Monday, November 12, 2018

Another Side of Armistice Day

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ending the fighting in World War I, an anniversary now celebrated in the United States as Veterans Day.

Brookline Chronicle,
November 16, 1918
Back in 1918 Brookline joined with other communities to mark the armistice. A parade with town officials and employees, local organizations, and ordinary citizens wound its way from Coolidge Corner through neighborhood streets to a final celebration on Cypress Field.

But it wasn't all glory on November 11, 1918. American forces in France suffered more than 3,500 casualties on the day of the armistice, many of them in offensive actions launched that morning even though commanders knew an end to fighting had already been set for 11 am.

One of the units sent into action on the morning of the 11th was the 92nd Division, comprised of black soldiers led by white officers. Fourteen months later, it was one of those white officers, General John H. Sherburne of Brookline, who drew attention in a Congressional hearing to what he called "an absolutely needless waste of life."

Washington Post, January 9, 1920
Washington Post, January 9, 1920

Sherburne had been the commander of the 167th Field Artillery, a part of the 92nd Division and the first African-American artillery brigade in U.S. Army history. On the night of November 10th, Sherburne told the hearing

reports came in that there was a tremendous display of fireworks in the German line...with rockets, roman candles, and flares that the German were sending up. From this it was perfectly evident, of course, that the Germans had received word that the war was over, and that could only mean one thing—that they had accepted our terms.

Despite this, and despite more official word that an armistice had been agreed on if not yet implemented, an attack by the 92nd planned for the morning of the 11th was not called off. "I cannot express the horror that we all felt," said Sherborne.

The effect of what we all considered an absolutely needless waste of life was such that I do not think any unit that I commanded took part in any celebration of the armistice, and even failed to rejoice that the war was ended.

Sherburne declined to blame General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force for the order to attack. He was blistering, however, in his condemnation of the mindset of professional military men prevalent at Army headquarters.

....[T]hose men were so wrapped up in their professional studies that they forgot the human side....They did not look upon human life as the important thing.... [T]hey had come pretty near to the end of the war and knew they were near to the end. But they were anxious to gain as much ground as necessary.

I think in those last days of the war it was much like a child who has been given a toy that he is very much interested in and that he knows within a day or two is going to be taken away from him and he wants to use that toy up to the handle while he has it.

 Sherburne went on to say that

A great many of the Army officers were very fine in the way that they took care of their men. But there were certain very glaring instances of the opposite condition, and especially among these theorists, these men who were looking on this whole thing as, perhaps, one looks upon a game of chess, or a game of football, and were removed from actual contact with the troops. There were certain orders, which could not be in any way justified, that were issued overhead.

Sherburne's testimony was given to a subcommittee of the Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department. (Republicans had taken control of Congress in the mid-term elections of 1918.) In the end, political pressure and charges of bias from Democrats led to criticism of the Army being removed from the report issued as a result of the hearing.

There is no indication that Sherburne saw the order to attack as being motivated by the race of the soldiers under his command. (Various white units were also ordered to attack at the same time. For more on the controversy, see "Wasted Lives on Armistice Day," published in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History and republished in Army Times.)

Brigadier General John H. Sherburne
Photo credit: State Library of Massachusetts
Nevertheess, Sherburne, a Harvard-trained lawyer, was active in civil rights causes after the war. He spoke at what was called the first national conference on lynching in New York in 1919 and at meetings of the NAACP and other organizations. In 1928 he resigned his membership in an honorary society of the American Legion over a clause in its constitution that barred black veterans. He served on the board of trustees of Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C.

John Henry Sherburne was born in Boston in 1877. He graduated from Harvard in 1899 and from Harvard Law School in 1901. He lived most of his life in Brookline, on High Street and later in Longwood Towers. He served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1912 to 1917, and later as the Commonwealth's food administrator, head of the Massachusetts Safety Council, and as Adjutant General. He founded and led the law firm Sherburne, Powers & Needham.

