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Long, Long Before MGH In Charlestown: 27 Harvard Square

The stone house, made from local materials, once served as a dispensary.

The small stone house at 27 Harvard Square, the middle in a trio of early unpretentious nineteenth century houses, was built in 1799. Situated at the end of Harvard Square, at an entrance to the Harvard Mall, 27 Harvard and its adjacent dwellings provide, in the words of Boston Landmarks Commission, a glimpse into ‘semi-rural, village-scale Charlestown.’

The builder, Nathaniel Austin, was a well-known man about town.  The ‘white haired builder, one of the most striking and familiar figures' was a legislator in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and a brigadier general for the Massachusetts Militia. (For more about the Austin family see ).

In 1798 Austin bought Outer Brewster Island from David Wood for $400. Outer Brewster, one of the furthermost in the Boston Harbor Island chain, lies about 10 miles offshore. Austin built an artificial harbor on the island and hoped to establish a profitable quarry. He built the house at 27 Harvard Square from stone mined on Outer Brewster.

Although the better known Austin stone house is at 92 Main Street, built in 1822 from the same stone quarry on Brewster Island, the history of the small cottage-like attached house is captivating. For much of the nineteenth century, from 1814 until at least 1890, 27 Harvard Square operated as a healthcare facility. A dispensary in the house may have been founded initially to care for wounded servicemen during the War of 1812. 

According to Edwin Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston, 27 Harvard Square was the first dispensary in Boston. A dispensary ticket for Charlestown Free Dispensary and Hospital at 27 Harvard Square, dated March 18, 1885, has been found. The ticket, signed by Superintendent Edward J. Forster M.D.,  announces its dispensary hours—at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

The dispensary saw about 1,600 patients each year. Besides a governing board including Henry Lyon and T.G.Frothingham, there were six doctors on the medical staff. Although it’s not certain that the small stone house ever functioned as a full-service hospital, we do know that medical and surgical advice was provided to the sickly poor who came to the dispensary, free of cost except to those who were ‘able to pay for it.’ 

The house at 27 Harvard Square remained in the Austin family until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when it passed into the hands of James Whiting, physician.

  • Where is it? 27 Harvard Square   
  • When was it built? 1799
  • Who built it? Nathaniel Austin
  • What was it built for and who was the first occupant? As a family home; Nathaniel Austin may have been its first occupant.
  • How was it built? Of split-stone granite from Outer Brewster Island quarry. There might be brick behind the stone facing. According to Mass Realty, it is a ‘beautiful 3 bed and 1 bath single family home with 939 square feet of living space.’
  • What are the future plans for the structure? It is currently privately owned and occupied.

Information for this article was compiled from various research materials, including Boston Evening Transcript, June 5, 1913; Islands of Boston Harbor by Edward Rowe Snow; Boston Landmarks Commission; Medical and Surgical Directory of the United States;The Medical Register for New England by Francis H. Brown; Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston at  http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/edwin-m-edwin-monroe-bacon/bacons-dictionary-of-boston-oca.shtml;http://www.massrealty.com/greater-boston/charlestown/street/harvard-sq/recent-sales.

Joseph June 28, 2012 at 12:34 PM
Wow, that was pretty interesting! Thanks Helen.
Mary Kay Donovan June 29, 2012 at 02:08 AM
First of all, thank you so much Helen for these articles. This house is very special to me. In 1994, I was the broker for this property. It had been owned by a woman who had an informal B&B there and absolutely loved the house. I was honored to have this listing! It is the most unique property in all of C-town. Having been the "town dispensary", it was the most important place in the town. If you can believe it, I had to beg the Boston Globe to feature it as it's "Home of the Week". It was exciting to have this listing. The response was phenomenal and the same people who purchased it in 1994, still own this house. They fell in love with it before they ever walked into the house. It is a gem of a house! Something that has been preserved and one feels like they have stepped back into another era.
Helen O'Neil June 29, 2012 at 02:09 PM
Thank you Mary Kay. It must be so beautiful on the inside. I had an e-mail yesterday from a PATCH reader saying that this is her most favorite house in Charlestown.
Jay K. June 29, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Very cool. I really enjoy these articles.
Stephanie June 30, 2012 at 01:51 PM
I love that house, too - it is so charming - and what a great history behind it! I didn't realize its connection to the Stone House, but it makes sense - the stone is so similar. Thanks for another great article, Helen.

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