Historic Houses of the Month: The Thompson Triangle

Charlestown has been blessed with an amazing number of late 18th century and early 19th century homes that were built during the reconstruction of Charlestown following the Battle of Bunker Hill. By the late 1960s the population of the town had dwindled from 40,000 to 12,000. In the 1970s it was not uncommon to see houses, especially frame houses, unpainted and boarded up. Enter the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The BRA initially embraced the renewal of Charlestown, but with the philosophy that many of these historic but derelict buildings should be torn down and replaced with new housing. Thankfully, there was a group of citizens who realized that these buildings were an important part of the historic fabric of Charlestown. Dick and Virginia Creaser as well as others such as Sam Donnell, Laurette Murdock, Betty Smith and Doug Adams to name just a few, founded the Charlestown Preservation Society with the intention of supporting the preservation of Charlestown’s historic homes.

Strictly by accident in the late 1960s, James Rivers Adams was driving around Boston looking for a fixer upper.  He took a wrong turn and ended up in Charlestown.  Like many, he was impressed by the historic buildings. Jim’s initial project was a brick town house on Harvard Street which he bought for $12,000. Next, Jim turned his attention to the neighborhood which became known as the Thompson Triangle, an enclave of late Georgian/Early Federal period homes bordered by Thompson Square, Main Street, Pleasant Street and Warren Street. At the time these homes were built, the no longer extant Elias Crafts House covered in a previous article, would have stood at the apex of the triangle approximately where the park in front of the Charlestown Five Cents Savings Bank is now. Collaborating with the Preservation Society, Adams took on the project d/b/a the Charlestown Development Corporation. It was a visionary idea but initially the Boston Redevelopment Authority balked at the proposal. Eventually Adams, CPS and others prevailed and the rejuvenation of the Thompson Triangle began.

One of the buildings is of course the Warren Tavern named after General Joseph Warren. It was built in 1780 by a baker named Eliaphelet Newell, a friend of Paul Revere. It is one of the oldest taverns in Boston and functioned as a tavern for 38 years, closing upon the death of Newell. Through the years the tavern was used for many purposes including as a grocery store, a Greek bakery, and in the 1960s as a warehouse by the infamous Cornelius ‘Connie’ McCarthy, who opened a furniture and appliance store at 73-83 Main Street in 1958. Although condemned and in the shadow of the elevated train that still screeched along Main Street when Adams acquired the tavern, the post and beam construction was largely intact and Adams was able to create his vision of what it might have looked like in 1780. The walls were rough plastered, the massive timbers remained exposed, replacement wide pine flooring was installed, and pierced-tin lanterns hung about creating a 19th century atmosphere.  In 1972 the Warren Tavern was back in business. 

Adams also restored the imposing Federal mansion at 119 Main Street built around 1794.  The house was built by Timothy Thompson Sr. (1750-1834) a descendant of James Thompson (1593-1682), who arrived in Charlestown from Lincolnshire, England in 1630 as part of John Winthrop’s group. James eventually removed to Woburn which at that time was part of Charlestown.

In April 1775, James’ great-great grandson Timothy was living in Charlestown with his wife Mary Frothingham. Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the official beginning of the Revolution, the British attempted to take control of Boston which eventually led to the Battle of Bunker Hill. Tensions were rising and Charlestown was deemed to be unsafe for women and children. Mary left for Woburn taking only a few possessions. She would never see her home again. Several months later Timothy, a sergeant in the militia, fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill after which the town was burned to the ground.

A few years later, like many, Timothy and Mary returned to Charlestown to rebuild their life. Timothy built a small house and carpentry shop at the corner of Thompson Street and Main Street, and it was here on February 24, 1777 that Timothy Jr. was born. It is believed that he was the first child born in Charlestown following the battle. Eventually Timothy’s estate extended from Main Street to Back Street, now Warren Street. He moved his carpentry shop to Warren Street and built the mansion at 119 Main Street which he lived in until his death at age 84. The house has also been referred to as the Benjamin Thompson House, Benjamin being another son. In 1892, the historian Timothy Thompson Sawyer (1817-1905), another Thomson descendant, lived at 119 Main Street. Sawyer was a businessman, a bank director and a politician.  He is also known to many lovers of Charlestown history as the author of Old Charlestown (1902) a compilation of anecdotal articles he had written for The Charlestown Enterprise.

The Thompson House is an important example of a late Georgian, early Federal home.  It is a clapboarded three story, five-bay center hall plan structure with a low hipped roof. Significant features include quoins at the corners and a handsome pedimented entry door. Another splendid feature is the Palladian window on the rear wall. Like most Federals there are fireplaces in every room. 

Thompson Street, a charming cobbled lane, remains although it is no longer a through street.  In 1805 Timothy Thomson Sr. built the double Federal homes located at 88 Warren Street and 6 Pleasant Street respectively. 88 Warren, initially 9 Thompson Street, remains while 6 Pleasant Street was torn down or burned, probably in the early 1900s. Adams built a reproduction Federal in its place in 1973. Two other noteworthy properties, also part of the Thompson Triangle and the subject of a future article, are the brick Federal commercial/residential buildings located at 121 and 127 Main Street. These buildings are known as the Armstrong House and the Round Corner House.

Nearby was another Thompson estate on the site of what is now the Five Cents Cent Savings Bank.  Next door across Church Street, the circa 1840 double Greek Revivals at 107-109 Warren Street were also Thompson properties.

The Thompson Triangle provides us with a fairly intact look at a neighborhood that was an important part of the early reconstruction of Charlestown following the battle. The name given to Thompson Square was due to the fact that several generations of the family of that name were for a long period, residents of that vicinity.

Sources: The Immortal Tavern by Jim Adams, Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, A Century of Town Life by James F. Hunnewell, MACRIS, History of the Town by Richard and Virginia Creaser, The Old House Journal, Ancestry.com, Charlestown: Footsteps Through History by Ruth Sigler, Battlefields.org

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