The Hillson Building, financed by local tinware manufacturer Hyman M. Hillson, has been described by the Massachusetts Historical Commission as the “most elaborate building in [Ball] Square.” Occupying the corner of Broadway and Boston Ave., its embellishments include composite column capitals, leaf-shaped acroteria and bas-relief urn medallions. As emblazoned across its facade, the structure was completed in 1925 during a period of increased development along Broadway. The Hillson and its neighbors in Ball Square were constructed to accommodate the growing population of the Powderhouse area, which had been farmland until the late 1800s.
Hyman Moses Hillson was born in Poland on February 23rd, 1853. In 1870, he moved to the United States at age 16, coming first to Boston and later moving to Baltimore, Md. and Revere, Mass. before settling in Somerville. He may have founded the H. M. Hillson Company, which manufactured tinware kitchen goods including bread pudding molds, cake pans and measuring cups, as early as 1878. By 1898, the company employed 23 people and in 1916, it placed a want ad seeking a foreman with the experience to manage a staff of 100 men. Hillson’s operation included a factory in the Ten Hills neighborhood of Somerville and storerooms in Boston. On July 22nd, 1922, while in their Ten Hills office, Hyman Hillson, his brothers Joseph and G. Irving Hillson and five employees were held up by a trio of gunman. The three robbers, the youngest aged about 18, the oldest about 24, entered the building while the Hillson brothers were handing out pay envelopes for the week. They escaped in a small, “shabby” getaway car less than three minutes later with $1,775 in cash. Dirt and grime rendering their license plates illegible, Somerville police were unable to track down the three young men.
Joseph Hillson (born in 1865) worked as a foreman at his older brother’s factory. Outside of the family business, Joseph involved himself in the civic, religious and political life of the city of Somerville. As an alderman, elected in 1913 as Alderman-at-large from Ward 4, he helped govern the city. He was also highly influential in establishing Temple B’nai Brith at the corner of Broadway and Central St. As President of the Hebrew Educational Society, he was among a group of petitioners who called on the Commonwealth to construct the synagogue and school that would become B’nai Brith . He also served as President of the local B’nai Brith lodge chapter, which became, under Joseph’s leadership, the largest lodge of its order in the Eastern US, growing from 170 members to more than 1,400. Hyman supported the B’nai Brith effort as well and was named Chairman of the congregation when construction on the temple began in 1915. Joseph was unable to see the project come to completion, dying in March of 1923, just a few months before work was expected to end. Joseph’s death at 44 was sudden and unexpected. While returning from a short vacation down south, he dropped dead on the deck of the steamship Arapahoe. Joseph was survived by his wife Sophia, a daughter and two sons. Only two years later, his son Meyer, a member of the Yankee Division, died at age 29.
Hyman Hillson retired from the tin business in 1925. By that time, he was not only a founder of B’nai Brith, but also of the Associated Jewish Philanthropies and Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. He had also spent time as a member of the Boston Chamber of Commerce and was involved with several fraternal organizations. In 1929, he and his wife Elka celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. The Hillsons had five daughters: Rachel, Sarah, Dora, Ida and Miriam. Two of Hyman’s sons-in-law: Harris Gordon and Benjamin Morse, married to Dora and Miriam, respectively, would later manage the family’s properties, including the Hillson Building. They also had at least one son, Robert, who left the tinware business in 1921 to pursue a career in vaudeville with his cousin Ralph Hillson. The H. M. Hillson Company appears to have stayed in family hands, with a third generation of Hillsons later taking over management. Hyman died in Havana, Cuba in 1933. He had been in failing health and had taken a cruise through the West Indies in hopes of recovery. Had Hyman survived, he would have turned 80 years old the following week. He was interred at the Tifereth Israel Cemetery in West Roxbury, joining Elka who died in 1931. Funeral services for both were held at the B’nai Brith congregation to which they had been so devoted during their lives.