By Jenny Nathans
At first glance, the house at 197 Green Street is unique for its small size and the colorful graffiti that has covered its exterior since 2016 – the result of collaboration between the owner and real estate developer City Realty Group and artists. As reported in local media outlets, City Realty Group is currently awaiting approval from the City of Boston to demolish the now-vacant house and build a four-story, mixed-use development.
But if we look behind its 1950s siding, and comb the historical record, we discover that the house is not, as it might first appear, an outdated structure. Rather, the house represents a significant period of time in the development of Jamaica Plain, and of Green Street in particular. This article will explore that history.
In the 18th century, Jamaica Plain was a rural village in the Town of Roxbury. In addition to farmland and small-scale industry that developed along Jamaica Pond and the Stony Brook, the neighborhood attracted a population of wealthy families who built their country estates amongst its wooded hills.
The mid to late 19th century introduced improved public transportation, including the Boston and Providence Railroad, the horse-car trolley, and eventually electric streetcar service. At the same time, popular publications promoted the health and moral benefits of living in the country. These factors led many people to escape the crowded and dirty city of Boston at the end of the workday for a home in the Jamaica Plain countryside, transforming the neighborhood into a “streetcar suburb” for commuters that worked in Boston, as well as a home for middle-class residents who worked locally.
This new commuter class drove a demand for housing. The large estates were soon split up into lots and sold off to developers and homeowners, including the estates along Green Street. Multiple houses were now being built on land where once only a single family had lived.
The house at 197 Green Street was very likely one of these early homes. Based on historical plans and maps, and the architecture of the house, it was probably built sometime between 1854 and 1858. This would place the construction of the house immediately after the initial subdivision of the eastern end of Green Street, but before the area saw a rapid increase in population and industry brought on by electric streetcar service. It was also constructed before the introduction of major multi-family housing along the street, a type of housing that was built in earnest by the 1880s.
Typical of the architectural styles of the mid-nineteenth century, the house at 197 Green Street is an Italianate Cottage with Greek Revival details. The wood framed house would have originally been covered in clapboard siding. Because there were few formally trained architects in America at the time, the house was likely built by a housewright who drew on pattern books for its design. Specifically, the layout of the house resembles the Italianate design “A Suburban Cottage for a Small Family” from Andrew Jackson Downing’s popular 1842 “Cottage Residences” pattern book.
Remarkably, 197 Green Street today sits on approximately the same-sized lot of land on which it was originally built and retains its original use as a single-family home. It also retains original details like the classic molding and entablature around the front door, and its sidelights, which are now painted over.
Now let’s take a deep dive into the origins of the historic structure at 197 Green Street, and by extension, the history of the neighborhood.
We begin our story in 1836, when farms and large estates still dominated Jamaica Plain. Samuel Griswold Goodrich, world-famous children’s author, was facing sudden financial troubles. Without the means to maintain his Jamaica Plain “Rockland” estate, Goodrich, known to his readers as Peter Parley, sold his family mansion and subdivided his 38 acres of land into lots. These lots were located along what would become the western section of Green Street, west of the Stony Brook and closer to Centre Street. Trustees then sold these lots to multiple buyers for development.
Concurrently, Goodrich financed the laying of a new street through his property, as well as his neighbors’ property, that of Betsy and Able Green. The newly laid street was named Willow Street. On August 14, 1837, Willow Street was renamed “Green Street,” most likely to honor Betsy and Abel Green. A deed from 1846 conveying the Green’s land mentions that a portion of their land had “been taken for Green Street.”
The same year that Goodrich drew up plans to construct Green Street, Abel, a gardener and picture frame maker, and Betsy Green sold three quarters of an acre of their land to Henry Newman. Newman already owned adjacent real estate along the new street. The property that the Greens sold appears to just be a slip of land beside what would eventually become the lot for 197 Green Street. Perhaps the Greens sold this land because the new street had separated it from the remainder of their property.
In 1842, Henry Newman sold 11 acres of his land along Green Street to an attorney and real estate agent named Henry Codman. This land was situated east of the Stony Brook, on the southwest side of Green Street surrounding, what is today, Union Avenue, and included the small bit of land conveyed to Newman by the Greens. With the introduction of Codman to our story, we will learn how the land at, and adjacent to, 197 Green Street was utilized prior to the construction of the house.
Henry Codman was born on October 1, 1789 in Portland, Maine. For 38 years, he practiced as an attorney at his office on State Street in Boston. After marrying Catherine Willard Amory in 1821, he began managing the family’s Boston real estate business, which he inherited from his father-in-law, John Amory.
In 1837, the Codmans moved into their mansion house, which was located on a 62-acre farm on School Street in Roxbury. In 1842, Codman purchased Newman’s land along Green Street, half a mile down the street from his own School Street farm. Codman then constructed a cottage with the intent to lease it, and two to three acres of land, to his Irish gardener George Belford. The land included a garden and pasture for Belford to tend to. On January 25, 1852, Codman hired John Minchin, also a native of Ireland, to take the place of Belford as his gardener. That November, Minchin moved into the cottage where Belford had lived.
In 1853, Codman succumbed to edema. The next year, his heirs subdivided his Green Street land into lots and sold them at public auction. The Boston Daily Atlas, which advertised the auction, touted the lots’ access to public transportation and location in the country.
That year, Codman’s heirs conveyed three lots to William M. Shute. 197 Green Street would eventually be built in Lot #3, and Shute its first owner. An 1858 map of Jamaica Plain indicates that the owner of a structure on this lot was “W.M. Shute,” suggesting that 197 Green Street was built by Mr. Shute sometime between 1854 and 1858.
William M. Shute was born in 1804 in Concord, New Hampshire. Shute and his wife, Mary, began their married life in Alabama, where they lived until 1838. The following year they moved to Boston, where Shute opened his hat and fur shop, William M. Shute & Son, at 173-175 Washington Street in Downtown Crossing, which he operated with his son Judson.
In 1854, Shute acquired the future site of 197 Green Street and two adjacent lots from the Codman family. The Shutes likely never lived at 197 Green Street, but rather rented out the house while living in Boston. We unfortunately cannot identity the first occupants of the house under Shute’s ownership. We can, however, identify the first time that 197 Green Street is owner-occupied, with the purchase of the house by Mary Starr.
In April 1868, Shute sold the house to Starr, wife of William H. Starr. In the subsequent months, Shute would sell his other two Codman lots, perhaps due to failing health. Shute would die two years later in Boston from heart disease, at the age of 66.
William Henry Starr was born in 1822 in Connecticut and married Mary Maria Sprague. In 1867, William Starr leased land from Alden Bartlett at the corner of Green Street and Union Avenue, where Hotel Morse now sits. Bartlett allowed Starr to construct two buildings on this land in order to operate a blacksmith, wheelwright, or paint shop. The following year, Starr’s wife purchased 197 Green Street, which was conveniently located two doors down from Starr’s shop. The Starrs would become the first owners of 197 Green Street to also live in the house. In 1882, the Starrs sold 197 Green Street. By that time, Green Street had become an active business district amongst a booming population.
The story of 197 Green Street is an integral part of the history of Jamaica Plain. The house may be our only remaining connection to the area’s first development as a suburb for commuters and home for the middle-class – after the time of farms and country estates, but before the introduction of many multi-family dwellings and major business and industry along Green Street. The house illustrates both the rural ideal of the time period and the origins of the residential construction we continue to see today.