May 10, 2021 The History of Jamaica Plain’s 69 Williams Street
Jenny Nathans is a student pursuing her Master’s in Library and Information Science, with a focus on archives administration, and is a resident of Jamaica Plain. She recently shared with us her research on the historic house at 69 Williams Street in Jamaica Plain. See her article from last month: The Sunnyside of Jamaica Plain: The History of 3474-3476 Washington Street. We are grateful to Jenny for sharing this information with HBI for this blog.
69 Williams Street in Jamaica Plain is a silk dye house that was built in 1880 by Isaac Harris Cary, a prominent merchant and real estate developer from Jamaica Plain. Isaac Cary and his brother William operated dry goods stores in Boston and New York City, the NYC store eventually becoming the largest importer of fancy goods in the country.
Isaac owned most of the land along Williams Street, between Washington and Forest Hills Streets, his property terminating at the Sunnyside estate where he lived with his family across from Franklin Park. After retiring from the importing business, Isaac devoted his time to real estate, buying large tracts of land in Jamaica Plain, and building houses and selling lots.
Cary acquired the land at 69 Williams Street by 1858. This land remained undeveloped until 1880 when Cary pulled a building permit to construct a dye house for dyeing silks. The architect, Thomas J. Tobin, designed it as a two-story, wood-frame structure with a flat roof. The permit indicates that the foundation under the main house is constructed of stone while the foundation under the ell consisted of posts. An atlas from 1884 shows the house in its current configuration and on the same triangular lot of land. In 1880, one arm of that triangle was the Stony Brook, now buried under Meehan Street.
In 1887, 69 Williams Street came under the ownership of Herman Oberempt, a professional silk dyer. Herman Oberempt was born on October 17, 1861, in Easthampton, MA to parents of German origin. He attended public school at Williston Seminary. After graduation, Oberempt worked for three years at the Nonotuck Silk Mills in Haydenville, Massachusetts.
In 1884, Oberempt traveled to Germany to attend a school of chemistry in connection with dye works. The following year, he married Evelina Lienarz. Together they had six children – Margaret, William, Catherine, Elizabeth, Dorothy, and Gertrude.
In 1887, the couple left Germany to live in Paterson, New Jersey at a home near the Passaic River. Paterson was the center of weaving in the country at the time and was known as “Silk City” for the massive amounts of silk that its factories produced. Its mills and dye houses harnessed the energy produced by the Great Falls of the Passaic River. At the age of 26, Oberempt began work as a foreman in a dye house at a silk mill in Paterson, and later conducted the same work in Brooklyn. That year, Oberempt also acquired 69 Williams Street in Jamaica Plain where he managed his own silk dye house while continuing to live in Paterson, NJ.
In 1890, Oberempt and his family moved to Jamaica Plain and took up residence at their dye house at 69 Williams Street. An 1891 Bird’s Eye view map of Jamaica Plain illustrates Oberempt’s dye house along the Stony Brook. “[T]he Stony Brook attracted many businesses to its banks and was the channel for the entrance of the Industrial Age and its workers into Jamaica Plain” (Marx, n.d.). The Bird’s Eye map also shows a smaller adjacent structure with a pitched roof and a stream of smoke emanating from the top, indicating that some type of industry was indeed happening there.
In 1896, Oberempt made the newspaper when it was reported that “the court declared the liquor obtained at the houses of Herman Oberempt on Williams st. on Sept 13, 1896, when raided by the liquor squad, forfeited, as no one came to claim it.”
The Oberempts continued to operate the dye house in Jamaica Plain until 1897, at which time the family returned to Paterson where Oberempt again worked as a dyer. In 1906, the family moved to Easthampton, MA to be with Herman’s mother after the passing of his father.
In 1904, siblings William and Margaret Oberempt sold their family’s dye house and 28,650 square feet of land at 69 Williams Street to Patrick J. Doyle for $6,000. Six years prior, Doyle purchased property across the street at 3474-3476 Washington Street and the adjoining land where they opened a grocery store and saloon that we know today as Doyle’s Café.
On June 27, 1907, Oberempt was a subject in the newspapers again while visiting New Jersey. An article in the Paterson Morning Call, reporting on the growing “auto craze,” wrote Herman Oberempt of East Hampton, Mass., has been in town for the past two weeks sporting a handsome Grout at forty-horse power. He was one of the first to volunteer his services to ride the orphans through the park last week. During his stay here Mr. Oberempt has covered almost every road in Northern, New Jersey covering in all a distance of 700 miles. The trip home will be taken this morning and Mr. Oberempt contemplates making the trip of 225 miles before dark tonight.
Another article printed that month covering the same event indicated that Oberempt was a member of the North Jersey Automobile Club and had volunteered his time to give automobile rides to orphan children during an annual festival sponsored by the Elks for the entertainment of the children.
In 1908, tragedy struck the Oberempts when, at the age of 19, William died of typhoid fever at his parent’s home in Easthampton. His obituary stated that William was largely educated in Paterson and took time away from school to work in the mills in Paterson, where he worked as an errand boy. He later attended Lafayette College and Bryan-Stratton School in Boston. At the time of his death, William was working as a machinist.
After leaving the silk dyeing business, Oberempt entered into a partnership with Henry E. and William L. Barnett. Together they established the Barnett Drop Forging Company in Easthampton, Massachusetts where Oberempt served as Treasurer until he retired in 1924. A city directory indicated that in his retirement, Oberempt worked as a manager of a bowling alley.
In addition to his successful business ventures, Oberempt was active civically, serving for five years as the chairman of the town finance committee, as a member of the Protective Order of the Elks, as a member of the Pascommuck Club, and served on the Executive Committee of the Easthampton Board of Trade.
Herman Oberempt died in Easthampton, MA on February 27, 1946, at the age of 84. Boston City Permits indicate that his former home and business at 69 Williams Street continued to be zoned as a dye house until at least 1989, reflecting the enduring history of industry in the Stony Brook neighborhood.
Currently, the dye house and the landmark Doyle’s Café property across the street are facing redevelopment into condos and a new restaurant building.
- Boston Inspectional Services
- Find a Grave. Herman Oberempt. Retrieved from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/112115026/herman-oberempt on April 25, 2021.
- Jamaica Plain Historical Society maps
- Lockwood, J.H. (1926). Western Massachusetts; a history, 1636-1925 (Volume 4).
- Marx, W. H. (n.d.). The Saga of the Stony Brook. Jamaica Plain Historical Society. https://www.jphs.org/locales/2004/1/5/the-saga-of-stony-brook.html?rq=stony%20brook
- Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center. Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts: Ward 23, City of Boston, 1891. https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:x633fc34d
- Wikimedia Commons. View of the Great Falls of the Passaic River https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2018-07-25_08_26_41_View_of_the_Great_Falls_of_the_Passaic_River_from_the_pedestrian_bridge_over_the_gorge_immediately_downstream_of_the_falls,_within_Paterson_Great_Falls_National_Historical_Park_in_Paterson,_Passaic_County,_New_Jersey.jpg