Sherburne died in 1959 at the age of 82 at the Veterans Hospital in Jamaica Plain. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Long History of Wooden Sidewalks in Brookline

Mention wooden walkways and most people will probably think of boardwalks along the beach or over wetlands or other fragile environments. Some might picture scenes of raised platforms on dusty streets in the Old West as seen in movies and on TV.

Few will think of a place like Brookline.
Beacon Street, looking east from Englewood Avenue, 1887. This picture was taken not long before the widening of Beacon Street. (Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth)
But wood was once a common material for sidewalks even in urban areas of cities and towns. And Brookline probably had them longer – almost 100 years from the time the first one was laid to when the last was taken up – than any community of its size and/or proximity to a major city.

There were plank sidewalks (as they were called) at one time on major thoroughfares like Beacon, Washington, and Harvard Streets and Brookline Avenue, though those soon gave way to more durable materials.

(NOTE: Click on the links in all of the photo captions on this page for larger and/or zoomable views of the photos. You can see additional photos with wooden sidewalks on the Brookline Historical Society website.)

Beacon Street looking west from Carlton Street, 1887. Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth
Beacon Street looking east from the corner of Washington Street, 1887. Remains of an old tannery are on the right. (Public Library of Brookline via Digital Commonwealth)

Plank Sidewalks on Residential Streets

Even with the coming of newer materials plank sidewalks continued to be laid on some residential streets in Brookline as late as the 1920s and to be maintained for years after. The last one, in fact, was not removed until 1955!

54 Gardner Road
Plank sidewalk in front of 54 Gardner Road, 1888 (Brookline Historical Society)
Wooden sidewalk on Rawson Road, 1915 (National Park Service. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)
Wooden sidewalk on Bowker Street
Wooden sidewalk on Bowker Street, date unknown. (Brookline Historical Society)

Plank sidewalk on Newton Street
Plank sidewalk in front of the Widow Harris House on Newton Street, date unknown (Brookline Historical Society)
Wooden sidewalk, in foreground, on Winthrop Road, looking down on Washington Square, c1900. University Road is in the middle, and Corey Hill is across Beacon Street. (Iowa State University Library Special Collections)

Plank walk table from 1907 Town Report
This table from the 1907 Brookline Town Report shows where new plank walks were added and old ones replaced in town that year.

From a Necessity to a Nostalgic Anachronism
Why did Brookline have wooden sidewalks and why did they last so long?

In 1854, a committee was appointed to look into a proposal from David Sears and others to install a gravel sidewalk and plant shade trees on a part of Beacon Street starting where it met the Mill Dam coming across the Back Bay from Boston. (Beacon Street, then a narrow country lane, had been laid out across Brookline in 1850-51.) The committee, in 1854, deemed that proposal premature in light of uncertainty about further plans for Beacon Street.

Also in 1854, Town Meeting voted to allocate $200 "to make and furnish a suitable gravel sidewalk" in front of the property of "any of the abutters upon any of the highways" of the town if the property owners would supply "edgestones of hammered granite of uniform size, not less than five inches thick" to be placed between the road and their property.

In 1858, Town Meeting took up the question of sidewalks on Beacon Street again, this time voting

That the Selectmen be and are hereby authorized to lay a plank sidewalk across the marsh on Beacon Street, provided the expense does not exceed six hundred dollars and the abutters on said street will make a continuous line of sidewalk up to Kent street.

For the next 11 years, the Town would spend as much as $800 a year on sidewalks in different parts of town. But by 1869, a more concerted effort was called for. A committee appointed in July delivered a report in August that said, among other things, that

The condition of the sidewalks of the town being so bad, your committee would urge that there be no further delay than is absolutely necessary, and recommend the immediate appropriation of eight thousand dollars, to be expended by the Selectmen in laying such walks as they shall deem best suited to the different streets, always remembering that a good sidewalk should protect from mud at all seasons of the year.

The committee further recommended that

Attention should be given first to the main thoroughfares leading to the centre of the village and the railroad stations, laying it on one side of the street only, and, wherever it is practicable, on the south side of the street, that it may the better be kept free from snow and ice. A walk from Walnut street through Cypress and School streets, and Aspinwall avenue to the Episcopal Church, would render all the churches of the town accessible to the majority of the inhabitants. 

