Monday, June 19, 2017

1898: Devotion House Saved from the Flames

One-hundred and nineteen years ago today (June 19, 1898) sparks from a barn fire across Harvard Street threatened the Edward Devotion House in Coolidge Corner. Firefighters were able to douse the flames, saving the then 158-year old house, one of the oldest in town.

The fire began in the new barn on the farm of William J. Griggs, adjacent to the Griggs house at 330 Harvard Street. By the time it was spotted by a boy passing along the street a little after 7:30 in the morning it was too late to save the barn and the Griggs house itself was smoldering in several places.

Devotion House and Griggs farm, 1897
This 1897 map shows the Willliam Griggs house, just below Shailer Street, across the street from the Devotion School and Devotion House. The new barn that burned a year later was built adjacent to the house.

Strong winds carried embers onto the roofs of several nearby houses, including the Devotion House. Neighbors used garden hoses, pails, and fire buckets to fight the fires until firefighters arrived. The Griggs house was saved, and firefighters were stationed at the Devotion House to make sure it did not suffer major damage. (The Town had recently allotted funds toward the preservation of the historic structure.)

Edward Devotion in 1895
The Edward Devotion House as it appeared in 1895, three years before the fire that briefly spread to the house from across Harvard Street

William J. Coolidge
William J. Griggs
Brookline Library photo
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William Griggs (1821-1906) whose family farm occupied the site for many years, lost everything that was in the barn, including four horses, three cow, and five dogs, as well as carriages, wagons, harnesses, a bicycle, and several tons of hay.

Griggs and his brother-in-law David Coolidge founded the Coolidge & Brother store, operated by David's younger brothers William and George, in 1857. The store's location, at the intersection of Harvard and Beacon Streets, became known as Coolidge's Corner and, later, as Coolidge Corner.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gillette & Sias Mansions, Beacon Street

This stretch of land on the north side of Beacon Street just west of Lancaster Terrace would be unrecognizable today except for the stone wall, which still stands. It is now the site of the apartment building at 1550 Beacon, built for senior housing in the 1970s, and Temple Beth Zion at 1566 Beacon, completed in 1948.

(Note: This article first appeared in Brookline Patch as part of a biweekly series of historical images of Brookline from the Brookline Historical Society and the Public Library of Brookline.)

Gillette & Sias Mansions
The two large houses formerly on the site were associated, at different times, with the heads of two well-known consumer product companies. The house on the left was the home from 1907 to 1913 of King C. Gillette, inventor of the safety razor and founder of the company that bears his name. It was torn down in 1944. The house on the right was built by Charles D. Sias, a senior partner in the Chase & Sanborn coffee company. A later owner moved it up the hill to Mason Terrace, where it remains today.

A present-day view of the site, via Google Street View, is below.

1550-1566 Beacon Street Today

Both houses were built after the 1880s expansion of Beacon Street from a narrow country lane to a wide boulevard, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and with trolleys providing easy access to Boston. The older of the two is the Sias house, built in 1889 for Charles Sias, who began as a salesman with Chase & Sanborn before rising to become senior partner with the firm. It was designed by Arthur Vinal who was also the architect of the Richardsonian Romanesque High Service Building at the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, now condominiums and the Waterworks Museum, and the gatehouse at what is now Fisher Hill Reservoir Park.

The next owner, lumber company executive Frederick McQuestern, had the house moved up the hill to 41 Mason Terrace, shown below.

King Gillette

The Gillette house was built in 1892 for Benjamin Lombard Jr., a banker and real estate executive. It was designed by the architectural firm of Little, Brown, & Moore, which also designed the main house of the Brandegee Estate in South Brookline. King Gillette purchased the house for his family in 1907 and lived there until 1913 when they moved to Los Angeles.

Gillette had first come to Brookline in 1895 when he was a salesman for the Crown Cork Company, maker of disposable bottle caps. It was while living here that he came up with the idea for the safety razor, as described by Gillette himself in a company magazine in 1918:

"I was living in Brookline at No. 2 Marion Terrace at the time [1895],” he wrote, "and as I said before I was consumed with the thought of inventing something that people would use and throw away and buy again. On one particular morning when I started to shave I found my razor dull, and it was not only dull but it was beyond the point of successful stropping and it needed honing, for which it must be taken to a barber or to a cutler. As I stood there with the razor in my hand, my eyes resting on it as lightly as a bird settling down on its nest—the Gillette razor was born.”
It took years of experimentation to solve the technical difficulties involved in producing the kind of razor Gillette had in mind, but a patent was granted in 1904 and sales took off, making Gillette a great financial success and a household name. Three years later he bought the Beacon Street house.

A close look at a section of the stone wall in the old and new photos (below) makes it possible to pick out individual stones. This section is to the right of the tree in the modern image and further to the right in the older one.

Stone Wall

Friday, June 2, 2017

Richards Tavern, Chestnut Hill

The 18th century building shown here was known as the Richards Tavern or Richards Hotel. It stood on Heath Street (foreground) near the intersection with Hammond Street, approximately where 521 Heath Street is today. 
(Note: This article first appeared in Brookline Patch as part of a biweekly series of historical images of Brookline from the Brookline Historical Society and the Public Library of Brookline.)
Richards Tavern
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It was built sometime between 1750 and 1770 — sources vary — by Ebenezer Winchester, a member of the religious splinter group called the “New Lights,” one of many groups that arose as part of the religious revival known as The Great Awakening. In addition to serving as the Winchester home, it included a large hall for meetings of Winchester’s co-religionists.

