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No single story of Massachusetts’s buildings and landscapes exists. To present in a neat narrative the rich, varied, and vibrant history of the Commonwealth’s built environment would do a disservice to the many peoples who shaped the physical world around them according to their needs, beliefs, and values. Aside from buildings that display the work of prominent architects or that hosted historic figures or events, the built environment of Massachusetts includes a wide array of structures and landscapes that both powerfully and subtly evoke poignant moments or arcs in the state’s history. These include sites ranging from an eighteenth-century timber-framed house to a geodesic dome, from a modernist college campus to a religious utopian community, from a tobacco barn to a federal armory, from an industrial canal system to an early-twentieth-century theater. The buildings of Massachusetts tell the stories of colonists creating new homes, escaped slaves risking their lives for freedom, immigrants seeking a new life imbued with the familiar, women fighting for equality, and communities negotiating change. Massachusetts may be small—the seventh smallest state at 10,554 square miles—but its buildings and landscapes contain multitudes.

Particular climatic factors have shaped Massachusetts’s architecture. The state’s well-known temperamental weather accrues from its geographic location, where cold, dry air from the north regularly meets warmer, wetter air emanating from the south and west, in combination with the tempering effects of the Atlantic Ocean. 1 Massachusetts can experience sweltering summers beset by thunderstorms, autumns of crisp bright days with spectacular foliage, blisteringly cold winters with severe blizzards, and rain-soaked, muddy springs. These four well-defined seasons have engendered not only a common conception of life in the Bay State and contributed to its cultural identity, but have also set practical parameters for the types of structures that residents have built. For example, Cape Cod's Old Harbor Lifesaving Station was one of many federal buildings created to assist shipwrecks along the eastern shore during the tempestuous winter months.

The Commonwealth contains a range of environments. Coastal plains constitute much of the state’s eastern shore, where low-lying tidal lands and waterways have provided a way of life for native peoples as well as Euro-Americans. The Cape Cod peninsula, a large spit of sand formed by glacial deposits, constitutes a distinctive environment in the state. River valleys, such as those formed by the Connecticut River in the west and the Merrimack in the northeast, have provided fertile farmland, important transportation corridors, and waterpower for earlier small-scale and later industrial-scale production. Though Massachusetts’s tallest mountain—the famed Mount Greylock that inspired such writers as Herman Melville—only reaches 3,491 feet, it is part of an extensive range of the Northern Appalachians that passes through the western portion of the state. 2 The temperate deciduous forests that once stretched across Massachusetts were intensively logged until the early twentieth century, leaving only small pockets of old-growth forests; in the latter half of the twentieth century, second growth forests have returned the state to 63 percent forestation. 3

In addition to Native Americans’ significant impact on the landscape over millennia, nearly four centuries of European settlement have contributed to the distinctive intersection of nature and human culture in Massachusetts. On perhaps the largest scale, the Quabbin Reservoir, a Depression-era municipal water supply source for metropolitan Boston, demonstrated the extensive alteration and management of natural systems for human benefit. However, such projects also underscore the allure of nature to the state’s identity, as the reservoir and its earthen dams mimic natural elements while they also embody the destruction of cultural heritage, such as the four towns submerged in its wake.

Many Massachusetts sites have shown how residents sought both to overcome and harmonize with nature. At Cape Cod National Seashore, which preserves a coastal environment, the National Park Service’s Salt Pond Visitor Center deliberately used architecture to enhance the experience of ostensibly untouched nature. Privately owned and designed buildings within the National Seashore’s boundaries, such as the Atwood-Higgins House, an exemplary Cape Cod House, responded to environmental and climactic factors, while the nearby Hatch House utilized twentieth-century modernist design techniques to reimagine the house’s relationship with the natural landscape. In the state’s northwest corner, the Hoosac Tunnel, once the nation’s longest railroad tunnel, pierced through a mountain range in order to facilitate business while the nearby Cabin No. 1, a rental log cabin in the Mohawk Trail State Forest, celebrated the romantic vision of pioneer life. Architecture throughout the Commonwealth has reflected the desire across centuries to repurpose natural materials for cultural artifice, as seen in H.H. Richardson’s Ames Free Library in North Easton, where rusticated stonework evokes the building’s emergence from the surrounding landscape.

