Sidetracked: The Old Powder House

Powder House2

The Old Powder House near Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts is shaped like a bullet. It sits on craggy little Quarry Hill and is now surrounded by a small, peaceful park. Paul Revere didn’t pass by this stone structure on his ride, but it was close by, and it played a role in his historic ride of April 19, 1775.

We all know that Revere’s ride was to warn the colonists that the British were coming. But for what? They were coming to raid the powder house in Concord, Massachusetts. That’s where they were marching to through the night. (There was a suspicion too, that the Redcoats could arrest prominent patriots John Hancock and Samuel Adams who were staying in Lexington.)

This Somerville powder house had already been raided by the British. On September 1, 1774, the British had conducted a surprise, dawn raid and emptied the tower. It had held the largest supply of gunpowder in the colony. The fallout, dubbed “the Powder Alarm,” fueled a fire of animosity between British and Patriots and precipitated the battles of Lexington and Concord.

The Old Powder House was actually built as a windmill in 1705 by Jean (John) Mallet. In 1747 it was bought by the Province of Massachusetts Bay for use as a storage facility for gun powder and armaments. During the Revolutionary War, colonists re-stocked it with armaments. After the war, Peter Tufts bought the building along with the land around it and farmed the area. In the 1870’s a pickle maker named George Emerson stored his products there. They became known as Old Powder House Brand Pickles. In 1893, this patch of land was turned into a park and named for Nathan Tufts (George’s descendent) who donated the parcel to the city. During the Great Depression, a nice stone house was added, built by the WPA.

The day that I drew in Nathan Tufts Park couldn’t have been more pleasant. As I drew, an annual event was being set up: Taste of Somerville. For it, people buy tickets allowing them to sample participating local restaurants, breweries and liquor distributers. Table after table was brought in and set up along the walkways. Games were set up for kids. It’s a popular event and proceeds support two local charities. As for me, I’m excited that pickles will return to the Old Powder House.

Boston’s Weed: The Triple-Decker

Triple-DeckerOne of the first things a visitor sees when leaving Boston’s Logan airport are “triple-deckers” (other-wise known as “three-deckers”) – the narrow, three story, wooden, multifamily homes that surround the city. They are as distinctive to the region as the Boston accent.

Tens of thousands were built all over Southeastern New England, in cities like Worcester, Fall River and Providence, Rhode Island. Boston alone has over 20,000 triple-deckers. They dominate many of the city’s “streetcar suburbs” including Charlestown, Somerville and Medford, which all hold portions of Paul Revere’s Route.

Built mostly between 1880 and 1930, these tall narrow houses attracted and housed the huge influx of immigrant families to the area. Triple-deckers were built on tiny lots and with wood (rather than Boston’s other well-known, but pricier housing material: brick), so they were more affordable. Each house had three identical floor plans with big porches on the front or back and windows on all sides. A family would purchase a house and live on one of the floors and rent out the other two apartments to pay the mortgage. Many triple-deckers held extended families. The triple-decker was a stepping stone for many families, either as a first-time home owner, or as a tenant. I know the story well, because my mother grew up in triple-deckers. So did her parents, and her grandparents too, when they arrived from Ireland. I lived in a triple-decker for a while not long after graduating from college. My older brother owned the house and lived on the top floor with his new wife and child. I lived on the middle floor and another renter lived below. These solidly built multi-family homes survive and serve the same population today.

Triple-deckers, however were not looked upon favorably by everyone. The growth of these multi-family houses filled with working class families (many of whom were immigrants) made the wealthier suburbs of Boston very uncomfortable. “Boston’s Weed” was a nickname for triple deckers at that time. The Tenement House Act of 1912 was the weed-killer for certain towns – stopping growth at their borders. By adopting the new law which prescribed specific zoning and multi-family restrictions, wealthier towns – like my own (Winchester), made building triple-deckers impossible.

So, following Paul Revere’s route, you’ll pass through some towns which are filled with triple deckers, like Somerville, and others with not a single one, like Lexington. And in my own life, I’ve lived on both sides of the divide.

 

Paul Revere’s House

Paul Revere House

If there was a starting line for Paul Revere’s Ride, perhaps it would be the threshold of his own home in North Square, in Boston’s North End. It’s from there that Revere’s historic night was launched. After two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church he hustled home for his riding boots, then raced out again, at first by foot, then by boat, and then by horse, to warn the colonists that the Regulars (the British) were coming.

