Savin Hill
Community Profile

Savin Hill — a Boston neighborhood with its own history

By Kathleen Howley, Globe Correspondent, 8/08/1998

Savin Hill at a glance
Settled: 1630.
Area: one square mile.
Population: 15,000.
Tax rate: residential $13.47, commercial $38.45.
Government: Boston city council, mayor.
Services: Boston Electric, Boston Gas, city water and sewer.
School: St. William's Parochial School.
Public transportation: MBTA subway and buses.
Houses of worship: St. William's Church.
Cultural/Recreational: Savin Hill Beach, Malibu Beach, Tenean Beach, Dorchester Yacht Club, Savin Hill Yacht Club, Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, public tennis courts, Savin Hill Park.
For the most part, people who are "OFD" — Originally From Dorchester — tend to be fairly well-versed in the basic history of the neighborhood. As a measure of that, many of them know, and are quick to point out, that their community is older than the city of Boston. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Whether they still live in the neighborhood, or whether they are natives who have scattered to towns throughout eastern Massachusetts, they seem to have a certain pride in being first.

Actually, it comes down to a matter of months, said Anthony M. Sammarco, a Dorchester native who has authored a series of books on the history of Boston neighborhoods, including "Dorchester," published three years ago.

The Savin Hill area of Dorchester was settled in the first week of June, 1630. Boston wasn't settled until September of that year, when Gov. John Winthrop moved his band of Puritans from Charlestown to the Shawmut Peninsula, later called Boston, drawn by the availability of spring water, said Sammarco.

"It was only three months, but it is a very important point to many people, particularly people from Dorchester. Savin Hill was, in fact, settled before Boston," he said.

The first Dorchesterites were Puritans who came on the "Mary and John" from England. Originally, they settled further south on the coast, in the Hull area, before deciding to move north to a hill overlooking a well-protected harbor — now called Dorchester Bay.

They landed their boats and built a settlement for about 140 people near what is today the intersection of Grampian Way and Savin Hill Avenue. Originally, they named the area Rock Hill, said Sammarco.

By the 1780s, the name of the area had changed to Old Hill. "In the late 1700s, when our country was in its infancy, Savin Hill was considered the old part of town. That's really old," said Sammarco.

Originally, the boundary of Dorchester extended almost to the Rhode Island border. As the years went by, settlements broke away and the geographical size of the town continued to shrink until 1870, when it disappeared — on paper, at least. In that year, the town of Dorchester was incorporated into the city of Boston, and the name became the designation of a neighborhood. By then, the rocky hill where the Puritans first settled had changed its name again — to Savin Hill.

A hotel proprietor, Joseph Tuttle, invented the new label in 1819. "He had just opened a luxurious hotel at what is today the intersection of Savin Hill Avenue and Tuttle Street, and he wanted a more elegant name for the area," Sammarco said.

Tuttle named the hill after the red juniper trees that then flourished in the area. Today, there are none left. "If you look at paintings from that time that show that area, the hill was covered with Savin trees. Today, sadly, all of them are gone," he said.

After the Civil War, the Worthington family, which owned much of the land in present-day Savin Hill, began selling house lots. That's when many of the Victorian homes that line the slope of the hill were constructed.

Nancy Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Company Real Estate in Dorchester, said the Savin Hill neighborhood today is divided into two distinct sections — "over the bridge," and "not over the bridge."

When the Southeast Expressway was constructed in the late 1950s, it split the area in two and created a new bias, she said.

"It's definitely more desirable to live `over the bridge,' " said Sullivan, who has been selling real estate in Dorchester for 25 years. The "over the bridge" area is filled with single-family homes, including many Victorians, that sell in the $160,000 to $230,000 range.

Two- and three-family homes in that section tend to sell for about $185,000 to $245,000. "On the ocean side of the highway -- what we call `over the bridge' — they're closer to the beaches, they tend to have bigger yards, and more of a country feeling. On the other side, not over the bridge, the houses are smaller and closer together. It's considered almost to be a different world," Sullivan said.

"Not over the bridge" properties list at about $130,000 to $160,000 for a single-family and $140,000 to $200,000 for a two-family or a three-decker, she said.

Regardless of where they stand in relation to the bridge, there are not many properties listed in Savin Hill, Sullivan said.

"It's an excellent area. A lot of things go by word of mouth. We are very fortunate if we get a Savin Hill listing. Right now, we have none," she said.

A broker from her office was involved earlier this year in the sale of a "not over the bridge" Savin Hill two-family home, on Saxton Street, that went for $149,000, she said.

"Prices in Dorchester have gone up at least 10 percent since then," she said.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 8/08/1998.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
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