Massachusetts’s architecture not only evinces its distinct environment, but also illuminates the Commonwealth’s social, political, and economic histories. The state’s very name speaks to the former, displaced inhabitants, the Massachusett tribe, who lived along the coastal region at the location of today’s capital city of Boston. 4 The region was first settled by Paleoindians around 12,000 years ago following the retreat of glaciers. 5 By the time European fishermen and explorers established contact, the Massachusett were one of several large Algonquian tribes that included the Mahican, Narragansett, Nauset, Nipmuck, Pennacock, Pocumtuck, and Wampanoag. These tribes had shaped the environment to provide better sustenance through agricultural means and created various architectural solutions for shelter, cultural rites, food storage, and protection—the most well-known being the wigwam or long house, a movable dwelling that employed flexible poles and bark sheathing. Prior to the devastating rounds of disease and warfare that followed European contact and colonization, Massachusetts’s native population numbered in the tens of thousands and had created a distinctive cultural landscape. The effect of European contact cannot be overstated; historians estimate that between 75 and 90 percent of the region’s coastal inhabitants died in the first decades of the seventeenth century. 6

Long-term European settlement began in Massachusetts with the founding of Plymouth Bay Colony in 1620. The story of the Pilgrims’ landing, the hardships they faced, and the amiable relations they forged with locals has become a foundational myth of the United States. As part of this promotion, descendants founded Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum in 1824, making this building dedicated to preserving the Pilgrims’ story the oldest operating public museum in the United States. Other English colonists, the Puritans under John Winthrop, set up an adjacent and much larger colony in 1630, which grew to a population of 12,000 over the next decade. 7 The spread of these two primary colonies westward was augmented by northward settlement up the Connecticut River Valley from Connecticut. With some notable exceptions, the westernmost portions of the state were not settled by Europeans until later in the eighteenth century.

During the colonial period, Massachusetts flourished. Its population reached 80,000 by 1700, making it the largest English colony in North America. 8 Boston and other coastal towns became important ports, while agriculture spread in the fertile river valleys. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the Boston area became a center of political agitation and events such as the Boston Massacre and Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord have, along with Plymouth, become part of the nation’s origin story. Yet the Revolution existed outside of Boston as well: the extant Fort Phoenix in southeastern town of Fairhaven saw some of the war’s first naval engagements.

In 1814, the first modern textile factory opened in Waltham, a critical moment that would lead to a drastic reshaping of the state’s built environment. As agricultural prosperity in Massachusetts waned with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, industrial production became the state’s largest economic driver. Mill towns emerged across the state, and the buildings included here represent the resultant structures and landscapes. The combined and interrelated forces of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration reshaped the state’s economic, social, and environmental landscapes. By the late nineteenth century, Massachusetts produced half of the nation’s shoes and one-third of its woolen goods. Workers at the Springfield Armory, which provided the U.S. Army with small arms, pioneered precision machinery and interchangeable parts. Moreover, by 1930, around two-thirds of the state’s population consisted of first- or second-generation Americans. 9

Massachusetts’s built environment strikingly exhibits the state’s economic growth, decline, and rebirth. This economic growth helped determine the form of large-scale mill buildings, such as those extant at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams or the Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell. The proliferation of industrial capitalism helped develop attendant building typologies, such as the Art Deco Fall River Cooperative Bank and the regionally ubiquitous three-decker, exemplified by 172-174 Pine Street in Attleboro, built on speculation. Industrial leaders experimented with worker housing, such as the Norton Company’s Indian Hill neighborhood in Worcester, characterized by single-family dwellings suggestive of middle-class aspirations for its employees.