The Paul Revere House is the oldest house in downtown Boston, built in 1680. Revere didn’t always live there, but he did at the time of his famous ride, and that’s why it survived until today. Revere’s great-grandson, John P. Reynolds Jr. purchased the house in 1902, and not long after, the building was restored and turned into a museum. Paul Revere moved from here in the 1780’s and sold it around 1800. Between Revere’s time and ours, the house took on many roles:  including a home for wayward sailors, a tenement house, and a host for shops on the first floor. And with the changes of use, came changes to the facade. The house is almost unrecognizable in old photographs.

For its restoration, the clock was turned back to the years before Paul Revere lived there, to match the its surviving 17th Century interior structure. So, while Revere’s home had a third floor of windows facing the street, what we see now is the earlier facade, featuring more roof.

Before this house was built, the famous early Bostonians, Increase and Cotton Mather lived at this location in what was a then parsonage for the Second Church of Boston. Both Mathers became famously entangled in the Salem Witch Trials.

While drawing across the street from the Paul Revere House on a raw but sunny Saturday morning in March, I watched visitors line up for the opening of the museum. Groups of foreign tourists made their stops as part of a journey along the Freedom Trail. Germans, Chinese and Scottish folks said hello. At one point, a tour of joggers stopped by. They took a brief break to stretch and hydrate while their heavy-breathing guide blabbed about the house. Then off they went, running the same streets that Paul Revere hustled down on his momentous night.

 

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The Signal Sent

Old North Church

High above Boston’s North End, is where I spied someone scaling the tall steeple of the Old North Church (officially known as Christ Church in the City of Boston, built in 1723). Apparently working as part of a construction project, the courageous man shimmied up the side of a needle with ropes. I admired his courage.

224 years earlier, under the cover of darkness, two other men risked their own hides by climbing to the heights of that same church – but from the inside. Their mission was to hang two small lanterns of light, in order to awaken a rebellion.

“One, if by land, two, if by sea,” was what the lanterns were meant to signal, as told by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his famous poem, Paul Revere’s Ride. That much Longfellow got right. However what he got wrong was that the signals were not sent to Paul Revere, but from Paul Revere. It was on his behalf that the two snuck into the church and spiraled up a series of dark staircases and ladders, up and around the church’s large bells, to the set of large windows that looked over the city and far beyond. At the time, all along Hull Street, where I sat drawing, were the homes of many British soldiers. Many of the church’s congregation were British. Yet, lanterns were successfully hung, or held, before the highest windows of the Old North Church – eight stories up.

The lights hung for only a short time – perhaps a minute – before they were extinguished. Patriots in Charlestown, to whom the signal was sent, had been watching for a few nights for the alarming signal. The British plans to send a large force (about 700 soldiers) across the Charles River and on to Lexington and Concord to seize colonists’ stockpiles of munitions, and perhaps arrest the patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock were broadcast across Boston Harbor.  Alerted in Charlestown, riders were sent into the countryside to alert the local colonial militias. Not long after, Paul Revere would set out, first by boat to Charlestown and then by horseback to Lexington as one of two special riders who’s job it was to alert Adams and Hancock of what was to come.

The secret as to who were the two men who snuck into and up to the top of the Old North  Church was kept better than the British plans. It is thought that Robert Newman, the church’s sexton (caretaker) and Capt. John Pulling, a vestryman (a leading parishoner) of the church, were the two who lit the lanterns. It was their flint, that sparked the colonists to action that fateful night.

 

 

Short Stop

Gaffeys

I almost got run over on Patriots’ Day. Ironically, right in front of Gaffey’s Funeral Home. Not by Paul Revere, although he was the last to pass by before the incident, a few minutes before. It was the first car to drive down First Street after the road was opened to traffic following the ceremony. I never saw it coming when I was crossing the street. It screeched to a stop.

Earlier, I listened to Paul Revere (depicted in full costume by a member of the National Lancers) as he spoke to the crowd gathered in front of Gaffey’s. Next, the Mayor of Medford spoke from the same podium. “This is my first Patriots’ Day as mayor. I hope it’s the first of many!” she said. Then the mayor introduced two school children who each read half of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. There were about a hundred of us gathered around to honor this

Massachusetts state holiday marking the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Following the poem, Paul Revere mounted his horse and headed for Arlington, then Lexington and Concord. We all know what he was up to. Behind the horse, many went into the funeral home for complimentary wrap sandwiches, bags of chips and sodas. It was pure Americana and I was lucky to stumble upon it on a drawing day.

