Historic Houses of the Month Charlestown High School

The first Charlestown High School was built on the north corner of Monument Square in 1847/8, one year after the Hubbell and Warren Townhouses at 6-7, Monument Square were built.  Those were the first homes built on the newly formed Monument Square.  The brick school building was built in the Greek Revival style. Much like the Training Field School at 5 Common Street, it appears to have been three stories surmounted by a classic Greek Revival pediment.  The architect was Ammi Burnham Young (1798-1874) who was from Lebanon, New Hampshire.  His body of work was quite extensive and included the Boston Custom House as well as over 25 courthouses throughout the U.S.  He also enlarged the Bulfinch designed Middlesex County Courthouse in 1848 and designed several buildings at Dartmouth College. From 1852 until his retirement in 1862 he was Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury Department. 

The first Charlestown High School was dedicated on Bunker Hill Day in 1848 and opened its doors to 88 pupils. The curriculum centered on the classics. Students had the opportunity to study Virgil and Cicero, Greek and Latin, philosophy, French, astronomy and trigonometry among other things.  Charlestown was growing in the mid-19th century and within several decades a larger school was needed.

The second iteration of Charlestown High occurred in 1870. Instead of tearing down the A.B. Young school, the original structure was incorporated into a Second Empire style alteration and enlargement. The 7-bay side wall of the original 1848 school can be seen in the photo of the 1870 school.  The new building with its added fourth story was capped with a Mansard roof typical of the Second Empire style.  This type of roof is a dual-pitched hipped roof that frequently features dormer windows on the steep slope.  The façade of the school comprised five bays, with a strongly projecting pavilion placed asymmetrically to the right that was surmounted by a triple columned window and pedimented clock.  These components gave the building tower-like element.  It was a very handsome building. 

In the later part of 19th century, the population of the town was increasing and the demographics were shifting.  Once again outgrowing the space, the Schoolhouse Department constructed the imposing four story granite Neo- Classical building between 1902 and 1907. The building continues to dominate the north corner of Monument Square. It was designed by Stickney & Austin, the architectural firm of Frederick W. Stickney and William D. Austin which functioned between 1892 and 1918, although the two men rarely collaborated.  Both had graduated from the School of Architecture at MIT. 

The design of the building was meant to compliment both the Monument and the adjacent Bunker Hill Monument Lodge, also a columned Neo-Classical building.  The façade of the 30 Monument Square is 11 bays wide.  The central bays are recessed to accommodate granite columns that rise for two stories.  Flanking the columns at the fourth level are a clock to the left and a compass rose to the right.  An inscription in Roman numerals notes the date of the first high school, 1848, as well as the date of completion, 1907. Within, stately flanking staircases rose from the entry lobby.

The first Irishman to graduate from Charlestown High School was Joseph J. Corbett, Class of 1881.  By 1906 Corbett, a judge of the Municipals Court and member of the Board of Schoolhouse Commissioners and living on Monument  Square, used his position on the board to make certain that the building was built of the same pale granite used to build the Monument.  The Bunker Hill Monument Association had envisioned a grand, dignified building and their vision was fully realized by this massive structure.  Charlestown High School served Charlestown residents for over 70 years, closing in 1978.

As the years passed the curriculum became more vocationally oriented.  Several Boston high schools provided technical training. Sheet metal work was taught at South Boston High and cabinetmaking was taught at Dorchester High.  Charlestown was renowned for its electrician’s course.  Many Charlestown residents learned the electrical trade at Charlestown High and from time to time I have met people much farther afield who received their training at CHS.

By the 1970s it became apparent that Charlestown High was in need of major work.  The City of Boston made the choice not to repair the 1907 school, but to build a new Charlestown High School at 240 Medford Street on the site of the former Prescott School (1858). The fourth and current Charlestown High opened its doors in 1978.  More like a suburban high school than Charlestown’s first three high schools, the school is comprised of the main brick block, a separate gym that also houses a basketball court and 25 meter swimming pool, and a football field. 

The curriculum switched from the earlier vocational emphasis to a strong academic program comprised of five learning communities with college-based curricula and signature themes such as law, web design and pre-engineering to name just a few.  Advanced Placement courses are offered.  There are 19 interscholastic athletic teams.  Additional opportunities include such things as visual arts, dance and a very strong music program.

Returning to 30 Monument Square, in 1985 highly acclaimed architect Graham Gund purchased Charlestown High and began converting the old school into 44 condominiums now known as The Schoolhouse on Monument Square.  The Gund Partnership of Cambridge has designed such buildings as 75 State Street, The Church Court Condominiums and the Hyatt Regency Cambridge.  Gund retained the rather lovely entry lobby with flanking stairways, and several of the units incorporated vestiges of the original ornate auditorium.  It is a very successful example of repurposing a historic school building into residences.

2020 has certainly been like no other year that any of us can remember. My heart goes out to all of the 2020 high school graduates who could not revel in their moment of glory and accomplishment this year. Even though you cannot celebrate in traditional ways, graduating is a milestone to be proud of.  Congratulations and best of luck!   

For additional images, please go to www.nancykueny.com/blog.

Sources: Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, A Century of Town Life by James F. Hunnewell, Images of America: Charlestown by Anthony Mitchell Samarco, Wikipedia, charlestownhistoricalsociety.org, National Register of Historic Places – Nomination Form Monument Sq. Historic District, Common Ground by Anthony Lewis, Old Time New England Jan-March 1970, bostonpublicschools.org.

2 comments for “Historic Houses of the Month Charlestown High School

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.