This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution. If you have questions about any of this material, contact Bill Marchione at 617-782-8483 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Brighton’s Unique Aberdeen Neighborhood
The Aberdeen section of Brighton, which lies just outside of Cleveland Circle, contains some of the finest turn-of-the-century architecture in the City of Boston. Unfortunately, this unique concentration of high-style Medieval Revival, Queen Anne, Shingle, and Colonial Revival edifices has experienced a steady erosion in recent years at the hands of insensitive developers and absentee landlords. Concerned residents are working, under the auspices of the local neighborhood Association, ARCA, and with help from the Boston Landmarks Commission and the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, to develop strategies to protect and preserve the architectural and historic fabric of the unique Aberdeen neighborhood for future generations of our city’s residents to enjoy.
A short history of the Aberdeen neighborhood follows:
Aberdeen developed quite late, emerging only after 1887, which helps explain the high degree of architectural unity that exists there. As late as 1875, when the first detailed map of that section of the community appeared, there were only three houses in the entire area.
In earlier times, when farming was still the primary occupation of Brighton’s population, this southeastern corner of the town had scant appeal. In 1889, the Brighton Item described that area as one of "vast acres of high, gravel land which have never produced anything for their owners but grass and tax bills."
Another factor that discouraged early development was the existence of two noxious industries in the area. One of these, the Curtis & Boynton Slaughterhouse, which stood a little west of the present intersection of Sutherland Road and Commonwealth Avenue, has been described as follows:
The largest [slaughtering] business in Brighton at the time of the Civil War [Curtis & Boynton] employed from thirty to fifty men and required a stable of about 25 work horses to do the trucking with frequent employment for hired teams. This business was that of slaughtering hogs, rendering lard, and manufacturing lard oil. The offal from the slaughterhouse was usually piled up out in the open air and quite often not covered with anything, and was thus allowed to decay.
Another odiferous slaughterhouse, belonging to Joseph L. White, stood near the entrance of the present Beacon Street MBTA car barns, opposite the Ground Round Restaurant in Cleveland Circle.
Slaughterhouses, of course, make singularly unpleasant neighbors. It is understandable that potential commuters had little wish to locate near such facilities.
The prerequisites for high quality residential development in Aberdeen began to emerge only after the Civil War. First came the building of the nearby Chestnut Hill Reservoir, a holding facility for Boston's water supply, which was constructed between 1866 and 1870. The completed reservoir was a magnificent visual and recreational amenity that added greatly to the physical charms of the neighborhood. In 1880, historian S. F. Smith described the setting in the following terms:
The spot is a lovely one. There are cultivated hills around the basin from which fine views may be had of its winding and graceful lines, and its sparkling sheets of water.... The scenery is pleasantly diversified with glimpses of deep blue water, and groves of trees and plots of green grass.
Another helpful development came in 1867 when the Charles River Branch Railroad, which had been built through the area in 1852, opened a depot just east of the present Cleveland Circle (on the parking lot of the present Circle Theater). The depot was built to accommodate the large numbers of workers employed by the builders of the reservoir. This line still exists today as the Riverside streetcar line.
The closing of the two local slaughterhouses in the early 1870s eliminated a major obstacle to quality residential development in the area. However, large-scale residential development did not begin for another fifteen years.
Transportation factors were largely responsible. One must bear in mind that the area was quite remote from the downtown at this stage. The only major roadway connecting the southeastern corner of Brighton to the metropolis, Beacon Street, was then a 50 foot wide unpaved country lane. Also, despite the existence of a local railroad depot, the passenger rates on the Charles River line were relatively high, which discouraged potential commuters. In addition, hundreds of acres of more conveniently situated building lots were available closer at hand, in Boston's developing Back Bay. And, finally, after 1873 the nation slipped into a major depression, which depressed the local real estate market.
