buildings overlaid in pink (click to expand). As you can see, most of the neighborhood’s 19th century buildings still exist today. But what did these buildings look like when they were built? And what do they look like today? Check back next time to find out.

Jeffries Point Buildings 1874

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

Jan 262017
 
 January 26, 2017  Historic Preservation 4 Responses »

Old maps provide a unique window to the past. They give us an immediate sense of what a place was like when the map was drawn, and provide information about how a place has changed over time. As I’ve gotten into the research required to nominate my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places, I’ve found old maps of the area to be an incredibly useful resource.

There are dozens of maps of Jeffries Point spanning nearly 300 years of history in the Boston Public Library’s map collection. The earliest of these maps provide important information about the neighborhood’s origins. Many of the later maps show individual buildings in the neighborhood. By comparing the shapes and locations of buildings on historic and current maps, we can estimate construction dates, and even track additions and changes to  individual buildings over time, all of which is essential information for the National Register nomination form. And these days, GIS (geographic information system) software, like QGIS, is available for free, making it easier than ever to quickly and accurately overlay and compare different maps.

But before we look at some old maps, those of you who aren’t familiar with Jeffries Point may be wondering exactly where it is. Here’s a present-day map of the area (click any of the images in this post to enlarge them).

Jeffries Point Map

The distinction between Jeffries Point and East Boston can be a little confusing. East Boston is one of Boston’s 23 ‘official’ neighborhoods. It’s situated along a peninsula in Boston harbor, completely separated from the rest of the city by water. It’s a big neighborhood – it covers about the same amount of land as all of Boston’s downtown neighborhoods combined – and over time, different sections of East Boston developed their own characters and identities and eventually came to be seen as distinct neighborhoods.

Jeffries Point is one of these neighborhoods-within-a-neighborhood. It’s located at the southern tip of East Boston, surrounded by the harbor on two sides. The neighborhood straddles a hill that overlooks the harbor and downtown Boston beyond. For much of its history, Jeffries Point has been defined by its harbor-front location, and even today, its harbor views, sea breezes, and maritime character continue to make it a desirable place to live.

Jeffries Point

That’s Jeffries Point today. But let’s back up a bit. All the way back to 1837 when East Boston was a brand new neighborhood, located on one of the largest islands in Boston Harbor (it would be nearly 100 years before landfill projects turned East Boston into a peninsula).

East Boston 1837.LARGE

A few years earlier, a group of businessmen and investors bought the island and formed a real estate venture called the East Boston Company with the goal of developing a new neighborhood. By 1837, they had laid out streets and divided the island into lots. The area we now call Jeffries Point then had the rather unimaginative name “Section 1.” Here’s a closer look at Section 1 in 1837: Jeffries Point 1837_1

A quick comparison of this map to the present-day map of Jeffries Point reveals some major differences. The landmass of the neighborhood was much smaller in 1837, and it was almost completely surrounded by water. Here’s a comparison of Jeffries Point in 1837 and Jeffries Point today. The black line is the current shoreline.

Jeffries Point 1837 vs today

I’d never thought much about the origins of the name Jeffries Point, but the first time I saw this map, the name suddenly made sense – the neighborhood was originally a peninsula (or, more precisely, a point), and the land at the end of the point was owned by a man with the last name Jeffries. Over the years, the tidal marshes, mud flats, and shallows surrounding the neighborhood were filled in, gradually expanding the neighborhood’s landmass until it was no longer a point. In 1837, Maverick Street, along the northern edge of the neighborhood, marked the boundary between land and sea. Today, the same street divides the neighborhood from Logan Airport.

If you look closely, you’ll also find, amazingly, that many aspects of the neighborhood haven’t changed over the past 180 years. The street layout is the same. Even the street names haven’t changed. Belmont Square, a large, open space at the center of the neighborhood, still exists as well, although it’s now called Brophy Park.

