Federal Period, 1775 - 1830
The first battle of the American Revolution took place in Lexington on April 19, 1775, and the town has long been known as "The Birthplace of American Liberty".
On that fateful spring morning, some seventy-seven militia members led by Captain John Parker stood on the Lexington Common to challenge the British troops. Eight were killed on the Common, seven of whom were residents of Lexington.
The evening before, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, prominent leaders in the patriot cause, were guests of the Reverend Jonas Clarke in the parsonage (the present Hancock-Clarke House). Fearing that the pair might be captured by the British, Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston sent William Dawes and Paul Revere to Lexington to warn them of the advancing British troops. Traveling separately, they each stopped to warn Hancock and Adams and then set off for Concord.
The leaders left at about dawn and by then the militia was gathering on the common. In the early hours, several dozen minutemen had gathered at the Buckman Tavern to await the arrival of the British soldiers. Just before sunrise Captain Parker's men assembled in two long lines on the common.
Following the battle, the British troops continued on to Concord, arriving at about 7 am. Yet, Lexington had not yet seen the last of the soldiers. That same afternoon the Munroe Tavern, located one mile east of the Common, served as the headquarters for Brigadier General Earl Percy and his one thousand reinforcements. For one and a half hours, the dining room was used as a field hospital while the weary British soldiers availed themselves of food and drink. Throughout the town, other houses were looted and set on fire by the British on their way back to Boston.
Three additional Lexington lives were lost that afternoon. In terms of casualties, Lexington suffered more that day than any other town. Though her population was much less than that of Concord or Cambridge, her loss in killed and wounded was more than one-third greater than both of those towns taken together.
Twenty-four years after the events of April 19, 1775, a monument was erected to honor those who were slain. Completed on July 4, 1799, the Revolutionary Monument on the Common or Battle Green is the nation's oldest Revolutionary War memorial and is the gravesite of those colonists slain in the Battle of Lexington.
In the late 18th century Lexington, like most Massachusetts towns, remained primarily an agricultural community. According to assessors' records, in 1792 the town had:
- 117 dwellings
- 19 shops
- 4 townhouses
- A grist mill
- 107 barns
- 99 horses
- 175 oxen
- 640 cows
- 230 hogs
In 1800 Lexington's population stood at 1,006, an increase of sixty-five persons since 1790.
Civic functions remained concentrated at Lexington Center. An almshouse, one of the few in Massachusetts at the time, was constructed near today's Hayden Recreation Center area in 1784.
In 1793 the town voted to build a new meetinghouse on the common. Although residents of the developing East Village wanted the new meetinghouse to be nearer East Lexington, proponents of Lexington Center prevailed. Painted pea green, the gable-roofed meetinghouse had a belfry at its east end. It was dedicated on January 15, 1795.
In 1796 the old (first) schoolhouse on the common was sold. Separate schoolhouses were constructed in the east, southwest, and north districts of the town. A private school, the Lexington Academy, was built at the corner of Bedford and Hancock Streets in 1822.
Despite its rural characteristics, Lexington was also a center for commerce. Over Lexington roads, countless teams with four and six horses and pungs laden with produce and small manufactured articles passed through town, on their way to southern New Hampshire or Boston. There were also droves of cattle, swine, and sheep on their way to market or being driven to the backcountry for pasturage. For travelers, Lexington was often the last stop before reaching Boston. Up until 1836 the mail stage from Boston to Keene passed through Lexington and West Cambridge three times a day each way.
All this commercial activity manifested itself in the establishment of taverns along the heavily-traveled routes. At one time Lexington had twelve taverns open doing business. These included the Buckman Tavern which catered to both Sunday churchgoers and stagecoach passengers. The Dudley Tavern (demolished) was located near the Common and across from Buckman Tavern and was frequented primarily by local residents, especially on Sundays and after town meetings. Amos Muzzey built the Monument House on Massachusetts Avenue in 1802.
Further east on Massachusetts Avenue was the Munroe Tavern, the Bowman Tavern (still standing at 827 Massachusetts Avenue), and Cutler's Tavern (demolished), built by Stephen Robbins in East Lexington. The Bull Tavern (demolished) was built along the Old Concord Road toward Lincoln (today Route 2A). The Simonds Tavern opened on the newly opened section of Bedford Street in the early 1800s and still stands today at 331 Bedford Street.
Passing through the southern part of Lexington, the Cambridge-Concord Turnpike (Concord Avenue) was built in 1803. The Middlesex Turnpike (Lowell Street) was completed just four years later. Both were built by state-chartered private corporations and initially were toll roads. Because the two roads diverted commerce away from the Main Street, their construction was bitterly opposed by Lexington, through town meeting votes, and by vigorous protests of individual citizens. New taverns sprang up on the new roads, offering competition to the Buckman, Munroe, Muzzey, and other taverns on Main Street.
In the early 19th century local farmers evolved from subsistence growers and became more interested in reaching other markets. In particular, the improvement of transportation routes allowed for the growth of the Lexington milk business. Benjamin Wellington operated the first dairy farm in town on what is now Waltham Street beginning in the mid-18th century. By 1826 no less than thirty vehicles from Lexington were loaded with milk each day to make what could be a five-hour trip to Boston.
