Uphams Corner History

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The first settlers of Dorchester in 1630 initially lived in the Uphams Corner neighborhood in the vicinity of Edward Everett Square. Here, these pioneer immigrants from Dorsett County, England built the first church in 1631 at the corner of Pleasant and Cottage Streets. One of the first public schools in America, the Mather School, was established on May 20, 1639, and met in a one room schoolhouse near the church. This is the general area where the 1648 Blake House is now located (it was moved here from its original location). The oldest surviving, man-made site in this area is Dorchester’s North Burying Ground at the corner of Columbia Road and Stoughton Street. This burial ground was created in 1634, the same year that the Boston Common was set out. The Old North was Dorchester’s sole cemetery until as late as 1819 and attests to the primacy of northern Dorchester over its central and southern sections for two centuries.

Known in the eighteenth century as Cemetery Corner, Uphams Corner is the area surrounding the junction of Dudley Street, Stoughton Street, Columbia Road, Cushing Avenue, and Hancock Street. Uphams Corner, sometimes labeled “Columbia Square” on late 19th century atlases, was named after Amos Upham (1788-1879), a merchant who kept a dry goods store in the square for many years. Upham opened a store in 1804 which stood on the site of the present Columbia Square Building (578-588 Columbia Road). Upham’s store was run by three generations of his family until as late as the mid-1890s. It was Amos and Abigail Humphrey Upham’s son, James Humphrey Upham, who cast the deciding vote in 1869 to annex Dorchester to the City of Boston. The old Federal-style Upham’s store was replaced during the mid 1890s by the present brick and granite structure that was variously known as “Masonic Hall,” the “Columbia Square Building,” and “Upham’s Building.” It is said that Upham installed in his Columbia Building the very first electric light in Dorchester.

Until as late as the 1910s, Uphams Corner had a more mixed-use, residential/commercial appearance. The Clapp-Dyer Mansion was once located on the site of the Strand Theatre, 543-545 Columbia Road. Originally built by Isaac Clapp in 1810 as a Federal house and inherited by his adopted daughter, Eliza Clapp Thayer, the house was sold at the time of the Civil War to Micah Dyer, a Boston attorney. The Clapp-Dyer House was one of the major landmarks at Uphams Corner, particularly after Micah Dyer “updated” the house with an encircling verandah, bracketed cornice, and mansard roof. Furthermore the house was situated on an elevation, shaded by one-hundred-year-old trees and was surrounded by spacious lawns.

In a sense, the Strand Theatre serves a similar purpose as the old Clapp-Dyer House. Built in 1918, its distinctive Classical Revival facade presides over a highly visible bend in the streetscape that makes the transition from Columbia Road commercial blocks to Hancock Street residential properties. The Strand Theatre was designed by Funk and Wilcox and is described by architectural historian Douglas Shand Tucci as “probably the city’s first movie palace built from the ground up as opposed to a remodeling.

Another residential landmark for many years at Uphams Corner was the Samuel Bowen Pierce House, now the site of the Pierce Building at 592-598 Columbia Road. Pierce, born in Vermont in 1804, had entered the crockery business and sold assorted goods throughout New England. The Pierce House faced the old North Burying Ground and was bounded by a low stone wall. After the death of Samuel Pierce, his son demolished the Pierce homestead and constructed the present building that bears his name. The Pierce Building was extant by 1910, and by 1933 its tenants included Fanny Farmer Candy Shops, The Modeste Dress Shop, Louis’ Beauty Salon, Uphams Corner Conservatory of Music, Family Welfare Society, Boston Mutual Life Insurance Company, and the Gegan’s school of dance and piano.

By 1885, a city guide book noted of Upham’s Comer that “nowhere else can be seen the blending of old and new than here.” This guide pointed out that a number of “beautiful mansions” were being built in the area and that 15 of the 18 stores listed in the Dorchester section of the guide were in Uphams Corner. By that time the area was also a crossroads of several rail and trolley lines. It is interesting that while the immediate Uphams Corner crossroads acquired a decidedly citified sensibility, its adjacent neighborhoods like Virginia/Monadnock Street and Jones Hill were able to retain a suburban appearance. During the last quarter of the 19th century there were several buildings erected at Upham’s Corner that reflected the area’s growing importance as a commercial center surrounded by rapidly developing residential areas. By 1874, the City of Boston had built Engine House No. 21, a brick structure with a wooden ell that was a predecessor building to the current Mission-style fire station built between 1900 and 1910 at 643 Columbia Road. Charitable/Social organizations, always a mainstay of Victorian era commercial centers, were well-represented at Uphams Corner. As early as circa l890, Wheelock Hall, later Odd Fellows Hall at 556-562 Columbia Road provided meeting space for local groups. Wheelock Hall was named in honor of A.P. Wheelock, who operated a large livery stable across the street at the corner of Hancock and Columbia Road (531 Columbia Road). The construction of churches is always a measure of an area’s growth and certainly the construction of the Pilgrim Congregational Church at 544 Columbia Road in 1893 by Stephen Earl signifies local population growth (prior to this church’s construction, its land had been part of a vacant, multi-lot tract owned by Oliver Davenport). Anchoring the northwest corner of the Upham’s Corner area is the Municipal Building at 510 Columbia Road, which was built during the early 1900s and by 1933 was being used as a branch library of the Boston Public Library.

