Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Brookline Bikes: Sights to See on Beacon Street

The annual Brookline Bikes bicycle parade takes place this Sunday, May 15th.  It's a great event and an opportunity to ride the entire length of the historic Beacon Street boulevard in Brookline unimpeded by automobiles.

The Brookline Historical Society will have a table set up in Amory Park, the starting and ending point for the parade, with information about the development of Beacon Street.  Stop by before or after the ride and check it out.

Shown below are some of the architectural and historical sights you'll see as you ride down Beacon Street. (Photos of Beacon Street landmarks in the past can be viewed on the Brookline Historical Society Web site.)

Pelham Hall (Outbound, at Pleasant Street) Pelham Hall was built as a residential hotel in 1926 as part of a burst of new construction in and around Coolidge Corner.

S.S. Pierce Building (Outbound, at Harvard Street). The S.S. Pierce building, the symbol of Coolidge Corner if not of Brookline itself, was built from 1898-99 on the site of the original Coolidge Brothers store.

The second story of the Pierce Building, now offices, was originally Whitney Hall. Named for Beacon Street developer Henry Whitney, it was used for concerts, lectures, dances, meetings, and other events.  The original tower was taller.  Damaged in a 1944 hurricane, it was remodeled afterward to its current design.  The S.S. Pierce Company continued to occupy the lower floor until the 1960s and the building is still generally called the S.S. Pierce Building, even by residents who didn’t arrive in Brookline until much later.

MBTA Shelters (Both sides at Harvard Street) The tile-roofed shelters for the T, at Coolidge Corner, are the original structures built by Henry Whitney’s West End Railway in 1901. Remodeled a few years ago, they are the only original shelters that remain.

The Stoneholm (Outbound, between Short Street and Lancaster Terrace). The Stoneholm is a magnificent French Renaissance chateau style apartment building that opened in 1909 with such amenities as marble fireplaces, parquet floors, and crystal chandeliers. It was designed by Arthur Bowditch, who lived on Pill Hill.

Chinese Christian Church (Inbound, between Strathmore and Dean Roads). This neo-Gothic church was designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge in 1910. Built for the Leyden Congregational Church, it was bought by the Chinese Christian Church of New England in 1975.

All Saints Church.  (Inbound, at Dean Road). All Saints Church, designed by the architectural firm of Cram, Wentworth, and Goodhue, replaced a temporary wooden church on the site with the completion of the nave in 1899.

The Beaconsfield Terraces (including Richter Terrace,  Inbound at Dean Road and Frances Terrace, Inbound at Tappan Street).
The Beaconsfield Terraces were one of the more unusual developments to follow the widening of Beacon Street. Built by Eugene Knapp, a wool merchant, in the early 1890s, the terraces were an early condominium arrangement in which people owned their units but shared ownership of 6-acre park, stables, a playhouse (known as the casino), tennis courts, and a playground. A bell system connected the houses to the stables so that people could call for their horse and carriage. A central heating plant heated all of the buildings. Today, only the residence buildings remain.

Athans Building
(Inbound at Washington Street). This commercial block was built in 1898 with stores, offices, and a hall for dances and concerts.

Richmond Court. (Inbound, east of St. Paul Street).
Richmond Court was one of the firstpossibly the firstcourtyard apartment buildings in the country. Built in 1898, it is set back and separated from the noise and bustle of Beacon Street by an iron fence, brick and stone posts, a fountain, and private gardens. Richmond Court was designed by Ralph Adams Cram who went on to design All Saints Church, further out on Beacon Street, as well as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and many buildings at West Point and Princeton University.

Temple Ohabei Shalom (Inbound at Kent Street). Temple Ohabei Shalom was the first Jewish congregation in Boston, formed in 1842 by immigrant German Jews. The congregation moved to Brookline and this domed temple in 1927.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Invention & Innovation: A Walking Tour of New Ideas Born in Brookline

Did you know that King C. Gillette got the inspiration for the safety razor while shaving in his Brookline home one morning? 

Or that the birth control pill was developed by Dr. John Rock at the Free Hospital for Women overlooking the Muddy River? 

Or that one of the world’s first electric cars was built at the Holtzer-Cabot Electric Company on Station Street? 

