The West End is bordered by Massachusetts General Hospital, Charles River Park residences, Government Center, and the North Station area. Historically, the West End extended across Cambridge Street and partway up the North Slope of Beacon Hill, long an African American community. The West End of Boston was a thriving community of immigrants from across the world during the late 19th century into the 1950s. Italians, Jews, Irish, Greeks, Ukrainians, Yankees and other groups lived in a crazy quilt of tenement houses interspersed with bakeries, butcher shops, settlement houses, churches and synagogues. Actor Leonard Nimoy who grew up in the West End characterized his hometown as a “village.” The Housing Act of 1949 and the development of highways in the mid-20th century targeted this community. Hundreds of homes were torn down without promised relocation aid to its residents. It is frequently cited as the way “urban renewal” should not proceed.
Today several buildings remain including the West End House, the Old West Church, the Puffers Building, African Meeting House, Museum of African American History, and Vilna Shul. The community continues to connect to this history as well as building bridges to a new configuration of people, culture, and commerce.
Begins: 17 Staniford Street
Charlotte Feibelman and the Mt. Sinai Dispensary
17 Staniford Street
From 1903-1916, this Dispensary treated anyone who needed health care, especially those from immigrant communities. The focus was on prevention, hygiene, diet, and therapy while also dealing with crises such as tuberculosis, the flu epidemic, and the molasses flood of 1919. The efforts to provide health care continued for many decades in several West End locations and later in Roxbury, culminating in the creation of Beth Israel Hospital in its current Brookline location. During her tenure as chief fundraiser and President of the Ladies Auxiliary at Mt. Sinai Dispensary from 1903-1916, Charlotte Feibelman (1868-1938) oversaw and organized the fundraising efforts of over 350 Jewish women in support of one of the first clinics in Boston that treated immigrant patients, regardless of their ethnicity. After the founding of Beth Israel Hospital, Feibelman and the Ladies Auxiliary also created and oversaw a library, flower service, motor corps and a sewing service to benefit the patients.
The West End Museum
150 Staniford Street (Entrance on Lomasney Way)
Dedicated in 2003, The West End Museum is dedicated to “the collection, preservation and interpretation of the history and culture of the West End of Boston” and also serves the neighborhood with active programming and exhibits.
Home of Senda Berenson
32 Nashua Street
Considered the mother of women’s basketball, Senda Berenson (1868-1954) adapted the rules for women and in 1984, posthumously, became the first woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. After the family emigrated from Lithuania to Boston in 1875, they lived here in a building no longer standing. Encouraged by her parents to study piano, Senda was too frail for the rigors of rehearsals. Instead, she attended the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in order to build her strength. After graduation, Berenson was hired by Smith College as Athletics Director. While there she introduced “Basket Ball” with new game rules for women and stressed camaraderie and teamwork.
15 Martha Road
After urban renewal had wiped out much of the West End, including more than 15 synagogues, the North Russell Street Shul and others merged together to form the Boston Synagogue. In this building, built in 1971, the congregation continues to support the spiritual and cultural observances for the remaining Jewish residents of the West End and downtown Boston.
St. Joseph’s Church
68 William Cardinal O’Connell Way
Rescued from urban renewal in the 1950s because of its importance to the West End Roman Catholic community, the church was originally erected in 1834. Designed by renowned architect Alexander Parris for a cost of $34,000, it was built to serve the twelfth Unitarian Universalist Congregation and called “the most elegant church in Boston” after its completion. As the community in the West End changed, the Roman Catholic Diocese purchased the church in 1862 for its growing population.
Fanny Goldstein and Old West Church
131 Cambridge Street
Built in 1806 by architect Asher Benjamin for a very socially active congregation, the West Church was also used as a safe house for the Underground Railroad. After the congregation disbanded in 1887, the building was used instead for the first branch of the West End library from 1896-1960, then became used for a church again. It was declared a historic landmark in 1971 and is still in use today as a church. As the first Jewish woman to become a branch librarian in Massachusetts, Fanny Goldstein (1895-1961) was also collector and bibliographer of Judaica for the Boston Public Library (BPL). The collection was displayed at this location and was second only to Harvard University’s collection. Born in Russia, she grew up in the North End and began her career working with Edith Guerrier and the Saturday Evening Girls. She was known for cross-cultural programming and recognition of the many ethnic groups that lived in the West End. Goldstein was also instrumental in sending books to refugee and DP camps in post-WWII Europe.