Despite a lack of waterpower, various industries were established in the town and especially in the East Village. The dressing of furs was the dominant industry in the early 19th century. Beginning in the late 1700s Stephen Robbins was the first to exchange dry and West India goods for pelts and skins which came through Boston from foreign ports. After being dressed and finished the furs were again exchanged for goods or sold. Robbins' factory, later continued by his son Eli, was located at the junction of Massachusetts Avenue and Pleasant Street.
Ambrose Morrell opened a similar business nearby on Massachusetts Avenue about 1802 and another was operated by Joshua Swan. Various fur shops remained in business until the 1850s turning out fur capes, caps, muffs, boas, gloves, fur-lined overshoes, and other items. At their peak, it is estimated that 300 to 500 found employment in the fur shops. Eli Robbins' factory alone occupied several buildings and employed about 80 to 100. The collective output of the Lexington furriers is said to have been greater than any town outside of Boston or New York.
In other sections of town there were:
- Blacksmith shops
- A gristmill
- A spice mill
- A small malt house
- A pottery
- A tannery
- A bakehouse
- A turning mill
Small-scale boot and shoe production provided home employment. Peat swamps provided a ready local source of fuel. The peat was cut in the summer and hauled back to homes to dry and store for winter use.
Writing in 1908 and looking back at Lexington's early architecture, historian Dr. Fred Smith Piper noted: "There were many comfortable houses and some useful public buildings, but comparatively few specimens of meritorious style. The inhabitants of those days had little means for luxury or show. They were industrious and prudent, and their buildings were in harmony with their lives…The local builders were not much inclined to the ornate, but rather favored economy and utility, and probably in most instances, there was no architect other than the carpenter". See note.
Not surprisingly, many of the properties which survive in Lexington today from the 1775 to 1830 period are found along with the old turnpike routes and in East Lexington, the areas which saw the greatest growth during this period. Stylistically the more ornate structures correspond to the Federal Style, an American adaptation of the more high-style British Adamesque, transmitted across the ocean through architectural guidebooks.
Authors such as William Pain simplified and adapted the English prototypes to the scale and materials of American buildings. Two of Pain's popular guidebooks were available to New England builders by the end of the 18th century - Practical Builder was republished in Boston in 1792 and was followed by a Boston edition of The Practical House Carpenter in 1796.
In 1797 Asher Benjamin published his first builder's guidebook, being the first American to do so. Being a joiner, Benjamin's books, including The Country Builder's Assistant and American Builder's Companion were written for his fellow craftsmen. They included surrounds for doors, windows, and fireplace openings, all of which were very different from their heavier Georgian predecessors and were quickly embraced by American builders and joiners.
Compared to the heavy moldings and plain flat surfaces of Georgian detailing, the Federal style sought more delicate, busy surfaces. The solid, heavy entablature doorways with transom lights popular in the Georgian period were replaced by semi-circular and semi-elliptical fanlights and louvered fans, more delicate colonettes, and thin cornices. The muntins on window sash became thinner and the panes of glass became larger and fewer (for example six-over-six configurations rather than twelve-over twelve). Raised panel doors gave way to a flat-panel style.
The Federal-period house also shows much more flexibility where the floor plan is concerned. Where the Georgian house was almost always heated by a central chimney or two chimneys placed on either side of a central stair hall, Federal dwellings often have more chimneys and the chimneys are often slimmer. Chimneys could also be placed against the outer walls or incorporated into the walls in the case of brick structures.
In Lexington, the typical vernacular house of the Federal period was five bays wide and a single room deep with twin interior chimneys on the rear wall. Both gable and hip roofs are seen. The house at 2 Vine Street can be described as transitional in that the 5 x 1-bay dwelling combines a center chimney plan with a low gable roof pitch which is a Federal characteristic.
In some cases, the 5 x 1-bay Federal period dwellings display simple door surrounds such as seen at 898 Massachusetts Avenue, 9 Independence Avenue, and 922 Massachusetts Avenue.
This 5 x 1-bay house form is especially prevalent in East Lexington which saw an economic boom in the first third of the 19th century. Inside, many of the houses retain a small stair hall with three-run stairs opposite the entrance door, a feature which was prevalent in earlier center chimney houses.
The Solomon Harrington House at 915-917 Massachusetts Avenue reportedly dates to 1802 and is notable for its dentil course and doorway with semi-circular fanlight which was likely inspired by a guidebook such as William Pain's.
Other distinctive doorways include that at 8 Marrett Road where the fanlight extends above the first-floor ceiling.
A more elegant and refined version of the Federal style is found in the doorway at 678 Massachusetts Avenue dating to about 1835. The elliptically-arched entrance is trimmed with Ionic pilasters and capped by a molded keystone.
Noted architect Isaac Melvin reportedly boarded here for a time and is said to have remodeled the front entrance. The source of the design has not been identified although it is quite similar to entrances on buildings in Arlington and Bedford.