Belmont Square 1837

At the same time, it’s important to note that this map was drawn for the East Boston Company, and it reflects the company’s aspirations, which didn’t always line up with reality. In 1837, many of the streets depicted on the map were still under construction, and the northern section of the neighborhood between Everett and Maverick Streets was a salt marsh (which helps explain why none of the lots in that area had been sold).

If a present-day resident of Jeffries Point were to travel back in time to 1837 and walk the neighborhood’s streets, she would hardly recognize her neighborhood. The area was almost completely empty. The newly graded streets cut through meadows, marshes, and pastureland. Only a handful of houses, represented by little gray rectangles on the map, had been built. The most prominent of these houses – a mansion near the top of the hill in lot 47, built for Benjamin Lamson, an early investor in the East Boston Company – would have stood out. But this mansion was demolished in 1910 to make way for an elementary school. In fact, as far as I can tell, none of the buildings shown on this map survive today.

Even though the neighborhood was sparsely settled in 1837, a close look at the size and layout of the open lots reveals clues about the East Boston Company’s vision for the neighborhood. In fact, this was a time before zoning codes existed, and decisions about lot size and layout were one of the only ways the East Boston Company could influence the course of development in the neighborhood. The smallest lots in Jeffries Point were located at the western edge of the neighborhood, with larger lots further east and the largest lots located along the southern waterfront.

The reason for the varied lot sizes has to do with the scarcity of transportation options in the 1830s. Public transportation was nearly non-existent, and private transportation was largely limited to horses, which were unavailable to all but the wealthiest city dwellers. In their day-to-day lives, most people walked wherever they needed to go. Today, walkable neighborhoods are desirable, but in the 1830s they were essential. Factories, docks, shops, churches, schools, worker housing, and housing for wealthy business owners all needed to be within easy walking distance of one another. It was this kind of intensely walkable, mixed-use neighborhood that the East Boston Company had in mind when they laid out East Boston over 180 years ago.

Steam-powered ferries, a relatively new technology in the 1830s, provided a vital link between East Boston and downtown. Without this fast and reliable form of water transportation, East Boston likely would’ve remained farmland. So it’s no surprise that the neighborhood’s earliest development was clustered around the ferry landing, just to the west of Jeffries Point near Maverick Square (then known as Hotel Square).

Hotel Square

By 1837 a sugar refinery, warehouses, and a hotel had been built in this area. The deep, narrow lots surrounding Maverick Square, including the lots in the western end of Jeffries Point, were mostly empty. But these small lots were sized to encourage dense development around the ferry landing, then the neighborhood’s industrial and commercial hub. In particular, these small, affordable lots were designed to accommodate rows of modest worker housing to support East Boston’s burgeoning industrial economy.

Just a quarter-mile to the east, the lots became much larger. With their hilltop location, harbor views, and proximity to the landscaped Belmont Square, these lots were set aside for the new neighborhood’s wealthiest residents. At upwards of three times the size of the lots surrounding Maverick Square, these lots were large enough to accommodate grand houses, stables, and landscaped grounds. Benjamin Lamson’s mansion in lot 47 provided an early prototype for this kind of upscale development. Despite the intended grandeur of these lots, they were located right next to higher density worker housing, within easy walking distance of the ferry landing and the neighborhood’s industrializing waterfront.

Decisions made about Jeffries Point’s layout in the 1830s have reverberated through the years, and in many ways still define the neighborhood I live in today. Constrained by the limits of the transportation technology available at the time, the East Boston Company designed a neighborhood where businesses, housing, factories, and docks were built side by side. The end result was a vibrant, 19th century urban neighborhood. But this dense, walkable layout has remained vital today for an entirely different set of reasons. It’s environmentally sustainable, making walking, biking, and using public transit more attractive than driving a car; it allows residents to live close to work and reduces commute times; its density and human scale encourage a tight knit community where neighbors know one another; and it produced an architecturally diverse neighborhood that now supports a diverse community with a variety of housing options, from grand townhouses to modest workers’ cottages, converted factory lofts to apartment houses.

The original planners of East Boston never could have imagined that their design for the neighborhood would remain relevant 180 years later, but the dense, multi-use development that they encouraged may be their greatest legacy.

