Thursday, May 16, 2024

What Do You Call Your Brookline Neighborhood?

Map image courtesy of the town of Brookline.

The town of Brookline, like many cities and towns, is made up of several neighborhoods. But what are they called and what are their boundaries?

The answers to these simple questions are not so simple.

Different maps and websites and neighborhood associations may have different names for some of the same parts of town. Or the same names and different boundaries. Some sites show names that may not appear on any map or have any official or quasi-official status.

So what do you call your Brookline neighborhood? Join readers of Brookline News (for whom I first wrote this article) in sharing your name for the part of town where you live: (The form is at the bottom of the article.)

I’ll report back with trends and patterns and try to make sense of what is where and where is what.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Stereopticon: PowerPoint of the 19th Century

On June 24, 1871, the Brookline Transcript announced an "Exhibition of Arctic Views" to be shown to "the scholars of the public schools" at Town Hall. The views, from an expedition led by the artist William Bradford, were said to be "highly instructive, as well as entertaining."

Image of iceberg
One of the Arctic images from William Bradford's travels

The images were displayed using a device known as the stereopticon, sometimes called the "magic lantern," that projected them on a screen behind the speaker. It was a principal way of delivering illustrated lectures in days before motion pictures, and a common late 19th and early 20th century means of illustrating talks on a wide variety of topics.

The stereopticon projected two slightly different images together to give a sense of three dimensions.
Ad  - The Thornwood Exhibitor's Opticon
This example of a stereopticon projector was in a 1900 advertisement

This illustration shows an example of a 19th century stereopticon presentation in a large theater.
In Brookline, stereopticon lectures were held in various locations, including churches, schools, and meeting halls, as well as the Town Hall. World travel was a popular topic, with illustrated talks on Egypt, Mexico, the Rhine River, Switzerland, and other parts of the world.

Mae Durell Frazar, a writer and organizer of European tours, gave a series of stereopticon lectures in Brookline's Town Hall in 1891.

Robert Luce, a writer and later lieutenant governor and member of Congress, gave a stereopticon lecture on Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition "of equal interest to those who went to the Fair and those who did not."
Early versions of the stereopticon used candles or oil lamps as the source of light, while later versions used chemically-enhanced limelight for more powerful illumination.

Art and culture were other popular topics for local talks illustrated with stereopticon images:
  • Students from the School of Elocution and the New England Conservatory of Music presented an illustrated reading of Longfellow's "The Courtship of Miles Standish" in Town Hall in 1879.
  • In 1892,  Annie S. Peck, an expert on Greek antiquities, delivered a series of illustrated lectures at the Bethany Building at the corner of Washington and Cypress Streets.
Technology itself was discussed in some talks:
  • George Hartwell's 1887 talk on "Harnessing Lightning" looked at "the latest, most novel and practical application of electric power." These included lighting -- The Town Hall was lit up with electric lights -- as well as the use of electricity for sewing machines, pumps, and an electric monorail in New Jersey
  • In 1894, John C. Packard, a longtime science teacher at Brookline High School delivered a talk on the telegraph and the telephone, illustrated (according to the Brookline Chronicle) with an "excellent series of stereopticon views" which "were thrown upon the screen" and "added greatly to the clearness of the lecture."
Other stereopticon-illustrated lectures in Brookline covered social welfare topics, including talks by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and others on temperance, clean water, the work of the  Tuskegee Institute, and "the relation of physical training to education."

In 1897, the Chronicle reported on the use of an electric-powered version of the stereopticon at Brookline High School. 

"The light furnished is very steady and uniform, and is powerful enough to so compete with daylight that the blinds are left partially open in the lecture room during demonstrations with the stereopticon, thus allowing students to take necessary notes."

The use of stereopticon slides diminished with the advent of motion pictures in the 1910s, but they were still used in occasional lectures in Brookline as later as 1941. They even made an appearance at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in a 1989 presentation by 3-D photography expert Ron Labbe

"Enter another dimension at Coolidge Corner Moviehouse"
Ron Labbe's 1989 show of 3-D photography included late 19th/early 20th century stereopticon slides.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The New Coolidge Corner Theatre

Brookline Chronicle, April 21, 1923
(Click image for larger view)

The Coolidge Corner Theatre, a Brookline treasure for more than 90 years, had a grand opening and ribbon cutting of its newly expanded and revised spaces this week. But did you know that Brookline fought for 20 years against having a movie theater in town before the Coolidge finally opened in 1933?

