The First Apartment House in Jamaica Plain
Strong evidence suggests that the first apartment house built in Jamaica Plain was 743 Centre Street, a three story panel brick building with limestone trim built by Frederick and Robert Seaver in 1875. This was the new building for the oldest business in Jamaica Plain, Seaver’s Store, established by Joshua Seaver in 1796 who built a new store on the site of an older one.
Seaver is an ancient Roxbury name; Robert Sevier emigrated to Roxbury in 1634 and his family owned a large farm at Grove Hall on the easterly slope of Elm Hill; Seaver St. perpetuates the family name. Yet little is known of the Jamaica Plain Seavers of which Joshua – the great great grandson of Robert - is the first recorded.1
Joshua Seaver was born in his family’s Centre Street home in 1779 and built his new store next to the family house.2 The Seavers built their home on the Road to Dedham laid out in 1663, the most important transportation route in Roxbury. It was the only land route from the capitol through Roxbury center to Dedham and then on to Providence; it would remain so for 125 years3. The Seavers had good neighbors: in 1752 Commodore Joshua Loring bought a large tract at Centre and South Streets on which he built a fine mansion in 1760 after service in the British navy during the Seven Years War against France.
In 1769 the Third Meeting House was built adjoining the Seaver estate. The southerly end of Roxbury had grown large enough to support its own meeting house and church goers now did not have to endure the long ride to Roxbury First Church. This same community needed and could support a general store and conceivably the store Joshua Seaver bought was opened about 1770. There was no other general store between Roxbury center and Dedham.
At the time of the Revolutionary War the town center of Jamaica Plain comprised the Third Parish Church, the general store and the school. The store was the first stop after Roxbury center on the Boston- Roxbury- Providence stage line. In 1826 hourly omnibuses began traveling from Seaver’s store through Roxbury center to Boston. One omnibus was called the Osceola; portraits of the Seminole warrior were painted the doors.4
The first post office in Jamaica Plain was at Seaver’s store when Joshua Seaver (the son) was made postmaster in 1829. He set aside a portion of his store for mail pick up and stamp sales. His brother Robert followed and held the post until 1863.5
The school house was the municipal center of town where residents met and talked over issues. When a new schoolhouse was built on Eliot Street in 1832 the Village Hall was constructed on Thomas Street behind the Seaver store.6 Now the southerly end of town had two meeting places: the post office at Seaver’s Store and the Village Hall. The Seaver store was the social center of the town. It was the typical example of the urban general store where customers could purchase everything from eggs to whiskey7, buy stamps, mail a letter, pick up cordwood and buy produce teamed in from outlying farms. The horse cars now moved passengers between the town center and two railroad stations at Green Street and Forest Hills square; Seaver teams picked up produce and goods at the Green Street depot. The Seaver store was exactly midway between both stations.
It is unrecorded what the opinion was of Robert Seaver when West Roxbury became independent of old Roxbury in 1851. His store was located next to Village Hall where the newly elected West Roxbury Board of Selectmen met to consider business of the new town so it’s certain his business thrived. In 1868 town business removed a short way up the street to the grand new hall designed by George Ropes, named Curtis Hall for the family who paid to have it built.
It’s also unrecorded what Robert Seaver thought about the annexation of West Roxbury to the city of Boston in 1874, but the vote tally on Oct 7, 1873 was unmistakably in favor, and Boston took over the public affairs – including property taxation- of West Roxbury in 1874.
A year later the dirt cartpath named for Hugh Thomas was graded and curbing and gutters built from Centre to Brewer Street by the city of Boston. Robert and Frederick Seaver decided to expand their store. In April 1875, they hired the Roxbury builder John D. Weston to design a large brick building with street level store and two floors above, each with a single apartment accessible by a private door. It was the largest brick commercial building in the business district and the Seaver investment obviously anticipated an increase in population and transportation. They built a modern derivative of the commonly seen storefront built into a two-story house in which the shopkeeper lived with his family8.
