AlmshouseJim Morrison wrote an article in this past week’s Newton Tab about the last remaining building connected with Newton’s Almshouses.

Local resident Mike Clarke has compiled a fascinating 40 page history about Newton’s almshouses.  I knew the word “almshouse” but never knew the details.  The first Newton almshouse (aka “poorhouse”) was built in 1817 in Auburndale, roughly on the location of the now defunct Turtle Lane Playhouse.  Previous to this, the city more or less auctioned off the poor folks to individuals for their labor through a process called “vendue” so the almshouses were a definite step forward.  In 1840, the city built a 2nd almshouse in the backwater of Waban.

After the railroad arrived in Waban in the 1880’s, serious development began, property values started to rise and pressure mounted to move the poorhouse out of Waban.  In 1900 a new replacement almshouse opened on Winchester St.  That house ran continuously until it was shuttered in 1964 and soon after demolished.

The only remaining building in the city with a direct connection to Newton almshouse history is a small 1 1/2 story brick building at the site of the Winchester St almshouse, that was used to store vegetables.  It’s now in the hands of the Parks and Recreation Dept, and they’re trying to decide what to do with it.  It’s an important piece of history but it’s of limited utility and will be expensive to rehabilitate.

Says Mike – The remaining almshouse structure was solidly built in 1938, probably as a WPA structure.  It has a 12 foot high, 20 inch thick stone foundation topped by a one foot thick brick structure.  While it was used as a carpentry shop by the Public Buildings Department for about 50 years, it was not well maintained and now needs costly maintenance and improvements.  As part of the deal for providing a site for temporary Fire Station 10 in Nahanton Park, the building will be turned over to Parks and Rec, which has yet to find a use for it.  The committee searching for a use is soliciting suggestions consistent with a park or recreation use.  Ideas can be sent directly to the Parks & Rec Commission ([email protected]) or to [email protected].

Aside from the details of this building, Mike’s entire history of Newton’s almshouses is full of all sorts of amazing and fascinating details.

* The 19th century institutional names – “The Mass School for Idiotic and Feeble Minded Youth”, “The Home for Crippled Children”

* Insanity and the poor – Prior to 1830, the insane and the destitute were lumped together and housed together

* The story of the Blind Hermit of Nonantum

* Roads and almshouses – the common arrangement, followed in Newton, where the Warden of the Almshouse was also the Superintendent of Roads since the almshouse residents performed much of the labor on the roads

*Poor foreigners –  Edwin Fowle, Newton’s 1883 Overseer of the Poor floating the idea that the city should stop collecting poll taxes from the incoming foreigners so that the city would avoid the legal obligation of looking after its foreign born indigent.

Many thanks go to Mike Clarke for becoming a local historian and delving into this almost forgotten history of Newton.


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