I’ll leave you with a map showing present-day buildings (in pink) overlaid on the 1837 map of Jeffries Point.

Jeffries Point 1837 Buildings

How did we get from the nearly empty Jeffries Point of the 1830s to the dense, urban neighborhood we see today? Check back next time for Part 2 to find out.

This post is part of a series about the process of nominating my neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

 

Jan 162017
 
 January 16, 2017  Historic Preservation 12 Responses »

jeffries-point-3

When I moved to the Jeffries Point section of East Boston in 2012, I had no idea that it was one of the oldest neighborhoods in Boston. There were a lot of things that appealed to me about Jeffries Point – its proximity to downtown, its harbor views, its beautiful parks and walkable streets – but I mostly overlooked the neighborhood’s historic character.

It was only after moving to the area and settling into an apartment in a 170-year-old building that I became curious about the neighborhood’s history. Talking to my neighbors and reading everything I could find about the area, I gradually learned about the neighborhood’s rich and varied past – as the entry point to America for thousands of immigrants in the early 20th century, as a world-renowned center of the shipbuilding industry in the middle of the 19th century, and as a staging ground for British forces during the second battle of the Revolutionary War, back when the area was pastureland. Looking through old maps and photographs, the seemingly ordinary buildings around me took on new significance as I discovered that many of them had been built well before the Civil War. I started to see evidence of the neighborhood’s 180-year history everywhere I looked. The ornate, cast iron fences surrounding many of my neighbor’s front gardens, the narrow, cobblestone alleyways hidden behind densely-spaced houses, even the towering, old elm tree down the street.

jeffries-point-1

As I gained a new appreciation for my neighborhood’s long history, I began to realize that many of the things I like best about Jeffries Point – the diverse and welcoming community, the proximity to public transit, the tree-lined streets – are directly connected to its historic character. It isn’t just a desirable neighborhood that happens to have a lot of old buildings, it’s a great place to live precisely because it’s a well-preserved, historic neighborhood.

jeffries-point-4

Of course, I’m not the first to realize this. Over the past 50 years, Jeffries Point residents have fought unwanted changes while promoting improvements that benefit the entire community. This long history of community activism began in the late 1960s when nearby Logan Airport planned to expand into the neighborhood, seizing land by eminent domain and demolishing historic buildings to make way for runways and airport support buildings. Residents mobilized against the expansion, winning a series of legal challenges, persuading elected officials, and, when necessary, taking to the streets to block construction. In the end, Jeffries Point was spared, but other East Boston neighborhoods weren’t so lucky.

Today, the stakes might not be quite so high, but Jeffries Point faces a variety of 21st century challenges related to housing affordability, density and (over)development, environmental sustainability, and adapting to a changing climate. I’ve decided to nominate part of the neighborhood for the National Register of Historic Places not only because the neighborhood’s historic significance deserves to be recognized, but also because I believe that advocating for historic preservation is an important strategy for confronting many of these challenges.

jeffries-point-5

The National Register of Historic Places is the Federal Government’s list of places that are most important to America’s history and culture. It’s one of the broadest and most flexible historic designations – it doesn’t restrict homeowners from making changes to their property in any way. This flexibility is important. No one wants to live in a museum, and neighborhoods need the freedom to adapt over time to remain vibrant and relevant. At the same time, historic buildings are an important, irreplaceable part of our heritage. The government recognizes this importance and encourages the preservation of properties listed on the National Register by offering generous tax credits for certified historic rehabilitations of income producing properties. Parks and public buildings listed on the National Register are also eligible for a variety of state and local grants for maintenance and restoration. But perhaps most importantly, listing a neighborhood on the National Register represents a prestigious recognition of the area’s historic value. And official recognition of the historic value of Jeffries Point is long overdue.

