By Nancy Hayford Kueny
One of the things that I have enjoyed most about writing my monthly historic house articles is that every time I work on one, I learn some things that I did not previously know.
Who would have thought, for example, that Nathaniel Austin (1772-1861), local Charlestown businessman, politician and wharf owner was descended from the same immigrant ancestor as Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836), who is considered to be the “Father of Texas”? Many places and institutions are named after him including the state capital of Texas. Both men are descended from the immigrant Richard Austin (1598-1638), a Puritan from the Bishopstoke, a village in southern England that lies midway between Southampton and Winchester. Richard was both men’s great-great-great-grandfather, and he arrived at Boston with his family (and a man named on the ship’s manifest as his carpenter/servant) on May 16, 1638 aboard the Bevis. He settled in Charlestown. Genealogical research indicates the Stephen F. Austen branch of the family quickly moved from the Boston area, living for a time in Connecticut and then moving southward. Stephen Fuller Austin was born in Virginia.
By the time Nathanial was born in 1772, there had been five previous Austin generations living and dying in Charlestown, many buried in the Phipps Street Burial Ground. The Austin’s success in Charlestown spanned three centuries of owning businesses and real estate, including a warehouse and wharf on the Charles River Bay side of town near the prison, accessed via Austin Street. Nathaniel’s grandfather Ebenezer was responsible for accumulating the aforementioned property. The family also owned two parcels of land on Breed’s Hill that they eventually sold to the Monument Square Association. Austin’s Wharf and Austin Street, as well as the two Breed’s Hill parcels appear on the 1818 Peter Tufts map
Nathaniel and his brother William were well known and respected citizens of Charlestown. Both were politically minded, Nathaniel representing the town and holding numerous political offices. He was known as General Austin because he held the post of brigadier general of the third division of the Massachusetts Militia from 1815-1820. He also represented the town as a member of the House of Representatives, and was a senator as well.
General Austin was responsible (possibly in partnership with his brother William) for the building of the Austin Block at 90-92 Main St., the imposing stone building at the corner of Main and Harvard streets, which was constructed in 1822. This stretch of Main Street from Thompson Square heading toward City Square is home to some of the finest early buildings of the reconstruction period following the Revolution. (The Larkin House and the Hurd House were covered in a previous article.)
The Austin Block is faced with split stone granite, and embellished with quoins of granite block that was quarried at Outer Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. General Austin had purchased the island in 1799. The building was built in the Federal style, the main block being a five-bay, three-story structure with a hipped roof. The three-story rear el is also faced with the same split stone and also has a hipped roof. Austin lived in this Main Street building for many years and maintained an office there. Additionally, the Bunker Hill Aurora and Farmers and Mechanics Journal were published at this address from 1827-1871, indicating that the building had a commercial component in the early part of the 19th century, as it still does today. His quarrying enterprises eventually ended in failure due to the difficulty in reaching the island, so he tried his hand at raising sheep and cattle and growing hay on Outer Brewster. Those endeavors failed as well. The historian Timothy Sawyer notes that Outer Brewster was sometimes called “the home of the east wind.” It is the easternmost of the Harbor Islands, and appears to be almost out in Massachusetts Bay rather than in the protected harbor.
The Austin Block was not the first stone house to be built by General Austin. In 1799, he built the stone Federal style single-family home at 27 Harvard St. facing the Harvard Mall. This house is faced with the same split stone granite that he quarried on the island. The house is a side hall plan, with a charming door in the right bay that features a three-pane transom surmounted by a granite lintel. Currently a residence, this house was operated as a small hospital from 1814 until at least 1885. A dispensary ticket from 1885 reads: “Charlestown Free Dispensary and Hospital – Dispensary Department – 27 Harvard Street, Town Hill – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – Come at 12 o’clock – ALWAYS BRING THIS CARD.”
Gen. Nathaniel Austin’s father was also Nathaniel (1741-1816), a pewterer by trade. He had inherited the real estate holdings mentioned above from his father Ebenezer Austin (1703-1742). Although Gen. Austin never married, he was from a large family and had three brothers including William, and two sisters. At the time of his death at 89, Gen. Austin was living at 22 Union St. A discussion of the Austin family would not be complete without mentioning the General’s brother, William Austin (1778-1841) and his brother’s son, Frances Boylston Austin (1827-1887).
William was described as a man of determination. He graduated from Harvard College in 1798, and he was a lawyer by trade. Sawyer noted that William was wounded in a duel in 1805 that arose from a political altercation. He lived on Main Street for many years in a home that was torn down in 1888. He subsequently moved to a house at 58 High St., which his son Francis enlarged circa 1865 in the Second Empire style. Framing in the attic indicates that the original house might have been late 18th century. The house was raised a story and the slate Mansard roof was added. The end result was a center hall floor plan home, with a gable-roofed eLl to the left of the main block.
In 1865 when the house was modified, that section of Charlestown had not yet been fully developed and was largely open fields. Across High Street was the Austin pastureland and behind the house going down the hill toward Main Street was an orchard. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places and is known as the Francis B. Austin House. Frances was one of 13 children and the only one to remain in Charlestown. He was a Boston merchant who had an office in the North End on North Street. He initially sold dry goods, but later iron and steel. The Austin House at 58 High St. was restored in 1985 and is currently a five-unit condominium building. It is a lovely building. The Austin Block at 90-92 Main St. was also restored and is currently comprised of two residential condominiums upstairs with an office condominium on the ground level. The house at 27 Harvard Square continues to be a privately owned, single-family residence.
So, if you ever visit Austin, think about the fact that one of the great state of Texas’s most famous sons had roots in the great town of Charlestown! Sources: MACRIS: Boston Landmarks Commission Surveys,Ancestry.com, Old Charlestown by Sawyer, History of Town by Virginia and Richard Creaser (Somerville Chronicle), Wikipedia, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (58 High St.)