Gothic decorative elements over the doorway at the Masonic Lodge on Dudley & Kenilworth Streets that is under threat of demolition
There are many reasons to love this neighborhood. What makes it such a unique place are all these many reasons and the ways they come together. Some people love our natural setting, the puddingstone outcrops, the big hill with its views, the many green spots, some almost wild – with coyotes and other animals taking up residence. One may also love all the people of so many different races, backgrounds, classes, preferences, and ideals – impossible to summarize or describe the incredible variety of personalities here, although in one respect we are held together in a love of this place.
The many neighborhood connections and different people is also something that extends across time. In Highland Park there have been comings and goings for well over 10,000 years, often with newcomers taking up places right alongside those who have been around a while. In this respect, some of our buildings and houses have stories to tell, as they too have held many different lodgers over time.
One building with such a tale is the "Lodge" located at the fork of the road at Dudley and Kenilworth Streets. If you have ever wondered why the streets are in such an odd pattern here, it's not the cows of Boston legend. In fact, the intersection just past the UUUM where Dudley, Lambert, Kenilworth, and Putnam converge was at one time the civic center of the old city of Roxbury, before it annexed itself to Boston in 1868. Here there were a town hall, a bank, the Roxbury High School, another church, and several prominent houses – all of them gone today. You'd never know that they were here except for some scattered remnants, fence-posts, and curbstones that are still standing, and the strange way the roads all converge onto this point, as if something important is supposed to be here – a city square, or something like that. You wouldn't be wrong if you felt that energy even in the pattern of the streets that survives from that town center of the past.
An old map of the area when it was a center for the then-city of Roxbury before it was annexed to Boston. The old roads still converge on this important junction. The lodge building is outlined in blue.
The most tangible piece of that old picture of downtown that stands today is what is called by those on the nearby streets, the Lodge, or sometimes the Masonic Lodge – to name it in full: The Most Worshipful George Washington Carver Grand Lodge. This is a building with a very interesting history in that it has hosted so many things, this Lodge, and much else. Let's start with what we see and work backwards from there.
The Lodge holds considerable interest in being home to an order of Black Freemasons who are part of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (A.F. & A.M., sometimes referred to as Scottish Rite Masons). They formed in 1945 to continue the work of The Most Worshipful Alpha Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, which had fallen into decline. As part of the Scottish Rite, this Lodge's origins are most likely in the South, and it seems to be a tradition that made its way northward in the Great Migration. Incidentally, Black Freemasonry in this country got an early start when Prince Hall and 14 men of color were made Freemasons in 1775 – every bit as much founding fathers of the country as other famous Freemasons involved in the fight for liberty. From these beginnings, theses stories, we arrive to today – it's an organizational link in this community that seems very worthwhile and that continues to have great relevance.
The Lodge here in Highland Park takes its name from George Washington Carver, who before the end of the Civil War spent one year in slavery, and then went on to pursue his education to become a renowned researcher and instructor at the Tuskegee Institute, where his agricultural investigations into peanuts and sweet potatoes became famous. One part of this work's value was in the practicality by which Carver offered the benefits of his discoveries to the wide farming community in the South, and Carver firmly believed that science and innovation in agriculture would free these farmers from poverty. These are initiatives that inspire the actions of Freemasons, both Black and white, today – to engage in a wide variety of social and benevolent activities, and often there has been a close connection between membership in such organizations and economic enterprise.
Prior to the Lodge establishing itself in this building, it served as a place of community and meeting for another very different organization called the Lettish Workingmen's Association. Lettish is the adjective used in some earlier periods to refer to Latvians, so this points to a moment around the early twentieth century, when the neighborhood was home to a great number of immigrants coming from all over Europe, including the Baltic States. The former Latvian Baptist Church building still stands on Highland Street as today's Timothy Baptist Church, another reminder.
Before the Masons, the Lettish Workingmen's Association was housed in this same building till 1945. They were known for launching the first moves of what later became the organization of labor in this country and unionization. The Lettish Workingmen's Association is frequently written about in histories of this topic. In particular one dramatic day captures some of the revolutionary spirit of the Association. In honor of May Day, the international workers' holiday, they organized a parade down Dudley Street. Things took a turn suddenly when the police tried to break it up because they didn't have a permit. The marchers attacked the police, tore down an American flag, and one person even raised a red flag, prompting bystanders to attack the marchers. With shots fired, people beaten with bricks and sticks, and 114 men and women arrested, the scene on Dudley Street that day in our neighborhood is one that has remained notorious in the history of workers' rights. While it was an ugly battle, out of this emerged eventually so much of what the Progressive Era established to the benefit of modern workers. Sadly so much of what was achieved is under threat today, perhaps calling us to remember the struggles that were waged right here in our streets to bring better work and wage conditions.