West End Library
151 Cambridge Street
The West End branch of the Boston Public Library was first located in the Old West Church. In 1968, this building was constructed as a library. It is a busy branch today serving a diverse urban population. It has retained some documents of West End history and from Fanny Goldstein’s librarianship.
Helen Storrow, Lina Hecht, Golde Bamber, Eva White, Ruth Roman West End House
5 Blossom Street
Originally called the West End Boys Club; the building was built in 1929 and funded by over $500,000 willed by James Storrow and his family. It contained: libraries, club rooms, a gym, and basketball courts. Actor Leonard Nimoy was among its 725 members. Spared from urban renewal, it is used today as offices for Mass General Hospital and stands as an example of the many settlement houses that once served the West End immigrant population. The West End House Boys and Girls club moved to Allston in 1971 and is in existence today.
Helen Storrow (1865-1944) funded the Saturday Evening Girls at North Bennet Street Industrial School where young working class Italian and Jewish immigrant girls were taught literacy skills as well as pottery and other crafts in a culturally-rich program. This grew into the home of Paul Revere Pottery and Library Clubhouse (at 18 Hull St., North End) Some of the pottery can be seen today in the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts. Later Storrow went on to champion playgrounds, the Girl Scouts and sailing on the Charles, now called “Community Boating.”
Born and raised in Baltimore by German-Jewish immigrant parents, Lina Hecht (1848-1920) became one of Boston’s leading women philanthropists, founding some of the earliest settlement houses in the city to serve the growing Eastern European Jewish community. She acted as a catalyst for the community bringing people together at her home on Commonwealth Ave. Hecht helped Mary Antin publish her first memoir From Plotzk to Boston and introduced Justice Louis Brandeis to influential members of Boston’s business community.
Born in Boston, Golde Bamber (1868-1951) studied at both Boston University and Simmons College. After encouraging Lina Hecht to fund a settlement house for immigrant Jewish youth from families pouring into Boston, she became its director. The Hebrew Industrial School (H.I.S.) was set up in the North and West Ends beginning in 1882. More than 1200 youths enrolled during its first five years and studied both vocational and academic courses. After Hecht’s death, Bamber renamed H.I.S. “the Hecht Neighborhood House.”
Considered a pioneer in social work, Eva Whiting White (ca.1885-1974) )was the first woman to graduate from the Boston School for Social Work (later part of Simmons College). As Head Worker of the Elizabeth Peabody Settlement House (1909-1944), she expanded classes to include woodworking, radio broadcasting, debate, and dramatics. When a new, larger building was built in 1911, a professional theater was added. Leonard Nimoy and Ruth Roman both began acting there. White also served as Dean of Simmons College School of Social Work.
As a teenager, Ruth Roman (1922-1999)was a member of the Elizabeth Peabody House. Born of Lithuanian-Jewish parents in Lynn, Roman grew up in the tenements of the West End. After performing regionally, she got bit parts in film. Eventually she performed with major film stars such as Kirk Douglas, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper.
Jennie Loitman Barron and Annie Londonderry
Mousey Park, Corner of Cambridge and North Anderson Streets
Born and raised on Allen Street in the West End, Jennie Loitman Barron (1890-1969) attended Boston University as an undergraduate and law student. While there, she organized the Boston University Equal Suffrage League and frequently spoke on street corners for women’s equality. In 1925, she became the first mother elected to the Boston School Committee. She served as the first full time woman judge in Massachusetts and was appointed the first woman judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1959. Barron campaigned to include women jurists, a goal achieved in the early 1950s.
Annie Londonderry (ca1870-1947) is known mainly for her well publicized bicycle trip in 1894-95, purportedly around the world. Born in Latvia, she lived in the West End as “Annie Cohen Kopchovsky.” Departing on her bicycle from the Massachusetts State House, she was cheered on by her family, friends, and assorted suffragists.
214-216 Cambridge Street
Built in 1899, this Queen Anne-styled brick building was owned by A.D. Puffer, and originally housed several sweatshops which employed newly-arrived immigrant workers. It became one of the sites on Beacon Hill that produced rolled cigars from tobacco leaves.
