The towers of Medford.

‘Tell the towers thereof.’ Psalm 48: 12.

IN a former issue of the Register, its readers have been enabled to perambulate the town lines; in this they may learn of its towers, ancient and modern.

Consulting our dictionary we find a tower to be a structure tall or lofty as compared with its basal size, and are referred to spire, pagoda, campanile and steeple as related thereto.

We remember that in our earliest schooldays a geography or atlas had upon its cover a grouped picture of the world's then tallest buildings, the great pyramid of Egypt forming its background. Its apex of five hundred feet was the limit of human constructive ability. Contemporary with it was Gleason's Pictorial, which carried into many homes, weekly, a view of Boston from the harbor, its crowning feature the State house dome and cupola, accentuated by the many church spires of that time.

That was before the age of steel and the erection of modern office buildings; and no one thought then that the granite custom-house would grow to a height exceeding Cheops, or of a three-hundred-foot structure in Medford. The same authority (the dictionary) tells us that towers were originally built for religious or memorial purposes or for defense. But an older Book tells of the earliest tower of which we have record, in these words,

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name. . . and they left off to build the city.

Hard burned brick laid in bitumen is most durable construction, but the purpose failed to pass inspection. [p. 2] Evidently this tower of centuries agone was not one of religion, and failed of completion as a memorial. Read this about one for defense and shelter as it is told in old English:

‘And bildide a tour, and hiride it to erthe tilleris & wente fer in pilgrimage’

Wycliffe's trans. Matthew XXI.

That mentioned in the parable was a watch-tower.

And now we come to the first Medford tower, its use or purpose both secular and religious. It was that of the second Medford meeting-house. Indeed, we have often wondered why its height, thirty-three feet to the eaves, was so disproportionate to its width of thirty-eight. It being built in the valley, perhaps on the site of a brickyard, those early citizens may have emulated a little the ambitions of others, and, tall as their new meeting-house was with its pyramidal roof, they built thereon a little tower, i. e., a toweret or turret, and in it later was placed the first Medford bell.

But it was nearly a century after its first settling that Medford acquired this visible distinction which is a feature of New England towns. Though the first meeting-house, on the ‘great rock by Oborn rode,’ never had this distinguishing exterior feature, it had in its pulpit a ‘little tower,’ or tourelle, in the person of its minister, who spelled his name Turell,—which would indicate that his ancestors were of French extraction. To him it was given to be the occupant of the second pulpit during its entire existence and to begin that of another. That second pulpit only lacked supporting pillars under its ‘sounding board’ (it being suspended by an iron rod), to make it almost a duplicate of the bell turret, the only example of which latter now remaining is that in Hingham, built in 1681.

In 1669-70 was built the third meeting-house. This had the feature of ‘a tower from the ground,’ whose first floor formed a vestibule, and contained a staircase leading to the gallery. Higher up, may (prior to 1812) have [p. 3] been stored the town's stock of powder. We are assuming this last, as such was the custom elsewhere.

This tower was quite imposing in appearance, five stories in height, and stood directly against the easterly end of the meeting-house, which was of ample proportion to accommodate the growing town. It was surmounted by an open belfry. A lofty, tapering spire, which latter seems to have been an afterthought, was a visible monument to Medford's ‘civic pride.’ Whether its builders had disposition to ‘crow over their neighbors’ of Woburn, Malden and Cambridge or over Charlestown (some of whose territory had lately been acquired) may not be said; but upon this lofty spire was perched a great brass rooster, beside which the present Unitarian bird is but a chicken. We were told by an eye-witness that Sam Swan, who lived next door, captured this same brass bird (which fell at his feet when the spire was pulled down in 1839), and carried it home with him.

In the fifth story of this tower was placed in 1810 the first of Medford's public clocks, a gift to the town by Hon. Peter Chardon Brooks. We read in ‘Paul Revere's Ride’

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town

Doubtless the hour was right, but Mr. Longfellow was thirty-five years ahead of time, by poetic license. To be historically correct, read hereafter, by the villagers' clocks, and do no injustice to the famous poem.

Before the rooster's downfall the second Medford bell was safely lowered, and with the clock had a resting time. At the completion of the new Unitarian meetinghouse (for such it was still called) both clock and bell were placed in its steeple for fifty-four years more of associated service.

