Historic House of the Month : Two Main Street Mansions

By Nancy Hayford Kueny

Main Street is one of the oldest streets in Charlestown.  In A Century of Town Life, Hunnewell  refers  to both the ‘Country Road’ and ‘the Main Road’ which stretched from the market place or square (now City Square) past Town Hill and on towards the Neck for over a mile. This winding road which was somewhat straightened after the burning of the town in 1775 and the subsequent reconstruction, is our Main Street. The early settlement of Charlestown, designed by Thomas Graves and elliptical in shape, was built close to the Harbor as Charlestown was destined to become a thriving port.  Prior to 1775, the buildings along Main Street were separated into several groups which included the initial Main Village, the Mill Village in the area of the Mill Pond, and the Neck Village on the northwestern end of town. On page one of Hunnewell’s history, he recalls visiting relatives as a child and listening to remembrances of things past.  One elderly lady, who was a 19-years-old at the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill, remembers being evacuated (women and children) by rowboat prior to the battle and also recalled Redcoats standing on Main Street in June of 1775!

In the 1780s residents and developers returned to Charlestown to rebuild the town.  There have always been rumors that a few structures survived the fire, and Hunnewell notes anecdotally that a few remaining houses were used by the British for a time following the battle, but in general the town was devoid of any signs of habitation. It was in ruins.

Two of the finest homes to be built during the reconstruction were the large mansions at 55 Main Street (corner of Winthrop and Main streets) and 65-71 Main St., (corner of Monument Avenue and Main Street).  The Landmarks Commission pegs them as 1790s construction.  Both are clapboarded three-story residences with hipped roofs, originally four rooms per floor with a center hall plan, and five bay facades with symmetrically aligned windows.  The Federal period is generally considered to be from 1780 to 1830 and the Georgian period from 1714 to 1830 (when George I through George IV of the House of Hanover reigned continuously in England).  Most architectural historians have characterized these two gems as Georgian. 

The lot at 55 Main St. was purchased by Deacon John Larkin (1735-1807) in 1783 from Nathan Adams who had claimed a £970 loss for his property in 1775. Larkin purchased this lot as well as another for £300. The Larkin House is embellished with quoins at the four corners. Quoins are toothed, regularly patterned boards of different lengths set horizontally at the corner of a building to accentuate the corner aesthetically and provide strength. The entry has been restored in the Georgian style with a dentilated pediment and a three light transom crowning the front door, which is flanked by flattened columns.   Deacon Larkin, like many men of the era, wore many hats. In addition to his affiliation with the Congregational Church, he was also a merchant involved with the Hurd and Stimson families.  He was descended from Edward Larking (1615-1652), his great-great-grandfather who emigrated from England in the previous century.  Deacon Larkin is best remembered for his role in Paul Revere’s famous ride.  Revere as we know was rowed across the Charles River to Charlestown, where John Larkin subsequently loaned him “Brown Beauty”, a horse that belonged to his father Samuel Larkin.  Family legend indicates that the horse was never returned.  When Deacon Larkin’s will was probated in 1807 he was worth $86,381.99, making him a very wealthy man for the time.  The Larkin House is currently a condominium building comprised of six units.

At the corner of Monument Square and Main Street stands one of the most magnificent buildings in Charlestown.  Known as the Hurd House, it was the home of local merchant John Hurd.  He was a member of the extensive Hurd family who were descended from Jacob Hurd Sr. (1655-1694) and his son, Jacob Jr. (1676-1749), a craftsman and cabinet maker here in Charlestown.  Both Jacobs are buried in the Phipps Street Burial Ground.  John Hurd’s mansion had a large garden that extended back to Warren Street.  The Peter Tufts map of 1818 indicates that at that time Warren Street was known as Back Street.

I had a very informative conversation with Bill Lamb, local architect and preservationist, about the restoration of the building.  Bill worked with Historic Boston Incorporated beginning in 1983 to stabilize and restore the exterior of the building to its former glory.  Town Hill Associates, a group of local businessmen headed by Terrance Smith, subsequently purchase the building (which had preservation restrictions).  The interior of the building was authentically restored, again with the assistance of Bill Lamb.  During the course of the restoration, many fascinating aspects of the building’s history were revealed.  When the house was built, Monument Avenue did not exist. The original structure was a two story Georgian structure, the front façade and center entrance facing Main Street. Observing various aspects of the structure during restoration, it was discovered that the roof was raised and a third floor added, possibly around 1840. Proof of this was found in the post and beam framing, interior trim work, and on the exterior corners where the quoins on the top floor do not match the quoins on the second floor.  In order to accommodate the construction of Monument Avenue, the house was pivoted so that the slightly wider main façade faced the new street. The oriel on the second floor would have replaced an earlier hall window that would have been right above the entry door.  In order to accommodate the first floor conversion to retail space later in the 1800s, the building was lowered so that the first floor was at ground level.  Cast iron storefronts were installed and J.W. Rand and William Murray & Son, purveyors of dry goods initially occupied the retail space.  The upper floors retain the original restored windows with narrow muntins (the sash bars that create the grid system that holds the window panes), as well as many fine Georgian details according to Lamb. The upper floors are currently apartments.

A smaller side building was added to the Monument Avenue side that is now home to Charlestown Tea and Treats.  There are several other low additions to the rear of the building that are not original. The old Donovan & Fallon apothecary, with its magnificent stained glass transom, is currently Tuttle’s Dry Cleaners, and Figs (the original Todd English Olives) is located to the right. 

Sources: William Lamb Architect, Old Charlestown (Timothy Sawyer), A Century of Town Life (James Frothingham Hunnewell), Wikipedia:John Larkin, Boston Landmarks Commission Surveys (MACRIS), Ancestry.com, A Field Guide to American Houses (Virginia Savage McAlester)

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