In 1886 the greatest impediment to development was removed when Henry M. Whitney, the President of the West End Street Railway Company, and a major owner of Beacon Street real estate, hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, to widen and improve that thoroughfare. Over the next two years, Olmsted replaced the rough country lane with a spectacular 160 foot wide paved Parisian style avenue. Most of this work on this grand boulevard was completed by the end of 1887.
The enterprising Brookline entrepreneur then installed an electric streetcar line on the newly constructed avenue. As Cynthia Zaitzevsky wrote in her history of the Boston park system: "The improved Beacon Street proved enormously profitable for Brookline through increased tax revenues, as well as for Whitney, and it was generally regarded as a triumph."
The Olmsted firm had also been hired by the City of Boston to devise a plan for a grand avenue in the eastern part of Brighton that would link lower Commonwealth Avenue to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. Because the city dragged its feet on this project, it was not carried into effect until the early 1890s. Once completed, however, electric streetcar service was also installed along this second grand boulevard, Commonwealth Avenue. Thus, by the late 1890s, two major avenues, both serviced by electric streetcar lines, ran along the periphery of the Aberdeen section.
On August 9, 1890, the Brighton Item listed the advantages of Aberdeen to potential home builders in the following glowing terms:
Several feet above any considerable portion of land in the neighborhood, commanding magnificent views in every direction, well-watered, a perfect combination of woodland and glade, and admitting the free exercise of the artistic taste of the landscape gardener, these lands are sure to be sought for residential purposes by the most desirable buyers.
The neighborhood derived its name from the Aberdeen Land Company, which was founded in 1890. The company’s stock was held by twenty five investors, mostly Boston area financiers, merchants, and manufacturers. It was chartered to operate until 1915, for the express purpose of developing the area residentially. One of its largest stockholders was Henry M. Whitney, the transportation mogul who had developed Beacon Street. Others included G.T.W. Braman, President of the Boston Water Power Company; Noah W. Jordan, President and Chairman of the Board of the American Loan & Trust Company; and Isaac T. Burr, President of the Bank of North America. Two of the largest stockholders, incidentally, were Brighton men, George A. Wilson and Benjamin F. Ricker. As prior owners of land in the area, they probably traded their acreage for Aberdeen Land Company stock.
While there were other land companies that held property in the neighborhood, one being Henry Whitney's own West End Land Company, there seems little question that its present design, its street patterns and place names are a legacy of the Aberdeen Land Company.
The company was named for a Scottish county and many of the streets in Aberdeen likewise bear Anglo-Scottish names: Lanark, Sutherland, Kinross, Orkney, Strathmore, Radnor, Windsor, and Warwick, among others. How are we to account for this nomenclature? The British Empire was at the height of its prestige in the 1890s; also, the works of the immensely popular novelist Sir Walter Scott had given a special aura of romanticism to things Scottish. These Anglo-Scottish shire names carried just the right hint of the prestige and exclusiveness that Aberdeen’s projectors wished to attach to their emergent elite neighborhood.
Large-scale residential development of Brighton’s Aberdeen Section began with the introduction, in 1889, of electric-powered streetcar service along Beacon Street. Service to Reservoir Station by train had been relatively inconvenient, cars running only once an hour. Electric streetcars, by contrast, began operating at 6 a.m., and ran at convenient 10 minute intervals during the busiest hours of the day.
The neighborhood experienced its first boom in house construction in the 1889 to 1893 period, after which the building rate slowed for several years due to the Depression of 1893. Rapid construction resumed in the late nineties. By 1900 the Aberdeen district contained a total of 81 structures, all of them private residences. By 1910, 110 houses and 9 apartment buildings stood in Aberdeen. The early apartment structures were relatively small in scale (typically two or three story row house buildings). After 1915, however, many larger apartment buildings were constructed. By 1930 a majority of the district’s housing units consisted of apartments.
The neighborhood’s commercial center, Cleveland Circle, developed in the latter period, between 1910 and 1925. The square was named for former U. S. President Grover Cleveland, shortly after his death in 1908.
