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  • The Cat

Methunion Manor

Anyone who knows more about this subject than I, please let me know –I’d like to fill in some of the blanks!

I have long been fascinated by the Methunion Manor buildings—while they are at least brick-covered, rather than concrete-faced, they really do not fit with the rest of the architecture of the neighborhood. I’d wondered about Methunion Manor’s status as a cooperative association, as I was pretty sure it was a low-income housing complex, and I’d wondered about the similarity of the “Methunion” part of their name and the Union United Methodist Church down the street. A quick on-line search, courtesy of Google, confirmed that Methunion Manor was low-income housing and that it was originally sponsored by the Union Church. I was still curious about them and about the beautiful church itself, so I was really excited when I came across an account of the Church and the Manor in the stories of Rachel Twymon and Colin Diver, two of the main characters in On Common Ground, a Pulitzer-Prize winning (nonfiction) account of several families who were affected by the highly controversial bussing of schoolchildren to achieve racial integration in the city of Boston.[1]

The congregation of the Union United Methodist Church was an offshoot of the congregation of the Bromfield Street Methodist Episcopal Church—the church split into two congregations, one white and one black, back in 1823, after blacks and whites had worshiped together for many years.[2] In 1928, the congregation started building their own facility on Shawmut Avenue in Lower Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood, but ran into fund-raising difficulties during the Depression after only the basement of the church was completed. After twenty years of worshiping in the basement, the congregation was ready to resume building the their church, when they got word that Union Congregational Church, which had been dedicated in 1872,[3] was up for sale (because its white congregation had largely deserted it).

The New England Conference of Methodists purchased the church for $65,000 and “deeded it—debt free—to ‘our Negro friends.’”[4] Union Church occupies the better part of a city block. It is an imposing building, built of Roxbury pudding stone in the Victorian Gothic tradition. Its main sanctuary has four stained glass windows on either side, and one of the Columbus Avenue-side entrances is through a wooden door that’s set into a small entrance portico that’s shaped like a triangle stuck on top of a rectangle, except for ornate cut-out section on either side, that leads through a much larger wall with a window that looks like a rounded triangle and consists of a Star of David surrounded by a circle, with two small circles immediately below it and five arched glass panels below them. On the sides of this structure, which also resembles a portico, in that it sticks out in front of the main body of the church, are arched windows and other fanciful Victorian Gothic details. To the right of this door is a section that looks like an annex—the Pembroke side of this annex boasts a door and, to the right of the door, a wall with a triangular roof line jutting above the lower end of the main roof and number of beautiful stained glass windows, including a small teardrop-shaped windows above three arched long windows, and to either side of this is another arched long window in a wall that ends at the roof line. The steeple is on the opposite side of the church, and the main door to the church enters the steeple from West Canton Street. Above this massive door is a series of small arched long windows that lead up to the top of the steeple. In addition, there are stripes of brown stone against the beige stone at several levels going around the church and the steeple. Behind Union Church is Titus Sparrow Park, which is an urban park with a tot’s gym, some benches, and tennis and basketball courts that back up to the Southwest Corridor.

Apparently, the new congregation of Union Church had financial difficulties from the first, as the imposing building was expensive to heat, and the sanctuary, which seated 1,500, housed only 250 congregants on an average Sunday. According to Lukas, the congregants tended to be better off than the blacks who lived around the church (who also tended to be southerners who had moved north and attended either Baptist or storefront evangelical churches), and the Union Church made few efforts to reach out to these potential congregants. In  1964, Gil Caldwell, a friend of the Reverend Martin Luther King, became minister of Union United and began to worry about “his church’s responsibility to its immediate South End community,”[5] as only 15 percent of the congregation lived in the neighborhood, and they tended to be “largely from the old black middle class, descendants of the conductors, porters, and other railroad workers who had settled along the tracks [which constituted the northern border of the South End] in the 1870s”[6] and the fact that the rest of his parishioners lived quite a distance from the church.