Growth in business also impacted civic structures, such as the ambitious Brockton City Hall, which celebrated the city’s success as a shoe-manufacturing center. Other commercial enterprises, such as Worcester’s Union Station, responded to the growth of industry and simultaneously showcased the city’s aspirations for upward trajectory. While such architectural projects manifested economic ambition, they also demonstrated the apogee of this type of growth throughout much of the Commonwealth. At the same moment that Union Station fell into disrepair in the mid-twentieth century, suburban communities like Ridgefield in Framingham replaced older, urban forms of housing. Many towns throughout the state experienced economic hardships as manufacturing moved elsewhere. Concurrently, Massachusetts’s state government invested in new industries, such as education, as exhibited by the Brutalist campus design of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, which expressed a modern optimism in a new economic order and promoted social uplift in a region devastated by deindustrialization.

Just as Massachusetts’s buildings reveal the state’s fluctuating economic realities and the attendant social changes, its architecture has demonstrated the dichotomy between accommodating community and individual needs. Religious beliefs intermingled with these needs and with political authority to inspire a range structures across the state. In the colonial period, communal buildings, such as the Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse in Millville, shaped the development pattern of its towns, villages, and hamlets through administrative centers and operated as the only sanctioned religious structures. Religion helped define other settlement patterns, such as the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century separatist community at Hancock Shaker Village and the mid-nineteenth-century Methodist camp meeting grounds of Wesleyan Grove on Martha’s Vineyard, which later generated secular vacation resorts. Quakers in New Bedford formed the Seamen’s Bethel, of Moby Dick fame, to serve as a nondenominational worship space for itinerant sailors. Massive immigration in the mid to late nineteenth century led to the proliferation of Roman Catholic churches, such as St. Mary’s in Fall River, to serve new ethnic communities whose beliefs differed from the state’s Anglo founders.

Massachusetts’s communities have been on the forefront of social justice reform. The late-nineteenth-century November Club in Andover afforded women a space to fight for the common cause of suffrage, while many mill towns became centers of twentieth-century labor reform. Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court abolished slavery in 1783, and the state became a leader in the abolition movement and a haven for free African Americans and escaped slaves. However, African Americans in the state continued to be denied political and social equality throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sites such as the Dorsey-Jones House in Northampton and Great Barrington’s Clinton AME Zion Church continue to testify to the state’s longstanding African American communities and their historical and ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

This commitment to community support through architecture contrasts with architecture associated with individual achievement. The Commonwealth’s connection with notable literary and historical figures, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Clara Barton, help enrich the legacy of individual houses ( House of the Seven Gables in Salem and the Clara Barton Homestead in North Oxford, respectively) that emerged from vernacular traditions. Examples of a more dramatic contrast are the manifestations of ostentatious wealth and the individualism of Massachusetts’s prominent citizens. The estates of the coast’s old Yankee elite, such as the 57-room Beauport mansion in Gloucester, find counterpart in the western Berkshire Mountains, where Nathan Barret and Fletcher Steele landscaped the grounds of Naumkeag, the summer home of the wealthy and influential Choate family.

While Massachusetts’s buildings and landscapes demonstrate community formation as well as individual expression, many structures have served to propagate institutional power. In 1780, the Commonwealth ratified its state constitution, the oldest written constitution still in effect, and since then, political power—local, state, and federal—and architecture have been closely wedded. In 1811, the southeastern town of Scituate successfully petitioned the federal government, then only three decades old, to appropriate lands and provide funds for a lighthouse ( Scituate Light) to protect shipping from the dangerous shoreline. In Springfield, George Washington himself determined that the Connecticut River Valley city would provide an excellent strategic location for a federal armory, and the resulting industrial complex would store, develop, and produce hundreds of thousands of firearms for over a century. Just down the street from the Springfield Armory, the acclaimed contemporary architect Moshe Safdie designed an elegant U.S. Federal Courthouse that gracefully interacts with the city’s surroundings and history while also meeting the stringent security requirements for a post–9/11 federal building. On the state level, the Almshouse Quadrangle at the Tewksbury State Hospital demonstrated Massachusetts’s pioneering commitment to caring for the state’s poor, sick, and mentally ill. At the same time, the Lancaster Industrial School, a reformatory/penal institution for young girls, represented the harsher side of reform and how the state’s powerful Anglo elites sought to deal with the influx of new ethnic communities.

