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Searching the South End

by Marissa Wu

Photography by Marissa Wu

The South End—not to be confused with South Boston—is a charming neighborhood bordered by Back Bay, Chinatown and Roxbury. Home to Boston University’s medical campus, one can easily hop on the shuttle, or take the Orange Line to Massachusetts Avenue.

Unless you’re a medical student or an undergrad doing research, there may not appear to be a reason to explore this largely residential neighborhood. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that there’s nothing to see; according to the website “A View on Cities," this area is a gem for being a mixture of London-style squares and French urban design.

It was not until the 1840s that the South End, which had previously been marshy with only a few mansions, was filled to create a neighborhood.

As Arlene Vadum wrote in “A Short History of Boston’s South End,” the construction of the neighborhood was initiated in part because of overcrowding in Beacon Hill and the downtown area.

Primarily designed by Charles Bulfinch, who also designed the Massachusetts State House, “A View on Cities” reports that there is an eclectic mix of architecture to be found.

“Many of the original homes were Italianate in style but it wasn’t unusual to also find houses constructed in other styles as well, including Gothic Revival, Greek Revival, and French Second Empire,” said the website.

What exactly do each of these styles entail? The Boston Preservation Alliance explains as follows:

1). Italianate style architecture (1840-1855) has a heavy emphasis on bold classicism and round-headed arches with protruding balconies.

2). Gothic Revival (1830-1954) architecture is probably most recognized for its stained glass, flying buttresses and gargoyles.

3). Greek Revival (1820-1860) architecture is simple and solid. This style often features columns.

4). French Second Empire (1860-1875) architecture was not only architectural, but also a style of city planning modeled after the Paris re-designed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann under Emperor Napoleon III. It features mansard-roofs, dormer windows and central pavilions.

Because of its wealth of architectural significance, the South End was declared by the City of Boston as “listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 as the largest urban Victorian neighborhood in the country.” In 1983, the city granted the South End status as a Boston landmark district.

If you’ve no particular itinerary, take a slow walk to the Francis Dane House, the headquarters of the South End Historical Society. Then, peep around the corner and admire the building that once housed the Chickering Piano Factory. While the company no longer inhabits the building, the façade is still something to be admired, and it is now home to a piano builder’s guild. After you’ve admired it, follow Tremont Street for half a mile and you can see what use to be the Saint Cloud Hotel that still bears the same name. And if you’ve got time, as you trace your way back to the T, make a detour and see the Allen House, dark, slightly imposing and ever majestic on Washington Street.

Take a stroll through the South End on a clear, bright day, or, if snow is not prohibiting, on a snow day! Get off the T at Massachusetts Avenue and walk towards Tremont Street. There are many front stoops, wrought-iron railings and balconies to be admired.

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