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Somerville City

Somerville City Hall is located at 93 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA 02143; phone: 617-625-6600.

Somerville occupies about 4 square miles and had a population of approximately 78,000 (census 2000). First settled about 1630 as part of Charlestown, Somerville was established as a separate town in 1842, and incorporated as a city in 1872.

Beginnings [1]

At first settlement, Somerville was part of the Charlestown Peninsula, marshy at its eastern, southern and northern edges, and meadowland and grassland toward the western edge. The entire tract was largely unforested. Through much of the 17th century, it served as common grazing land, known as the area "beyond the Neck."

The natural landscape of Somerville has been changed radically since settlement. Hills have been cut down or completely razed, rivers and streams filled, and marshlands and claylands built over. In 1629 Thomas Graves recorded that this area was "very beautiful in open lands, mixed with goodly woods, and again open plains, in some places 500 acres, some places more, some less, not much troublesome for to clear for the plough to go in; no place barren but on the tops of hills. The grass and weeds grown up to a man's face in the lowlands, and by the fresh rivers abundance of grass and large meadows, without any tree or shrub to hinder the scythe."

Somerville is a city composed of many neighborhoods. Area nomenclature is dominated by the names given to the hills and natural features in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ten Hills above the shore of the Mystic River, once housed the summer residence of Governor John Winthrop. Winter Hill, site of farms and quarries in the colonial period, was built up as a fortification site during the Revolutionary War. Located in northern Somerville, it developed as a residential area beginning in the 1840s. Spring Hill, just north of the Cambridge line, likewise developed as a residential subdivision ca. 1840. Other Somerville neighborhoods include East Somerville (historically the site of Somerville's earliest industries), Union Square (the first town commercial center and junction of a number of early roadways), Asylum Hill (home of the first asylum for the insane in New England) and its neighboring area for workers housing, "Brick Bottom," Prospect Hill (another Revolutionary War fortification site and later the location of some of the city's most prestigious late 19th century dwellings, as well as its civic center), and Ward II (one of the few political designations in active use and an industrial center in the 19th century).

Street names also commemorate early settlers (Adams, Winthrop, Russell), trees (Willow, Cedar, Elm), and the 19th century businessmen, town officials and land speculators who often wore all three hats. Brastow, Simpson, Gilman, Dimick, and Vinal are named for those individuals. Lost natural features and old routes are still evident in street names: Granite Street was the name leading to the slate quarry of Osgood B. Dane (also commemorated in a street name), and Canal Road at Ten Hills abutted a portion of the Middlesex Canal.

After the revolution, the construction of Boston bridges to Cambridge and Charlestown furthered a radial turnpike network through Somerville. In 1803, the Middlesex Canal from Charlestown opened, linking Somerville still further with points north and south. Abandoned in the 1840s, the canal was supplanted by rail lines constructed across Somerville to a junction at Charlestown (the Boston & Lowell line from Medford, between Winter and Prospect Hills [1835]; the Fitchburg line from Cambridge around Spring Hill; and the Boston and Maine line across the Mystic River [1845]). The Fitchburg River followed the path of the Miller's River landfill. Street railways operated by the mid 19th century from Charlestown through Union Square north to Medford and west to Cambridge. Residential subdivision, spurred by convenient public transportation routes to Boston, added new streets to Somerville during the early industrial period. Somerville's road network and dense settlement pattern were clearly defined by the mid 19th century.

Somerville was for much of its history a town with a considerable amount of green space. As the dairy farms disappeared in the late-19th century, civic-minded Somerville citizens urged the town to set aside land as public parks. Three parks Central Hill (1870), Broadway (1874), and Nathan Tufts (1890) were established, the last by private donation. By 1900, however, only 52 of Somerville's 2,400 acres were used as parkland. Realtors and developers successfully protested the use of available land for parks, and the area continued to be built up well into the 20th century. Large estates and farms were subdivided, and by 1880, the city's brickyards were being built over. This pattern of continuous building, first of single-family and later of multifamily dwellings, on small lots made Somerville the most densely populated city in Massachusetts by the late 19th century, a dubious achievement that still holds true today. Also characteristic of present-day Somerville are a prevalence of synthetic siding sheathing a number of its early buildings, the extensive alterations of many of these structures, the use of asphalt and concrete covering public and private grounds alike, and a lack of trees and other greenery throughout the city. With very few exceptions, the once lovely open setting of this Boston suburb is no longer extant.

Much of Somerville's housing stock was created in the late 19th century, with 50% of its units constructed between 1890 and 1910. Single-family houses predominated prior to 1870; after 1870, two-family houses were introduced, particularly on the "courts" or short streets intended for workers' houses. Row housing, adjacent to the mid-19th century factories of Ward II, and small cottages near the brickyards were constructed, but little if any company-owned housing was built. Rather, company owners often laid out speculative subdivisions and built houses for sale to area laborers.

While today, three deckers and a variety of multiple family houses built for Somerville's growing population at the turn of the century dominate the city's crowded streets, other buildings, primarily residential, from earlier periods remain scattered across the landscape. Gambrel-roofed Colonial-period houses, porticoed Greek Revival businessmen's cottages, slate-roofed Second Empire rowhouses, and Queen Anne mansions built for suburbanites are all components of Somerville's architectural resources. A fine collection of churches and public and commercial buildings also mark Somerville's 19th century development from farmland to brickmaking center to an industrial city and Boston suburb. The properties nominated as part of the Multiple Resource Area are well-preserved examples of these styles and forms, retaining the architectural integrity and historical associations that have survived as reflections of Somerville's unique development patterns.

Somerville's proximity to Boston's urban center is evident in its late-19th century housing stock, and it shares many of bordering Cambridge's late-19th century building traditions. Wooden frame construction, stock millwork and ornament provided a system of interchangeable parts. A great variety of details and themes, scaled to a cost of the building, could be added to the "typical" house of the period.

  1. Betsy Friedberg, and Carole Zellie, Massachusetts Historical Commission, Somerville Massachusetts, Multiple Resource Area, nomination document, 1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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