3 Irving Street
A biracial woman and a bicyclist, Kittie Knox (1874-1900) braved barely-paved Boston streets as well as discrimination by the all-white (and predominantly male) bicycle clubs. As a competitive cyclist, she designed a bicycle-riding outfit for women that included knickerbockers pants.
Maria Miller Stewart Plaque
81 Joy Street
In 1832-1833, Maria Miller Stewart (1803-1879) became the first African American woman to speak publicly to a mixed audience, that is, one attended by both men and women, black and white, about women’s rights, abolition, and religion. She also spoke up for literacy for enslaved persons.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler Home
67 Joy Street
Born in Delaware, Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was raised in Pennsylvania by her aunt where together they cared for their ill neighbors. When she graduated from the New England Female Medical College, the first U.S. women’s medical school, in 1864, she became the first African American woman doctor in the U.S. After the Civil War, she moved to Virginia to care for freedmen and women. Crumpler then married, moved back to Boston and began to treat patients from her home. Her Book of Medical Discourses is based on her practice.
Abiel Smith School/Museum of African American History, Sue Bailey Thurman and Ruth Batson
46 Joy Street
Designed by architect Robert Upjohn and built in 1835, the Abiel Smith School was the first school in Boston built for the black community and is the oldest African American school building in the U.S. The city took 50 years to build a neighborhood school for the black community. It was paid for by $4,000 willed by Abiel Smith, a white philanthropist. Deemed inferior to existing white neighborhood schools, the community continued fighting with the city until 1855 when the Massachusetts Legislature finally outlawed “segregated schools” and African American children began attending other public schools. The Smith School became the Museum of African American History in 1963.
Sue Bailey Thurman (1903-1996) founded the Museum of African American History in 1963, acquiring the neighboring African Meeting House in 1972 and creating the beginnings of the Black Heritage Trail. As a writer and historian, Thurman travelled internationally to speak about racism and African American music. She also worked on the 1963 March on Washington which was held on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. She founded Aframerican Women’s Journal, a periodical published by the National Council of Negro Women.
A former director of the Museum of African American History, Ruth Batson (1921-2003) was chairperson of the education committee of Boston NAACP that led the fight in the early 1960s against segregation in the Boston Public Schools. She also founded and was later director of the METCO voluntary desegregation program.
African Meeting House
6 Smith Court
Designated as a National Historic Site in 1974, the African Meeting House is the oldest surviving African American church in the U.S. The First African Baptist Congregation bought the land and hired Asher Benjamin to build the church. Dedicated in 1806, the meeting house was also used as a school. Known as the “Black Faneuil Hall” during the Abolitionist period, William Lloyd Garrison founded his New England Anti-Slavery Society there. In 1899, the building was sold to the Anshe Libowitz congregation and it was used as a synagogue. In 1972, the building was acquired by the Museum of African American History. With federal funding, the building was restored to its earlier appearance of 1855. It reopened in 2011.
Home of Bashka Paeff
6 Pinckney Street
Known for classical bronze sculptures, Bashka Paeff (1894-1979) emigrated with her family to Boston from Russia when she was a child. Called “the Subway Sculptor,” she worked on models for her MFA Museum School classes while selling tokens at Park Street Station. Among her notable works is the “Boy and Bird” fountain in Boston’s Public Garden. Paeff also depicted the horrors of WWI with her controversial sculpture “Sailors and Soldiers Memorial” that stands in Kittery, Maine.
15 Pinckney Street
The founder of the first English speaking, free kindergarten in the United States, Elizabeth Peabody (1804-1894) was born the eldest of seven in Billerica, Mass. She followed in the footsteps of her educator parents and also opened a bookstore on West St. in Boston where she hosted literary salons with frequent visitors like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. After assisting Bronson Alcott in his Temple school, Peabody founded her own kindergarten where children learned through active play.
