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Eliot Congregational Church
120 Walnut Ave.
by Andrew Hatt, Northeastern Public History Program
For the beginning of the nineteenth century, tanneries, breweries and ropewalks defined Roxbury; its craftsman supplied goods not only to Boston, but to the rest of the United States as well. Starting in the 1840s however, the character of various parts of Roxbury began to change. One of these areas was the section of Roxbury south of Dudley Square, which began to grow increasingly residential. Industries like leather tanning and brewing had little interest in the area due to its uneven terrain. However, the area appealed to individuals seeking to build mansions and summer homes. Over the rest of the nineteenth century, this area became built-up with other types of homes and residences, especially after the trolley line from Boston was incorporated, providing a quick link to the downtown area.
Due to this aforementioned increased development, it became necessary to build more churches in Roxbury. The history of Eliot Congregational Church begins in Eliot Square with the First Church Roxbury. Ultimately, the story of Eliot Congregational Church is also the story of three congregational parishes in Roxbury. Founded in 1834 and built in 1835 along Kenilworth Street in the Highlands section of Roxbury, Eliot Congregational Church was the first church constructed by the Orthodox Congregationalist who had broken away from the First Church Roxbury when it became Unitarian. The church itself honors the “Apostle to the Indians” John Eliot.
Over the next few decades, the Eliot Congregational Church on Kenilworth flourished, so much so that some of its members were dismissed in 1857 to found the Vine Street Congregational Church. Less than two decades after that in 1876, the Vine Street Church moved to a new building on Moreland Street and was subsequently renamed the Immanuel Congregational Church where it flourished as well. Given the success of the both congregational churches, and the continued growth of the suburban population of Roxbury, it became apparent that another church would be needed and as a result, the Walnut Avenue Congregational Church was established in December of 1870. The area surrounding Walnut Street was a flourishing upper-middle class neighborhood, which provided and excellent financial base for the congregation. The church itself was constructed in 1873 on the corner of Walnut Avenue and Dale Street at a cost of $42,418.11 and featured a High Victorian Gothic religious structure. A 115 square foot stained glass window manufactured by Louis Tiffany (installed in 1905) was the highlight of the interior. Population growth continued to define the Walnut Street Congregational Church, especially as members of both Eliot and Immanuel Church began to flock there. New construction was necessary again in 1889 when a new chapel adjacent to the Walnut Street Congregational Church was completed. The chapel itself was deigned by architect J. Williams Beal and built by L. E. Giddings of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The design used the English vernacular style, similar to the All Souls Unitarian Church and Harriswood Crescent, both of Roxbury.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century however, the population of the neighborhood surrounding the Walnut Avenue Congregational Church began to change, ultimately resulting in it being joined with Immanuel Congregational Church in 1907 to form the Immanuel-Walnut Congregational Church. In the wake of World War I, the population of Eliot Church began to expand rapidly while the Immanuel-Walnut Congregational Church was in a state of decline . After much deliberation, it was determined that the best option for both churches was a merger, with Eliot Church establishing its parish in the Walnut Avenue Church building. This new church would retain the name Eliot Church. On November 30, 1929, fire ravaged the 1889 church built on the site, but the original 1873 church was left unharmed and services continued there. The 1889 chapel was ultimately rebuilt in 1931, but due to dwindling attendance, the congregation decided that it would be best to repurpose the chapel and turn it into a gymnasium. The original Eliot Congregational Church stood on Kenilworth Street until 1953 when it was destroyed by fire.
Source: Nomination Form: National Register of Historic Places.