Read about the struggle to bring a movie theater to town in this this two-part blog post from 2009:

  • The Movies Come to Brookline -- At Last! Part 1   |   Part 2 

March 26, 2024

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Brookline History Walking Tours: Spring 2024

This spring's series of Brookline history walking tours kicks off on April 14th with a tour of the Coolidge Corner shopping district. There are three other walking tours in April and May. All tours are free and open to the public. Details and links for registration are below.

Sunday, April 14th, 9 am - 10 am
Walking Tour: 165 Years of Shopping in Coolidge Corner

Coolidge Corner was home to just one store—Coolidge & Brother—from the 1850s to the 1890s. Following the widening of Beacon Street in 1887-88 and the arrival of the S.S. Pierce store a few years later, a major new shopping district took root. Almost all of the existing buildings in this still thriving commercial area were built between 1890 and 1930.

Register at 
Tour begins in front of Trader Joe's, 1317 Beacon Street

Sunday, April 21st, 10 am - 11:30 am

Brookline Village Walking Tour

Highlights will include:

  • Brookline’s earliest commercial center, featuring brick buildings from the 1870s
  • The Lindens, one of the first planned residential developments in the U.S. (1840s)
  • Emerson Garden and the Elijah Emerson House on Davis Avenue (1846)
  • White Place, with one of the largest concentrations of vernacular architecture in Brookline
  • The town’s civic center, site of the Town Hall, the public library, the Pierce School, and other municipal buildings.
Tour begins in front of The Village Works, 202 Washington Street

Sunday, May 5th, 10 am - 11 am
Beaconsfield Terraces Walking Tour

Learn about the chateaux-like Beaconsfield Terraces, on the south side of Beacon Street from Dean Road to just beyond Tappan Street, a residential complex built in the 1880s in which people owned their units but shared ownership of a 6-acre park, stables, a playhouse (known as the Casino), tennis courts, a playground, and a central heating plant.

Register at
Tour begins in front of Star Market, 1717 Beacon Street

Sunday, May 19th, 2 pm - 3:30 pm
Blake Park: History of a Neighborhood

In 1880, banker Arthur Welland Blake engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to draw plans for the subdivision into roads and lots of the Blake family estate on the lower part of Brookline's Aspinwall Hill. Olmsted's plans were never executed, and the estate remained a large tract of open land until a new neighborhood finally emerged — despite failed plans, untimely deaths, and financial scandal — four decades after it was first conceived. 

Register at
Tour begins in front of Brookine High School, 115 Greenough Street

Sunday, March 17, 2024

St. Patrick's Day in Brookline, 1887: A Call for Independence

137 years ago today, on St. Patrick's Day in 1887, Brookline heard the call for Irish independence. At a holiday banquet at Lyceum Hall in Brookline Village, Charles Endicott of Canton delivered a rousing call on behalf of the Irish people.

"From my earliest boyhood I have entertained a deep regard for the people of the Emerald Isle," said Endicott, "and I have always had, and shall ever have, the profoundest sympathy and admiration for the manner in which they have endured for centuries the continued oppression of their British tyrants


"Never has the Irish heart submitted without protest to the yoke of England, and the hope of eventual emancipation from the unjust rule of Great Britain has ever sprung eternal in every Irish breast." 

"In spite of poverty and starvation the Irish people have always held steadfastly to the faith that their country must some day be free to develop the material and mental resources with which heaven has so bountifully blest her, the perfection of the possibilities of which has been prevented by the jealousy and greed of their English rivals at the point of the bayonet and at the mouth of the cannon."

The event was organized by Brookline's Grattan Club, organized a year earlier and named for Henry Grattan, an 18th and early 19th century campaigner for Irish rights. Ireland would not gain independence until 34 years later.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Sunday, March 24th: A History of the Brookline Fire Department

In September 1936, the main section of the 1895 Brookline High School building -- the first on its current site -- was destroyed by fire. It was a spectacular blaze, captured in photos like the ones above and in newsreel footage. (You can watch the newsreel online.)

The high school fire will be included in a talk -- "A History of the Brookline Fire Department" -- by retired Fire Chief John Spillane presented by the Brookline Historical Society on Sunday, March 24th. (There will be two sessions: at 2:00 pm and 3:30 pm). The program is free but registration is required.

Chief Spillane's talk will also cover other famous fires from Brookline's past, as well as the overall history of the department, including Brookline firefighters who died in the performance of their duties. The talk will take place at the Fire Department training facility behind Station #6 (by Horace James Circle).

For those interested, there will be tours of Station #6 and the  training facility after the  presentations.

