November 2016: Near Union Square in Somerville stands the Prospect Hill Tower—a stalwart, granite structure that represents nearly 300 years’ worth of history for the city. A spiral stairway leads to the top of the tower, providing a panoramic view of the surrounding cityscape while an American flag waves overhead. However, due to years of deterioration standing against harsh New England winters, this historic landmark had fallen into disrepair. For the last few years, visitors have not been permitted to climb the tower for safety concerns. It was for this reason that Somerville decided to use $500,000 in CPA funds to restore the tower, preserving it for generations to come.
Prospect Hill was selected as a CPA project due to its historical significance not only to the local community, but to the country as a whole. The hill itself played an important role during the Revolutionary War—American soldiers had a clear view of the surrounding area extending to the Boston harbor, providing them an important asset in holding off the British forces. Then, on January 1st, 1776, George Washington and his troops raised the first iteration of the American flag on the site, displaying 13 red and white stripes representing the colonies and the Union Jack in the corner.
In commemoration of this important event in the country’s origins, each year the city hosts a flag raising ceremony at the tower, reenacting George Washington’s command and providing residents to opportunity reflect on their heritage. Larry Willwerth, a volunteer for Historic Somerville, describes this ceremony and the Prospect Hill Tower as “a symbol of our resistance and the transformation from disgruntled English citizens to independent Americans.” For the last 10 years, Willwerth has participated in the ceremony on Prospect Hill, dressing in Colonial garb and raising the flag at the tower’s peak. However, because of the exterior stairwell’s ongoing damage in recent years, the future of this event had been in question.
“A year or two ago, because the site was so defaced, the actor couldn’t get to the top of the tower for the ceremony,” describes Dick Bauer, chair of the Somerville Community Preservation Committee. It’s for these reasons, he explains, that Prospect Hill was one of the original projects that people talked about when the city was considering CPA Adoption in 2012. “Prospect Hill was a high priority, even before the committee was formed,” Bauer explains. Due to this public support, the project was one of the first on the list of the committee’s approved projects. Thanks to a grant of $500,000 in CPA funding, the city was able to stabilize and restore the tower for public use. Repairs were completed in December of 2015, including the replacement of the upper level floor slab, resetting of the parapet stones, restoration of the doors and ornamental iron stairs, and repairs to the exterior stairwell.
In September of 2016, Somerville Mayor Curtatone hosted an official ceremony to celebrate the re-opening of the tower to the public. When asked about the city’s support of this CPA project and the program as a whole, Bauer described it as a “gamechanger.” He goes on, explaining how “it provides the means to make projects possible where the money that’s needed isn’t there.” Another volunteer from Historic Somerville, Alejandra Dean, lives in the neighborhood right next to the tower itself and has seen first-hand the effect that it’s had on the community. “I’ve only lived here for a few years, but ever since I moved it’s been closed,” she explains. “But residents are so excited that it’s finally open – it has given the space back to the community.”
As time goes on, extensive development and tight municipal resources mean that it can be a challenge to find vital resources for important causes like historic preservation. CPA is allowing communities across the Commonwealth to protect and preserve their local legacy by funding historic projects. Larry Willwerth, speaking about the history of the city and its significance to those who live there, describes how symbolic landmarks like the Prospect Hill Tower “help us not only know who we are, but helps us to know who we can become.”
(Special thanks to the City of Somerville for use of photos)