Ask someone to think of a historic Boston neighborhood and they’ll probably imagine the Federal style townhouses of Beacon Hill, or Back Bay’s Victorian mansions. Like me when I first moved to the neighborhood, many people are completely unaware of the historic significance of Jeffries Point, even though much of the area’s architecture was built decades earlier than those Back Bay mansions. Because Jeffries Point is separated from downtown Boston by the harbor, many Bostonians only ever pass through the neighborhood on their way to the airport. I know people who have lived their entire lives in the Boston area and have never heard of Jeffries Point. I hope that by nominating part of the neighborhood for the National Register, I can help draw attention to the importance of Jeffries Point’s history and architectural heritage.

jeffries-point-6

Recognizing the value of Jeffries Point’s historic character has become critically important over the past few years. For much of the 20th century, Jeffries Point was a predominantly working-class neighborhood. It was a welcoming and affordable place to live for immigrants and other newcomers to the city. Even today, it’s one of Boston’s more economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. But in recent years, property values have begun to rise dramatically. Developers and real estate speculators are buying up property, gut-renovating and demolishing existing buildings, and constructing new, luxury housing on open lots. Some longtime residents – and even some recent arrivals – have suddenly found that they can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood. “This was the neighborhood that no one wanted” one longtime resident told me, “but now everybody wants in.” Jeffries Point is in the middle of the biggest building boom the neighborhood has experienced in over a century. Decisions made today will define the neighborhood’s character and community for decades to come.

In the face of all this change, Jeffries Point’s historic buildings, parks, and streets provide a measure of stability. They tie us to the past and provide a sense of continuity. They give the neighborhood a unique sense of place, and an atmosphere of dignity and beauty that only comes with age. But even more importantly, the neighborhood’s historic architecture is a crucial part of its future. Working to preserve the neighborhood’s dense, historic housing stock, rather than replacing it with often less dense and less affordable luxury developments, is one way to help retain our diverse community in the face of increasingly unaffordable housing options. And when we consider that it can take decades for even the most energy efficient new buildings to make up for the carbon emissions associated with demolishing an older building and constructing a new one, it becomes clear that preserving our historic and older buildings is a critical strategy for reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change. With all of this in mind, recognizing the historic significance of Jeffries Point by nominating a portion of the neighborhood for the National Register is, I think, the right thing to do.

jeffries-point-2

I’m excited to dig into the research required for the nomination, and I’m hoping to gain a deeper understanding of my neighborhood’s past in the process. But the end product, the National Register nomination form itself, is a pretty dry document – long, boring, and filled with a lot of architecture jargon. When I eventually complete the form, I don’t expect many people will read it. At the same time, I’d like to share what I learn with my neighbors and others outside the neighborhood. So I’ve decided to share regular updates on my progress here, along with interesting stories about the neighborhood’s past and how that past remains relevant today. I hope you’ll follow along!

Aug 262016
 
 August 26, 2016  Uncategorized 13 Responses »

It wasn’t until I’d finished painting two and half walls and taken a step back to admire my work that I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. I had spent the past few weeks struggling to choose a paint color for the stairwell walls. I sifted through dozens of paint chips searching for the perfect greenish gray color. I bought sample pots and covered the stairwell in so many earth-toned swatches that the walls began to resemble military camouflage. I tried to imagine what each small sample paint patch would look like if it spread out to envelope the entire space. And finally, I made what I thought was a safe, reasonable choice. But now, with almost half the walls in the entrance hall painted, it was clear that my choice was all wrong. The paint was just too dark.

The color was Benjamin Moore’s Horizon Gray, a color that the paint swatch and a Google image search had led me to believe was a lovely, misty gray with green undertones. But here, in the back corner of the entrance hall, a space almost completely devoid of natural light, the color looked lifeless. It took on a dull, mossy cast, absorbing and suffocating what little light was available. The dark color accentuated the hall’s narrowness, making the walls feel as if they were closing in from all sides. (As much as I’d love to share a photo of the offending paint, all photographic evidence of this debacle was lost to a corrupted memory card. Maybe it’s for the best.) I put down the paint roller, cleaned out the paint tray, and went back to sifting through paint swatches.