The eight thousand dollars was approved by Town Meeting. The committee's report, prepared after correspondence with the mayors of New York and other cities and visits to Cambridge and Lawrence and to Concord, New Hampshire, looked at several different materials for sidewalks. These included flagstone, brick, and two types of concrete. Wood was not mentioned, but it continued to be used extensively. (Well into the 1880s, more money was spent on plank sidewalks in some years than on any other kind.)

This 1888 photo shows Aspinwall Avenue at St. Paul Street with St. Paul's Church in the background. The plank sidewalk can be seen on the lower right and in close-up below. (Brookline Public Library via Digital Commonwealth)

A 1906 report from Michael Driscoll, Superintendent of Streets and Sewers, noted some of the pluses and minuses of plank sidewalks:

There is no doubt as to the comfort and convenience of plank walks, especially in the winter season, but their maintenance is very costly, and in view of the rapid and continued increase in the price of lumber there is some question as to the advisability of continuing their use.

Expenditures on new plank sidewalks dropped after that, though costly repairs continued to be done. By 1923, Driscoll was recommending against laying any new plank sidewalks at all.

The cost of repairs and renewals of the plank walks is larger than ever before, and in my opinion, the time has come when the policy of laying these walks wherever petitioned for should be discarded.

By 1931, Driscoll's successor, Daniel Lacey, was calling for a halt to even repairs of plank walks and for their replacement whenever they wore out.

Owing to the fact that the cost of maintaining plank walks has increased tremendously during the course of the past few years which necessitated a definite program for the removal of them, it is with a keen feeling of satisfaction that we report the elimination of 8,000 feet of old plank. In a few years, when the full utility has been derived from the existing plank walks, this type of sidewalk will be a matter of history.

But it would be another 24 years before the last of Brookline's wooden sidewalks was gone.

A National Curiosity
As years went by, Brookline’s remaining wooden walkways even drew national attention. In 1942, there were articles in two trade magazines: "City Clings to Wooden Walks" in The American City in May; and "70 Years of Wooden Sidewalks" in Roads and Streets in October.

This photo from the October 1942 issue of Roads and Streets magazine shows Woodland Road looking north toward Heath Street. The houses in the distance are 421 Heath on the left and 409 Heath on the right.
Town officials Daniel Lacey, left (mislabeled as "Lace") and Henry Smith, as shown in Roads and Streets.

The continued presence of the plank sidewalks, according to the article in The American City,  was due to "such a clamor from residents who wanted to retain the rustic beauty of their old walks" as well as to the use of new pressure-treated lumber that extended the life of the wood and cut maintenance costs by 54%.

The attention brought by the articles in the two trade publications led to newswire items that were widely distributed and appeared in newspapers around the country.

News items like these about Brookline’s wooden sidewalks appeared in newspapers across the country in 1942 and 1943. Clockwise from top left: Cullman Banner, Cullman, Alabama;  Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Boston Globe; and Poughkeepsie Journal, Poughkeepsie, New York.
By 1950, it was clear that the end was near for the town's plank sidewalks. The Town Report for that year noted that

The policy of eliminating, as rapidly as possible, the dangerous and high maintenance-cost plank and gravel walks throughout the town, will be continued until all have been removed.

In November 1955 the Boston Globe ran a one-paragraph wire service item about the removal of the last wooden sidewalk in the old lumber town of Muskegon, Michigan. Ironically, they seemed unaware that nearby Brookline had only recently removed the last of its own plank sidewalks.

Where was the last wooden sidewalk in Brookline? We may never know. The Town Reports from 1950 to 1954 lists the streets from which they were removed. These included sections of: Warren Street, Cottage Street, and Heath Street (1950); Warren Street, Heath Street, Dudley Way, and Reservoir Road (1951); Heath Street, Colbourne Path, and Gardner Path (1952); Warren Street, Woodland Road, and Addington Path (1953); and Cottage Street and Hayden Road (1954).

