Sixth in our occasional series of Schwamb Shares.
Jacob Schwamb (1815-1881) was the oldest of six Schwamb brothers who immigrated from Germany’s Rhineland to the Boston area between 1838 and 1857. Like many of his brothers, Jacob was a woodworker. Two of his brothers, Charles and Frederick Schwamb, cofounded the Schwamb picture frame mill in 1864, now the Old Schwamb Mill, in Arlington, Mass. Jacob’s brother Theodore Schwamb founded his successful piano case manufactory in 1871 at 1171 Massachusetts Avenue, also in Arlington.
Jacob Schwamb’s work as a piano case wood worker began in Boston’s German immigrant community in what is now the city’s Theatre District and South End neighborhood.
Jacob Schwamb traveled from his family’s farm in the little village of Undenheim, Germany, to Boston in 1838. He was one of the 2.5 million Germans who immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1870. Although much has been written about Irish immigration to America during the antebellum period, German immigration has been less exhaustively explored. Jacob Schwamb, like many of his countrymen, came to Boston with marketable skills. Indeed, jewelry makers, musical instrument manufacturers, mechanical furniture makers, tailors and others skilled in a trade had a distinct advantage over unskilled labor in a city that was starting to rebound from the recession of 1837.
William Richard Cutter in his Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County Massachusetts (1905) notes that Jacob Schwamb “early learned the trade of cabinet maker” on his family’s 40 acre farm and vineyard in his native Undenheim. In Boston, he found employment in Lord and Cumston which was then a piano case manufactory in its infancy, having been founded as Brown & Hallett in 1835. Situated within a concentration of piano and organ manufactories bordering Washington Street in the South End, this firm would later be known as Hallett and Cumston and Hallett and Davis. Jacob’s expertise as a woodworker made it possible for him to work for a company known from the mid-nineteenth through early twentieth centuries “for building very high quality, expensive pianos.”
During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Jacob Schwamb is listed as living at several addresses on Elliot Street (later Kneeland Street) in the heart of the German immigrant community. Very recently, the last remnant of this “German Town” disappeared when Jacob Wirth’s German Restaurant (founded in 1868) closed its Kneeland Street saloon and restaurant after filing for bankruptcy in 2018.
Described by Cutter as “a man of strong religious convictions,” Jacob Schwamb was one of the founders of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zion which still stands on Shawmut Avenue and Waltham Street in the South End. Paving the way for the church’s construction was the incorporation of the German Lutheran (Protestant) Society in 1839. Although efforts to found a German Church in Boston date back to the 1720s, it was not until the 1840s that the “first purely German (Lutheran) church” became a physical reality on Shawmut Avenue in Boston.
The cornerstone of the German Church at the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Waltham Street was laid on July 1, 1842. Completed in 1847, this chapel-scale church was dedicated on Christmas Day of that year. Essentially covering its entire 3,000 square foot lot at 296 Shawmut Avenue, this Greek Revival red brick building’s architectural interests are its boxy rectangular volume, severely plain exterior and pedimented main and rear facades. Why this small Greek Revival structure took five years to build is not documented, but undoubtedly periodic exhaustion of funds due to the congregation’s lack of disposable wealth resulted in a lengthy construction.
The new church would soon be part of a residential streetscape whose planar main facades represent a phase of South End row house construction that predated the projecting swell front residences that have dominated the neighborhood’s streetscapes since the 1850s and 1860s. Directly across the street from the German Church is a group of red brick row houses with rare (for Boston) Flemish gables that were built by Aachen, Germany, bricklayer brothers in 1853.
According to William Richard Cutter, Jacob Schwamb contributed to the church as “one of its best workers” and “supplied the pulpit” in the absence of the pastor. All services were held in German, a practice that continued in the Shawmut Avenue church’s successor houses of worship until as late as 1917 when the United States entered the World War against Germany.
During the mid- 1840s, the German Lutheran Religious Society would have been a source of solace and joy for Jacob. His first wife, Magdalene Hammerlee died in 1846, and he married his second wife Hammetta Butz in 1847. Around 1850, Jacob Schwamb left behind the narrow and crooked streets of Boston, heading west to settle in Leominster, Mass. Once again he was employed in a piano case manufactory that was still in its infancy and destined to be one of the leaders in piano case making in New England. He was hired by the J.C. Lane Company which was founded in 1845, remaining in business well into the twentieth century.
Two separate chapters of Jacob’s peripatetic life unfolded in Arlington, Mass. The first chapter (1853-1862) found Jacob working alongside his brothers in a woodworking concern called Charles Schwamb and Brothers which was housed in the still extant complex of industrial buildings at 1171 Massachusetts Avenue, near Forest Street (later the site of the Theodore Schwamb Mill). During the last years of his life Jacob returned to Arlington to conduct his own piano case and straight moulding concern on Massachusetts Avenue near Brattle Street, a business that was inherited by his sons William and Edward. Edward Schwamb kept his father’s enterprise going until 1926. In between his Arlington sojourns, Jacob and his family lived in West Medford and Roxbury where he made piano cases for the Mason & Hamlin Organ Company and William P. Emerson companies, respectively.
The German church that Jacob Schwamb helped to found carried on through “hard times” but recovered by the early 1870s with a congregation that numbered 1,500 members. By the 1890s, the German Church had become home to the Calvary Baptist Church which made its home here until around 1920. The German Lutheran religious society that started out on Shawmut Avenue found a new home in the yellow brick church on West Newton Street, corner of Tremont (by the late 1890s). In 1960 the German Lutheran congregation, by that time called the First Lutheran Church of Boston, moved into the modern Pietro Belluschi–designed brick church at Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in the Back Bay. (Belluschi also designed the modern Park Avenue Congregational Church in Arlington Heights.)
For almost the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Jacob Schwamb’s church building was surrounded by “Syria Land,” a vibrant Syrian immigrant community characterized by Middle Eastern restaurants, specialty stores, and multi-family residences, primarily concentrated along Shawmut Avenue. The former German church became the Sahara Restaurant at some point in the 1950s or 1960s and closed in 1970. The Sahara was part of a quartet of Middle Eastern Restaurants in the Shawmut Avenue/Washington Street area that included the Red Fez, the Cedars, and Nadia’s.
For fifty years the church has been languishing in the midst of the pricey, gentrified South End. The building currently serves as a storage facility for a Shawmut Avenue business. That this Greek Revival gem dating to the presidency of James K. Polk is still standing is a testament to the skills of the bricklayers who may well have been German immigrants.
Edward W. Gordon, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc. (text and photos)
This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!