If such a building today seems a bit nondescript to have housed such path-breaking, even revolutionary, organizations, it must be remembered that the original design was much more interesting and contained two gables and an upper floor that were lost to fire in the 1980s. It was thus a prominent building that had a presence on the street that suggested the importance and value these groups held for their communities. The architect's original drawing for this building below shows it from the Dudley Street side looking toward Nubian Square, and those who look carefully today will still find the Gothic decorations around the doorway, some of the diamond pane widows, and even the porch, though missing its trellised balustrades. The roots of the old building still run deep.
The architect's original drawing still clearly recognizable in the roots. The upper floor was lost to fire in the 1980s.
This structure was built by a noted architect called A. Warren Gould to house the Dudley Association, a club that was provided to the neighborhood as a place for meeting, enjoyment, and community. It contained on its lowest level a bowling alley (still there), cloakrooms, bathing and dressing rooms, and a bicycle room partly located under the verandah (a novelty at the time, yet one considers how useful such storage would be for those in apartments today). One floor up on the main level accessed from the Kenilworth side were rooms for billiards and cards each with a fireplace and window-seat, and meeting rooms – all reached from the same circular lobby still surviving today. And finally, on the third level was a large hall, for dancing and socializing, whose events could spill out onto the roof of the verandah. This mix of spaces and uses was an amenity for the neighborhood residents, who could come here to pass the time, meet people, hang out, and attend events. Thus we have three clubs that occupied this building over its history that stretches over 120 years.
We should not turn away from this site without making mention of one other structure that has totally disappeared today and that stood in front of the Lodge's clubhouse. This was Octagon Hall, an eight-sided stone Gothic building that was perched right in the apex of the triangular parcel, today's parking lot. You can see this unique structure in the old photo below (notice the Lodge's porch in the distance behind it). It housed the Norfolk Bank, the first savings institution in the region. Its name comes from the fact that prior to annexation to Boston, the city of Roxbury was in Norfolk County. Those who need to research old deeds on their homes still have to go to the registry in Dedham to retrieve information from the early periods before we became part of Suffolk County and Greater Boston. Before banking consolidated, it was not unusual for such organizations to issue their own paper currency, and bills from the Norfolk Bank are still obtainable from old coin dealers.
Octagon Hall was the home of Roxbury's first bank, and its upper floor housed a school where Ralph Waldo Emerson taught. The Lodge building of today is glimpsed behind the bank, where one can make out its verandah on the right.
Construction of this geometrical novelty, a building seemingly without parallel in this region, was undertaken by Captain Dorr, who has also left us a puddingstone house on Lambert Street and a few other stone structures as the evidence of his activities as a sort of developer of the 1820s. The eponymous Dorr St. still commemorates his shaping influence on the area.
Unfortunately, the bank was early the victim in 1834 of a famous robbery. The thieves broke right in with no trouble and made off with a considerable haul (much of which was later retrieved from a hiding place in Grove Hall). The public were perhaps not impressed by such an insecure bank, and it soon went out of business and became not long after the headquarters for many years of the Roxbury Gas Company, the primary utility of the day.
The bank also housed a further notable connection in that a small school was being run on the upper floor, and it was here that Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Roxbury native himself, took one of his first jobs and taught the local schoolboys, taking over for his brother (Schoolmaster Hill in what was later to become Franklin Park refers to where Emerson lodged with a relative at the time, walking back and forth to from there to his job here each day, about as close as it comes to 'uphill both ways'). Apparently Emerson was not smitten with teaching (or maybe the long walk is to blame), nor did he like the ways of the 'city', so not too long later he left the job and moved to Concord. He went on to become a great counter-cultural writer who inspired Thoreau to write "Civil Disobedience" and who contributed greatly to the making of the modern American sense of self-determination. As for the bank and school that antagonized him, at some point in the 1920s it was all quietly demolished and replaced with a one-story block of shops that itself fell victim to arson later. So we are left today with a parking lot with a considerable story.