One week and three or four sample paint pots later, I settled on a new color. I originally looked at mid tone colors, but I now knew that I needed something much lighter. And anything with brown undertones was out of the question since it would turn muddy in the low light of the stairwell. Eventually I decided on a color called Shaded White by Farrow and Ball (I had it color matched at Home Depot since $100 per gallon paint wasn’t in the budget this time around), which is a slightly warm, true gray.

As I began to roll the new paint onto the walls, I wondered if it was too light, but as it dried, it darkened slightly. I’m happy with how it turned out. The architecture of the stairwell and entrance hall seems like it was meant to convey a sense of grandeur, lightness, and air, and the new, lighter paint color, I think, contributes to this effect. Here’s a look at the notorious back corner of the entrance hall:

stairwell back corner

After spending two weekends painting three stories worth of stairwell walls, I was ready to tackle some of the remaining unfinished details. First up: repairing the plaster cornice above the front door. Most of the lower portion of the cornice was missing along this wall. Ornamental plaster work like the entrance hall cornice can last hundreds of years if it’s well cared for. But it’s also very delicate. A leaky wall or roof can destroy a decorative cornice or ceiling medallion within hours. And as a building shifts and settles, plaster work can crack and break away from the walls and ceilings. So it isn’t all that surprising that small portions of the cornice are missing from the entrance hall. You can see the missing portion of the cornice on the right here. The grooved bit on the left is a piece of wood that someone nailed to the cornice for unknown reasons.

missing cornice

Back when the building was built, the cornice was probably run in place, as opposed to casting it in a workshop and attaching it to the wall and ceiling in pieces. The process of running a cornice starts with cutting the cornice profile from a piece of sheet metal to create a custom blade. Then, after roughly troweling plaster into the corner between the ceiling and the wall, a plasterer runs the custom blade across the wet plaster, leaving the cornice profile behind. Using this method, a plasterer could have easily created a cornice that follows the curves of the stairwell in my building’s entrance hall. This is a 19th century technique that requires a great deal of skill and craftsmanship, and these days, now that walls and ceilings are made from sheetrock and moldings are made from wood, it seems to be pretty rare. But there are at least a few people out there still doing it. Here’s a video showing how the process works.

Luckily for me, the plaster cornice above the front door was mostly intact. Only the lower portion consisting of a flat, rectangular run of plaster was missing, so there was no need to redo the entire thing – something I have neither the skill nor the patience to do. I used hybrid plaster, a one to one mixture of premixed joint compound and plaster of paris, to recreate the missing part of the cornice.

It took a while for me to figure out the best way to make a clean, sharp edge as I applied plaster to the wall so that it would match the bottom of the surrounding cornice. Here’s what I came up with. Using a level to make sure it wasn’t crooked, I screwed a 1 x 3 board to the wall so that the top of the board was even with the bottom of the surrounding cornice. The board formed a little shelf to temporarily hold the wet plaster in place as it hardened. I used a putty knife to apply plaster between the board and upper part of the cornice, building it up in layers and smoothing it out as it hardened. There’s a curved groove between the upper and lower parts of the cornice, so I used the handle of the putty knife to dig a channel in the wet plaster. Once the plaster had set up (hybrid plaster takes about 10 minutes to harden), I removed the 1 x 3 board and patched the screw holes in the wall. Having limited experience working with plaster, I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out – it blends right in with the rest of the cornice.

repaired cornice 2

And speaking of ornamental plaster, I’ve always felt like the entrance hall was missing a fancy, plaster ceiling medallion. Back when the building was built as a single-family townhouse, the entrance hall would have been designed as one of the most public spaces in the house, featuring some of the house’s most ornate architecture, likely including a large, decorative ceiling medallion, as a way to impress visitors. At some point, perhaps when an overhead light fixture was installed, the ceiling medallion (if it ever existed) and the surrounding plaster ceiling was torn down and replaced with sheetrock. Today, the entrance hall is still one of the most public spaces in the building, and although my neighbors and I may be less concerned with flaunting our wealth and status than the building’s original, 19th century owners, I figured that adding a ceiling medallion would complement the cornice and make the entrance hall feel more complete.