Section 221 (d) 3 of the Housing Act of 1961 provided Caldwell with a way to address housing issues in the vicinity of Union United Methodist. This act was designed to allow private groups to provide housing for families who were too well‑off to live in public housing, but too poor to afford market rents of apartments: under Section 221 (d) 3, the interest rate on a building’s mortgage was set at 3 percent; in return, apartment rents were capped at 20 percent below rents charged for non‑subsidized units. A companion measure, passed as part of President Johnson’s Great Society Program, instituted rent supplements (subsidies), under which tenants were to pay 25 percent of their income in rent with the government making up the difference—as a result of this measure, poor people who would otherwise have had to live in public housing were eligible to live in subsidized housing.

After Reverend Caldwell met with Boston city representatives, the church set up the Columbus Avenue Housing Corporation, which was to oversee the project. “[S]everal shabby apartment buildings, the five-story Braddock Hotel, the notorious 411 Lounge, and other bars frequented by black prostitutes and the white hunters who pursued them”[7] were to be razed in order to build Methunion Manor. A black architect, Carl Boles, soon came up with an interesting plan for the four buildings: a series of staggered duplex units stacked on top of one another—designed to echo the Victorian town houses that surrounded the area. The church and the city of Boston were said to have been happy with the design, but the Federal Housing Administration, the insurer for the mortgage, balked at the design due to worries about its cost. Boles had a new design, close to the one that was built.

Urban renewal took a new turn when, on April 26, 1968, a group of activists from the Community Assembly for a United South End (CAUSE) occupied the Fitz-Inn parking at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Columbus Avenue—in the protest known as “Tent City”—a few streets away from Union United. The activists wanted “the B.R.A. [Boston Redevelopment Administration] to stop family relocation, land acquisition and demolition; to build low-rent housing immediately on vacant lots and to revise the entire South End renewal plan in consultation with a ‘truly representative’ elected committee of poor people from the neighborhood.”[8] The activists struck their tents on April 30, 1968, and Hale Champion, the B.R.A. director, “issued a sweeping edict halting further demolition of homes in the South End and promising that a major low-income housing program would be launched within ninety days.”[9]

The South End Project Area Committee (SEPAC), representing the middle-class whites who had moved into the area, entered the fray soon after the revised designs were made available. One of them is quoted as having called the design, “The ugliest housing I’ve ever seen.”[10] According to Lucas, Josh Young, a young banker, convinced the rest of SEPAC to go along with the revised designs, in part by stating; “We may not like the way it looks. But there are thousands of people in our neighborhood who desperately need decent, reasonably priced housing,”[11] and SEPAC approved the plans in the fall of 1969. The FHA gave its final mortgage commitment in April 1970, and ground was broken in May 1970.

Oversight of the building of Methunion Manor was likely lax, as the new minister of Union Church was more interested in “activism” and less interested in Methunion Manor than Reverend Caldwell, and the B.R.A. later found many problems with the construction of the building, including warped doors, leaking roofs, stairs and landings that were pitched in the wrong direction, and poorly done concrete foundations, however, according to Lucas, it was “too late for anything but minor repairs at this point.”[12]

Methunion Manor had been conceived of as a mixed-income complex, but the middle-class was not attracted to the buildings: of the first 147 families who moved into the complex, 38 received rent supplements from the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and 22 more received rent supplements from the B.R.A. According to Boston Globe article, Methunion Manor had a 60 percent vacancy rate[13] in October 1971, as people who could afford the rent, then roughly $222 per month for a four-bedroom apartment, “won’t live in seedy, crime-infested neighborhoods.”[14]