Sustainability is a question of how we treat the environment, which is plants, and also people, and community, all the stuff that makes life
This site with so much relevance for contemporary politics and social movements is facing an uncertain future. A builder and developer have applied to demolish the Lodge building, which is the only piece of all this history that remains, in order to build a series of town homes that would fill this point of such public meaning with private residences. There is a question that is up to the residents of our neighborhood to decide, and that is whether a location such as this doesn't deserve some better recognition among us.
We might want to consider this question in light of several overarching themes, one of which is sustainability. In a time when every item thrown away becomes one more carbon weight on a system that is already unable to carry more, what does it mean if a building like this is torn down and its pieces make their way to a landfill? One of the principles of the ACD effort has been to stress that the most sustainable building is almost always the one you already have. Tearing down any structure introduces more costs lost to carbon impact and other externalities than can ever be recouped by even the most aggressive passive energy standard construction. That is a practicality to consider, as it has an impact on climate warming and ultimately the environment we require to be alive.
Sustainability is also about caring for our stories, our mementos, and our buildings – all of them make our history. Let's not throw that out by hoping that memory or a plaque is enough to remember
There is something else we lose, though. That is the connection to the actual physical built objects that housed people from the past, that they touched and lived with, like the bricks of this building, which have transmitted the cares, concerns, and even daily realities of ordinary people's hopes and enjoyments, just like yours. They sought to build something for the future and hoped it would remain, either as a social hall, or as a socialist hall (for the workers), or as a society (for the Masons).
The physical past is not dead and gone. It is here with us, in this Lodge. The physical past, like this building, is one of the most important ways we can use history to make a better future in buildings now. The best way to achieve this is not by tearing things down because that is really just starting over. The best way is instead to find the potential existing buildings already have and adapt them to bring that potential out in better ways for our time. You don't need a new building to open new uses. These new uses can be found by bringing out the best qualities of what is already here.
To talk of saving an old building is not any longer about whether George Washington slept there. In fact, showing the stories of underrepresented people and communities is what this neighborhood has been about for a long time, and it's a way of working with the existing that we have seen time and time again. The many ways this Lodge itself has been used and changed to find new potentials is perhaps the best argument of all against ever demolishing it. It's why we have fought to bring sustainability into these matters with an ACD. It perhaps suggests that we need to consider carefully what happens to vestiges such as this structure.
Buildings, like people, sometimes are treated unfairly. We should look harder to find what may not seem obvious at first impression, and when we do, we find that almost all buildings, and certainly all people, have an intrinsic value. Even in cases where one or the other has fallen on bad health or bad times, this is not the time to toss them away – and that goes for humans and the buildings housing us. If we let the physical go, we are just left with a story, a memory that fades as time goes along. All tales eventually are forgotten, or they become distorted in a telephone game. We need concrete, real reminders of both the inspiring and the cautionary things that have happened. How great that this one is mostly an inspiration.
If we let the physical remains go, we are just left with a story. All tales eventually are forgotten, or they become distorted in a telephone game.
When you have existing material, bricks, actual glass people looked out of, steps worn with time and footsteps – it shows that people are prioritizing the physical and tangible remains that are the best way we have not to forget. Don't we want to remember those Latvians working for better labor conditions? It's something we still need. Don't we want to remember the members of the George Washington Carver Lodge making a network to enable members of the community to benefit? This seems to be something that goes without saying. If we let go of the physical pieces, the parts that these Black Masons cared about, and the parts those Latvians fighting for workers' rights cared about – they risk going away.
In two years when we have all mostly been on TV or Zoom to each other, small faces on flat screens, we need more than ever to be reminded of the actual physical reminders and memorials touching the lives of the people we care about – both the people alive here now, and the ones who were here not long ago, who have set examples for us. That includes Black Masons on our own streets. Lettish Workingmen. Even people who enjoyed a bike room under the verandah, a bowling alley, some fun, some time together. They all count, and we should count on them by remembering and preserving the things they brought to us, like this building.
There is nothing like a lawn for reminding us to mow it. Nothing like an old brick wall to remind us of what ties us together. Let's make a push to keep this structure's parts in some way that they can receive new purpose and mission, and we can reignite the passion that first created it. By keeping it, we will preserve and encourage among us the vital energy of all the groups that have been housed in it. By preserving and restoring, we are making room for new pieces, rather than tossing old ones away.