Jamaica Plain was not the village of the 18th century Joshua Seaver. In 1857 tracks for horse powered streetcars were set in the street to connect Jamaica Plain to Tremont Street and then to downtown Boston. The trip took an hour and cost a dime to travel from the Seaver store to Boston Common. The city built a new brick police station and courthouse in high Gothic on Seaverns Avenue in 1875 and a branch library reading room opened on a floor of Curtis Hall in 1876. Civil War ceremonies took place on a new American holiday called Memorial Day in honor of Civil War dead9. Added horsecars took veterans and their families to ceremonies at W. W. Loomis’ Civil War monument built in 1871 on the site of the 1676 schoolhouse. They gathered there annually for decades.
By 1890, the apartment house or family hotel that Robert and Frederick Seaver began in a tentative way 20 years earlier was now an acceptable way of urban living, particularly with land scarce and expensive near transportation lines. In 1897 Arthur Bowditch bought a long corner lot at Greenough and Centre Street nearly opposite Seaver’s Store on the recently electrified streetcar line. He built a four story swell front apartment house designed by Arthur W. Rice with sixteen expensive, spacious well-lit flats completed in 1898.
The Seaver General Store closed in 1928. Von Hoffman suggests the reason was the store had lost its customer base because of changing demographics10. More than likely the land was too valuable to hold; as late as 1924 in addition to the 3 story building, the Seavers owned 28,200 square feet of land in two lots with the old homestead on it that comprised # 725 – 743 Centre Street. These two lots were sold in 1926 and 1929.
The old houses and outbuildings were razed and storefronts built on these lots but the 3-story brick building remained. It survived two fires: one in 1932 and the second in 1949. In 1950 the new owner Robert T. Fowler built out the street floor into a doctor’s office. Fowler later moved his business into the first floor and Ask Mr. Fowler Real Estate has occupied the Seaver Store for decades.
by Richard Heath
January 2, 2011
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
1 Drake’s History of Roxbury makes no mention of the Seavers in the southerly portion of town. The Jamaica Plain Seavers owned a large tract on which they built a house in the first quarter of the 18th c at Centre and present day Thomas Street. Another family member, Jacob Seaver, owned a huge estate on both sides of Morton St. with a fine home overlooking Stony Brook at Forest Hills. He was descended from Joshua’s brother Ebenezer. The construction of the Arborway to Franklin Park cut through his property in 1896. More needs to be learned about the Jamaica Plain Seavers. I am grateful to my JPHS colleague Mark Bulger for clarifying the Seaver genealogy and correcting errors in the first draft.
2 Boston Globe Nov 30, 1913 “Jamaica Plain’s oldest store.” This is not an entirely reliable source.
3 Until the opening of the Norfolk and Bristol turnpike –later Washington Street- in 1806.
4 Whitcomb, Harriet Manning, Annals and reminiscences of Jamaica Plain, Riverside Press, 1897, p 13- 14.
5 Jamaica Plain News, April 29, 1899. The first federal post office opened in 1873 at 725 Centre Street, a building the Seaver brothers owned.
6 Possibly on land owned by the Seaver family.
7 Von Hoffman, Alex, Local Attachments Johns Hopkins Pres, 1994. pg 101-102 and other sections in passing. This paper owes its debt to Von Hoffman’s book.
8 A thorough review of Jamaica Plain apartment buildings needs to be done to prove that that 743 Centre is the first one built in Jamaica Plain. However 1875 is a very early date for apartment house construction outside the core city where even there this new style of living was slow to gain acceptance, We do know that the Hotel Dartmouth at Dudley Square was the first apartment house in Roxbury in 1871. In 1875 the much grander Hotel Eliot on Bartlett St was completed (now demolished).
9 The living veterans had memorial societies and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Post 200 acquired the Village Hall after 1875.
10 Von Hoffman. pg 244.