Formerly known as "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts".

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Newton Almshouse, Newton

Toolhouse est.1938

When I published a post about Working Boys Home in Newton about a year ago, I was also fascinated by the "infirmary" just northwest of the Home. Was there any connection between the infirmary and the Home? Were they operated by the same organization? If so, did the parents (most likely unwed mothers) at the infirmary have to be separated from their children to Working Boys Home (and Working Girls Home) ?


1946 Map of Newton

Recently I became to know about a preservation effort to save the last remaining structure of the almshouse; anything else leaves only a trace of what it used to be. Mike Clarke, who organizes the preservation project, has been tracing those little clues on the site by gathering historical records and carrying out numerous visits to the almshouse site. I was fortunate to glimpse his painstaking effort.


Unlike Working Boys Home which was operated by the Catholic Church, Newton Almshouse was a public institution; historically each local areas in Massachusetts was responsible to take care of its poor.

The precursor of Newton Almshouse was established in Auburndale in 1818. It moved to Waban in 1840 where Drothea Dix reported a poor treatment to the indigent insane residents there, stating that they should be held at an asylum, not at an almshouse.

The almshouse made a final relocation to 25 acres land adjacent to Working Boys Home in 1900. The Newton site housed 28 inmates separated by "Male Wing" and "Female Wing". Like many other almshouses in Massachusetts, it was a self supporting community that sold surplus produce to the community.

1927 photo of almshouse
(Copy of Jackson Homestead Photograph, courtesy of Mike Clarke)

Around the time when the almshouse changed its name to the "City Home" in 1909, the resident population nearly doubled; overcrowding became a noticeable concern. Sometimes around 1917, both sides of the building were expanded to accommodate the increase.

The almshouse was closed in 1964. Although there is a little mention in 1975 that the almshouse building was housing a local animal welfare group, the last days of the almshouse building are not clear. It is said it was demolished around 1976 due to a fire. But Mike could not find any credible sources recording when and why the building was demolished.

Remain of almshouse entrance
Ex-Almshouse field

The almshouse land became Nahanton Park in 1987. A part of the almshouse field is now utilized as the city's only community garden. The remains of the almshouse-related structures are mysteriously dotted in the park. Here are some of Mike's  findings:

Part of septic facilities?
Remain of a provable shed
Close up of the above shed: Tuttle Brick Co. was active until 1940's (BrickCollecting.com)

So what is the sole remaining structure of the almshouse?

Toolhouse south side

This toolhouse was built in 1938. Typical of the "depression-era" architecture, this brick structure has no elaborate details or indication that "historically significant" people were involved in the making. It might not be architecturally significant, but it is an interesting piece of social history of Newton; the building encapsulates the lives of ordinary people under the economically turbulent time.

Mike and me agreed that the structure was possibly built by the Works Progress Administration. Mike supports his theory that there were 550 WPA workers in Newton at the time of the construction of the toolhouse.

1960 Sanborn map (courtesy of Mike Clarke)
 From Google Map

As I explained, Newton Almshouse site is now a part of Nahanton Park. Let's compare an old map and today's one to reference how the landscape changed since the almshouse closure in 1964. 

The pink rectangular on the 1960 map and the structure on the below part of Google Map are the toolhouse. The yellow structure on 1960 is the almshouse.

Take a look at the structure on the upper right corner which is present on both maps. A year ago when I was aimlessly wondering Google map, I thought this is the remain of the almshouse. But actually, this is the residence of Thomas Ranney built in 1866. Mr Ranny, a Boston based wine merchant, sold 19 acres of land to the almshouse.

Toolhouse north Side
The retaining wall by the toolhouse is curved for the tree

What intrigued me the most in this visit is how obscure the last days of the almshouse building are. As previously mentioned, it is said that the almshouse was demolished around 1976 due to the damage caused by fire. But Mike could not find any mention about the demolish and/ or fire from archives.

I'm sure some folks who lived in the area in the mid 70's could recollect the end of the almshouse building. Do you or somebody you know remember anything about it?

Toolhouse southwest corner

Currently, the toolhouse sits there with no particular purpose. It is in a dire need to be refurbished or will be demolished anytime soon.

I recommend you to take a visit to Nahanton Park and look around to see how the park used to be utilized as a poor farm. I am suggesting so because the toolhouse can be converted into something that Newton residents -- or even every visitors to the park -- can benefit. You can contact Mike Clarke (Clarke@bc.edu) to join the preservation effort, add ideas for the new usage for the toolhouse, and/ or provide historic information about the almshouse, especially how and when the almshouse building was demolished.

In addition to the above suggestions, I would also be interested in the link between the toolhouse and the WPA!    


Locate Newton Almshouse @ Google Map

Newton's Almshouses 1731 to 1964 written by Michael J. Clarke: http://newtonconservators.org/miscbackupfiles/almshouse_history_2012.pdf
Wicked Local Newton: http://www.wickedlocal.com/newton/news/x1160490527/Clarke-The-past-and-future-of-Newtons-almshouse#axzz1rTJn5D7i
The City of Newton: http://www.newtonma.gov/gov/parks/city/a_z/ward8/nahanton/commgarden.asp
Brickcollecting.com: http://brickcollecting.com/collection2.htm
MACRIS: http://mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=NWT.3594

3 comments:

  1. Great post, Shuko. I live in Newton, and have only done a little exploring around the almshouse area. I hope you find out more about when/how the building was destroyed/demolished, and the link between the almshouse and the toolhouse.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks! Mike told me the Newton Historical Commission is now supporting listing the toolhouse on the NRHP; things are up!

      I do recommend exploring the park. There are lots of abandoned structure.

      Shuko

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