Historic Houses of the Month: Sullivan Square

Sullivan Square was named for the Sullivan family, several of whom were very prominent in Charlestown businesses as well as land speculation. James Sullivan (1744-1808) was the fifth governor of Massachusetts, the president of the Middlesex Canal Company (1793-1808) and Attorney General for the Commonwealth (1790-1807). His son Richard (1779-1831) was a successful land speculator in Charlestown and also owned a hotel and tavern in Sullivan Square, as well as holdings in the adjacent Neck Village.

Sullivan Square appears on the 1848 Felton and Parker Plan of Charlestown. Interestingly, the 1818 Peter Tufts Plan Charlestown shows Sullivan’s Tavern in approximately the same location. Sullivan Square initially was and still is a transportation hub that was established at the isthmus known as the Charlestown Neck. Hunnewell, in describing how Charlestown was laid out in the 17th and 18th centuries, refers to ‘the Main Road’ as well as ‘the Country Road’ which followed much the same path as Main Street does today, winding from what is now City Square past Town Hill and on toward the Neck for over a mile. One needed to pass through this isthmus in order to reach Cambridge, Somerville, Everett and Medford and towns beyond.  Charlestown remained a peninsula well into the 19th century, but the massive land filling of Charles River Bay, most of the Millers River and adjacent wetlands changed the perimeters of the town. As a point of reference, the Charlestown State Prison (1805-1955) initially sat at the edge of Charles River Bay approximately where Bunker Hill Community College is today.

In the 19th century the once resplendent park at Sullivan Square showcased a beautiful cast iron Victorian fountain ringed by a handsome cast iron fence. In old photos one can see adjacent residential housing. Sadly, the park was demolished to accommodate the construction (beginning in 1900) of the Boston Elevated Railway that ran from Sullivan Square Station down Main Street and into Boston.

Sullivan Square Station was built adjacent to the current traffic circle between 1900 and 1901. There had been horsecar service between Somerville and Charlestown beginning in 1858, followed by electric streetcars in 1890. In addition to the station being the terminus for the newly created Boston Elevated Rail, it was also the southern terminus of the Fellsway Line which ran between Charlestown and Stoneham.

Sullivan Station was a large imposing brick structure and was quite elegant inside. It existed until 1975 when it was razed following a fire around the same time that the elevated Orange Line was removed from Main Street. The current state of Sullivan Square makes is hard to imagine that a grand, brick railway station or a park with a Victorian fountain was ever there. While adjacent recent development as well as the magnificent Art Deco Schraftt Center (1928) are wonderful, much of Sullivan Square is currently occupied by parking lots, the unsightly traffic circle and a few aging buildings. Hopefully Sullivan Square will eventually attain some of its former glory. For additional historic articles go to NancyKueny.com/Blog.  Contact me at [email protected].

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