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 May 13, 2015  Out and About  Add comments

Putnam Square Eagle Hill

We took advantage of the beautiful weather this past weekend and went for a walk through East Boston’s Eagle Hill neighborhood.

Eagle Hill is a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood tucked into the northwest corner of East Boston, directly across the harbor from Charlestown, another of Boston’s harbor-front neighborhoods. Eagle Hill’s dense collection of wood-frame, Victorian houses, hilly terrain, and proximity to the waterfront – not to mention the large number of excellent Mexican and Central American restaurants around the neighborhood – remind me a little of San Francisco. It’s an architecturally unique area within Boston, and a large swath of the neighborhood near the top of the hill has been designated a historic district under the National Register of Historic Places.

Eagle Hill Map

We took a meandering route, beginning at Bremen Street Park, a long strip of green space next to a raised highway that was reclaimed from an airport parking lot in 2007. Leaving the park behind, we slowly zig-zagged our way up the Hill, wandering down a street and then moving up a block and walking back the way we had come. Eagle Hill is laid out in a grid, with east/west streets named for Revolutionary War battles (Saratoga, Lexington, Trenton) and north/south streets named for Revolutionary War generals (Marion, Brooks, Putnam). This naming system, put in place in the 1830s, seems appropriate, given that the second battle of the Revolutionary War was fought on and around Eagle Hill back when the area was pastureland. American forces sunk a British schooner just off the coast of Eagle Hill in the first naval engagement of the war. Aside from the street names, nothing remains to commemorate the battle, although this Memorial Day, a community canoe and kayak regatta will retrace part of the battleground along the East Boston shoreline.

Whenever I visit Eagle Hill, I find myself admiring the neighborhood’s architecture. As we walked, we passed block after block of late-19th century houses, many with immaculately restored facades. At the foot of the Hill, we walked along a full block of mansard-roofed, brick row houses built in the 1860s.

saratoga street row houses 1saratoga street row houses 2

Saratoga Street Row Houses 3

Eagle Hill was divided into residential parcels and sold for development beginning in the 1830s. The original developers envisioned the area as a high-end suburb, perched atop a hill, separated from downtown by the harbor, and filled with spacious estates owned by some of Boston’s wealthiest residents. A number of these single-family, suburban mansions were actually built and several, like these two located near the top of the Hill, survive to this day.

White Street Mansion

Trenton Street Mansion

By the mid-1800s, East Boston, with its expansive waterfront along Boston’s inner harbor, had become a center of the shipbuilding industry in New England. During the 1850s, some of the fastest clipper ships in the world were built here. The Flying Cloud, one of the most famous clipper ships of its time, was built by Donald McKay at his East Boston shipyard, and in 1853 set the sailing record for the “Golden Route” from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn, covering over 16,000 miles in 89 days. The record stood for over 130 years until it was broken in 1984. There are a number of plaques and murals in East Boston’s parks that celebrate the neighborhood’s maritime history, including this mural along the East Boston Greenway.

East Boston Maritime History Mural

East Boston’s shipbuilding industry expanded rapidly during the California Gold Rush, as demand increased for quick transportation to and from the west coast. As shipyards along the waterfront grew, they attracted carpenters, sail makers, and other shipbuilding artisans to the area, many of whom hailed from the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Most of Eagle Hill’s current housing stock was built between 1850 and 1890 to house this influx of middle-class workers. Many of the shipbuilders who constructed their homes on Eagle Hill viewed their private residences as advertisements for their work, and so a bunch of especially fancy homes were built here during the clipper ship era. Houses dating from this time were almost exclusively built in the Italianate and Second Empire styles popular in the late 1800s (think lots of mansard roofs and paneled window bays). Despite the original developers’ hopes for a wealthy, suburban neighborhood, Eagle Hill began to take on its present urban character during this time. Two and three story end houses, with the short, gabled end of the house facing the street, were built one after the next on long, narrow lots.