Methunion Manor suffered financially, in part due to the low rents set by HUD, in part due to low-ball initial estimates of operating expenses, in part due to the high inflation of the early 1970s, and in part due to the new minster at Union Church, who was adamant about filling the commercial space in the complex with black‑owned businesses, which was an admirable goal but not one that led to much commercial income. By December 1972, Methunion Manor had defaulted on its mortgage, and HUD bought the bad loan in May 1973. When HUD buys the mortgage on a subsidized property that’s in default, it normally sells the property to commercial developers, who are then free to charge market rents and refuse to continue to offer rent-subsidized housing.  A Boston Globe newspaper article from October 1976 discussed the efforts of the Methunion Manor tenants to band together and negotiate a cooperative agreement with HUD in the face of an effort by the company that had been managing Methunion manor to purchase it from HUD.[15] The head of the HUD property disposition unit was quoted as likening the sale of Methunion Manor to a private developer to “sentencing the tenants to displacement” because of the ease with which a new owner could raise rents, at least in comparison to developments in other, less gentrified parts of the city. The Globe article described the South End as an “economically, socially and racially mixed neighborhood” and noted that its “historical bow front houses and its proximity to the Prudential Center and downtown Boston makes it an attractive community to middle and upper income people.”[16] It wasn’t until October 1985, after ten years of negotiations with HUD, that the tenants of Methunion Manor finally won their battle: the cooperative (in which each of the tenants holds a share) successfully purchased the building from HUD.[17] The president of the Methunion Manor tenants’ association was quoted in 1992 as saying: “Some of us call this place heaven.” He was also cited as noting that because the tenants own a share in the cooperative, “people watch out for each other and are much more concerned about keeping the place in good shape.”[18]

Today, the buildings look to be in good shape, the areas around the buildings are nicely landscaped, the sidewalks are always shoveled, and there are frequent tenant parties in a small outdoor common area in the summer. The commercial space now houses the World Insurance Agency, the South End Food Emporium, which is owned and operated by Ethiopian immigrants, a Bank of America ATM, the Families First Daycare, the aforementioned dry cleaners, and one unoccupied space that looks like it could become some kind of gift shop—I look forward to finding out what goes in there.

[1] This section is currently based largely on my reading of the discussion in J. Anthony Lukas’s book, On Common Ground, pp. 178 to 194.

[2] Plaque on side of Union United Methodist Church.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lucas, p. 181.

[5] Lukas, p. 183.

[6] Lukas, p. 183.

[7] Lucas, p. 185.

[8] F. Taylor Jr., “South End Decision Left to Lot’s Owner,” Boston Globe, April 29, 1968.

[9] Lucas, p. 186.

[10] Lukas, p. 186.

[11] Lukas, p. 186.

[12] Lukas, p. 191.

[13] This figure is inconsistent with Lukas’s claim that 131 families moved had moved in by this point in time, unless a lot of families doubled up and shared apartments: there were only 150 families expected to live in the buildings (Lucas, p. 189).

[14] Harinett and Thelon, “Building Boom for Inner Cities Creates Slums,” Boston Globe, October 25, 1971.

[15] Kirchheimer, “Tenants Unite to Halt HUD Foreclosures,” Boston Globe, November 29, 1976.

[16] Kirchheimer.

[17] Frisby, “It Took Ten Years, But Apartments Become a Co-op,” Boston Globe, October 14, 1985.

[18] Carroll, “Tenants Take Control [of] South End’s Castle Square” Federal Model for Home Ownership,” Boston Globe, May 17, 1992.

One Response

  1. I have just read the historical sketch of MethUnion Housing in the South End of Boston. I am Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell who was the
    Pastor at Union described in the article. I was at an alumni event
    at Boston University on Thursday and Friday and a friend drove
    me to Columbus Avenue to see today’s MethUnion. I had him take
    a picture of me in front of one of the buildings. I will treasure that
    picture when I see it.

    Tomorrow, October 28th is my 80th birthday. I would love to have an opportunity to share with someone who is interested in Union Church
    and MethUnion Housing. And, I am interested in discussion about how we all over the nation can make gentrification more positive than it is
    re; black and/or poor people.

    Gil Caldwell
    Asbury Park, New Jersey

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