February 9, 2023
On Monday, officials from across the city of Boston — including Mayor Wu and the Commissioner of the Boston Fire Department Paul Burke— gathered on what has long been a vacant lot atop Meetinghouse Hill as work begins in earnest to build a new stationhouse for Engine 17. The soil which the elected officials turned with their ceremonial shovels has a fascinating history in the local context.
On this corner lot once stood Lyceum Hall, which was built for public use in 1838 when Dorchester was not a neighborhood, but an independent town, and Martin Van Buren was the president of the United States. Its purpose, at first, was to house the assemblies of the town meeting, Dorchester’s form of local government from its Puritan origins in the 1630s until annexation to Boston in 1870.
Once dedicated in 1840, the Greek-Revival-styled hall housed gatherings and lectures on “subjects of common interest,” according to town historian William Dana Orcutt.
“The idea of having popular lectures was just receiving recognition at this time, and thus Lyceum Hall became a potent factor in educating the minds of the community, and influencing their political opinion,” Orcutt writes in his definitive chronicle, “Good Old Dorchester,” published in 1893. Among the lecturers who held court: William Lloyd Garrison and others who “caused much excitement in advocating for the abolition of slavery.”
When a confederacy of southern white supremacists compelled their states to break away from the Union in 1861, Lyceum Hall became a center of recruitment for some of the Massachusetts regiments that would march south to subdue the seccessionists and restore order. When the triumphant soldiers who survived the battlefields and hospital tents returned home, it was no doubt in Lyceum Hall that their sacrifices were hailed in speech and performances.
Orcutt lamented: “When the town was annexed to Boston the building lost some of its historical fame, being brought into competition with Faneuil Hall and other celebrated antiquities; but it will always remain the same to the old residents of the town.”
Alas, that was not quite the resolution. After annexation, custody of the building was eventually passed onto the city of Boston. It would later house a primary school and, in the 20th century, it deteriorated past the point of salvage. It was demolished in 1955.
After laying fallow in more recent decades, the Lyceum lot served a useful purpose again in the 2000s when it served as a temporary home for the steeple top of the First Parish Church, which needed to be lowered and repaired. It was swung back into place in 2013.
For some, the next chapter for this little corner of Dorchester’s historic town center will likely prove to be its most useful yet. The men and women deployed from Engine 17’s rigs will surely save life, limb and property for years to come from the new stationhouse. A public good, once again.