17 St. George Avenue, Norwood
In the late 1800s, a significant Lithuanian population resided in South Boston. By 1900, some of them had moved to Norwood—particularly South Norwood, a part of town with a lot of multifamily, working-class, and tenement-like housing. According to historian Patricia Fanning, heavily immigrant, polyglot South Norwood was “like a foreign country” to Norwood’s more established residents, its inhabitants “increasingly viewed as the source of social problems and political unrest.” One institution that was highly associated with these negative views was Lithuanian Hall.
The venue was established due to political differences among Lithuanians in Norwood. In 1905, members of the community formed a mutual aid society, but divisions soon emerged—between individuals who had strong religious (Catholic) beliefs and socialist “freethinkers.” In response, and at a time when Lithuanians on the other side of the ideological divide were discussing the building of a Lithuanian Catholic church in Norwood, freethinkers decided to build a meeting place of their own. Lithuanian Hall, that meeting place, opened in November 1914.
Groups ranging from the Lithuanian Literary Society to the Norwood Lithuanian Men’s Glee Club took advantage of the new site. In March 1915, Lithuanian Hall hosted its first wedding: a Jewish ceremony as Norwood’s small Jewish community did not have a temple. Soon thereafter, socialist and radical political figures began to visit Norwood as part of their lecture tours, with Lithuanian Hall often their location of choice.
In the context of World War I, matters in Norwood took an ugly nativist turn. In February 1917, two months before the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany, the Town of Norwood established a General Committee for Public Safety, a subcommittee of which was known as the Night Riders. Made up of armed young men, the “Riders” patrolled the town to guard against sabotage of public property and the area’s industrial infrastructure. Norwood residents of German descent became targets of harassment. Anti-German sentiment overlapped with efforts to repress leftist and other radical movements, with the immigrant community often the focus of condemnation. Lithuanian Hall, as both “foreign” and leftist, was thus doubly suspect.
The aftermath of the war saw continuing tensions between socialists and non-socialists in Norwood. These tensions dovetailed with the outbreak of a “Red Scare” nationally, one that resulted in raids by federal authorities in immigrant areas across the United States, with South Norwood being one of the targets. Authorities arrested 12 Norwood residents, all of them men of Lithuanian descent. One of the arrests took place in Lithuanian Hall.*
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lithuanian Hall continued to be an occasional site for radical politics. In 1927, for example, a very large meeting took place in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. At the same time, the venue expanded the types of activities—from athletic events and weddings to movies—that it hosted; it even became the home for a Sons of Italy lodge. In the 1930s and 1940s, the second floor became a music and dance venue known as the Butterfly Ballroom.
Over the decades, many of the most dedicated members of Lithuanian Hall passed on. Relatedly, the radical politics associated with the venue declined. In 1980, Lithuanian Hall was sold and turned into a community residence for adults with Down’s syndrome. Sometime in the 2000s, the building was sold again and redeveloped. It is now home to condominiums.
An MBTA bus that runs between Forest Hills Station (Orange Line) and Walpole passes within one block of the site.
To learn more:
Patricia J. Fanning, “From ‘Bolshevik Hall’ to Butterfly Ballroom: The Assimilation of South Norwood’s Lithuanian Hall,” in Peter Benes (ed.), Life in the Streets and Commons, 1600 to the Present (The Dublin Series for New England Folklife, Annual Proceedings 2005), Boston: Boston University, 2005: 109-123.
Patricia J. Fanning, Influenza and Inequality: One Town’s Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918, Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.
To learn more about South Norwood, see the entry on Morrill Memorial Library, South Norwood Branch.
*For more on the Palmer Raids, see the entry on “Socialist Hall” in the Lowell section of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.