Excavating the Past
In preparation for the upcoming Washington Memorial Garden renovation project, city archaeologists are conducting a survey in areas that will be disturbed by new landscaping work. The North End of Boston is a heavily built-up area, and opportunities to explore the city’s past are rare, so this is an exciting opportunity to peer into the neighborhood’s past!
The land around the Old North has been occupied by many structures, including a Sunday school and numerous tenement houses. City Archaeologist Joseph Bagley and his team plan to excavate an area once occupied by 1-3 Unity Ct., three tenements whose privies likely stood where the north-west side of our gardens stand today.
These tenements were demolished by the Lantern League of the Old North, founded by Rev. Ernest Dennen in 1927 and incorporated in 1932. Its mission was to preserve and maintain the Old North Church, its historic collection of documents and artifacts, and its surrounding property. Under Charles W. French’s consultation, the major objective of the League’s fundraising campaign in the 1930s was the acquisition and removal of surrounding buildings deemed “fire hazards” in conjunction with the George White Fund, which worked with Mayor James Michael Curley to build the Prado, also known as the Paul Revere Mall (and similarly demolished numerous tenements to make room). This initially included the historic 1712 Clough House (now part of the Old North campus), which was thankfully spared.
With the demolition of these “menaces,” the open space was converted into the gardens we enjoy today. However, as shown in the accompanying photos, a garden built in 1918 already existed. Located where the brick courtyard is today, its back wall stood where the front wall is today; the entrance to the garden ran roughly from the handrail on the vestry steps to the parish house. The old sexton’s house stood where the stairs leading down to the Third Lantern Garden are today. The garden walls and gates were recycled and moved to their present location in 1939.
After 1939, the Lantern League was largely inactive, but when Hurricane Carol destroyed the church’s second steeple on August 29, 1954, it regrouped to raise money for the restoration of the historic structure. Otherwise, the grounds of the Old North Church have remained essentially the same since 1939; as such this site has excellent “integrity”, meaning that it is likely to hold preserved clues to mid-late 19th century life in the North End.
For 293 years, the Old North Church has stood in the center of an ever-changing neighborhood, and today we have a chance to discover how it grew and what life was like for the generations of people who have called the North End home! Take a moment to take a moment to watch history being uncovered as we excavate the past!