The historic heartbeat in Upham’s Corner commercial buildings

The historic heartbeat in Upham’s Corner commercial buildings

Every Boston neighborhood has a unique and rich history that is marked by its historic buildings. Historic Boston Inc. has surveyed several neighborhood commercial districts around the city and has compiled summary reports describing their historic and architectural resources as well as identifying real estate and preservation strategies that will support the continued revitalization of these districts. Read below for a short summary of some of the important historic resources in one of our favorite neighborhoods, Upham’s Corner!

Located in the northern section of Dorchester, Upham’s Corner has an architecturally and historically significant commercial district that serves as an urban center for several surrounding residential neighborhoods. Upham’s Corner’s has a long history of commerce and development, though the majority of the buildings extant today were built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The district features churches, banks, apartment buildings, one-story and multi-level commercial buildings, warehouses, a municipal building, a former movie theatre, a burying ground, a former public restroom for commuters, a fire station and vacant lots. Unique neighborhood features include the historical streetscape of Columbia Road, traces of a former railroad, past hotels, and a Works Progress Administration project. See the full Commercial Casebook on Upham’s Corner here. 

As the northern section of Dorchester became more populated in the first decade of the 19th century, the area witnessed the growth of its commercial center. In 1804, Amos Upham established a dry goods store on the corner of what is now Columbia Road and Dudley Street. The store was an integral part of the square, and the area took on the name of “Upham’s Corner” sometime during the early 19th century, but was later replaced by the brick and granite Columbia Square Building.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century and in the first few decades of the twentieth century, Upham’s Corner grew as a bustling commercial center. The expansion of Columbia Road solidified the area’s position as a commercial district. Until that time, the Upham’s Corner neighborhood featured a balanced mix of residential homes and ecclesiastical and commercial buildings. The area was also a hub for transportation as several trolley and rail lines serviced the district. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, the large homes that lined Columbia Road in the district were replaced by commercial buildings with shops, theatres and meeting halls.  New buildings constructed around this time include:

  • The yellow-brick Wheelock Hall, 1890, 556-562 Columbia Road;
  • The Neo-classic brick and granite Columbia Square Building,  mid 1890s, 584 Columbia Road;
  • The Pierce Building, 1904,  592 Columbia Road;
  • The curved four-story brick and granite Georgian Revival Municipal Building, 1902, 500 Columbia Road; 
  • The New England Telegraph and Telephone Company offices, 1920s, 516 Columbia Road;
  • The Romanesque Pilgrim Congregational Church, 1893, 540 Columbia Roa
    Uphams Corner looking north [TP031] | Boston history, Dorchester, Places to visit

    Photo from Boston City Archives

With the area experiencing commercial success during the first decades of the twentieth century, banks and entertainment venues like Fox Hall and The Strand Theater began to spring up along Columbia Road. Built circa 1894, Fox Hall was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Loring & Phillips and has, over the last century, served a variety of uses. Known at various times by the names Wheelock Hall, Fox Hall, and Odd Fellows Hall, the building has served both residential and commercial uses. The contiguous northern two thirds of the building have two storefronts on the ground floor and a popular pool hall on the second floor. Frozen in time on the third floor is a former candlepin bowling alley. Records show that a meeting hall, licensed by A.P. Wheelock for music and dancing entertainment existed as early as 1896. A 1920s advertisement for dancing at Fox Hall hangs on the top floor entry to the two-story dance hall. Fox Hall sits across from the historic Strand Theater and close to several bus lines and the Fairmount Indigo Line. 

Just across the way, the Dorchester Savings Bank Building, currently an active Citizen’s Bank branch, is a two-story brick and stone building built in 1930. The building’s facade features three-bays divided by two-story fluted pilasters with floral abstract relief carvings in capitals. The three bays are capped by floral bands and dentil course molding. The three bays are capped by a metal band covering a former name plate reading; Dorchester Savings Bank. The Dorchester Savings Bank building is one of three properties that are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The neighboring Strand Theater was built in 1918 on the site of the former Clapp-Dyer House. The Strand Theatre is significant as one of Boston‘s first great movie palaces, as opposed to earlier theaters that were built to accommodate live shows and were later adapted into cinemas. The building’s distinctive terra-cotta and arched façade was designed by Funk & Wilcox, but after only four decades The Strand closed in the late 1960s in a state of disrepair. In the early 1970s, the City of Boston took the Strand by eminent domain to rehabilitate and bring life back to the theater. It reopened in 1979 and entered into a 25-year agreement with the M. Harriet McCormick Center for the Arts. The City has retained a management role for the Strand, now refurbished, and has actively marketed it recently for urban arts performances.

In 1918, the Dorchester Trust Company was built at 555 Columbia Road in front of the Clap-Dwyer mansion beginning to form today’s streetscape. In 1930, the district gained another large bank building; the Art Moderne Dorchester Savings Bank at 572 Columbia Road. The Columbia Square and Pierce Buildings form a strong architectural presence as the gateway to the Upham’s Corner commercial district. The Municipal building, which features an indoor swimming pool, has served in various public capacities for more than a century. It is currently used as a branch of the Boston Public Library, a health center and a community center. The construction of the sophisticated Monadnock and the Denmark Apartment buildings, which were built in the 1890s, marked the height of apartment living. 

The emergence of the Cifrino Market marked one of the most important shifts in the development history of Upham’s Corner. Built in 1920, the Upham’s Corner Market Building at 610-618 Columbia Road was the first one-stop “supermarket” in Boston and one of the first in the country. The market, which featured a parking lot behind the building, became extremely popular and had a large diversity of products and of customers.