Historic Houses of the Month: Lost Charlestown: The Hunnewell Mansion

At the top of Green Street across from the Dexter Mansion (now Memorial Hall) was another formidable Charlestown estate that for many years was the home of James Frothingham Hunnewell (1832-1910), noted Charlestown citizen and historian, and author of A Century of Town Life (1888). Like the Dexter Mansion, the estate encompassed the entire block extending from High Street down to Main Street bordered by Green Lane, (now Green Street) and Wood Street. The land passed through several owners but in 1817 Joseph Thompson built what eventually became known as the Hunnewell House. James’ father, also James, had voyaged to the Sandwich Islands and Hawaii in the 1820s as a successful merchant. After returning from sea, James’ father purchased the house in 1831 from Amos Binney. The house and grounds were stylishly laid out with rows of horse chestnuts on three sides of the estate. The house was brick with a wooden ell, originally 74’ x 25’, with a center hall plan typical of the Federal period. One entered the home through an elaborate columned entry which was up several steps from a garden festooned with peonies, lilacs, larkspur, honeysuckle and roses. There were bits of hawthorn hedge as well as grapes, plums, and even a fig tree. Like the Dexter Mansion, a cupola surmounted the gabled roof which featured three handsome dormers. 

James Frothingham Hunnewell’s ancestor Ambrose Hunnewell (1630-1689) emigrated from Plymouth, County Devon, England, arriving in Maine during the Great Migration. According to Sawyer, Ambrose’s son Charles was living in Charlestown as early as 1698. In his book, James, Jr. recollects living in the mansion as a child and using a spy glass to watch the carriages on Winter Hill, now Somerville. From the top of the house, he could see all of Boston, parts of Boston Harbor, the Blue Hills and the hills of Brighton. The old four-horse stagecoach to Lowell ran daily up and down Main Street, and James would wait for it at Elias Craft’s shop at Craft’s Corner just down Green Street, in order to enjoy a pleasant ride to the country. Today this block is home to the Boys and Girls Club as well as the Boston Public Library. Visit www.NancyKueny.com/Blog.

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