From its perch beside Union Square, Prospect Hill is home to a diverse community of families, seniors, students, and young professionals. Today, the neighborhood is perhaps most widely recognized as the location of a 42-foot granite tower atop the hill which provides panoramic views of Boston and Cambridge. Dedicated in 1903, the tower is a monument to the historic place Prospect Hill holds in both the American Revolution and the Civil War. In addition to the Prospect Hill monument and park, the neighborhood is also home to several playgrounds, community gardens, public housing complexes, and the City of Somerville’s Recreation Department. Prospect Hill also has several local historic districts featuring well-crafted Victorian homes with columned porches, turrets, gingerbread ornamentation, and stained glass windows.
Colonization and the American Revolution
Because of its commanding view of Boston and the harbor, Prospect Hill was a strategic location during the American Revolution and became the site of the strongest fortification in the colonists' frontline. General George Washington stationed Continental Army troops on Prospect Hill during the British siege of Boston. It was at the base of the hill in present-day Union Square that fighting took place as British soldiers returned from Lexington and Concord on the day the Revolution broke out in 1775. On January 1, 1776, General Washington ordered that a new flag be raised on a 76-foot schooner mast placed on Prospect Hill. This Grand Union Flag was the first true American flag, representing the united colonies. The hill would later serve as a prisoner of war camp for captured British soldiers.
Early Settlement and the Civil War
In 1842, Somerville was established after separating from Charlestown. In celebration of the occasion, 100 guns were fired from Prospect Hill. Around this time, the first houses were built on the hill by grain dealers Robert Aldersey Vinal and Robert Munroe. Other wealthy merchants and real estate speculators bought large tracts of land on the southern slope of the hill, hoping to quickly resell subdivided lots for a profit.
As the Civil War began in 1861, Prospect Hill was used as a training camp, while Union Square (its name changed from Liberty Pole Square in support of the Union) served as a recruitment center. On the hill, soldiers raised a flagpole in the same location as their revolutionary ancestors.
The real transformation of the neighborhood occurred after the Civil War. The Somerville Journal declared in 1870 that "Prospect Hill will ultimately be the most aristocratic and fashionable place in the suburbs of Boston." There was even talk of building a summer hotel on the hill. To improve the area, the City decided to fill in the polluted Miller's River running near Union Square. To do so, in 1874 they chopped off the top of Prospect Hill to use for filler, a common practice in Boston around this time. Ten feet of the 125-foot hill was carved away, though a small section of the original elevation was retained.
With Union Square becoming the commercial center of Somerville, a house-building boom began in the 1870s and continued into the 1900s. Somerville's population, 14,700 in 1872, grew to 69,000 by 1900. Prospect Hill became a popular location for prominent families to build large, single-family homes. These were typically provision, grain, or leather dealers or merchants who commuted to Boston by horsecar and train (and later by electric streetcar).
In the midst of all this Victorian development, the spirit of preservation arose among many residents. Starting in the 1870s, the Prospect Hill Improvement Society and other civic improvement groups started lobbying to preserve the hill and build a park to commemorate its historic role. In the 1890s, the Prospect Hill Park Association formed and sent a petition with over 500 names to City Council to argue for a park. In 1898, the new Somerville Historical Society held a "Historic Festival at Ye Foot of Prospect Hill" to increase public awareness.
These preservation efforts paid off in the new century. The City bought the land for the park (then containing two houses) in 1902, and built a 42-foot granite tower to commemorate the hill for future generations. The structure was dedicated on October 29, 1903. A tablet inside reads: "This tablet is erected in memory of the soldiers of the Revolution and of the Civil War who encamped on Prospect Hill and of the banners under which they valiantly fought."
Since its creation, Prospect Hill Park remains relatively unchanged and is a popular gathering place for neighbors and visitors, including an annual block party. In 1955, concrete retaining walls were installed around the tower to address erosion problems. In 2015, the tower underwent repair and restoration. Every year on January 1, Somerville residents gather on Prospect Hill for a rousing (and often cold) ceremony commemorating the historic raising of the Grand Union Flag in 1776. A handful of neighborhood residents continue the tradition by flying the Grand Union Flag outside their homes throughout much of the year.
Residents of Prospect Hill maintain an email listserv to distribute neighborhood news and information. Interested neighbors are welcome to sign-up.
Individuals who wish to purchase a Grand Union flag (sometimes referred to as the Continental Colors flag) for their home can buy them online here.
Adapted in part from:
Steve Mulder, “The History of Prospect Hill.” MulderMedia.
“So Fine a Prospect: A Walking Tour of Prospect Hill & Union Square.” a self-guided walking tour brochure produced by Brandon Wilson, Executive Director, and Kristi Chase, Preservation Planner, Somerville Historic Preservation Commission, in coordination with Edward W. Gordon, President, Victorian Society of America, New England Chapter.
Frederick J. Lund, “Brief History of Somerville, 1600-1942.” Somerville Planning Department, 1996
Last Updated: 03/4/2016
Image: Prospect Hill Monument Post Card, courtesy of MulderMedia.
Image: Raising the First American Flag, Somerville, Mass., January 1, 1776 by Clyde O. De Land, courtesy of New York Public Library.
Image: S.E. Brackett House, 63 Columbus Avenue. Built 1880.
Image: Somerville Community Growing Center, 22 Vinal Avenue.
Image Properzi Manor is a 110-unit senior/young disabled housing development located 13-25 Warren Avenue on Prospect Hill.