Lithuanian Hall

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.

17 St. George Avenue, the former Lithuanian Hall, March 2023. Photo by Joseph Nevins.

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.

Getting there:

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.

Norwood Historical Society website.

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.

Charles Street Jail (Suffolk County Jail)

215 Charles Street, West End

The Charles Street Jail opened in 1851 as a facility that housed arrestees awaiting trial within Suffolk County. The building employed a reform-minded style which allowed for natural light and ventilation within the structure to provide an adequate quality of life for inmates. Over its many decades of existence, the jail held not only those accused of common crimes, but also many arrested for political reasons—including numerous women who demonstrated support for the suffrage amendment by protesting President Woodrow Wilson’s visit to Boston in 1919. Its better-known prisoners included Malcolm Little (Malcolm X), Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, prisoners from two German U-boats during World War I, and William R. Baird Jr., a birth control activist.

Suffragists protest President Woodrow Wilson outside the Charles Street Jail, February 1919. Source: Historic New England.

In 1971, inmates sued the Suffolk County Sheriff and the Massachusetts Commissioner of Corrections for a violation of their constitutional rights due to the overcrowding in the jail. Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, best known for his desegregation decision (1974) in the Boston Public Schools, spent the night in the jail in 1973. His experience led him to declare the jail’s conditions unconstitutional and to order its closing. It wasn’t until 1990, however, that the jail closed and the prisoners were transferred to a new facility, the Suffolk County Jail, on Nashua Street.

What was the Charles Street Jail is now part of the Liberty Hotel, a luxury hotel owned by Massachusetts General Hospital and a site on the National Registry of Historic Places. The ironically named facility is centered around the jail’s circular rotunda surrounded by several levels of catwalks that used to connect the jail cells to one another; they now act as hallways between guestrooms, meeting rooms, and the hotel’s high-end restaurants and bars—ones with names such as Clink and the Alibi.

The Liberty Hotel Boston, former Charles Street Jail. Photo by Eleni Macrakis, August 2014.

Getting there:

Red Line to Charles/MGH Station. The site is across the street from the station.

To learn more:

Boniface, Russell. “Breaking Out of Jail.” The News of America’s Community of Architects. Volume 14, October 12, 2007.

“Liberty Hotel History.” The Liberty Hotel: A Luxury Collection Hotel, Boston.

Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. J Kearney. 928 F 2d 33 (1991).

Walton, Krista. “Free at Last: A remarkable restoration transformed Boston’s notorious Charles Street Jail into the sparkling Liberty Hotel.” Preservation (September/October 2009).

Photo credit:

The photo, titled “Entrance to Suffolk County Jail,” at the top of the entry is from September 11, 1964. Source: Brearley Collection, Arts Department, Boston Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth.

Charlestown State Prison/Bunker Hill Community College

250 New Rutherford Avenue, Charlestown

In late January 1955, four prisoners, following a botched escape attempt, held hostage five guards and numerous fellow inmates in the “Cherry Hill” section of the Charlestown State Prison. With the prison surrounded by police and National Guard troops, the armed prisoners surrendered after three-and-a-half days. However, they succeeded in having their grievances about the institution’s inhumane conditions and the state-wide penal system heard by a “citizens committee” charged with negotiating with them. The committee’s seven members agreed to work to improve prison conditions across the state, thus helping to bring to a peaceful end to what was then the second-longest prison insurrection in U.S. history.

Charlestown State Prison, 1900. Public domain.

In its report on the 85-hour stand-off, Time described Charlestown State Prison as “a cramped compound of blackened granite and dilapidated brick buildings” The newsweekly went on to characterize it as “the oldest, most disreputable prison in the U.S.”—it opened in 1805—and as a place “damned for 80 years as a verminous pesthole, unfit for human habitation.” Condemned by the state in 1876, it had replaced the state’s prison at Fort Independence on South Boston’s Castle Island, standing on a five-acre site in what then known as the Lynde Point section of Charlestown. In 1946-1948, Malcolm Little (later known as Malcolm X) was incarcerated there.

Over its years, the prison was the site of 61 executions, employing, beginning in 1901, the electric chair. Sacco and Vanzetti, who spent their last days in the same Sugar Hill cell block that saw the 1955 insurrection, were its most famous victims, executed on August 23, 1927. On May 9, 1947, the last state executions in Massachusetts took place in Charlestown State Prison: those of Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertso.

Police guarding the entrance to Charlestown State Prison. 22 August 1927, in anticipation of protests of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Source: Boston Public Library/Digital Commonwealth.

In 1955, Massachusetts closed Charlestown State Prison, moving the incarcerated men to facilities in Norfolk and Walpole, and tore it down. Since 1973, the site has been the home of Bunker Hill Community College. There is no visible marker on the campus indicating what once stood in its place.

Getting there:

Take the Orange Line to the Community College station and follow the signs for Bunker Hill Community College.

To learn more:

“Citizens Committee Settles Charlestown Prison Riot,” Daily Boston Globe, January 22, 1955: 5.

“Oldest Prison in U. S., Condemned in 1876,” Daily Boston Globe, January 19, 1955: 11.

“The Siege of Cherry Hill,” Time, Vol. 65, Issue 5, January 31, 1955.

O’Neil, Helen. “Where Sacco, Vanzetti and Malcolm X Stayed in Charlestown.” Charlestown Patch. March 6, 2012.

“Past Events.” Charlestown Historical Society website.