Monday, November 7, 2011

Perkins Institution for the Blind - South Boston

Perkins Institution, East Broadway, South Boston - early 20th Century postcard.

Perkins School, BPL Flickr photo group.

"Blind Asylum," Broadway, 1852.

Perkins Institution property marked in red, 1884.

I've already discussed South Boston's Carney Hospital - here's an institution that has its roots in the older, Yankee Boston. The Perkins Institution for the Blind was founded in Boston proper in 1829 by John Dix Fisher. After merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins donated his Pearl street estate, the school was named to honor him.

It might be worthy of notice here that Perkins and his brother James made their money in the China trade, primarily selling Turkish opium on the Chinese black market, and entirely against Chinese law. The Perkins company and other Boston companies were the leading Americans in this notorious trade, and were different from contemporary South American and Mexican drug cartels only in that they didn't go about killing people. They simply bribed them. Thomas H. Perkins - the so-called Merchant Prince - was a pillar of the community and a philanthropic leader. And everyone knew where his money came from, and no one seemed to mind.

Originally the New England Asylum for the Blind, the institution was founded in 1829. The first leader of the schools was Samuel Gridley Howe, probably better known today as the husband of Julia Ward Howe, activist and composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. This is unfortunate, because Howe's story is remarkable, and deserves to be remembered. When the school outgrew it's first home, Thomas H. Perkins allowed his Pearl street mansion to be used.

In 1839, Perkins sold the house and donated the proceeds to buy the former Mt Washington hotel in South Boston. As a side note, over time the hill the school sat on was gradually cut away over time for ease of building. The black and white photograph above shows the walls that had to be built to retain the earth around the building after the slope had been cut down, a reminder of Boston's many cut-and-fill projects.

In an effort to help blind children of pre-school age, the Perkins Institution opened a Kindergarten in Jamaica Plain. I've already discussed that institution on my Jamaica Plain blog, so please go here to read about it.

In time, the school outgrew it's South Boston campus, and moved both the main school and the Jamaica Plain kindergarten to Watertown.


  1. What ultimately happened to the building in South Boston? Was it torn down? And am I reading the map correctly--is it at the corner of Broadway and H?

  2. Shoshi - by 1919 the main building was gone, replaced by a row of brick houses on Broadway. That is Broadway and H st. The city also built a municipal building on the property that I believe is still there on Broadway.

  3. Thanks for the follow-up! I had looked at Google Street View and it looks to me like that corner just has some low buildings and a parking lot, and the other three sides of the intersection have wooden row houses.

  4. There is currently a Tedeschi's and its parking lot on that corner, with a row of other single-story shops next to it along Broadway and a Verizon building filling in the property behind it to 4th Street. Sad.