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.

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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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