To register for one of the programs, go to or

There is plentiful parking on site for bikes and cars.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

House Numbers Are Where It's At!


                         "Though fog or night the scene encumbers,
                           Why don't all the buildings show their numbers
                                     On lintel, wall, or door?
                          Why can't a house say good and plenty
                          'Hey look at me! I'm Nineteen-twenty,
                                     The joint you're looking for.'"

                                     -- Arthur Guiterman, 1950

Street numbers for houses -- and other buildings, too -- serve a fairly simple function. They make it possible to locate a particular building on a particular street. The numbers themselves, with rare exceptions, have no meaning beyond that basic navigational role.

They are a ubiquitous and utilitarian part of our everyday environment. But despite their ordinariness, building numbers can appear in an almost boundless variety of styles and designs, as the images in this post -- all gathered walking around Brookline -- show. 

They come in different fonts and different colors. They are made of different materials. They are displayed as numerals or words, arranged horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. They may have been bought off a rack in a hardware store or designed and created by an architect or graphic designer.

House Numbers Come to Brookline
House numbers were first introduced in Brookline in the 1880s, when mail delivery began in town. (Until then, residents and business owners would pick up their mail at the post office.) They were more common on some of the busier streets at first, though even there the use of numbers could be spotty, as seen in two excerpts from an 1890 town directory.

This page from the 1890 Blue Book of Brookline shows a portion of the Harvard Street listing, with some residences showing house numbers and others with no number.

Another page from the 1890 directory, showing houses on several street, but no house numbers

"Some measure ought to be adopted to compel the numbering of every house in town," opined the Brookline Chronicle in 1888.

Even when numbers were assigned, inconsistency was a source of confusion and complaint in those early years. "The person who has undertaken to number the houses on our street has made a mess of it," wrote one resident in a letter to the Chronicle, also in 1888.

Finally, in 1891, a new bylaw was passed giving the Board of Selectman the authority to order house numbers to be affixed or painted on any building in town.

At least one enterprising businessperson saw an opportunity in the new bylaw. Reuben Chase advertised in the Chronicle, offering signs, apparently of different designs, for sale.

Advertisement, Brookline Chronicle

A Chaotic Condition
Inconsistent enforcement and application continued to plague the town even after the adoption of the building numbering bylaw. "No carrier system can ever become wholly satisfactory so long as the present chaotic condition of house numbers continues" wrote the Chronicle in August 1898.

"The fact is even more apparent than it was a year ago," continued the paper, "that there is no street in the town in which the buildings are properly numbered, while in the newer sections a 'hit or miss' rule of numbering appears to be generally adopted."

Two years later, a competing paper, the Suburban, complained that the numbering system in the town "is confusing in the extreme" and that "something should be done about it at once."

As late as 1918, another Brookline paper, the Townsman, took store owners to task for the lack of numbers on their storefronts. "It has been called to our attention that many of the stores in Old Brookline lack proper identification by street numbers. Would it not be well for the merchants to see their street numbers adorn their store doors? What about it merchants?"

A year later, Town Engineer Henry Varney reported that from 400 to 500 notices were being sent out each year to homeowners who failed to post numbers on their homes.

Later in 1919, the Chronicle came down hard on homeowners who continued to ignore the house numbering by law:

By 1924, the town was able to report that "Practically all occupied buildings are now correctly numbered." Two years later, buildings on Brookline Avenue and Longwood Avenue were renumbered to conform with addresses on those streets across the town line in Boston, but compliance with the bylaw does not seem to be a problem today, even as GPS changes the way we find a particular place, in Brookline or anywhere else.

Unlucky 13?
Triskaidekaphobia -- fear or avoidance of the number 13 -- may be just a bit of whimsy for most people. After all, there's not much you can do about it if you were, say, born on the 13th of any month, let alone on a Friday the 13th. But one arena where the number 13 is mostly avoided is in house and building numbering.

There are even some office and apartment buildings that have no 13th floor. (They do, of course, have a thirteenth floor; it's just numbered 14.)

Even rarer are houses, businesses and other buildings using the number 13 for their address. Developers, builders, and homeowners, superstitious or not, have regularly skipped over that number when assigning addresses in cities and towns, large and small. There are even some reports that having the number 13 as an address lowers the value of a property.

Brookline is no exception when it comes to avoiding this number as an address. Do you know how many locations in Brookline have the number 13? The answer -- cue the Twilight Zone music -- is 13. Even that group seems to avoid the number. There are only 12 buildings on those 13 properties; one -- 13 Aston Road -- is marked "undevelopable" in the town assessor's database. Hmm.