Eagle Hill End House 1 Eagle Hill End House 2

 

As we continued up the Hill, we passed Angela’s Cafe, one of the best Mexican restaurants in Boston. We were tempted to stop in for a snack, but the line for a table was out the door, so we moved on. The wide array of Latin American restaurants and corner stores in and around Eagle Hill is a reflection of the neighborhood’s large Central and South American immigrant community. In part because East Boston has a long history as a transportation hub, it has been home to a large immigrant population for well over 100 years. Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants arrived in East Boston beginning in the late 19th century, and as demand for housing increased in the early 20th century, many of Eagle Hill’s formerly single family homes were divided into apartments. Mansard roofs on some houses were squared off to make room for a full top floor apartment, and many houses in the neighborhood were modified to more closely resemble triple deckers, the three story apartment buildings that were being built in other working class Boston neighborhoods at the time.

East Boston Triple Deckers

Over the course of the 20th century, a lot of Eagle Hill’s 19th century architecture was heavily modified. External ornamentation was removed and houses were re-sided in vinyl and cedar shingles. Original slate roofs were replaced with asphalt shingles and copper gutters were traded for aluminum. Most of these modifications were made in the name of modernization and convenience before the value of the Victorian architecture had been fully recognized. But in the late 1980s, a group of Eagle Hill residents formed the Eagle Hill Civic Association to advocate for restoration and preservation of the neighborhood’s historic architecture. Their efforts led to the designation of the neighborhood as a National Register of Historic Places historic district in 1998. During the past 25 years, many Eagle Hill homeowners have restored their houses’ historic facades. And even as we walked around the neighborhood last weekend, we saw a lot of ongoing renovation and restoration projects.

Eagle Hill Renovation

A restoration project had just begun on the teal house on the right in the picture below. The vinyl siding was removed around the lower window bay, exposing the original wood paneling.

Eagle Hill Restoration

As we reached the top of the Hill, we came across one of the neighborhood’s largest collections of fully restored houses surrounding Putnam Square. Putnam Square is really more of a triangle where three streets intersect with a small park and a fountain at its center. On a nice day, it’s a great spot to sit on a bench and relax for a bit.

Putnam Square East Boston 1

Putnam Square East Boston 2

Some of my favorite houses in Eagle Hill are little, two-story, mansard-roofed cottages. There’s a bunch of them scattered around the neighborhood, but I haven’t come across this kind of house anywhere else. I like the way that such a grand architectural style was imposed on a modestly-sized house. Most of these cottages seem to have been too small to convert into apartments and so remain single family homes today. If I were ever to buy a single family house, I think one of these with a nice back yard would be ideal.

Mansard Cottage 1

Mansard Cottage 2

After wandering through Putnam Square, we walked down the back side of the Hill to the Condor Street Urban Wild, a former industrial site along Chelsea Creek that underwent hazardous waste cleanup and ecological restoration in 2003. The site is now a mixture of natural coastal habitat, including a salt marsh, mud flat, and meadow. It offers a tiny glimpse of what Eagle Hill may have looked like hundreds of years ago, before it was settled.

Condor Street Urban Wild

Today, Eagle Hill, along with the rest of East Boston, remains one of Boston’s more economically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. But signs of gentrification have begun to appear within the past few years. Rents and property values, although still affordable by Boston standards, are on the rise, and overeager real estate agents have begun comparing East Boston to Brooklyn. Community improvements, including a new library branch, and new parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields have popped up all over the neighborhood. East Boston has a long history of welcoming newcomers to the city, whether young professionals or recent immigrants. The neighborhood also has a strong tradition of community activism – residents fought the encroachment of Logan Airport and advocated for more green space for decades, and, more recently, blocked a proposed casino. So East Boston seems well positioned to deal with the challenge of ensuring that the neighborhood remains welcoming, affordable, and desirable for all residents.