Join me this Sunday, May 15th, at 2 pm to learn about these and other advancements made by 19th and 20th century inventors and innovators living or working in Brookline

The tour begins at the Brookline Village MBTA Station and will cover approximately 2 miles in 1-1/2 hours. Free and open to the public. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Tree Falls in Brookline: The Aspinwall Elm, 1863

In honor of Arbor Day, April 29th (officially proclaimed in Brookline by the Board of Selectmen last Friday), Muddy River Moments presents the story of the Aspinwall Elm, the most celebrated tree to grow—and fall—in Brookline.

Three generations of the Aspinwall family pose before the family home and the remains of the celebrated Aspinwall Elm after it came down in a gale in September 1863
Three generations of the Aspinwall family pose before the family home and the remains of the celebrated Aspinwall Elm after it came down in a gale in September 1863. (Brookline Historical Society photo)

When 19th century Bostonians talked about great elm trees, there were three that usually came to mind: the Great Elm on Boston Common; the Washington Elm on Cambridge Common; and the Aspinwall Elm, towering over the Aspinwall family home in Brookline Village.

The Aspinwall Elm was, by most accounts, the largest of these.  The circumference of its massive trunk (as reported in The North American Review in 1844) had been measured in 1837 at 26 feet 5 inches at ground level and 16 feet 8 inches five feet up. Its branches (according to the 1846 edition of Dr. George B. Emerson's report on the trees and shrubs of Massachusetts) at one time extended 104 feet from southeast to northwest, and 95 from northeast to southwest.

The tree stood on what is now Aspinwall Avenue alongside the home built by Peter Aspinwall in 1660.  (The site was opposite that of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which was built nearly two centuries later, in 1851.) Tradition had it that Peter Aspinwall planted the tree in 1656, though other stories date it somewhat later than that and attribute its planting to Peter's son Samuel or to Samuel Clark, who lived with the Aspinwalls as a boy.

This photo of the Aspinwall House and the Aspinwall Elm was published in The Aspinwall Genealogy published by Algernon Aikin Aspinwall in 1901

Mary W. Poor, daughter of the Rev. John Pierce, recalled the tree in her 1903 recollection of Brookline in the 1820s.

Every one spoke of it as " Beautiful Brookl1ne." This was partly due to the rolling and well wooded surface and to the splendid elms of uncommon size and picturesque shape that fairly embowered the village and a great part of the town. The queen of these noble trees was the "Aspinwall elm," which stood at the southwest corner of the old "Aspinwall house" very near the site of the Episcopal church.

Half the tree fell in 1844.  Eleven years later, J.C. Warren, president of the Boston Society of Natural History, examined the Aspinwall Elm while writing a book about the Great Elm on Boston Common.

I have examined this tree [wrote Warren], and find that its annual foliage has been almost wholly devoured by the canker-worm, in common with many other trees in the low land of Brookline. It appears at this time like a frightful skeleton ; and there is a question whether it will ever recover from the shock it has received. In its death, we shall have to deplore the loss of one of the finest natural ornaments of this part of the country.

Warren was right to be concerned.  Eight years later, on September 18, 1863, the rest of the tree came down in a gale, crashing on top of the 200-year old house and punching a hole in the roof.  Three generations of the family posed in front of the house with the toppled tree.  (Click here for a larger view of the image above.)

The loss of the Aspinwall Elm was big news, and not just locally. Word of its demise was mentioned in newspapers as far away as Wisconsin.

The stump of the giant elm remained for some time after.  In 1873, in his speech dedicating Brookline's new Town Hall, Robert C. Winthrop paid tribute to the Aspinwall Elm:

Of the venerable elm, which overshadowed [the Aspinwall House] certainly for more than a hundred and fifty years, if indeed it was not coeval with Columbus, nothing remains but the antique roots, and a few feet of massive but mutilated trunk. They are almost the last relics of the old Muddy River Hamlet, and I wish they could be enclosed and inscribed as a monument of the remote past. What an inspiring stump that would be for an open-air speech on some historical anniversary ! If nothing else can be done, I trust that enough of it may be secured as a desk for this very platform. If it were here at this moment, my manuscript would have a most congenial resting place, — more precious than the most skillful carving or veneering of Oak, or Maple, or Satin-Wood.

The Aspinwall House, in poor shape at the time of Winthrop's speech, was itself torn down in 1891.  The land was acquired by the town in 1914 for a park.  Expanded in 1972, it is now the Billy Ward Playground.

BillyWard Playground
The Billy Ward Playground on the site of the Aspinwall House and the Aspinwall Elm.