Trust for Architectural Easements Tours Boston’s Historic South End Neighborhood

Washington, DC, September 22, 2011 --( The Trust for Architectural Easements is proud to present an online tour of Boston's Historic South End. The multimedia tour can be found on the Trust's website.

The South end of Boston is the largest extant enclave of urban Victorian residential architecture in the country. Declared a National Register Historic District in 1973, and a Boston Landmark District in 1983, the South End is one of Boston’s most distinctive neighborhoods.

Signature block-long rows of oriel- and bow-fronted brick rowhouses with high stoops and decorative wrought-iron railings ensure a highly admired cohesiveness that spreads across 500 acres of inner-city fabric.

The history of the South End is not quite as seamless as the facades, however. The current urban renaissance of the South End – lively with many shops and restaurants, artists’ studios and galleries, and residents from all walks of life – is only a couple of decades old, and follows many more decades of urban blight and poverty. But before the blight was a bright beginning; in the late 1850s and 1860s, the South End was Boston’s most fashionable place to live.

Like much of Boston, the South End was built on reclaimed land created by infilling Boston’s muddy tidal flats with imported earth. Prior to the early 19th century, Boston occupied only a small peninsula that jutted out from the mainland into the bay, and which was connected to Roxbury, its closest neighbor, by a narrow causeway (known as the “Boston Neck” that often flooded at high tide).

Beginning in the 1830s, the tidal flats south of the neck were infilled with land brought in by the railroad from nearby towns on the mainland. The neck became Washington Street, which, along with Tremont Street, became one of the main thoroughfares of the South End.

The South End’s streets were laid out on the reclaimed land in 1848 in a loose grid that allowed for the insertion of 11 residential parks into the urban fabric. Modeled after similar small parks in London, the parks served as communal gardens for the residents of adjacent rowhouses. The idea of the residential park had been introduced to Boston by Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State Capitol, in his early 19th-century plans for Beacon Hill. Having proven its popularity on Beacon Hill, the residential park became a key element in the planning of the South End. Constructed between 1857 and 1859, Union Park (at Union Park Street between Tremont and Shawmut Streets) is the oldest residential park in the South End. An oblong, rectangular garden with curved corners and decorative fountains sits in the middle of the street, and traffic flows around it. The rows of brick houses lining the two long sides of the park curve around its corners, and tall, elegant stoops and attractive oriel window bays distinguish one rowhouse from another.

Like most houses in the South End, the Union Park rowhouses were built speculatively by real estate developers, and upon strong timbers submerged in the mud of the reclaimed land. Rowhouses were designed in the latest styles – Italianate, Second Empire, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne – but were conservatively embellished to appeal to Boston’s genteel upper-and upper-middle class residents. City restrictions on rowhouse height, material, style, form, and setback from the street helped to ensure architectural coherence and structural quality.

In the late 1850s and 1860s, many members of the Bostonian elite – including bankers, industrialists, and two mayors – settled in the South End. With them came their servants, many of whom inhabited smaller rowhouses built along narrow alleyways – such as Gray and Appleton streets, a few blocks from Union Park. These rowhouses were generally two or three stories in height, with flat-fronted facades and plain sandstone trim. Stoops, if present, were narrow and often built right into the rowhouses themselves.

But the South End’s early heyday was short-lived. By the 1870s, the first of the stately row- and townhouses of the Parisian-inspired Back Bay –built on reclaimed land north of the neck – were ready for occupancy. Privileged Bostonians once again decamped en masse to the latest fashionable addresses in the Back Bay, and the South End became passé.

Making matters worse, the Panic of 1873 led to many mortgage foreclosures in the South End. The price of its real estate dropped, and lower and working class families moved in. By the 1880s, the South End was home to a large immigrant population, with residents from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Greece, Lebanon, and China. By the turn of the century, it was also a center of African-American culture and jazz music.

The Trust protects more than 800 historic buildings across the United States. For more information about the Trust for Architectural Easements, please visit

Trust for Architectural Easements
Heather Bratland