Eagle Hill is an often overlooked neighborhood. There are even people who have lived in Boston for years who have never heard of it. So if you find yourself in Boston and are looking for a historic, off-the-beaten-path neighborhood to explore, jump on a blue line train, head across the harbor, and check out Eagle Hill.

 

  9 Responses to “A Tour of East Boston’s Eagle Hill”

  1. Thanks for the tour! I love visiting Boston, but I’m seldom there long enough to get out of downtown. Next time I’ll head to Eagle Hill!

    • Well if you feel like you’ve done most of the touristy stuff there is to do downtown, there’s lots to see and do in Boston’s neighborhoods, all readily accessible by the T — Bunker Hill and the U.S.S Constitution in Charlestown (Boston’s oldest neighborhood), the JFK Library, Institute of Contemporary Art, and beaches in South Boston/Seaport, interesting little shops, the arboretum, and the Sam Adams Brewery in Jamaica Plain, and, of course, the best harbor/skyline views in the city are alone worth the trip to East Boston.

  2. Thanks for the tour. Never stopped in Boston, but would now like to!

  3. Eagle hill has mounds of golden maritime related history, as a kid in the then Joseph H. Barnes middle school on Marion Street on Eagle hill, our history teacher would take the students on walking tours around Eagle hill and learn and stop and stand outside by centuries old homes and learn about who lived at these historic homes, I used to look forward of the local walks through the eagle hill neighborhood, and listened and soaked in every story in which the teacher was saying about each house that we stopped by.

  4. This is absolutely fabulous! Very much enjoyed your thoughtful and detailed presentation.

  5. Hi, I’m purchasing one of the brick houses on Saratoga St. I was wondering if you had any additional info on them? So far it looks like Samuel B Hopkins owned most of them and even though the plaques on the front say they were built in the 1860s there are resident records that go back to 1855. Thanks

    • Hi John, congratulations, those are beautiful houses! I haven’t done much research on these particular houses, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they were built as early as 1855. They’re built in a transitional style with Greek Revival and Second Empire elements – the broad, plain brownstone trim, recessed entries, and broad cornice/frieze along the roofline are all Greek Revival details, while the mansard roof is a defining feature of Second Empire buildings. Given the size and style of the houses, the early residents were probably middle or working class people. Sounds like you may have already used some of these resources, but if you want to look further into the history of your house, old maps (available online from the Leventhal Map Center), old Boston city directories, and a deed search are good places to start. The Boston Landmarks Commission has a list of useful resources here:

      https://www.boston.gov/departments/landmarks-commission/research-and-technical-assistance

  6. Hi,
    A friend of mine grew up in the 31 West Eagle Street, East Boston house. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind looking at the blue house on a street view on google maps to see what you think of the architecture. It says it’s from the 1800s but it looks so modernized. I understand that a lot of the houses were modified over time but there’s no evidence of history in that house, as far as I can see. Do you have any photos of those houses or information on them? Who built them and when? They’re all smushed together and seem to be similar to the brick row houses but not half as nice. I’m just curious if you have any information at all on the houses on that street and more specifically that particular house. I live in a historic house and I can’t for the life of me place that house in a architectural style or time. Thank you very much!

    • Hi Randi, 31 West Eagle is a Queen Anne style house, almost certainly built in the 1890s. You’re right, it seems to have been altered quite a bit. The roofline in particular looks a little odd – unlike most of the neighboring houses, 31 W. Eagle doesn’t have a cornice along the roofline. To me, this suggests that the third story was added or significantly altered at some point in the 20th century. Originally, the house might have been two stories, or may have had a mansard roof at the third story. The bay window may have even ended in a tower at the third level, similar to the house next door at 33 W. Eagle. The only clue to the house’s original style is the porch, with its turned posts and spindle frieze. Most of the houses on W. Eagle were built with a variety of Queen Anne architectural elements. There’s a beautiful, well-preserved example of a Queen Anne style townhouse just across the street at 40 W. Eagle.

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