I’ve used reproduction foam medallions in the past, but I recently came across a company called Boston Ornament that casts plaster medallions to order. And their plaster medallions are about the same price as some of the higher quality foam reproductions. I ordered a 26-inch diameter, acanthus leaf medallion – a classical motif that should fit in with the building’s Greek Revival details – with a 3.5 inch hole cut in the center to accommodate the light fixture.

ceiling medallion

The plaster medallion was quite a bit heavier than the foam medallions I’ve used in the past, so simply gluing it to the ceiling wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, I used four 2-inch drywall screws to secure it to the ceiling joists. I painted the medallion with watered down paint and primer and predrilled pilot holes for the screws. I traced the medallion on a piece of cardboard and cut out a template, which I used to make sure the the screw holes matched up with the ceiling joists. And finally, I screwed the medallion into place. The whole process was easier than I expected. I covered the screw heads with painters tape before spackling over them to make it easier to remove the screws if we ever need to get at the ceiling electrical box.

taped screw head

Finally, I installed a new, bigger light fixture. It’s a pendant fixture from Rejuvenation with a large fitter shade that I found on eBay, which as it turns out, seems to have originally been from Rejuvenation as well. This larger, pendant fixture seems to be more in proportion to the hall’s 12-foot ceilings than the little flush-mount fixture that was here before.

pendant light

stairwell ceiling

The stairwell project has officially crossed the one year mark, but it’s really close to being done. All that’s left is some touchup painting and sealing the newel post and handrail. This space has come a long way over the past year. Next up, a before and after post!

front door

May 152016
 
 May 15, 2016  Uncategorized 24 Responses »

When it comes to renovating old houses, some people work tirelessly to restore a house to its original state. They relish getting all of the historical details just right – stripping layer after layer of paint from original moldings, finding period-appropriate paint colors, seeking out reclaimed lumber to seamlessly patch antique floors. Others take the opposite approach, altering the architecture to create a modern home with modern conveniences – removing walls to open up the  layout, installing wall-sized windows to flood the interior with light, or adding a sleek, contemporary kitchen. And then there are those who split the difference, finding ways to add modern conveniences while preserving as much of the original architecture as possible.

Depending on the circumstances, I think each of these approaches can be appropriate, but as I’ve renovated my condo over the past three years, I’ve stuck to the third approach, doing my best to respect the building’s original architecture while adding some modern functionality. And when my neighbors and I decided to renovate the building’s entrance hall and stairwell, we decided to take this same approach.

Our first priority was improving the safety of the stairs. We decided to rebuild the staircase, replacing all of the worn treads and risers and making sure each step was even and level in the process. We chose red oak replacement treads for their durability even though the originals were pine. We also raised the handrail a few inches to bring it to a more usable height (I’m not sure why 19th century handrails are always so low – I guess people were just shorter back then?). But even as we made these major changes, we did our best to retain the spirit of the stairwell’s original architecture. We maintained the sweeping, curved shape of the staircase, and reinstalled the original newel post and handrail. We found plain balusters that approximated the originals, and we uncovered and refinished the original pine floors. Newel Post Progress As the project progressed, and the major (re)building work drew to a close, I began to focus more on the finishing details.  I had spent far more time in the stairwell after working on it for a few months than I had in the previous two years combined, and I had gained a new appreciation for the quirky “coffin corner” nook, the monolithic newel post, and the rest of the space’s original architecture. A few weeks ago, when I finished stripping the paint from the baseboard, exposing the raw pine molding for the first time in 170 years, I started thinking more and more about what the stairwell looked like all those years ago. And now that work on the entry level of the stairwell is almost complete, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of restoring as much of that original appearance as possible. Coffin Corner Progress Of course I’m only willing to take this idea so far. Several doorways in the stairwell were walled up when the building was divided into apartments, and reopening these doorways wouldn’t make much sense, since the building is no longer a single family residence. Other architectural elements, like a ceiling medallion, have been lost, if they ever existed at all, and recreating them will be somewhat speculative. And I’m not opposed to using modern materials that didn’t exist in the 1840s to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the entrance hall as it was originally designed.