But the 1955 report simply says:

The work of removing plank sidewalks in the Town was completed this past year.

Blake Road and Tappan Street, 1915
Wooden sidewalk on the left at the intersection of Blake Road and Tappan Street, 1915 (National Park Service. Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

Wooden sidewalk in front of the Putterham School at its original location on Newton Street, c1900. (Brookline Historical Society)

Close-up views of some of the old plank sidewalks of Brookline
Close-up views of some of the old plank sidewalks of Brookline

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Brookline Fountain for Horse and Dogs

An elaborate drinking fountain for horses and dogs, exactly like these examples in present-day Charlottesville, Virginia (left) and Quebec City, Canada (right) once graced a prominent location in Brookline Village. 

Fountains in Charlottesville and Quebec City

There are many photos of the intersection of Washington and Harvard Streets in Brookline Village (officially called Harvard Square). Together they present a picture of more than 150 years of change  in the center of the town's oldest still-thriving commercial district. 

One of our favorites here at the Brookline Historical Society is this photo from around 1908. (A larger, zoomable version is on our website. Check it out to view the photo in much more detail.)

Harvard Square, Brookline, circa 19108

Almost all of the buildings in the photo are still standing, making the location easily recognizable. (The major exception is the nearer of the two church spires. It burned on New Year's Eve 1960-61.)

Rhodes Brothers store
 On the left of the photo is the Rhodes Brothers grocery store in a building that was constructed in 1905. The building still stands, though it has lost some of its ornamentation. Rhodes Brothers occupied the space until after World War II when it became New England Food Fair. A bank and a health club are in the space today.

There is plenty of activity in the street. On the left a woman and boy are crossing the square behind a cart, one of several horse-drawn vehicles in the picture. (There are no automobiles, although automobiles were increasingly seen in town by this time.) On the right, workmen are replacing bricks in the pavement in front of James Rooney's shoe shop and the Rooney Block of three buildings.

One woman appears to have just disembarked from a streetcar coming down Harvard Street while another is about to board. (There are tracks coming down Washington Street, as well.) Elsewhere in the photo men, women, and children can be seen crossing the street, walking on the sidewalk, or standing in front of various stores.

One of the most delightful elements of the whole picture is the horse, at the front of a cheese delivery wagon, drinking from a fountain in front of Rhodes Brothers right in the middle of the photo.

Horse drinking from fountain

Amid all of this activity, one thing we did not pay much attention to was the fountain itself.

Until now.

A Widespread and Award-Winning Design
While looking through issues of the Brookline Chronicle on microfilm in the basement of the main library recently, I came across an article from July 16, 1887. It provides an illustration and a detailed description of the new fountain to be placed "in a prominent place in Harvard Square." (See the full article at the bottom of this page.)

A cast iron column, reported the Chronicle,
Newspaper illustration of fountain
....supports a larger or upper basin (which holds 40 gallons), at a height of four feet three inches above street grade, or at sufficient height for horses to drink with ease, without the driver being obliged to uncheck them. At the top and in the centre of this basin is an ornamented post. At the base of the post, four mythical aquatic figures are attached, and from the mouths of these the water flows into the larger basin. The waste water supplies the dog trough below. 

Closeup views of the Charlottesville fountain
These closeup views of the Charlottesville, Virginia, fountain show the spouts shooting water into the upper basin (left) for horses and the lower trough (right) with water for dogs and other small animals. The same design was on the Brookline Village  fountain.
The Brookline fountain, noted the article, was manufactured by Henry F. Jenks of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Its design had won awards from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Assocation and the Cotton Centennial Exhibition in New Orleans. Copies could be found in different parts of the country and as far away as Copenhagen, Denmark and Adelaide, Australia.

Looking up Henry F. Jenks I found three articles on the excellent Memorial Drinking Fountains blog where I first saw the pictures from Charlottesville and Quebec City. You can read more on that blog about the Charlottesville and Quebec fountains. There is a third article about another example in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (There is no photo of the Cambridge fountain, which is no longer there, but the same illustration as appeared in the Chronicle is shown, only this time with a lamp attached to the top of the post.)

