Roxbury Heritage State Park
183 Roxbury St. Roxbury
by Marcia Butman, Discover Roxbury
The Dillaway Thomas House is named for two occupants of the house: General John Thomas in 1776-1776 and Charles K Dillaway and family in 1835-1903. It is one of the few remaining 18th century houses in Boston.
HISTORY Reverend Oliver Peabody (1725-1752) began construction of the house in 1750 as a parsonage for the First Church in Roxbury, across the street. He died in 1752 before the house was finished and Reverend Amos Adams (1728-1775), completed its construction. During the eleven month siege of Boston (April 1775-March1776), the right wing of the patriot army (4700 soldiers) camped in Roxbury. The first commander, Major
General John Thomas (1725-1776), used the house as his headquarters. Amos Adams was compelled to leave the parsonage with his family and the parish silver and return to Medfield were he was born. John Thomas was educated as a physician. He stood six feet tall with a distinguished face and a commanding presence. He was appointed a surgeon’s mate by Governor William Shirley in 1746 and then served as a lieutenant and a colonel. He commanded a provincial regiment in Sir Jeffrey Amherst’s advance down Lake Champlain in 1760 and led the left wing of a detachment that joined in the capture of Montreal in 1760. He then returned to Kingston and practiced medicine.
In the period leading to open war, Thomas recruited the 2nd Massachusetts regiment in Plymouth County. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress needed to bring order to the army so it appointed this senior officer lieutenant governor (second in command) of all Massachusetts troops in May 1775. He took command of the right wing of the army in Roxbury and gained the commendation of Washington by the orderliness of his camp and by his vigilance and his military qualities.
The rear windows of the house provided a view of Orange Street (now Washington Street), the road from Boston across the neck. It is said that General Thomas watched the Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charlestown from the windows.
In 1786 Reverend Eliphalet Porter (1758-1833) moved in and maintained it as a parsonage. He left the house to his nieces, Martha and Carolyn Porter. Martha and her husband Charles K. Dillaway (1804-1889) moved into the house in 1835. Dillaway was headmaster of Boston Latin School from 1831-1836, when ill health forced him to leave.
He was author of several books, including The Classical Speaker (1830), Roman Antiquities and Ancient Mythology for Classical Schools (1836) and History of the Grammar School or The Free School of 1643 in Roxburie (1860). He was a Deacon and Superintendent of the Sunday School of First Church in Roxbury and librarian at the Boston Society of Natural History from 1833-1864 (now the Boston Museum of Science) In the 1850’s when Japan was opened to the west, Japanese students came to this country for an education. Dillaway educated a group of them at them at the house. After his death in 1889, Martha continued to live in the house until her death in 1903.
In 1927 the Dillaway Thomas House was purchased by the City of Boston . Plans to tear it down and use the land for a new school (now the Timilty Middle School) were opposed by local residents. The house was preserved. The Roxbury Historical Society received funds for restoration and occupied the building in 1937. In 1977 The Museum of Afro-American History in partnership with The Roxbury Historical Society developed plans to renovate the building with the City of Boston for use as museum headquarters. The outside of the building was completed when a fire in 1979 brought renovation to an end. The building was boarded up. In 1984 Roxbury Heritage State Park was funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1992 the Dillaway Thomas House was restored by the state of Massachusetts and became headquarters for Roxbury Heritage State Park.
ARCHITECTURE The Dillaway Thomas House is one of the few surviving examples of 18th century domestic architecture in Boston. It is 5 bays wide and two bays deep with a gambrel roof. The entrance is covered by a Federal style small rectangular portico supported by Doric columns, an early 1800’s addition. The renovations in 1930 were under the direction of Frank Chouteau Brown known for his suburban estate architecture. He was the first director of the Historic Building Survey in Massachusetts until 1947. He and William Sumner Appleton, founder of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England)were particularly concerned about neglected buildings. Brown carefully documented the renovation of the Georgian fibres.
CURRENT USE The Dillaway Thomas House is part of Roxbury Heritage State Park, operated by the Commonwealth Department of Conservation and Recreation/Division of Urban Parks and Recreation.
SOURCES: Boston Landmarks Commission: Building Information Form National Register of Historic Places-Nomination Form: John Eliot Square Drake, Francis. Town of Roxbury: Its Memorable Persons and Places. Roxbury: Published by the author at 131 Warren Street, October, 1878.