Historic Houses of the Month The Samuel Dexter Mansion

Samuel Dexter (1761-1816), born in Boston, was a distinguished politician who served in the Massachusetts  Senate and House of Representatives before his appointment as U.S. Secretary of War (1800-1801) by President John Adams. Subsequently he briefly served both Adams and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of the Treasury. His father was a prominent politician as well and his grandfather, also Samuel Dexter, was the minister of the First Church and Parish in Dedham (1724-1755), the 14th church to be established in Massachusetts.  He was descended from Richard Dexter (1606-1679), the immigrant ancester who was born in Slane, County Meath, Ireland, arriving in Charlestown in 1644.

His home in Charlestown at 14 Green Street was built in 1791 and was an imposing late Georgian/early Federal mansion.  Currently it is known as Memorial Hall. Dexter did not own the home very long, probably because he had become a member of Adam’s cabinet. In 1800 he sold it to Giles Alexander who lived there until 1814. Subsequently, it was acquired by Matthew Bridge, an early developer of Charlestown during the reconstruction period.  Mattthew’s son Nathan lived on the estate from 1814 until 1830. Initially, the estate extended from High Street down to Main Street and eastward as far as the Federal homes on Cordis Street. Sawyer notes that the grounds were “the very best kept and most interesting in the State.” Several owners were interested in horticulture, hence the grounds possessed fine gardens with rare plants, a vegetable garden, a vineyard, and shade and fruit trees. There was a brick wall on High Street where espeliared  apricot, nectarine and peach trees were grown. There was a small greenouse in the upper part of the garden and a stable at the corner of Green and High. The area between the stable and the mansion was was paved with cobblestones. At the Main Street boundary of the estate was a buckthorn hedge, and later a wooden fence.  

In 1831, the estate was sold at auction to Hamilton Davidson, a grain merchant who owned a shop on Long Wharf and a gristmill in Roxbury. Under Davidson’s ownership the estate was divided into 12 lots which were sold to the Winthrop Church and to Shadrack Varney among others. Varney developed 1-6 Dexter Row, a block of Greek Rivial brick townhouses constructed in 1836. Numbers 1,5, and 6 are no longer extant. Davidson sold 14 Green Street to his son-in-law Rhodes Lockwood in 1850, who in turn sold the mansion to his son. In 1887 the remaining lots were sold, some of which were on High Street. The mansion house itself was sold to Abraham Lincoln Post 11 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Founded in 1866, the GAR was originally a fraternal organization comprised of Union veterans of the Civil War. Post 11 was founded by Major Austen S. Cushman, April 23, 1867. Today Post 11 continues to serve veterans from more recent American conflicts.

The initial devlopment of the Dexter estate is an example of how a large estate built after the Revolution was divided to facilitate the further development of Charelstown in the 19th century. When 14 Green Street was built it would have been at the edge of the recently reconstructed part of Charlestown, and would have had the feel of a country house. Keep in mind that at that time Charlestown was still comprised of many fields and pastures, including Breed’s Hill where the battle took place.

Originally, 14 Green was a 2-story 5-bay/4-bay 50’ x 45’ block shaped hipped roofed late Georgian/early Federal mansion that featured a beautiful center entry surmounted by a semi-circular fanlight and a carved door hood supported by ornate console brackets. There were four rooms per floor and there would have been a fireplace in every room. It was of post and beam construction with a clapboarded exterior. Centered atop the hipped roof is a large square cupola with corner columns that is thought to be original to 1791. The foundation is hammered granite and there is brick nogging between the studs of the exterior walls.The modillioned cornice survives at the reworked roofline. Only one of the four original chimneys remains.

After GAR Post 11 acquired the property in 1887, the group paid George Morrill  $14,575.75 to modify the mansion. The original staircase in the central hall was removed. Some detail remians on the first floor including original door surrounds, casement shutters, and a modillioned cornice in the hall. The southwest parlor retains an ornately carved classical doorhead as well as acanthus modillions at the cornice. The rear two rooms on the first floor have been combined. The second floor was  opened up and reinforced to construct a large meeting hall with a sprung maple floor. At the time of the conversion, the hipped roof with its original framing and the cupola were raised 6’ 3” to create a  high ceiling in the meeting hall. A number of the symmetircally placed original windows were removed. An el with a staircase was added to the right of the main block. This wonderful house is now embarking on an amazing restoration journey that will take it back to the 1888 iteration of the building.

Memoral Hall has been home to many groups and organizations. It continues to be Post 11 of the GAR, but it has also been used as a community center, a church, and as the home of Charlestown Lacrosse and the Charlestown Preservation Society. Fifteen years ago, veterans Joe Zuffante and Stan Leonard, president and vice president respectively of Memorial Hall, banded together to restore the building. More recently these two began collaborating with the Charlestown Preservation Society, the Friends of Memorial Hall, the architect Lynn Spencer of Spencer, Sullivan and Vogt, and the City of Boston with the common goal of restoring the building. Additionally, there have been generous donations and a CPA grant.

Seth Daniel wrote about the current state of the project in the April 1 Patriot Bridge, noting the commencement of the exterior restoration work that has been taken on by the pereservation carpentry class at the North Bennet Street School in the North End. Structurally, the building is in surprisingly good condition. According to Zuffante, the hope is that as much of the building that can be restored will eventually be restored. North Bennet Street hopes to restore the original scarfed clapboarding which remains on the front facade and the northeast wall of the buiding. Windows will be fabricated and missing windows will be replaced.The magnificent entry will be restored as will interior details where feasible. This is one of the most important historic buildings in Charlestown, not only because of its provenance but also because it such fine example of a highly styled mansion of this era. It will be thrilling to watch this ambitious and meaningful resoration unfold. Take a stroll down Green Street and check out the progress.    

Sources: Boston Landmarks Commission (MACRIS), Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, BPL: Charlestown Lantern Slides, Archipedia of New England: Memorial Hall by Brian Pfeiffer, Wikipedia, Historic Boston Inc, Charlestown Patriot Bridge/Seth Daniel, ancestry.com, Charlestown Enterprise 1917, Digital Commonwealth.

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