Historic Boston digs into Fields Corner's past

Ever since brothers Enos and Isaac Field opened up a little store there almost 200 years ago, the corner of Adams Street and Dorchester Avenue has been known as Fields Corner. Today it is a bustling 'urban cluster' of shops, restaurants and other businesses, many of them owned and run by Vietnamese-Americans.

Historic Boston Incorporated began looking at ways to illuminate that arc of history last December, when it chose the corner as one of two pilots for historic renovation of neighborhood centers in the city, and some of the early results of their research are in.

At Fields Corner Main Streets' annual meeting last night, HBI presented several historic highlights around the neighborhood and a work plan describing how they might bring some of them to light.

Interesting to anyone who has sat through a Fields Corner Civic Meeting was the revelation that at one time, the business community at the corner had a much higher density than it does today. Several two- and three-story masonry and wood buildings have ceased to shadow area sidewalks.

Two three-story buildings flanked the entrance to Charles Street at Dot Ave. in one undated photo for example. One held O'Keefe's coffee bean shop and Wachter's ice cream store. Today the spot is home to the one-story Structure Beauty Salon and a parking lot.

In another later photo, HBI noticed that a diner inhabited the shotgun style building that currently houses Gallagher's Insurance, also near Charles Street.

"The grill was on the right," said John Gallagher, who inherited his dad's company with his brother Bill. "You can still see the vent there. Lots of people come in here from time to time who used to come here when it was a diner."

His father John Gallagher Sr. bought the place in 1960 and moved his insurance business in. According to John Jr., the place was a flower shop before the diner, and may have been a "chuckwagon" before that. A set of old wagon wheels can be seen underneath the tiny building when the wood paneling is taken off the side, he said.

Another focus for HBI was the Robinson block, currently housing D'Bennys Subs & More, Kim-Mai Beauty Salon and a number of other businesses at Dot Ave. and Adams. Apparently, the building was strikingly different when it was built in the mid 1800s as a wooden structure with a mansard roof. Today the same building is a two-story stucco job with a flat roof and an entirely different profile.

HBI, in conjunction with Viet-AID and Field's Corner Main Streets, plans to spend two years or more identifying historic resources, collaborating with property owners to rehabilitate or redevelop buildings such as the O'Hearn Storage building (a former music hall) or 1500 to 1514 Dot Ave. (which hides a far more attractive fa├žade than it shows), and reach out to the wider community with communication tools like a website and a historic resource collection at the Fields Corner Branch Library.

"I think it's an interesting project," said Earl Taylor of the Dorchester Historical Society. "No one has any control or clout or anything, but what HBI is trying to do is show what a building could possibly look like."

The question of whether property owners will take on the redevelopment projects seems to be on the minds of many observing HBI's progress, but few doubt that doing so would bring new possibilities to the neighborhood.

"It's going to be like anything now, 'What's it going to cost me,'" said Tom Gannon of Field's Corner Civic Association, one of the project's advisors. "Property owners will need to determine if the projects are financially worthwhile for them in order to consider making repairs."