A drive through Roxbury is both a history lesson and a tour of a modern urban neighborhood.


One of the oldest neighborhoods in Boston, Roxbury has long thrived thanks to its proximity to downtown, while also retaining its unique character and neighborhood qualities. Home to a great number of parks, schools and churches, a visitor can see Boston's history in the architecture and landmarks of the neighborhood.


From the beginning, farming was the basis of Roxbury's economy, but changes in the early 19th century, prompted by developments in transportation brought industrial development along with denser residential development. Roxbury became a manufacturing center, which generated jobs not only for local residents but also for residents of other parts of the city.


Roxbury's rapid growth demanded more municipal services; Boston subsequently annexed the neighborhood in 1868. Dudley Square has long been Roxbury's commercial hub, dating back to 1901 when the Elevated Railway established Dudley Square as it southernmost stop.


Today the rail line is part of the MBTA system and is known as the Orange Line. Roxbury is experiencing a significant revitalization, evidenced by the 2001 opening of the Grove Hall Mall, making the Grove Hall section of Roxbury another commercial center of the neighborhood.


From Boston Redevelopment Authority

A Brief History Of Roxbury Massachusetts


Founded by English colonists in 1630, Roxbury began as an independent community, connected to Boston only by a narrow neck of land along Washington Street. Today, after massive landfill and annexation to Boston, Roxbury is at the city's geographical center. It contains buildings and landmarks that tell the story of three centuries. Even with dense urban development, Roxbury has much open, green space, a legacy of its days as a farming town and as an early suburb.


William Pynchon was one of the English Puritans who uprooted his family and joined the Great Migration to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. His choices once he reached the New World remind us that many Puritans were also businessmen.


William Pynchon was among the original 12 Puritan leaders who met in Cambridge, England, in August of 1629 to form the Massachusetts Bay Company. He invested 25 pounds in the venture and the following spring, sailed with John Winthrop to New England. When he arrived in Massachusetts, he settled first in Dorchester, then helped establish the town of Roxbury.




The English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Company established a group of six villages, including Boston on the Shawmut Peninsula. Three miles south of Boston along the only land route to the peninsula, they founded Roxbury. The original boundaries of the town included the neighborhoods of Mission Hill, West Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain as well as present-day Roxbury.


Roxbury had many resources the colonists were looking for: open farmland, timber and stone for building, and the Stony Brook for water power. Additionally, its location on the only road to Boston gave the town an advantage in transportation and trade and a stategic military position. Roxbury was defined by its rocky hills, drumlins left by a prehistoric glacier. In the area of Roxbury Highlands are many outcroppings of native Roxbury puddingstone, a kind of composite rock used over the centuries in buildings throughout the Boston area.


The colonists soon began constructing buildings and roads that still define the neighborhood today. Washington, Dudley, Centre, Roxbury, and Warren streets were all laid out in the first years of settlement. The town center was located at John Eliot Square, where the first meetinghouse was built in 1632, with its burying ground nearby at the corner of Eustis and Washington streets. Other landmarks form early Roxbury are the three milestones that still mark Centre Street in Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and West Roxbury, recording the distance to downtown Boston. An 18th-century marker, known as the parting stone, is still embedded at the fork of Roxbury and Centre streeets, pointing the ways to Brookline and Dedham.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, farming was the basis of Roxbury's economy. The town was locally famous for its fruit trees, and noted varieties were developed on local farms-including the Roxbury Russet apple, particularly prized for cider. As the town grew, some fine residences were built that are now among the few 18th century houses remaining in Boston.


The Dillaway-Thomas House (183 Roxbyry Street) was built about 1750 as parsonage for the first Church, just across John Eliot Square. Surviving a series of fires, the house has been restored as part of Roxbury Heritage State Park. Roxbury also has a pre-Revolutionary mansion, the Shirley-Eustis House (31 Shirley Street). Built around 1747 for William Shirley, the royal governor of Massachusetts from 1741 to 1756, the house was confiscated by the colonists during the Revolution for use as a barracks and hospital. It was later purchased by Dr. William Eustis, a surgeon who was governor of Massachusetts in te 1820s. This National Historic Landmark is designed in the Georgian style of its time. (Open to the public; 617-442-2275.)


Roxbury's location and high hills made the town strategically important during the Revolutionary War. The colonists constructed a fort in the Roxbury Highlands in 1775 to help secure land access to Boston, and troops camped on the lawn of the First Church. After the American victory, Roxury's citizens faced the task of rebuilding much of their war-damaged community. One important project was the construction of the present First Church in Roxbury, built in 1804 on the site of the original 1632 meetinghouse in John Eliot Square.




In the first generations after the Revolution, American society went through many changes as cities grew and industries developed. This process included a new ideal of "the good life." Instead of living near their work in the city, people wanted to live in free-standing, single-family houses with yards and trees.

The front facade of the Georgian-style Shirley-Eustis House features giant pilasters, or flattened columns. Inside is a two-story salon for formal entertaining.


Changes in the economy and developments in transportation made it possible for many families to pursue this suburban ideal, and Roxbury was close enough to Boston to be a good choice. The first developments took place in the 1820s, when a horsedrawn bus line was established along Washington Street, linking Roxbury to Boston for commuters, and in 1835, when the railroad from Boston to Providence was sited along the Stony Brook Valley.


Soon Farmland bgan to be subdivided for singl-family dwellings. Many of these handsome early frame houses were built in a style called the Greek Revival, modeled after columned Greek temples. This style caught the imagination of Americans because ancient Greece, like their new nation, was a republic rather than a monarchy. Many of these Greek Revival houses still line Highland Park and Mount Pleasant.


As the century went on, other times and places appealed to Americans, and various revival styles took root, with inspirations from Italy and France and from the Middle Ages. Many of the revival-style houses in Roxbury's early suburban days ere quite grand, the homes of wealthy industrialists who chose the tops of the hills in the Roxbury Highlands because of their views and breezes.


The pointed arches on Abbotsford's windows and main entrance are characteristics of the High Victorian Gothic style, inspired by the architecture of the Middle Ages.


One of the best examples of these early suburban houses is Abbotsford, now the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, at 300 Walnut Avenue. (Open to the public; 442-8614) This building is significant to Roxbury for several reasons. The most obvious is its beauty-it is a stately mansion that commands its site, and continues to be important to the community as the setting for the museum. In addition, it is built entirely of Roxbury puddingstone, a local building material. Finally, this building tells much about how people thought about their houses and their lives.


Designed by Boston architect Alden Frink for the prominent industrialist Aaron Davis Williams, Jr., Abbotsford was built in 1872 in the High Victorian Gothic style. Just as the American economy was becoming industrialized, many people looked with nostalgia to times before machines and factories. Ironically, Aaron Davis Williams, Jr., used his profits from industry to build a house that could remind him of a medieval castle.



More About Roxbury, Massachusetts

Roxbury Crossing Historical Trust - P.O. Box 201045 Mission Hill STA - Boston, MA 02120