Historic Houses of Charlestown: Lost Charlestown: The Waverly House and the Russell Mansion

By Nancy Hayford Kueny

City Square has gone through many iterations since the Puritans arrived, preceded by millennia when  Charlestown was occupied by indigenous Native Americans. Although there were English settlers living on the Charlestown peninsula prior to 1630, it was in that year that John Winthrop and his group of colonists arrived and settled in Charlestown for a time. City Square Park was the site of Governor Winthrop’s Great House, occupied by the governor and used as both a court and a place of worship by the Puritans. When this group of Puritans departed Charlestown for Boston proper, the building was sold to Robert Long for £30, and he operated it as an ’ordinary’, or tavern, until his death in 1663. While there does not seem to be an accurate line of ownership, it appears that what came to be known as the Three Cranes Tavern functioned as such until June 17, 1775 when it burned with the rest of the town.

City Square in various configurations has prevailed since its beginnings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, both before the Revolution and after the reconstruction period, residences, inns and municipal structures, among them a meeting house and a courthouse, occupied the Square.

One such residence which sat on the south side of the Square was the Russell Mansion. This property commanded a highly desirable location because of its position on the Square and its proximity to the Millers River and Charles River Bay. The rear yard, comprised of gardens and paths, extended all the way to the shoreline. The property in an earlier time was held by Thomes Graves (1725-1802), a British officer of the Royal Navy and a colonial official. (Not to be confused with the earlier Thomas Graves (1585-1662) who arrived in Salem in 1629 and was the engineer who laid out the town of Charlestown around Town Hill (Windmill Hill) in 1630.)

Eventually, this choice piece of land was acquired by the Russell family. The home was built in 1790 during the reconstruction of Charlestown by the Honorable Judge James Russell (1715-1798) of Holliston, MA. The Russell family immigrated from Hereford, England during the Great Migration and had 17th century roots in Charlestown. The Reverand James Russell, ancestor of the aforementioned Judge James, was born in Charlestown in 1640. Like many early families, the Russells returned following the Revolution.

The mansion was a square, five-bay, three-story hipped roof Georgian with a pedimented entry, Corinthian pilasters at the corners, and a cupola. Upon Russell’s death, the home passed to his daughter and through several owners until 1835, when it became a public house known as the Mansion House. In ensuing decades, the mansion as well as other adjacent and less formidable frame homes on the south side of the Square fell into derelict condition and were demolished in 1866, to be replaced by the largest and most magnificent building ever to be built in Charlestown, the Waverly House.

The Waverly House was four and five stories high and stretched for 500 feet along what was at that time known as Charlestown Square. The western end of the building began at the confluence of Harvard and Rutherford Avenues and extended toward the Charles River to what was then Warren Avenue, in a somewhat ‘L’ shaped configuration. It was built as a hotel and printing operation and was the brainchild of Moses Dow.

Moses A. Dow (1810-1886) was born in Littleton, NH and came to Charlestown in 1829. He had learned the printers trade in Haverhill, MA and in 1850, he founded ‘Waverly Magazine’, a publication that became very successful. He was also involved in real estate development in Charlestown, particularly in the Town Hill area, and was largely responsible for the development of Harvard Street.  His brick home at 28 Harvard Street  remains today . He came to acquire a vast portfolio of real estate both in Charlestown and other areas.

His crowning glory, however, was the Waverly House. The building was constructed of red brick with brownstone trim between 1866 and 1867, and was built in the Second Empire style, with a mansard roof and a higher, more embellished central block. The street level was entirely arcaded. The cost of construction was $500,000. A portion of the building known as Abbotford Hall housed an enormous banquet room. While there had been many eating and drinking establishments on the Square, this by far eclipsed anything that had come before and was a testament to the growth and development of Charlestown, which had become a formidable town by the mid-19th century.

On the evening of November 21, 1867, two hundred and fifty ‘prominent, active and business men’ (Sawyer) gathered at the Waverly House to celebrate the achievements and character of Mr. Dow. This dinner was one of the most famous social events of 19th century Charlestown. The evening was presided over by the current mayor, His Honor, Liverus Hull, and many ex-mayors were present. Following Mayor Hull’s speech, Mr. Dow, who had acquired a large fortune by this time, commented: “I did not undertake the work solely as a money-making operation, but rather for the purpose of improving a portion of the city which had been neglected, in order to infuse a spirit of energy and improvement in our midst”. Many prominent citizens joined in extolling the man’s virtues and importance. At the time the Waverly House was completed, Charlestown was only seven years away from being annexed by the City of Boston (1874).

One wonders what happened to this magnificent building. Depicted on the 1922 Ward Map of the City Square area, the Waverly House presents an entirely intact footprint. More research is needed to discover how and when the building met its final demise. An article in the future will cover another no longer extant Second Empire ‘gem’ fronting City Square in the 19th Century, Charlestown’s City Hall (1868). To be continued. For questions or comments contact me at [email protected].

Sources: Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, A Century of Town Life by James F. Hunnewell, Wikipedia, , digitalcommonwealth.org, virtuology.com, Boston Landmarks Commission, Boston Ward Plans, ancestry.com

© Nancy Hayford Kueny

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