Luckily, the major ornamental features of the entryway and stairwell – the original molding, the “coffin corner”, the newel posts and handrail, the plaster cornice – are mostly intact. All that remains is for me to figure out how best to present these features.

As you might have noticed in the pictures above, I’ve spent the past few weeks priming and painting the risers, the balusters, and the rest of the trim. The color is BM “Simply White.” I had planned to paint the trim white all along, but after stripping dozens of layers of paint from the baseboard, I confirmed that the final and original coat of paint was white. White trim was common in Greek Revival buildings like mine – it was meant to evoke the marble columns and facades of ancient Greek temples. But unlike the “Simply White” I chose, the original coat of paint was a creamy, yellowish white (from what I understand, true, bright white paint didn’t really exist in the mid-19th century). Even so, since the stairwell is so dark, I decided to take some interpretive license – the brighter white paint will look cleaner, and well, brighter. Here’s the freshly painted, original parlor entrance (now the front door to the parlor level apartment).

Parlor Door

But I quickly found that bright, white paint can have its downsides. The stairs are a high traffic area, and within a few days of priming and painting the risers, dark scuffs began to appear.

Scuffed Risers

This was a problem that required a modern solution in the form of crystal clear, hard-wearing, water-based polyurethane. After scrubbing off the scuffs, I added two coats of Minwax Ultimate Water-Based Floor Finish, the same poly that I used to seal the stair treads, on top of the riser’s white paint. The poly didn’t noticeably change the color of the risers, and unlike oil-based poly, it won’t yellow over time. Just as I had hoped, the new finish seems to repel scuff marks, and when it does get smudged, a quick wipe with a dry rag leaves it looking like new.

The plaster cornice, another original feature of the stairwell, is in decent shape, but needs to be patched and cleaned up. It’s a simple profile that follows the curve of the staircase. Most of it is intact, but a few small sections are cracked, or were poorly patched years ago, leaving them looking slightly lumpy, without the crisp detail of the rest of the cornice. These sections don’t look so bad from a distance, but up close, they look a little off.

Plaster Cornice

I’m planning to clean the cornice and patch it with plaster of paris where needed before caulking and painting it to match the rest of the trim.

Maybe the biggest decision left to make, in terms of how it will affect the look and feel of the entrance hall, is what color to paint the walls. I’ve been agonizing over this decision for months. I’ve been thinking about painting the walls green, or gray, or greenish gray. Last week, after priming the skim-coated walls to seal the raw joint compound, I painted patches of four sample colors on the walls in different parts of the stairwell to see how the colors looked in different lighting.

Paint Samples Landing

Paint Samples Entrance

The colors, from left to right, are Nantucket Gray, Horizon Gray, Revere Pewter, and Edgecomb Gray, all Benjamin Moore. Since the stairwell walls have been plastered over many times, it’s impossible to know what color they were originally painted. But earth tone paints were gaining in popularity around when my building was constructed, so it seems like a brown, gray, or green color would complement the architecture. And since the space is so dark, and the ceilings are so high, I’m hoping that a mid-tone wall color will make the space feel more welcoming. Of the four colors I’ve tried so far, I think Nantucket Gray is too dark, and Edgecomb Gray is too yellow, but I’m torn between Revere Pewter, which is a warm gray, and Horizon Gray, which has green undertones. My neighbors are more or less indifferent about the paint color, so it falls to me to make the final decision, but I’m open to advice!

Apr 202016
 
 April 20, 2016  Living Room 8 Responses »

living room doorway view 2This past weekend I took a break from working on the stairwell to put the finishing touches on the built-in hutch in the living room. I thought the built-in was finished months ago, but a few weeks after it was installed, resin from the pine casing and drawer fronts began to leach into the white painted finish, discoloring it. It was just a faint yellow streak here and there at first, but after 9 months, the discoloration had spread and darkened. I finally primed the built-in with stain-blocking B-I-N shellac primer and repainted the whole thing last weekend. While I was painting, I realized that the last time I wrote a post about the living room, it was a mostly-empty space filled with left-over materials from the kitchen renovation. A lot has changed since then, and a living room update is long overdue.