Henry F. Jenks with fountain
Another good source is an article about Jenks and his fountains in the January 2018 newsletter of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society. It includes a photo (right) of Jenks with one of his fountains in an unidentified location.

Other sources mention Jenks fountains of this and other designs in Pawtucket, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Menominee, Michigan. The trade journal Building Age in 1885 described a Jenks fountain that provided people with ice water through a system involving ice cubes in a specially designed ice box with coils of tin-lined pipe.

One of these ice water drinking fountains was dedicated in Boston's Bowdoin Square in August 1889. The Boston Globe reported that:

"The ceremonies, which lasted about an hour, were witnessed and participated in by a large crowd that blocked the street from curb to curb."

The End of the Brookline Fountain...and One More Surprise
The 1887 Chronicle article tells us when the Brookline Village Jenks fountain was installed. (An earlier photo shows a simpler, less ornamental watering trough at the same location.) It's uncertain when the fountain was removed. It can be seen in photos as late as 1915, but probably did not last much beyond that date as gas-guzzling automobiles replaced water-guzzling horses on the streets of the town.

One of the joys of local history research is the way serendipitous discoveries, like the Chronicle article, lead in unexpected directions, like the story of the Brookline fountain, Henry Jenks, and the fountains he designed in the U.S and around the world.

In this case, I had one more surprise in store. While working on this blog post, I remembered seeing another fountain, a small element in a large photograph of Beacon Street looking east from the tower of the S.S. Pierce Building. (We obtained the photo, taken some time between 1903 and 1907, from the Iowa State University Library.)

Beacon Street looking east, between 1903 and 1907

On the right side of the photo, between the sidewalk and the street, there's another fountain, easy to overlook amid the dramatic view of still largely undeveloped Beacon Street and the streetcar shelters. Here it is in closeup:

Closeup of Coolidge Corner fountain.

It certainly appears to be same design as the Brookline Village fountain. Fortunately, there's an even better view, this one from the collection of the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

This view is a section of a larger photo of Coolidge Corner. (The automobile has just come north on Harvard Street and is turning east onto Beacon Street.) It leaves no doubt; Brookline had two Henry Jenks designed horse-and-dog fountains in town.

Photo credits: 

Brookline Chronicle article about Harvard Square fountain, 1887
Brookline Chronicle, July 16, 1887

Friday, July 27, 2018

Seeing Double? 2 Bridges at Cottage Farm

The BU Bridge over the Charles River (formerly the Cottage Farm Bridge) is closed to traffic until mid-August this summer while the replacement for the adjacent Commonwealth Avenue bridge over the Mass Pike is being completed. The aerial photo below shows the river crossing in 1925. But why are there two bridges crossing the Charles?

aerial view of Cottage Farm bridges, 1925
1925 view of the Charles River waterfront between today's Boston University and Cambridge.
(Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth. Click for zoomable view)
The closer of the two bridges is a temporary bridge opened in October 1923 to carry traffic over the river while a new Cottage Farm Bridge was built to replace an earlier wooden bridge built in 1896. Disputes over the location and design of the new bridge delayed demolition of the older bridge until 1926. It was still standing — and still carrying traffic — upriver from the temporary bridge at the time of this photo.

Cottage Farm Bridge 1923, Boston Globe
Boston Globe, October 10, 1923

The temporary bridge ran from St. Mary's Street in Brookline across Commonwealth Avenue and through what is now Marsh Plaza at Boston University. B.U. had already begun purchasing the land for its Charles River campus by this time but construction of the current buildings had not yet taken place. Billboards facing Comm Ave. stand at the edge of the mostly vacant land in the photo. (Click the images below for a closer view.)

Commonwealth Avenue billboard

The old Cottage Farm Bridge was finally closed to traffic in November 1926, three years after the temporary bridge was opened. Demolition of the old bridge and construction of the current bridge took another two years. The new bridge finally opened to traffic in August 1928.