In 1775, this house was the home of Captain Issac Hall, a rum merchant, and it was an important stop on Paul Revere’s ride. Hall was the leader of the Medford Minutemen. In Revere’s own account, he wrote, “I went through Medford over the bridge and up to Menotomy. In Medford I waked the Captain of the Minute Men, and after that, I alarmed almost every house till I got to Lexington.” Hall and his men saw battle with the Redcoats the next day, and fought again in the Battle of Bunker Hill, a few months later. The tall house stands as the oldest in historic Medford Square.

As I sat and drew—watching the clean-up crew from the city lift the speaker’s podium away—I attracted a couple of visitors. First came a woman who said she was an artist, too. She’s the one who tipped me off to the free lunch inside the funeral home. Next came an older couple. The man asked if I was “doing that for someone?” I said, “No, I’m just working for myself.” He then said, “When I used to do that, I noticed that the cars came in threes.” Then his wife turned to her partner and said firmly “He’s drawing a picture!” “Oh!” said the man, “that’s more interesting!” I told him that I found his “cars come in threes” observation pretty interesting, and they walked away. The whole day was interesting. I’m glad I survived it.

Church of Stones

Church

Just outside downtown Medford, on the road that Paul Revere took to Menotomy (now called Arlington) sits a rustic church of stones, as if from the European countryside. It’s the Grace Episcopal Church built in 1868 by the important American architect H.H. (Henry Hobson) Richardson early in his career. Actually, it’s his oldest building still standing.

Richardson is most well known in Boston for his landmark Trinity Church which was built a decade later in Copley Square—home of the Boston Marathon’s finish line. There are lots of Richardson-designed gems in the region, as his practice was in Brookline, Massachusetts. That said, while he was a local architect, his reputation and influence was certainly national. He, along with Chicago’s Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, are often considered the holy trinity of American architecture.

Medford’s Grace Episcopal Church is a bit unusual, in that it preceded his signature “Richardson Romanesque” style of architecture. This church was created in a Gothic Revival style, perhaps reflecting works the young architect saw in Europe when he was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The structure surface features rough-cut glacial rocks and granite blocks. The roof is of gray and red slate.

With the Church, stands a tall tower holding nine bells which were originally hung in 1873. The largest was given by the city of Medford to be used as the city’s fire bell. The bells were cast by the Blake Brothers Company who were successors to a famous bell foundry in the North End of Boston, founded by none other than Paul Revere himself.

 

The Lost Convent

Convent lo

This is where the convent was, but that was a long time ago. You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t read the stone marker in front of the library, around the corner. Then again, the convent wasn’t here very long. Now it’s all multi-family houses.

When Paul Revere rode by, nearby, on what’s now Broadway, this was just a big empty hill called Mt. Benedict. In the late 1820s, a convent and school was built here by the Ursuline Sisters, a Catholic order of nuns who had outgrown their space in Boston. At the time, this was part of Charlestown; now it’s what’s referred to as East Somerville.

Boston and its suburbs have a large percentage of Catholics now, but up through the Revolutionary War, Catholics were not very welcome in this Puritan-founded area. Nonetheless, the Ursuline school quickly established itself as a place for educating the daughters of wealthy families—Unitarians, mostly.

Meanwhile, tensions were growing in Boston due to the newly arriving Irish (Catholics). The working-class Protestants saw them as an economic as well as a cultural threat. Preachers and publications fanned the anti-Irish hatred. There were attacks on the streets.

Soon the Ursuline convent became a object of resentment, too. This school for the rich, run by Catholics, became the subject of rumors and suspicions. There were calls for investigations following accusations of children being forced to convert, and women being held against their will. The convent was accused of being immoral and un-American.

Things boiled over on the night of August 11,1834. A riot of locals set fire to the convent. When firemen came, they chose not to act, and joined the growing crowd. Within hours, the convent was a smoking ruin.

An investigation led to some arrests, but juries failed to find anyone guilty. No compensation for the tremendous loss was ever made. No one was punished.

In time, the entire hill was taken away along with the ruins. A highway was built. A neighborhood grew.

As I walked the streets, I noticed that the intersections were named for war veterans. Irish names. Italian names. On front doors, hung palm branches from Palm Sunday. The Catholics had returned.  And on this hill of hate, a diverse neighborhood grew. I saw lots of types come and go from these houses.

After drawing, I had a burrito at the nearby Taco Loco. There, everyone spoke Spanish but me. This place attracts all the Latino immigrants. In the age of Trump, I fear that they are the new nervous.