Since its settlement around 1629-30, immigration has dramatically altered Boston’s built environment, shaping the city as we know it today. The impact of immigration on the development of architecture in the metropolitan region of Boston is reflected in the city’s distinct architectural fabric and planning patterns. The influence of immigration from abroad, migrations within the United States and the migration of populations across Boston from the initial settlement until the 21st century is not only reflected in the city’s unique development patterns, but also in the character of many of Boston’s neighborhoods. The aspirations and realities of the immigrants that arrived from abroad as well as those that migrated from other parts of the city and country are traced in the architecture of Boston.
Like the Irish who have migrated from one neighborhood of Boston to another, the African American Diaspora migrated from the Southern part of the country to the North where they settled on the north slope of Beacon Hill. The African American community succumbed to the economic pressures of Beacon Hill and relocated to the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, but not without leaving their imprint on the Hill. The African Meeting House which was built by free African American artists and the Abiel Smith School serve as testament to the powerful impact of cultures and immigration on the architecture of Metropolitan Boston.
The 20th century witnessed the fall and rise of neighborhoods like Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan with the influx of immigration from other parts of Boston and the revitalization of Boston Main Streets. Although populated predominantly by African Americans, these areas of Boston have become increasingly culturally and economically diverse. As recent as 2008, the Islamic Society and Cultural Center of Boston opened its doors in Roxbury, standing as a symbol of Boston’s ethnically-diverse communities.
Another example of an immigrant group who left their mark on Boston’s architectural heritage are the Germans who settled on Mission Hill in Roxbury. Mission Hill gets it names from the architectural gem that sits on top of one of the hills, the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The church stands a testament of the impact of immigration in Boston.
Designed by two New York architects, William Schickel and Isaac Ditmars, “Mission Church” as it is commonly known, was built by the Redemptorist Fathers who were of a German Catholic order in 1874-1878. It is a handsome Romanesque Revival structure with Gothic elements on its exterior. The church is constructed of Roxbury Puddingstone, the official state rock of Massachusetts. Its interior is grand yet elegantly restrained, surrounding its users with a golden shimmer radiating from the octagonal cupola and the numerous stained glass windows.
Mission Church has been ‘rediscovered’ with the recent passing of Massachusetts’ Senator Edward M. Kennedy. On a tour of the church, sponsored by Discover Roxbury, a local non-profit organization, I learned that people have flocked from all over the country to experience its architectural grandeur and beauty.
Boston’s patterns of immigration have impacted the development of architecture and planning to the extent of evoking the aspirations and realities of those who have settled in the city and its metropolitan region. Neighborhoods like the South End and Jamaica Plain have witnessed an influx of new Americans coming from the Caribbean; in particular Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. These New Bostonians have already left their mark on the city’s built environment, most notably in Villa Victoria, a section of the South End whose architecture is a coherent compromise between American Modernism and Puerto Rican Vernacular.