Historic Houses of the Month

By Nancy Hayford Kueny

In 1953, a machinist at the Charlestown Navy Yard named Samuel Weller Donnell (1916-1982 b. Norwood), purchased the small gambrel-roofed house at 23 Pleasant Street, the first house on the right as one heads up the hill from Warren Street. Sam was a great lover of antique houses and an early and passionate preservationist in Charlestown. Sam spotted this late Georgian gem and saw through all the disrepair, the trash and furniture stored within, and the damage done by a recent fire. This frame gambrel, one of just a handful in town, was built by 1808.  Sam purchased the house from the Cox Estate for the lofty sum of $250. This was Sam Donnell’s first Charlestown restoration project.  Subsequently, at a City auction in the early 1960s he purchased the imposing Federal at 81 Warren Street as well as the frame Italianate to the rear (81½ Warren Street). For this pair, Sam paid $2500.  This charming triumvirate of 19th C. frame houses became known as Donnell Court.  In 1969 Laurette Murdock, a transplant from Beacon Hill,  purchased  and restored the Federal at 83-85 Warren completing the initial restoration of this corner which was once known as “Cork Alley”, referencing the immigrants from Cork, Ireland who lived in the area in the early 20th century. At the time these homes were built, Warren Street was known as Back Street (1818 Peter Tufts Plan of Charlestown Peninsula).

Sam Donnell was a wonderful looking man, and could have been cast as a 19th century seaman with his leather cap and prolific whiskers.  When I came to Charlestown in the 1970s, Sam was living in the yellow 3-story, 5-bay Federal style house (1808-1812) at 81 Warren Street. This house was built on land that was part of the Andrew Kettel estate which extended to Pleasant Street and was eventually divided into several house lots which now comprise Donnell Court.  Kettel sold the lot where 81 was built to Benjamin Fiske (1774-1863) and William Stoddard Bridge (b.1779), Chelmsford merchants, in 1808 for $600.  Bridge and Fiske were brothers-in-law, Fiske being married to Elizabeth Bridge (1776-1814).  Bridge sold his share of the house in 1812 for $1000 to Fiske, who remained there until 1824 while retaining holdings in Chelmsford.  Numerous owners followed, including Dennis Shea, a seaman who purchased it in 1871 and whose family owned it into the 20th century.

The Fiske House is a fine example of the Federal period featuring a center hall flanked by large relatively square rooms, a low hipped roof, six over six sashes on floors one and two and smaller square sashes on the top floor. Notable exterior details include the corner pilasters with entablature on the main block and an entrance flanked by narrow sidelights and pilasters with entablature, crowned by a dentilled cornice

There is a two story addition to the right of the main block that was at one point a kitchen.  Originally there was a one story shed attached to the two story kitchen el. On a recent visit to this home, the current owners explained that not only the el, but also the room to the right of the center hall had been used as a kitchen as it had a beehive oven. This room has an interesting wainscoting comprised of very wide boards with beveled edging. The house has lovely original pine flooring throughout, as well as myriad 19th C. hardware including hand forged iron thumb latches on the top floor. Fireplaces are on the rear wall and there is one in every room.  There is a basement door that still has the remnants of 19th C. milk paint, a wonderful reminder of past history.  One of the most interesting items in the house is a huge iron rim lock on the front door that was found in the attic. Missing its key, the current owners had a blacksmith forge a key for it.

A bit farther down the passageway sits 811/2 Warren Street, an Italianate 3-story, 5-bay flat roofed house with a center entrance and roofed door hood, as well as cornice crowned window frames.  At the time Sam lived at 81, his pal the aforementioned Laurette Murdock was living at 81 ½.  Laurette and Sam were also friends with another Charlestown resident, Betty McLean Smith, who lived in what had formerly been a stable on Russell Street.  These were three very colorful characters who greatly supported preservation in Charlestown during a period in which the Boston Redevelopment Authority was tearing down buildings that had fallen into disrepair as part of their urban renewal scheme which began in the 1960s.  A 1964 newspaper account states that between 1959 and 1964, 103 buildings were demolished in Charlestown.  The ensuing backlash from local residents thankfully saved many of our amazing historic buildings from the wrecking ball.

85 Warren Street, while not part of Donnell Court, is part of the history of this corner. 85 is another fine Federal house built c.1800. Its front door is flanked by narrow sidelights and pilasters with entablature, and crowned with a dentilled cornice much like 81.  When Laurette Murdock restored the house in 1969 she kept the store, which at the time was known as Snapper’s Store. While 85 Warren was not built with a corner store, subsequent owners have retained the paneled entry door flanked by large multi-paned display windows and crowned by a long cornice.  Preserving this detail memorializes the way the building has been used over time.

Originally, 85 Warren Street and the large parcel that comprised the estate, was owned by Andrew Kettel (1759-1832), a tanner.  Andrew was a descendant of Joseph Ward Kettel (1641-1711) and Hannah Croft Frothingham (1642-1693), both early residents born in Charlestown.  Andrew’s older sister Ruth Stimpson Kettle (1737-1807 – b. Jamaica) was the wife of Deacon John Larkin (1735-1807) known for his role in Paul Revere’s famous ride. Charlestown was a small village of closely connected families. The Kettell’s were prominent property owners and another branch of the family owned a large mansion, no longer extant, at the corner of Chestnut and Adams Street.  Andrew Kettle sold his house at 85 Warren in 1804 to William Bolton for $2500, and interestingly on that deed Pleasant Street is referred to simply as “a new street”.  Following, there were a handful of owners including Isaac Blanchard, a bricklayer who owned it from 1811 to 1867 and from 1867 until at least 1911, Mary Burke, a widow, owned this house.

Charlestown has more late1700s and early 1800s wood frame houses than any other Boston neighborhood.  Kudos to all those who have restored them and remained caring custodians of these irreplaceable buildings.

Sources: Ken Stone and Tom Slayman, Charlestown: Three Centuries of Town Life (A Film by W. Bundschuh and O. McCleary) Landmarks Commission Surveys (various), A Century of Town Life by Hunnewell, Old Charlestown by Sawyer, A Field Guide to American Houses by McAlester, Ancesty.com, Old Charlestown Now by the Charlestown Preservation Society, Boston Globe.

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