But by this time the style of meeting-house architecture had undergone a change, and Medford people followed the ‘fashion’ and ‘steepled church edifices’ [p. 4] came into vogue. There had also come a varying thought in the religious belief of the people, sufficient to require several houses of worship. The great meetinghouse on the hill, with its ‘tower from the ground,’ was the last built by municipal appropriation. State and church being separated, each church organization must build for itself, and according to its taste and means. That they did so may be seen in the illustrated pages 340-41-42 in Brooks' History of Medford. These views are worth a careful study. They show a sturdy character, sensible and careful construction, architectural taste, both elaborate and modest, in all.

In that of the ‘Second Congregational Meetinghouse, 1824,’ we find the first of the ‘storied steeples’ built in Medford. Note the colonnaded front with its wreathed entablature; also the consoles under the sloping roof cornice. But we see none of this upon the sides of the structure. Its windows show circular tops, but this may have been only exterior blinds. But the four-storied steeple, with its massive urns, clock dials and louvers, its final section octagonal and domed, all show the skill of an architect, and set the style of the next five to be built in Medford.

Next was the ‘First Parish Meeting-house (Unitarian) 1839,’ a little larger on the ground; here again a colonnade of four detached columns and four pilasters. A similar treatment of the sides shows it to he classic Greek, in its lines almost severe. But its tower was one worth seeing. In the gable beneath, was a circular window whose sash bars resembled the equator, parallels and meridians of the map of the hemispheres, and enclosed in a wreath of carved woodwork. The first story, in which was the clock, resembled the die of a monument, and each cornice had a gabled pediment, each corner surmounted with the conventional honeysuckle in carving, as was each corner of the building itself. More elaborate was the belfry colonnade above the clock, whose four dials were encircled by a carved wreath. [p. 5] Next above the belfry was an octagon story with a fluted pillar at each corner, and this was topped by a circular section, also pillared and domed. Both these had an ornamental metallic cresting at the edge of the cornice. Whether intentional or not, the artist shows the vanes (similar in appearance) of these two towers pointing in opposite directions. An idea of the size of these four columns may be had from the following, told by one of the workmen who assisted at its building: Accidentally dropping his hammer therein, he procured a rope and lowered a boy down inside, who securing it was safely hoisted out.

Of the three other views mentioned, the ‘Universalist, 1832’ shows the colonnade effect in four pilasters, and an unspired steeple of two stories with diminutive turrets at the four corners, while the ‘Methodist Meeting-house, 1844,’ has but a single-storied and four-gabled cupola, with larger and taller corner turrets. By 1849 we find the ‘Mystic Church, Congregational’ following in the steps of its mother, with a colonnaded front of four Corinthian pilasters (still recognizable in the present edifice)and a circular window, similar but larger than that of the First Parish. Unlike either, it had no steeple of any sort, and we may put the time of its erection as about that of the decadence of steeple building, for the fashion was to change.

Thus far we have written of the tower, the turret and steeple, and their erection and use in connection with the meeting-house, now by custom (also changeable) called church, and so since 1849.

As these of the various faiths were erected, there was no occasion for others until the growth of the town toward its border lines made it, and by that time the ‘fashion’ had changed and the tower came into its own again. St. Mary's, on Salem street, near Malden line, whose brick tower in which is a clock paid for by Medford, was the first to build. Then Grace church, out growing its wooden chapel of 1850, acquired largely [p. 6] through the munificence of Mrs. Ellen Shepherd Brooks its beautiful stone church with ‘ivy mantled tower.’ In ‘72 the First Methodist and the First Baptist, and in ‘73 Trinity Methodist and the Congregational (both the latter at West Medford and new organizations) erected new houses of worship—a remarkable record for two successive years. All these were of wood; all had the features of a corner tower and belfry, with spires varying from forty-eight to one hundred and forty feet in height. In three the town placed public clocks, at the expense of about six hundred dollars each.