The house passed through two other owners before being sold to Ebenezer Richards who operated it as a tavern and hotel until about 1830. The Worcester Turnpike (now Route 9) which opened in 1806 passed just to the rear of the tavern. A toll gate and a toll house for the gatekeeper were placed at that spot on the Turnpike which no doubt contributed to the success of the tavern (It became something like an early 18th century version of a modern highway rest stop.)

The former tavern was acquired by Irish immigrant William Fegan in 1863. Fegan operated it as a boarding house. Harriet Woods in her Historical Sketches of Brookline (1874) described it as “now occupied by many Irish tenants.” Fegan died in 1911 at the age of 87. The house, deteriorating in condition (as seen in the 1927 photos below), remained in the Fegan family until it was torn down in 1928. 
Richards Tavern 1927
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The map below, adapted from a segment of the 1927 Brookline atlas, shows the former Richards Tavern (highlighted by the red rectangle and with the name J.J. Fegan) on Heath Street near the corner of Hammond Street. Boylston Street (Route 9) runs from the top edge to the right edge. The Baldwin School is at lower right and part of Holyhood Cemetery is at lower left. 
Richards Tavern on 1927 map
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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Brookline Village Coffee Shops & Their Pasts

In one short block in Brookline Village, two international coffee shop chains compete for business in storefronts just three doors apart. The more established Starbucks is at 7 Harvard Street, and the newcomer, Caffé Nero, is at 1 Harvard Square.

Woolworth's interior
Employees in the Brookline Village F.W. Woolworth store (now Starbucks) in 1914
Those retail locations, of course, have a much longer history than either coffee chain and, remarkably, we are able to get a glimpse of what the interiors of both spots looked like more than a century ago. Interior images from that far back are hard to come by. But for these two locations we have views via a newspaper sketch for one and two photographs for the other.

National Bank Building in 1893
National Bank Building in 1893
The older of the two buildings is the one that is now home to the first Brookline location of the London-based Caffé Nero. Designed in 1892 by the firm Hartwell & Richardson, the building, originally known as the Lowe Building, had stores on the ground floor and apartments above. One of the first tenants was the Brookline National Bank and the building soon became known as the National Bank Building.

The bank purchased the building in 1902 and engaged architects Peabody & Stearns to expand and redesign it. They enlarged the third floor by raising the roof eight feet. (It became home to a hall for the Beth-Horon Lodge of Freemasons.) Apartments on the second floor were turned into offices.

On January 1, 1903, the new Brookline Post Office opened on the ground floor, in the space that is now Caffé Nero. The Boston Globe previewed the new post office with the headline “Brookline’s New Year’s Gift from Uncle Sam” and a sketch showing the public space, as well as the redesigned exterior.

Sketch of the interior of the new Brookline Post Office in Brookline Village, now Caffé  Nero. Boston Globe, December 30, 1902
Sketch of the interior of the new Brookline Post Office in Brookline Village, now Caffé  Nero. Boston Globe, December 30, 1902
Mail slot in Caffe Nero women's room doorWhen shown the image, employees at Caffé Nero were intrigued. They also thought it solved a mystery: Why did the door to the women’s bathroom, shown here, have a mail slot in it? (It was probably an interior door reused in later renovations.)

This was to serve as the main Brookline post office, relocated from an inadequate space on Washington Street in the Village, until the construction of a new post office in Coolidge Corner (in space now occupied by Zaftig's deli, Jin's restaurant, and Cool Edge Salon) in 1923. The location that is now Caffé Nero remained the Brookline Village branch of the Post Office until some time after World War II.

7-15 Harvard Street in the early 1980s.
Town of Brookline photo.
The more modest two-story building housing the Brookline Village Starbucks was built in 1911 to house stores and offices. A year later it became home to Brookline’s first F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store, which was to stay in business there for more than three quarters of a century.

Woolworth’s occupied half of the first floor, space now divided between Starbucks and Vizio Optic, until closing in 1989. The Historical Society was lucky to obtain the two photographs below of the interior of that store from another historical society. Sales banners hanging from the ceiling in one of the photographs helped us to date the images to 1914.

The banners advertise a Spring Sale, April 20th to April 25th. Why six days, not seven? Because from Puritan times until 1983 Massachusetts Blue Laws banned Sunday store openings. (April 19th was a Sunday in 1914 and 1926, but the clothing appears a better match for the earlier date.)

Interior of Woolworth's store, Brookline Village, 1914
Two interior views, above and below of the Brookline Village Woolworth's in 1914
Interior of Woolworth's store, Brookline Village, 1914
To explore these photos of the Brookline Village Woolworth’s in more detail, visit supersize versions on the Historical Society website: Image 1 | Image 2

One puzzle: there are skylights clearly visible in the photos. How can that be in a two-story building? Records in the town building department provide the answer: the building was originally only one-story at the back; the second story was added to that part of the building later.

Next time you’re enjoying a coffee or tea or a pastry in either of these Brookline Village coffee shops, be sure to reflect on what had been there more than a century ago.