By Seth Daniel
For the Transcript
There’s a long history to Metcalf Square and the area around it, which could be memorialized in a National Historic District designation very soon.
It would be the first, official historic district in the town.
The Winthrop Historical Commission will hold a hearing on May 7 at 7 p.m. in Town Hall to discuss the particulars of putting the district on the National Register, and members of the commission are excited that the proposal could become a reality.
“We’re happy it’s finally coming to fruition,” said Richard Ferrino, a member of the commission. “With all the negatives right now, we’re seeing this as a nice, positive thing. It will kind of give the town a boost in the arm…It’s also prestige. You get some ink out of it as far as tourism. It’s posted on the National Register of Historic Properties and Districts statewide and nationally. It’s a positive thing.”
Dave Hubbard of the Winthrop Historical Society, who wasn’t part of the historic district process, said he thinks it’s a good idea, and that Metcalf Square is probably one of the more deserving districts locally.
“We’d be very much in favor of it,” he said. “I think it’s certainly an appropriate and worthy district to do. It has a lot of history from the early part of our town, and it had the first public building there, too – the school.”
The process to put Metcalf Square on the historic map began many years ago (1992) when Massport was conducting a study for the soundproofing program. That study identified five or six areas around town that were potentially historic properties or districts. Then, in 2000, selectmen appointed several people to the Historic District Study Commission to get the project off the ground.
There are already two designated historic properties in Winthrop, the E.B. Newton School and the Deane Winthrop House.
While the heart of the new district would be Town Hall, the library, police station and the triangular median in the middle of those structures, the district would extend beyond the immediate square and would include all three cemeteries and several residential neighborhoods.
Roughly, the district would begin around Cross Street to encompass the cemeteries and would proceed to Buchanan Street and up Winthrop Street to Town Hall. It would go as far north as Lincoln Street and Marshall Street and encompass much of Herman Street as well.
The district would not, however, be about restricting property owners or commercial buildings from making changes to their structures. In some historic districts, such as in Salem or Boston’s Back Bay, property owners must get special permission to change windows or to make any exterior aesthetic alterations. Such districts are bound by local zoning preservation rules.
Winthrop’s district would be under the federal process, which Ferrino said is more about prestige and becoming eligible for federal and state grants.
“It’s nothing like that,” said Ferrino. “We would never be able to restrict anyone from doing something to their property if it’s self-financed. If it were done with grant money, one would have to comply with some sort of standard. [The committee] did not want this to be a restrictive thing or a negative thing. That’s why we chose the national process rather than the local zoning process.”
Grant money for the district could come potentially for town buildings, for residential home preservation projects, cemetery preservation projects and even for private buildings like the Winthrop Playmakers Playhouse on Hermon Street. Many of those grants, such as the one for municipal buildings, provide up to 50 percent of the cost of the project.
“This is not only conducive to preserving local history, but would be beneficial to the municipal buildings and the commercial buildings, too,” said Ferrino. “A textbook example is the firehouse. At some point, we may be able to help them with something like window replacement. The same could be said for the library or Town Hall. The grants are for capital needs, though, and cannot be used for maintenance needs, like painting.”
Additionally, Ferrino said if this process goes well, they might begin a new process for other areas that have been identified as potentially historic areas.
Those areas are Washington Avenue, Thornton Park, Point Shirley and Cottage Park (the area around the old hotel).
“It’s been a long process, and a lot of people were involved in this,” said Ferrino. “It’s been a good group of preservationists and historians that have been involved over the years. We’re not Marblehead, Salem or Ipswich, where they have pristine areas that are very historic, but we have our areas that are very historic and they should be recognized.”
According to Hubbard, Metcalf Square was the site of the first public building in town. On the site of the current police station, the town’s first school was constructed in 1805 and was the first building in that area. A new school was built on the same site in 1846, and once Winthrop became an official town in 1852, a Town Hall soon followed in the square. In 1856, a Town Hall was constructed and it accommodated town government, a school, and an auditorium that housed the first library (lyceum) and the Winthrop Brass Band.
The band performed concerts on a bandstand located on the triangular median in the center of Metcalf Square, Hubbard said.
The namesake of the square has its origins in a local doctor whose son died in World War I.
Dr. Metcalf owned the home across from the Winthrop Cable Access Television (WCAT) building.
The doctor built the very similar looking home next door, for use as a hospital, and it became the town’s first hospital. The doctor was so well respected that when his son died in the war, the square was quickly named after his fallen son.