In 1876, the two Congregational churches near Medford square united, and enlarged and remodeled the building on Salem street, erecting a corner tower, belfry and spire. To it was removed the first clock bought by the town (in ‘70), with its associated and former political bell, where they still remain in service. Previously, both had been in the tower of the High street edifice, erected in 1860, replacing the ‘Second Congregational Meetinghouse, 1824,’ burned in 1860. Sold to the Roman Catholics, little change was made in exterior, only the closing of the louvers of the belfry and the substitution of a gilded cross for the weather-vane on the spire. It was told that a bit of pleasant repartee occurred between the Mystic Church pastor and the parish priest on one occasion. The former, in passing, accosted the latter, who in his robes was overlooking the work, with ‘Ah! what are you doing now?’ and got the reply, ‘Sure, we are taking down the emblem of Protestantism and putting in its place that of Christianity.’ We never heard that there was any extended argument over the matter, and venture the opinion, that however convenient it may be to know the way the wind blows, a church spire is an inappropriate place for an ever shifting wind vane. Yet two such remain today. Four have been removed by destructive fire and in rebuilding have not been replaced. One of these was at the time of its placing styled ‘the golden gate,’ because of its resemblance in shape to the old-style farm gate, made by balancing a tree upon a [p. 7] pivot, with its interwoven branches closing the space below it. It was eight feet in length and over one hundred and fifty feet in the air, on the Methodist church on Salem street. The tall tower of this (its third house of worship) was rectangular, sixteen by twenty-two feet, and its slated spire (surmounting an open belfry), a wedge six feet in width at the top. It was the architect's design to have the iron spindle, on which the vane swung, at the front end of this ridge, but the builders suited their own convenience, placing it in the middle.

In 1885 the vane became damaged, the ‘butt of the log’ slanted downward and appeared likely to fall. To add to the danger, several slates near the apex had become loosened and hung by one nail in an angular position, one directly over the side entrance door. Being one of the ‘committee on repairs’ who could find none willing to undertake the job, the writer, with no previous experience as steeplejack, undertook its removal and repair himself. Building a scaffolding of two tiers on all sides, on timbers projecting from the belfry floor and about the clock dials, made a starting place for the upward climb of the eastern side of the wedge. Three stagings were made by bolting brackets on the spire, two men outside and two inside doing the work. The fourth depended on the strength of nails and skillful driving, to sustain the weight of two men and apparatus. Three feet higher was the ridge on which we stood. Clinging to the iron spindle, we sawed off an iron set-screw, releasing the four-branched cardinal, and lashed the vane to a stout pole by which it was lifted higher and off the supporting pivot.

It was our first experience ‘on the pinnacle of the temple’; strict attention to the business in hand allowed no inclination to cast ourselves down—there were two of us—and we had little time to admire the view. About a dozen ascents finished our work, and we got safely through it. The gilders that replaced the vane and cardinals left the latter in wrong position, and they never told the truth afterward. [p. 8]

The public clock was in the base of the spire, whose broad sides presented a great exposure to the winds. The weights that propelled its mechanism were huge wooden boxes filled with ledge stone, the larger some six feet in height. Far up near the apex were the sheaves over which extended the chains to which the weights were attached, and whose pivots sometimes needed lubrication by the care taker. As a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, the fact of that enormous weight hanging over his head as he turned the crank numerous times in the weekly winding was far from assuring. But care takers came and went, and so did the worshipers pass in and out for thirty-two years. Like the cathedral lamps of Pisa they swung to and fro in that Medford tower, but there was no Medford Galileo watching their oscillations, for few ever saw them or sensed the overhanging danger.

But the end came on Saturday evening, August 19, 1905, when Medford had all at once three incendiary fires. That in this church spread so rapidly that practically nothing could be removed from it. The tall tower formed a flue up which the flames sped to attack the lofty spire. No set piece of pyrotechnic display was so destructively gorgeous as that presented to our vision when we arrived and found Salem street roped off for safety. The wall and roof covering entirely burned away, the heavier timbers, even to the apex of the wedge, with vane glittering in the intense heat, stood wreathed in flame and burning to their certain fall. Attacked by the upward draught of flame, the weight boxes burst asunder, and down came a cascade of rocks, and also the clock and bell.

While looking on, and thinking of the two-year struggle we had to pay the heavy mortgage of many years' standing. which was a part of its early adornment, we were aroused by a hand on our shoulder, and the words, ‘Well, Mr.——,you'll never stand up there again.’ It was the painter who assisted in the repair described. [p. 9] It has been remarked that ‘what people do not know does not hurt,’ but it might have. We may trust no other such menace exists as was ended that night.