Living Room Under Construction

Living Room Under Construction

Just a quick reminder before we get started – this room was a complete disaster when I first moved in. Here it is just a few weeks before I bought the place. Chunks of plaster were missing from the wall, some of the walls were covered in textured wall paper, and the maple floors were beat up beyond recognition. My contractor, Gregg, patched and skim coated the walls, and cleaned up and painted the molding, and brought this room back from the dead.

Three years later, the living room has turned out to be my favorite room in the condo. It’s a huge space (by Boston apartment standards, anyway) and it’s chock full of stately Greek Revival architectural details – chunky, column-like casing around the windows and doors, 10-foot ceilings, a monumental marble mantel with a cast iron fireback depicting pastoral scenes, and original, sweeping bow-front windows. Back in the 1840s when the building was completed as a single family townhouse, this would have been one of the most formal rooms in the house. And lucky for me, a lot of this formal architecture was preserved. Furnishing and decorating this room was  pretty easy – the room’s architecture does most of the heavy lifting here. Even so, it’s come a long way over the past three years.

living room doorway view

This is the view of the living room as you enter from the dining room. When I first moved in, the pair of closets  flanking the mini hallway that connects these two rooms had unfinished louvered doors, which looked completely out of place (and collected a shocking amount of dust). I replaced the louvered doors with two pairs of solid, single panel doors. Now this little hallway fits right in with the living room’s elegant casing and trim.

living room builtin

The new built-in is immediately to the left when you walk into the room. The built-in brought some balance to what was an awkward, empty corner of the room, and at the same time added some much-needed storage and functionality to the space. We hung the tv on an articulated wall mount, which allows us to angle it into the room when we’re using it, and to leave it hidden away in the corner when it’s not in use. I found a set of antique drawer pulls from the 1870s on eBay for the unit’s four lower drawers. The style of the pulls is a little more extravagant than the rest of the room’s austere architecture, but they add some interest to the otherwise boxy built-in.

drawer pull

living room stairwell door

There’s a door to the common stairwell directly opposite the built-in. The size, shape, and style of the built-in reflect this doorway, bringing another line of symmetry to the space. We bought the barrister bookcase on the last day of the Brimfield Antique Show last fall.

living room corner

Working our way around the room, we come to the marble fireplace. This is the focal point of the entire room — even though the fireplace is non-functional (the chimney masonry is degraded), it’s hard to miss this giant chunk of carved marble in the center of the room.

living room mantel

We arranged the seating area around the fireplace, with the sofa facing the mantel. We didn’t want to hang the tv over the fireplace, but clearly something needed to go there. We eventually settled on this print of a seascape collage by Matthew Cussick. The entire image is made of cut-out pieces of old maps and charts. It seemed appropriate since we live right next to the harbor.

living room print closeup

living room seating

For a while we thought about creating an L-shaped seating area with the sofa and a love seat. This is a big room – the carpet in the center is 9×7 feet to give you a sense of scale – and it could easily accommodate a love seat/sofa set up. But after years of living in cramped apartments, we really enjoyed  all of the open space. So instead, we decided to get a small armchair and an end table to fill in the short side of the L-shaped seating area, leaving plenty of empty space around the furniture. We also chose an arm chair and sofa with low backs that wouldn’t block the bow-front windows at the back of the room.

living room bow frontAnd speaking of the bow-front, we also decided to leave it mostly open. The small drop-leaf table is from an antique mall in Worcester. It looks like it was hand-made and probably dates from the mid-19th century. It’s the only piece of furniture in the room that’s close to the same age as the building, and it looks right at home between the two bow-front windows.

living room door

So that’s it, the current state of the living room. It feels like the most put-together room in the condo, and it’s become one of our favorite places to spend time at home. I’ll be back next time with an update on progress in the stairwell, where things are finally starting to come together.