The house at 881-883 Massachusetts Avenue dates to 1828 and combines a fanlight with Greek Revival-inspired sidelights. The window above the entrance is a Colonial Revival addition. The William Chandler House at 83 Hancock Street was reportedly constructed in 1815 and is another well-preserved example of the type. Federal details include corner boards, pediment ends, and second-story windows which are framed into the cornice. The enclosed front vestibule is a recent addition.
The James Locke House at 37 Grove Street was built in 1823 and is a 5 x 1-bay structure capped by a hip roof with two side chimneys. It is distinguished by its elaborate doorway which is an elegant example of Federal craftsmanship but is not original to this house. It was salvaged from a house in Dover, New Hampshire, and was installed in 1944. It features a louvered elliptical fan and Ionic pilasters topped by triglyphs and guttae.
Less common are Federal-period dwellings with a 5 x 2-bay massing. Among the best-preserved is the Captain Christopher Reed House at 330 Bedford Street which retains a simple frontispiece with a molded cornice with narrow side pilasters and an elliptical fanlight. A simpler version of the doorway accesses the Beverly jog. Several simple vernacular 5 x 2-bay farmhouses are still found at 389 Concord Avenue, 353 Concord Avenue, and 945 Waltham Street but have seen a higher degree of alteration.
It is during this period that brick is first used as a building material. A number of Federal-period houses in town were constructed with brick ends. The best preserved and most elaborate is the Nathan Reed House at 282 Bedford Street which was constructed prior to 1798, making it a relatively early example of the style as well. Unlike most of the others, it is five-by-four bays and side-gabled with four tall corner chimneys. Clad in clapboards with flushboard pediments above the brick ends, the house is outlined by wide pilastered corner boards. The ornate frontispiece is flanked by pilasters with a semi-circular fanlight filled with leaded tracery. Classically-inspired detailing not seen in other local examples includes guttae, ornate moldings, and diamond patterns.
Facing the Green, the Levi Harrington House at 5 Harrington Road was constructed in c.1799 and also incorporates brick ends. The sidelights flanking the entrance, the front porch, and side porches are later additions.
Five other Federal houses with brick ends are concentrated in the south part of town and include three farmhouses along what was originally the Cambridge-Concord Turnpike - at 272 Concord Avenue, 177 Concord Avenue, and 503 Concord Avenue. The house at 272 Concord Avenue has a single brick end visible and was constructed in 1808 by Nehemiah Wellington, a carpenter and first cousin of Benjamin and Peter Wellington who lived at 177 Concord Avenue. The unusual doorway at 272 Concord Avenue is a later addition. The property is also notable for retaining its original barn, originally detached but now attached to the house by later additions as well as an additional gable-front barn.
The two other brick-ended Federal houses in South Lexington at 56 Allen Street and 130 Pleasant Street also have low hip roofs and end chimneys.
The Nathaniel Harrington House at 1888 Massachusetts Avenue is believed to have been the first all-brick house constructed in Lexington. Its exact date of construction is not known and estimates range from about 1790 to the more likely c.1820. The six-over-six windows and doorway are capped by granite lintels. In 1874 the original hip roof was replaced by a mansard although the roof was later restored to its original appearance.
Federal-era dwellings which have been moved from their original sites include 22 Vine Brook Road, 32 Vine Brook Road, 16 Williams Road, and 1984 Massachusetts Avenue.
The Isaac Mulliken House, now at 26 Bedford Street, was moved from Massachusetts Avenue in the 1890s.
There are several notable commercial structures which survive and date to the Federal period. The Simonds Tavern at 331 Bedford Street was constructed in two periods. The northernmost five bays were originally constructed as a residence in c.1784 while the south end was added to function as a tavern in c.1810 after the opening of this section of Bedford Street.
The bar was placed at the junction of the two buildings so that both front doors opened into the tavern space. The south wall of the building is the only example in the town of linked parapet end wall chimneys. The well-preserved structure displays various period features including a denticulated cornice, graduated clapboards, and distinctive doorways with fluted pilasters, simple entablature, and a modillion cornice. The building is individually listed on the National Register.
The only other tavern constructed during this period and surviving today is the former Bowman Tavern at 837 Massachusetts Avenue, a two-story, side-gabled, 5 x 1-bay structure that dates to c.1820.
The Brick Store at 703 Massachusetts Avenue was constructed in East Lexington in 1828 for Eli Robbins. The first floor has always been used for commercial purposes, the second floor contained a meeting room and in the 1880s the East Lexington Branch Library was located here. The East Lexington post office opened here in 1836 and remained until 1867. Alterations were made to the first-floor store windows c.1940. The building was formerly fronted by a single-story porch.
The building at 15-17 Waltham Street was constructed as a residence but has been used for commercial purposes since 1883. It was originally located on the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Waltham Street and was moved to its present site in 1903 when the Hunt Block was built. It consists of a two-story, hip-roofed block with a hip-roofed ell. The front door has a triangular pediment while the secondary entrance has a fanlight and paneled pilasters.
Note. Piper, Dr. Fred Smith. "Architectural Yesterdays in Lexington", Read October 13, 1908. Proceedings of the Lexington Historical Society, vol. 4, p. 114.