Home of Louisa May Alcott
20 Pinckney Street
In the early 1850s, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), the noted author of Little Women, lived here where her mother ran a boarding house. Alcott was involved in the abolition, women’s rights and suffrage movements. She supported her family with her writing, and lived in several locations in the South End and on Beacon Hill as well as in Concord, MA.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Wendell Phillips School, 65 Anderson Street
As an 1879 graduate of the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s Nursing School, Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) became the first professionally trained African American nurse in the United States. She attended the Phillips School, the first integrated school in Boston, at 10 years old. She lived her entire life as both a civil rights and suffrage activist and became one of the first women in Massachusetts to vote in 1920. Mahoney was inducted into the American Nurses Association’s Hall of Fame in 1976 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Harriet Hayden, Ellen Craft, Hayden House
66 Phillips Street
Along with her husband Lewis, Harriet Hayden (ca 1816-1893) owned this boarding house on the North Slope for more than 40 years. Both born enslaved, their home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and included a cache of weapons that was reportedly stored under the front steps in order to frighten slave hunters away. Harriet Hayden bequeathed a scholarship for “the needy and worthy colored students” at Harvard Medical School.
In 1848, Ellen Craft (1826-1897) and her husband, William, escaped from Georgia by taking a train and steamer to Boston. Ellen, light-skinned, disguised herself as a white man, bandaged as if injured, while her husband William travelled with her as if he were the slave. They lived at the Hayden’s boarding house where they became active in the antislavery cause. Since the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law posed a danger to them, the Crafts left Boston and sailed to England. After the Civil War, they returned to Georgia where they bought a farm and also founded a school for freedmen.
Vilna Shul and Mary Antin
18 Phillips Street
Since 1994 known as Vilna Shul/Boston’s Center for Jewish Culture, this building was founded and built in 1919 by an Orthodox Jewish congregation of former residents of Vilnius, Lithuania and originally called “Anshei Vilner.” The group organized themselves in 1893, hired Max Kalman, the only Jewish architect in Boston, and actively used the building as a synagogue through the 1970s. The Beacon Hill Civic Association worked to save the building from urban renewal since it stands on the North Slope of Beacon Hill. Today Vilna Shul is a historic building housing a cultural center, community center, and living museum.
The Antin family immigrated to Boston from the Russian Pale in 1894. Mary Antin’s (1881-1949) name is listed on the founding plaque of the Vilna Shul as an attendant at the dedication. She penned her memoir about her family’s experience entitled, The Promised Land. It remains the quintessential work about 19th century Eastern-European immigration. Since she had little schooling available to her in Russia, Antin wrote: “the essence of American opportunity: the treasure that no thief could touch, not even misfortune or poverty… the freedom of the schools of Boston!”
Home of Elizabeth Kearney Blood
13 Anderson Street
Born in Kildalkey, Ireland, Elizabeth Kearney Blood (1899-1969) and her brother immigrated to Boston in 1915. She and her family were notified in the spring of 1958 that their building (at 329 Charles St.) would be taken by eminent domain in the West End demolition. She, her two daughters and seven grandchildren refused to leave even when their doors were removed. Endicott Peabody (then a young lawyer, later governor of Massachusetts) negotiated for the family with the City of Boston for 30 days more. She later moved to Cape Cod.
Project Managers and Lead Researchers: Helaine Davis, Linda Stern
Thanks to the following:
Boston Women’s Heritage Trail – Maria D’Itria, Michelle LeBlanc, Mary Smoyer
Vilna Shul – Steven Greenberg
West End Branch, BPL – Helen Bender
West End Museum – Duane Lucia
Boston Public Library
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Racliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Many of the photographs is this guide are from the public domain such as through Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Pinterest, etc.
Exceptions: Senda Berenson courtesy of the Smith College Archives; Eva Whiting White, Jennie Loitman Barron, and Ruth Batson all courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University; Bashka Paeff courtesy of Smithsonian Institute, Archives of American Art; West End Library interior shot, Hebrew Industrial School, Aerial views from ca. 1900 and 1960 are all from the Boston Globe Archives; Lina Hecht, Fanny Goldstein, Ellen Craft, Maria Stewart, Mary Eliza Mahoney, Mary Antin, and Louisa May Alcott are from the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail Collections. Ruth Roman’s pictures are from IMDB.com (courtesy of Warner Brothers); Rebecca Lee Crumpler is from PBS.org; and, Elizabeth Blood, African Meeting House, West End House, and Mt. Sinai Hospital Dispensary staff pictures are from the West End Museum Archives.