The temporary bridge at St. Mary's continued to be used as a second crossing until 1929 when it was taken down.

A couple of side notes:
  1. The name "Cottage Farm" comes from the many English cottage-style homes, inspired by the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing, that were built in the neighborhood in the mid-19th century. One of these, built by Amos Lawrence in 1851, is now Sloane House, the home of Boston University's president.
  2. The riverfront property that is now the center of the B.U. Charles River campus was once part of Brookline not Boston. It was given to Boston by the Commonwealth in 1874 to connect the Brighton neighborhood to the rest of the city. The Town of Brighton voted that year to be annexed to Boston; Brookline voters on the same day rejected annexation in favor of remaining an independent town.
Charles River waterfront, 1855 map
This portion of an 1855 map of Brookline shows the Cottage Farm area including the 1896 bridge, the Amos Lawrence property, and Commonwealth Avenue (then called Brighton Avenue). The riverfront, which was given to Boston in 1874, was later expanded by filling in part of the Charles River.
(Map from the Norman B. Leventhal Collection, Boston Public Library)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Old Roads, New Names: Where Are They?

In May 1719 the citizens of Brookline voted to lay out a new road providing better access for "the north end inhabitants" of the town to the meeting house (now First Parish). The road, which came to be called the New Lane, would "be a more convenient way to ye meeting than they now enjoy."

Voted that the afore sd way granted to the north end inhabitants shall run from watertown Road across the Land of mr Thomas Cotton and so across the Land belonging to the children of Caleb Gardner late of Brooklyn into Sherbourn Road near to the Lower end of the new stone wall by an old white oak tree —

All of these roads —"watertown Road," "Sherbourn Road," and the New Lane — still exist though their names have changed. Do you know what they are today?

The two maps below, taken from maps created for the Brookline Historical Society in 1923, show the roads in question in 1693, 26 years before the New Lane was laid out, and in 1746, 27 years after it was created. (Click on the maps for a larger view.)

New Lane maps 1693 and 1746

Sunday, February 4, 2018

An Echo of S.S. Pierce in Coolidge Corner

Like many people, I was curious — and a little concerned — in the summer of 2016 when Walgreens announced it was closing its store in the S.S. Pierce Building in Coolidge Corner.  What would take its place in the most recognizable of all buildings in Brookline, an iconic structure that has stood at the heart of the town's busiest intersection since 1898?

I'll confess I wasn't thrilled when I heard it was going to be another bank. Banks already occupied two of the four corners at the intersection of Beacon and Harvard Streets: Bank of America in a 1930 building on the southeast corner (originally the Boulevard Trust); and Capital One's coffee shop/bank in a 1950 building on the southwest corner. But at least this was going to be a local bank with long and deep connections to the community.

The S.S. Pierce Building in 1906
The S.S. Piece Building in 1906. The original tower was damaged in a storm in 1944 and replaced the following year.
The work being done inside the former Walgreens was hidden from view for months. But the bank gave an indication of its appreciation for history and quality by hiding the construction behind high-gloss color photos of the building and the neighborhood (replacing the brown paper that had covered the windows after Walgreens left). They also added the bank's name in gold letters flanking the name of the building above the entrance, much like what had been there in the days of the S.S. Pierce store.

Corner entrance to the S.S. Pierce Building in 1906 and 2017.
Corner entrance to the S.S. Pierce Building in 1906 and in 2017.
I finally got a look at the interior when the bank opened in the summer of 2017. The colors, lighting, and openness of the space were impressive. But it was the elliptical shape, topped by a brightly lit rotunda ceiling that really caught my attention. It makes a grand space out of a relatively small footprint, more than fitting for its iconic location. I was very pleased.
Brookline Bank, Coolidge Corner
Brookline Bank, Coolidge Corner. (Photo courtesy of Torrey Architecture)
Months later, my appreciation for the design grew even stronger. It began with a serendipitous discovery in the microfilm of the Brookline Chronicle newspaper on the lower level of the Brookline Library. While researching something else entirely — ice skating in Brookline, if you must know — I came across a 1949 advertisement for S.S. Pierce with three views of the interior of the store. I don't think I'd ever seen interior views of the S.S. Pierce store before that.