In the 1850s the New York and New England Railroad began to provide service between downtown Boston and central Dorchester. Later in the 1870s horse drawn streetcars provided transportation on some of the major streets. By the 1880s good linear streetcar service, along with sanitation and utility services opened up this area to large-scale housing developments for the middle class. In 1889-1890 the streetcars were electrified. In 1895 cross-town streetcar lines developed and stimulated the migration of the lower middle class into some parts of the neighborhood. One of the reasons Uphams Corner became a very important commercial center for Dorchester was that five or six streetcar lines converged at its central intersection.

In 1897, a development of momentous importance to the character of Uphams Corner occurred with the widening of Columbia Road, which meant that this thoroughfare was joined to the Dorchester Parkway and the Strandway linking Franklin Park with Marine Park in South Boston. At that time Columbia Road acquired a park-like character which constituted an important link in the Emerald Necklace Park system created by Frederick Law Olmstead, which ultimately linked the Boston Common with Castle Island via an arc-like configuration of green spaces. This transformed Columbia Road passed through Uphams Corner and undoubtedly spurred onward the quality commercial block construction already well underway.

Dudley Street between Columbia Road and the railroad tracks is included in this area because it represents a continuation of the masonry “wall” of late 19th/early 20th century buildings bordering Columbia Road. Noteworthy buildings on this segment of Dudley include the Kerner Building at 761-765 Dudley Street, built c. 1880 and quite early for this area as a masonry commercial block. The Kerner Block was built on land owned by James H. and Charles A. Upham in the 1870s and was extant by 1884. By 1898 it contained four stores, one of which was the Dorchester Savings Bank. By 1933, Kerner Building tenants included James J. Coughlin, musician, James F. Campbell, “tool and die forger,” Michael Goodman, baker, Thomas J. Robertson, iron worker and several other tenants with no stated occupations.

Several large, architecturally distinguished apartment buildings line the west side of Dudley Street, including the 1890 Denmark Apartments at 713 Dudley Street. This apartment was built for James W. Cook who was the proprietor of James W. Cook and Son, piano movers at 20 Avery Street. Cook also owned a boarding stable at Davenport Street and lived at 17 Greenwich Park in Boston’s South End. Prior to Cook’s purchase of this 8,179 square foot lot, this land had been owned by the Henry Humphrey’s family, long associated with this area and ensconced for many years in a large U-shaped house at the corner of Humphrey and Dudley Street. It should be noted that in 1874, Dudley Street was considered part of Stoughton Street. The Monadnock Apartments at 7l5-723 Dudley Street, one of the great architectural treasures of the Uphams Corner area, marks the entrance to Monadnock Street. Its Classical/Renaissance Revival facades are of a very high-quality design. Its lot was purchased by John L. Withrow from the heirs of Ebenezer Sumner c. 1895 and the building was standing by 1898.

Uphams Corner’s commercial construction activity seems to have crested around and a bit past 1920. The Dorchester Trust Company at 555 Columbia Road (now the First National Bank) was built on part of the Clapp-Dyer House’s lawn by 1918. The New England Telegraph and Telephone Company, now cleverly converted into St. Kevin’s Church and School, was extant by 1933. Perhaps no single early 20th century building did the most to change the lingering small town scale of Upham’s Corner than the construction of the United Markets Inc. building during the 1920s. Once part of the Samuel B. Pierce house lot containing his stable, by 1895 this lot contained three double houses and Hall’s stables, which were quite extensive, consisting of three large brick and wood stables. Hall’s seems to have lingered into the early 1900’s. By 1910, this site contained a single family house, three double houses, a stable and a garage. This garage was the Columbia Road Automobile Station, managed by a Fred Edwards, and was the place in Dorchester to have work done on the first automobiles of Dorchester.

During the 1920s this garage was reworked into the present two-story structure at 600-618 Columbia Road. This building was constructed by two brothers, Paul and John Cifrino and it has the distinction of being the world’s first “supermarket.” According to Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, Dorchester historian, “Unlike other markets, it stocked a complete line of groceries. Another thing that made it different was that it was a self-service store, with clerks only at the checkout counters--the prototype of the modern supermarket. The Cifrino Brothers, who lived near St. Paul’s Church on Hartford Street in Dorchester, ran a well- stocked store that included everything from fish to freshly-made peanut butter, fresh butter, and quality teas and coffees.”

The Cifrino Brothers sold their store in the 1940s and opened the first Purity Supreme supermarket in the Boston area on Gallivan Boulevard (most recently a Flanagan’s supermarket). After World War II , the former Cifrino’s became the Elm Farm Market. By that time Uphams Corner was losing many of its long time residents to the suburbs. During the 1950s the park-like character of Columbia Road lost its park median strip in favor of more traffic lanes. The Elm Farm Market shut its doors in the early 1970s. During the 1980s heartening developments at Uphams Corner included the rehabilitation of the Pierce Building by a local non-profit for artist space and successful community work towards revitalizing the Strand Theatre. Additionally, the Dorchester Historical Society and the City of Boston took steps to halt the deterioration of the historic Dorchester North Burying Ground and to beautify its sacred ground.

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