In rebuilding, the Methodists located elsewhere and built partially of stone, with a corner tower of stone, but of lesser height. In intervening years the Universalists remodeled theirs, discarding the steeple and adding a corner tower. At Tufts College, in the 80's, Goddard Chapel was built of stone from the slate ledge nearby. It has a lofty Lombardic tower which contains the new college bell, and its location on the hill makes it visible in all directions.

In ‘96 Trinity Methodist built its second house, with two towers. The larger at the modest height of sixty-five feet carries the ‘emblem of Christianity,’ seen as a cross from any point of view. In the same year were erected the Baptist Church nearby and the Hillside Universalist, both of which have the corner tower as a notable feature of construction.

St. Joseph's, on High street, is of brick, and its lofty tower has tourelles at its corners, of the same enduring material. Five crosses gleam in the sunlight on this.

Destroyed by fire, the classic edifice of the Unitarians has been replaced by a more modern one of stone, whose tower has a castellated coping, and on whose low spire is perched a cock, said to be ‘a scriptural emblem.’ This is the third church edifice to stand on this spot.

Another fire left the Congregationalists of West Medford homeless: not friendless, however, as while the flames were raging came offers of open doors from their neighbors. A new church home of Weymouth granite was ere long erected on High street. Its tower of modest height contains the public clock and the re-cast bell that ‘went through fire and water.’ No lofty spire surmounts it, but four graceful turrets of stone at its corners give it an attractive finish, which is enhanced by the stairway tower of the chapel.

At South Medford, the first and second homes of the [p. 10] Union Congregational embodied the same feature of the corner tower, though not in so marked a degree. Even the little chapel at Wellington was in ‘fashion,’ and had a little open belfry on the corner of its roof, which in time housed the city bell.

St. Clement's, in modern stucco, has its square tower of Italian look. St. Raphael's is in Spanish mission style and has no bell tower, but a most unique ventilating turret centrally on its roof sustaining a tall gilded cross. Even the smallest, that of Shiloh, has its open cupola that might hold a bell.

The Hillside Methodist has its tower and bell; the South Medford Baptist, however, in its building never incorporated the feature of tower, turret or steeple. Two others, at present in temporary structures, have none.

So far, in our walk about our home Zion, i. e. Medford, and telling the towers therof we have dealt with those of a religious character. Counties have often incorporated this feature in their court houses, as did Middlesex at Cambridge and Lowell, even having two on the jail at the latter city. Medford never had a semblance of one on the good old town hall, though one of lofty style was proposed for the new one, nearly disrupting the town. But in the houses of the fire department it was once a useful feature. They may still be seen in the Central, Salem street and South Medford stations in brick, and the wooden tower at Glenwood. That at Salem street is peculiarly graceful in design.

To its schoolhouses the feature of a cupola that might contain a bell was but sparingly applied, save in one instance, that of the first Brooks School at West Medford. A description of this may be found in Vol. XIX of the Register.

The tower often lends itself to the utility of a factory, but Medford had few of such. We have been told of one, the Stearns oil mill, that had a detached chimney some fifty feet high that in time was moved across the ‘branch canal’ in its upright position, securely too, to a new location, certainly quite a feat to perform. The [p. 11] same Mr. Stearns had a windmill tower of brick, the ruin of which may still be seen beside College avenue. With its revolving sails it was an interesting sight, especially when in operation. In sight of that was another tower (once a windmill), the old powder house just over the line in Somerville.

Harvard College erected on the hill beside Winthrop street in 1850 a tower, or cairn of rock, only a few years ago removed. This was for a meridian mark, and due north from the observatory at Cambridge.

Even the most casual observer will note the difference in the dwellings of any town, and experienced ones can tell nearly the time of their erection. The central cupolas came in fashion in the early fifties, and to enumerate them would make an extended list. At about the same time an L-shaped house with a four-story tower at its internal angle was the correct thing as note the Smith residence (the home of the preceptress of the famous Mystic Hall Seminary), the Wood residence near by and the Chapin house on the hill. Placed upon its eastern front was the elaborately treated tower of Thatcher Magoun. Along in the nineties builders discovered that a corner bay-window added to the attractiveness of a ‘living room,’ and very soon carried it up higher. To solve the question of desirable roof, some went even higher. Soon the idea elaborated itself into octagonal and circular forms, with steeply pointed roofs terminated with ornamental finials of wood or metal. When examples of this style became more numerous, a certain newspaper writer held it up to ridicule, in an almost scurrilous article in a Boston daily. In the years that have elapsed has come the tenement house, into which numerous families are crowded, with little privacy or home-like surroundings.