As these buildings and landscapes demonstrate, Massachusetts’s citizens have been leaders in the historic preservation movement since the nineteenth century and have sought different ways to preserve, present, and interpret the material examples and legacies of the state’s multifaceted past. This has involved both restoring individual buildings to their determined periods of significance as well as adaptively reusing historic properties to serve contemporary needs. In the case of Pittsfield’s Colonial Theater, the restored building continues to house theatrical productions, as it did historically. Other sites though, such as the Old Harbor Lifesaving Station, Spencer-Peirce-Little House, and Naumkeag, operate as historic house museums managed in some cases by the federal government and in others by private preservation institutions such as Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities) and the Trustees of Reservations. In the 1970s, the National Park Service transformed Lowell’s Boott Cotton Mills into the Lowell National Historical Park, a groundbreaking urban historic site, while the former mills in North Adams have been repurposed as Mass MoCA, currently one of the world’s largest contemporary art museums. Sadly, some structures are in great need of restoration or reuse, in particular the Geodesic Dome in Woods Hole and the Clinton AME Zion Church in Great Barrington.

In addition to these singular examples of preservation, Massachusetts has been a pioneer in conserving entire built communities or districts, such as the Nantucket Historic District, Historic Deerfield, and the Hancock Shaker Village. These historic districts or sites demonstrate how buildings do not stand isolated from their surroundings, but are inextricably intertwined with the adjacent cultural landscape. While many of these preserved examples present later, and often selective, interpretations of the past, they demonstrate the powerful impetus within the Commonwealth to connect present generations with the stories and spaces of the past in order to communicate values across time.

With four centuries of built fabric, Massachusetts’s architecture and cultural landscapes remain as diverse as its geography and demography. From coastal seventeenth-century farmsteads connected to Europe, to aspirational eighteenth-century houses promoting new republican ideals, to nineteenth-century refuges for the nationally disenfranchised, to twentieth-century experimental forms espousing hopefulness in design, to former industrial sites repurposed in the twenty-first century as art museums, the buildings of Massachusetts each tell a vivid and compelling story of the state’s history. In the twenty-first century, the state’s commitment to innovation and respect for tradition has continued in the groundbreaking buildings that serve the state’s fastest-growing industries: education, technology, and medicine. Structures like the Smith College Campus Center, built in 2003 by Weiss/Manfredi, exemplifies the imaginative contemporary design that marks many of the state’s most recent buildings. The sweeping structure creatively harkens to past traditions while forging new ways of interacting with space and forming communities. Smith College’s campus center is but one of numerous contemporary examples of how Massachusetts’s architecture continues to explore and experiment with design solutions to everyday problems.


1. The Encyclopedia of New England, eds. Burt Feintuch and David Watters (New Haven: Yale University Press).

2. Ibid, s.v. “Mount Greylock.”

3. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and The Department of Natural Resources Conservation – University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Forest Resource Strategies of Massachusetts,” 2010,, p. 23.

4. Encyclopedia of New England, ¸ s.v. “Massachusetts.”

5. Richard Judd, Second Nature: An Environmental History of New England (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 17.

6. Ibid., 48.

7. Encyclopedia of New England, ¸ s.v. “Massachusetts.”

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

Writing Credits

Aaron Ahlstrom
C. Ian Stevenson

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