The quality of the images on the microfilm was very poor. But one thing was very clear from the middle of the three photos: the central space was round with a rotunda ceiling. It's apparent in the shapes of the ceiling, the wall, and the counter in the photo.

Rotunda of the S.S. Pierce store as seen in a 1949 advertisement in the Brookline Chronicle
Rotunda of the S.S. Pierce store as seen in a 1949 advertisement in the Brookline Chronicle
Was the design of the new bank a deliberate homage to the historic design of the old Pierce store? Had the architect been aware that there had been a rotunda there in the past, either through plans or photos or existing architectural elements of the space itself?

To find out, I wrote to David Torrey of Torrey Architecture who designed this space (and many others for Brookline Bank). David was surprised (and as delighted as I was) to learn that there had been a rotunda in the space in the past. "I only saw the empty Walgreens space with its field of columns when I arrived at the site with Brookline Bank!," he wrote.

The former Walgreens space before its conversion to the Brookline Bank
The former Walgreens space before its conversion to the Brookline Bank (Photo courtesy of Torrey Architecture)

He then gave me this detailed description of "how I coincidentally came to design my version of a rotunda in that same location."

The program from Brookline Bank was to welcome customers into a friendly lobby with all the bankers visible to the customer on arrival. We shaped these glassy offices and teller line to allow this visual interaction to occur, and to provide a glimpse from the sidewalk at the activity inside through the art gallery facing Harvard Ave. But I also wanted to create a sense of arrival and grandeur, evoking the Brookline Savings Bank’s original lobby on the corner of Washington and Boylston in Brookline Village. (The bank let go of this building as their headquarters when we redesigned 131 Clarendon Street in Boston as the Brookline Bancorp headquarters.)

My challenge in redesigning the pivotal retail space at the S.S.Pierce Building was to carve out an open area for a lobby out of the field of columns which had to remain for structural reasons. This was done using a central ellipse surrounded by another elliptical ring that incorporated three columns and allowed an ambulatory corridor for access to the offices. But a plaster ceiling would be too loud for acoustical privacy, and I was aiming for a quiet library-like feel. So a plaster ceiling was out of the question, and a standard rectilinear acoustical tiled ceiling with downlights or even a surrounding cove would be a disappointment within an ellipse. 

So for acoustics and lighting we specified a stretched fabric ceiling, this one from Newmat, a European system being introduced recently in the USA. We built the rotunda coffer, lined it with acoustical batts spaced between rows of LED lights and the result is a daylit, quiet space in a modern deco-inspired composition giving the feel of a dome but made with flat surfaces and stepped plaster rings. My inspiration was also the still-standing Roman Pantheon with its central oculus open to the sky.

The Pantheon in Rome and the former Brookline Bank headquarters
The Pantheon in Rome (left) and the former Brookline Bank headquarters (right) in Brookline Village (now a medical marijuana dispensary) were both inspirations for David Torrey in his design for the new Coolidge Corner branch of the bank.

Coolidge Corner is going through a lot of change of late. Several businesses have closed their doors, including Pier One, Lady Grace, Vitamin World, Radio Shack, Panera Bread, and others. (Panera is being replaced by the Gen Sou En Japanese tea house. I'll have more about that space in a later post.)

Amid all this change, it's nice to know that the most iconic space of all has found a worthy replacement.

NOTE: Brookline Bank is not taking up all of the space in the S.S. Pierce Building formerly used by Walgreens. Oath Pizza moved in on the Harvard Street side even before the bank opened. It joins Paris Creperie and Coolidge Corner Opticians, both longstanding tenants on that side of the building. The newest addition, Allium Market on the Beacon Street side, is another echo of the building's past. It sells high-end specialty foods much like its predecessor S.S. Pierce (and even like the Coolidge & Brother store that stood in a different building at this location before that.)