Happily, the once cheaply constructed ‘three flatter’ is now prohibited, but the home-seeker of moderate means finds it difficult to attain his single dwelling house, and did even before the present inflated cost began. [p. 12]

Turning from these to others we allude to the steel trestle of the Radio Corporation on College hill. But four feet square, it is three hundred feet high and held in position by several guys. It is to be hoped that it never may become a menace to travelers or the locality.

Another tower, of little beauty, but for a time of some utility, was the water tower for high service, erected at Elm street, near Wright's pond, as auxiliary to the Medford water supply. It was a cylindrical structure of iron boiler plate, into which the water of the pond was pumped for a few years, and was approximately fifty feet high. Its use was discontinued and it was taken down when the city's supply was taken over by the Metropolitan Commission.

There are two observation towers in Medford, one of private ownership, the other of municipal. The latter is the circular stone tower in the park at Hastings Heights. It stands at the crown of the ledge and is about thirty feet high. A circular iron staircase gives access to the concrete floor within its castellated battlement. From this a superb view of Medford and surrounding country may be had. It is one of the creations of Medford's park commission. A Medford engineer, Mr. E. P. Adams, designed it, and two Medford men, Messrs. Byron and Rowe, constructed it, certainly creditable to them all.

But higher and more remote is the great steel tower on the so-called Ram-head hill, erected by the late General S. C. Lawrence, and commonly called the Lawrence Observatory. The top of this hill is variously stated as being two hundred and five or two hundred and twenty-nine feet above sea level. The tower itself consists of four steel fifteen-inch I beams, set diagonally at the corners and firmly secured to the ledge. At every floor these are connected by horizontal beams of steel and in every space diagonal steel ties firmly brace the structure. It is thirty-four feet square at the base and sixteen at the top. There are six floors of the best of [p. 13] wood, the uppermost eighty-one feet from the base and reached by five flights of stairs, in all one hundred and thirty-four steps. There, stands a flagstaff of thirty-five feet, and over this floor in summer an awning is spread. It is easily approached by the way of Rural avenue, and is about a mile from Winthrop square, and nearer the Winchester boundary line. It was erected by the contracting firm of Woodbury & Leighton, and its architect a Medford man, Mr. Lyman Sise. Its exact location precisely expressed is latitude 42° 26′ 18.8″ north and longitude 71° 7′ 16.2″ west. On a clear day, Monadnock is visible in the northwest, 3,170 feet high.

A little north of west is Wachusett, 2,018 feet, in central Massachusetts. Blue hill, the highest point in eastern Massachusetts, 635 feet, crowned by the Rotch Observatory lies beyond the Memorial hall at Cambridge.

A winter visit to this tower is interesting, though not always comfortable, but one in early summer will reveal a scene of wonderful beauty as one looks down upon the billowy waving green of the surrounding forest, the land-locked lakes of Winchester, the neighboring Fells and over the home city to those beyond. One can trace the moving railway trains by a line of dissolving smoke or escaping steam, but their noise is little in evidence. Though private property, its public-spirited owner made the public welcome to enjoy it, and it is a sad commentary on the manners (or lack thereof) of some visitors that notices are posted requesting visitors not to deface the same. To such extent some of the youth Medford spends so much to educate carried their ill conduct, there has been a possibility of its closure to everybody. The city's tower in Hastings park was even worse treated, and now closed by an iron gate, can only be entered by procuring a key at a neighboring dwelling. Even one of our church buildings has suffered from such indignity, and its entrance porch is closed by an iron gate, excepting only the time of public worship.

We have made a long story of the Medford towers, [p. 14] but we recall the closing words of our text taken from Holy Writ, ‘tell it to the generation following.’ For the information of those coming after, it is written. On the printed page it may be preserved. Those we have described have been not only useful, but memorials of service, of civic ambition (perhaps of pride), during two and a quarter centuries of a people who served well their day and generation.

The spirit of vandalism and disrespect is abroad among the young, as above shown. That such should be restrained, primarily by home and parental teaching, influence and example is evident from depredations committed within sight of the military and police quarters. Especially tell it to the generation following.

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