Lexington, Massachusetts and the Underground Railroad

I mentioned a year ago in passing that our new house in Lexington, Massachusetts was on the site of the old Robbins house, rumored to be a former Underground Railroad station. This week as I thought about the Civil Rights movement, I wondered about the Underground Railroad in Lexington and did a little more research.

Judging from the National Park Service’s list of sites on the Underground Railroad by state, there aren’t any NPS-listed sites in Lexington on the UR, though Concord’s Wayside House was. In fact, the town’s historic places brochure only lists the Robbins House as an Underground Railroad site.

The stronger, historically verifiable association is between Lexington and abolition. The grandson of Minuteman John Parker, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, lived at the Parker homestead, formerly located at 187 Spring Street; he was not only outspoken on abolition but was one of the Secret Six who funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. But my immediate neighborhood has a strong claim to being an epicenter of abolitionism in Lexington. The Stone Building, located two doors down Mass Ave from us, often hosted speakers on various topics, including abolition. Next door, Follen Church, whose first minister was the abolitionist Charles Follen, frequently hosted abolitionist messages from the pulpit.

So there may be no firm documentary evidence of an Underground Railroad site in Lexington, on my property or not, but there is certainly plenty of evidence that I live in a historic hotbed of  abolitionist thinking.

More on the Parker-Morrell-Dana House

Stone building 1865

When I wrote about our most distinguished neighborhood house, the Parker-Morrell-Dana house, I compared a modern day photo to an 1865 one from Lexington’s Cary Library and evinced surprise at the large number of alterations, including changing Doric to Ionic columns and changing the shape of the parapet windows. How, I asked, had the local historic district permitted such alterations?

Of course, they didn’t. The library had mislabled a photo of the Stone Building as being the Parker-Morell-Dana house. In retrospect, the giveaways were obvious, and I probably would have caught it myself if I had used the modern day shot of the Stone Building below, rather than the front facade shot that I used instead.

Stone building 3

But that’s the Stone Building. The Parker-Morrell-Dana House is something else again. Here’s an undated print of the front of the house, courtesy the Cary Library (again).

Dana house

In this picture — probably not from 1865 — you can see all the features that were present in my modern day photo, including the Ionic portico, the conventional square windows, and even the brick sides of the house (if you look very closely. You can also see one of my favorite features: the elongated window frames, made to look as if the facade had triple sashed windows like the ones on Jefferson’s Pavilions at the University of Virginia. But the bottom third inside the frame is just regular siding.

So anyway, that’s the story of how a mislabeled photograph led me astray. As they say, we regret the error.

The historic survey form from the 1970s has more information about the house and its history.

Update: Just heard from the library and they’re correcting the exhibit.

New house, new neighborhood

One of the big surprises of our new place (well, not so new any more — we’ve been here almost three months) was that it was in a neighborhood. A very old neighborhood, established almost 200 years ago. As I wrote in my last post about the house, there’s been a house in this location for almost 300 years. There was building all around this area then, but it really got going in the early 19th century.

Follen Church

Follen church

About 120 years after the old Robbins house was built where our place now stands, the Follen Church Society called their first minister, and built their unique octagonal church building four years later, in 1839. The Follen Church feels like the center of this little village here in East Lexington. The bells chime every hour. And all the other civic buildings are spread out around it.

Yes, civic buildings. And the Follen Church isn’t even the second oldest one. There are a little cluster of them here, or not far from here. Fire station, a little further up the road. Then there’s…

The Waldorf School

Adams school

Originally the Adams School, this is the second school building in and around this site. The original Adams School building, dating to 1890, was just across the street where a parking lot now stands. The “new” building, constructed in 1912, has been home to the Waldorf School of Lexington since 1980. The school stands far back from Massachusetts Avenue, just south of the Follen Church. It’s got a town park behind it with a playground, soccer field, tennis and basketball courts too.

The Stone Building

Lecture hall

The Stone Building is not to be confused with a stone building. It’s a fantastic Greek Revival building that is the second oldest civic building in the cluster. Built in 1833 by Eli Robbins as a lyceum, it housed quite a few notable speakers over the years, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Josiah Quincy, Jr. It was used as a branch library until a burst pipe in 2007 caused significant damage, causing the structure to close. It’s still closed, though some repairs were done to contain the damage; plaster was stripped from the entire ceiling and some walls in the first floor, but carved decorative lintels around the windows are still intact, as visible in a video shot inside the building in 2008. You can read the architectural recommendations made five years ago.

“Brick Store”

General store

Now owned by the Waldorf School, the “Brick Store” was the original East Lexington post office. Built in 1828, it’s the oldest of the civic buildings in the East Lexington area. It’s also the building that abuts our property, though we’re separated by a parking lot and a stone wall.

Parker – Morrell – Dana House

Parker morrell dana house

This last stop on our tour is the first building I noticed in our neighborhood, and the oldest of the buildings on this tour — but it’s not a civic building, it’s a private residence. Abutting the house on the other side of the cul-de-sac from ours, this fairly magnificent Greek Revival home dating from the early 19th century has apparently always been a pillar of the surrounding community. Built around 1800 for Obadiah Parker, it was converted into its current temple form in 1839 for furrier Ambrose Morrell, who was Eli Robbins’ neighbor and business rival. It’s worth noting that it has undergone some changes over the years; while it currently sports Ionic order capitals on its front porch columns, a photo from 1865 shows a plainer order — maybe Doric — as well as other alterations that have been made, such as the removal of a side entrance and the removal of clapboards on the sides to show the original Federal brick façade. Even more striking is the removal of the quarter-lune windows in the triglyph. I’d love to find the meetings of the historical committee meeting that let that one go down. (Update: Of course the historical committee didn’t allow such a change. See my next post for an explanation of the confusion.)

So yes, our little cluster of buildings on the side of Mass Ave is architecturally delightful and complex—and fun. And that’s even before we talk about the bike trail, the Great Meadows, Wilson Farm…

New house, new history

The fence in front of our house is more than 150 years old, but the house itself is only 67 years old.

That was one of the surprises I had when researching the history of our new house. It sits on a main thoroughfare of Lexington, down the street from a church, meeting hall, and old village grocery store, and I always wondered how it was that there was relatively new construction here. It turns out the answer was simple: they moved the old house.

On our lot in 1716, Stephen Robbins built his homestead, and the Robbins family lived here through the mid-19th century. Around 1850, his family built the fence in front of the house, the one historical structure on the property. It’s sturdy, built of wrought iron and granite posts, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Unlike the Robbins house. After a long history (among other things, the house was apparently a station on the Underground Railroad), the house moved on—literally. In the 1940s, Helen Potter bought the place for $500, then spent more than $3,000 to move it up the street, where it still stands today. In its place, the Cataldo family built our brick Colonial, completing it in 1947.

The Cataldos have been in town since the early 20th century. There’s a good oral history by one of the brothers that talks about the early days of the family, including Anthony Cataldo, who founded the Depository Trust Company of Medford and who purchased the depot building for a bank branch when the Lexington West Cambridge Railroad stopped running.

At some point before 1993 the property changed hands, and the biggest alteration was made: a subdivision of the property (and maybe the adjacent property) resulted in the creation of a cul-de-sac and three old-looking modern Colonial houses that surrounded it. Aside from the demolition of an old barn that once stood on a corner of our property, the biggest change to our house was a remodel that left us with gold fixtures in the bathrooms.

Fast forward twenty years. After a few owners, the house was purchased by a nearby school eight years ago and became a rental property. When they realized they needed cash for renovation projects, the house went on the market and we snapped it up. Now comes the fun part of its history: making it ours.