Saturday, May 15, 2021

What's in a Name? Coolidge Corner

A few years ago there was a driver on the C branch of the MBTA Green Line who liked to embellish the names of the different stops as the train pulled into them. Kent Street became Clark Kent Street. Coolidge Corner became Calvin Coolidge Corner. And others that I can't remember. 


Now I doubt anyone thinks Kent Street was named for Superman's secret identity. But I'm sure many people -- maybe even that driver -- think Coolidge Corner was named for ex-president and one-time Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge. 


In fact, that mistaken assumption is most likely behind the not-so-secret identity of one of Brookline's newest buildings. It's an apartment building with retail on the ground floor at 420 Harvard Street, and it's called "The Calvin at Coolidge Corner." The name is prominently displayed on the Fuller Street entrance to the apartments. (Tatte Bakery & Cafe and other businesses are on the Harvard Street side.)

The Calvin at Coolidge Corner
The Calvin at Coolidge Corner, Fuller Street entrance

In fact, as many local people know, Coolidge Corner takes its name from the Coolidge & Brother store that opened at the intersection of Harvard and Beacon Streets in 1857 and was the only business in North Brookline for more than 30 years. (The Brookline Coolidges were distant cousins of Calvin, but the store -- and the name "Coolidge's corner" -- existed even before the future president was born.)

The Coolidge & Brother store stood at the corner of Beacon and Harvard Streets from 1857 to 1892. It was then moved slightly to the west and was torn town with the construction of the S.S. Pierce Building in 1898.

Coolidge & Brother, run by the brothers William and George Coolidge, was a general store selling farm supplies and groceries. It was a popular gathering place, with a watering trough and the town's hay scale outside.

Coolidge & Brother ads from 1868 (top left), 1875 (bottom left) and 1878 (right)

William Coolidge lived above the store with his wife and two children until his death in 1884. The store was then sold to Merrill Brown, who ran it under his own name until selling the business to the S.S. Pierce Company in 1892.


The name "Coolidge's corner" was most likely an informal one at first, a natural way to describe the intersection where there was little else beside the store. That began to change with the late 1880s transformation of Beacon Street from a 50-foot wide country lane to a grand boulevard more than three times the width of that old dirt road. 


Residential and commercial development followed, turning Coolidge's corner into a true neighborhood. The word "Corner" was first printed with a capital C in local newspapers in 1887. The name "Coolidge Corner" first appeared in an advertisement in 1891 and by 1893 was more commonly used than the older "Coolidge's Corner". (The old name did stick around for a while, making its last appearance in an ad in 1916.)


The advertisement at top from the Brookline Chronicle on September 12, 1891, was the first one in the the local newspaper to use the name "Coolidge Corner." The ad at bottom, from the same paper on September 16, 1916, was the last to use the old name "Coolidge's Corner."

The chances of "The Calvin at Coolidge Corner" changing its name to "The William & George" are about as likely as the name "Coolidge's Corner" -- or Calvin himself -- staging a comeback. But this story should at least set the record straight about the name for those who might otherwise be fooled.

For more on the history of the Coolidge Corner retail district, see my video and website, and watch for news of my Coolidge Corner walking tours, resuming soon.

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