What makes the Aberdeen Section so unique is the successful integration there of the built environment with the area’s topography. In other neighborhoods, developers laid out a grid of streets before which all obstacles were obliged to give way. In Aberdeen, by contrast, curvilinear roadways wind their way through hilly, wooded, rocky terrain. Here topography and architecture achieved a remarkable degree of integration. Imposing Shingle, Queen Anne, Jacobethan, and Colonial Revival mansions lie perched atop giant pieces of ledge. The unique character of this Aberdeen neighborhood elicited the following amazed reaction from a Boston Globe writer who visited the district in 1892:
"Over the Chestnut Hill Reservoir," he wrote, "where the Aberdeen Land Company is building, there is one of the most unique sights I ever looked upon. Houses are rising from the solid rocks as if by magic, and it is worth one's while to make a long journey to see this grand transformation scene."
The structures built in Aberdeen in the 1890 to 1930 period, whether single homes or apartments buildings, were of a uniformly high quality. The Sutherland Apartments, at 1714-1742 Commonwealth Avenue, are a case in point. This massive 40-bay structure near the Sutherland Road intersection, dating from 1914, and designed by noted architect J. A. Halloren, is one of Boston’s best examples of the Jacobethan style.
Brighton’s Aberdeen district attracted many distinguished residents, including two Mayors of the City of Boston, a Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and a former Congressman.
One of these Mayors was the immensely popular Patrick Collins, the city’s second Irish Mayor, who held office from 1902 until the time of his death in 1905. He had earlier served in a U. S. Congress and as American Consul General in London. Mayor Collins and his wife Mary lived at 74 Corey Road at the northern end of the district. Their residence was the first dwelling constructed on the Aberdeen portion of Corey Road.
Some three decades later, in the late 1930s, another Boston Mayor, Maurice Tobin, took up residence in Aberdeen. His wife Helen had grown up in the neighborhood. When her father, David Noonan, a stock broker, died in 1937, the newly elected Mayor moved to 11 Kinross Road to be with Helen’s widowed mother, but the Tobin’s only stayed for about six months.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Stratton D. Brooks lived at 97 Kilsyth Road for many years. One of the longest serving Superintendents in the history of the Boston Public Schools, Brooks took charge of the system in 1906, presiding over it when it was at the height of its prestige.
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Henry King Braley, a former Mayor of Fall River, took up residence at 151 Kilsyth Road in 1902, shortly after being appointed to the state’s highest court.
Another judge who resided in Aberdeen in the early years of the century was Josiah S. Dean, Special Justice of the South Boston Municipal, who lived at 19 Lanark Road.
Prominent attorney Joseph F. O’Connell, who had served in Congress in the period 1906 to 1910 while a resident of Dorchester, moved to 155 Kilsyth Road in the 1930s.
Many prominent businessmen also established residences in the elite Aberdeen neighborhood in the early years of the century.
Horace Phipps, President of Phipps Stained Glass Company, constructed a large house at 92 Chiswick Road. Phipps also built 109 Strathmore Road. The Phipps Mansion is gone, having been replaced by an apartment building. One wonders how much stained glass this manufacturer used in this construction of his Aberdeen residence.
Another interesting early resident was Andrew Morton, a wealthy manufacturer of steam and gas fixtures. The Mortons lived originally at 358 Chestnut Hill Avenue, in a house facing Cleveland Circle. About 1900, however, they moved to an elaborate new residence at 248 Chestnut Hill Avenue in the so-called “New Aberdeen Section,” the area west of Commonwealth Avenue. Morton hired the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to lay out the grounds of his new residence. Sadly, in 1924, the mansion was taken down to clear the way for the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, and its Olmsted-designed grounds obliterated to create the present school yard.
At 83 Sutherland Road once stood an elaborate mansion of William Howe Downes, author, historian, and art critic of the old Boston Transcript.
While Aberdeen’s Phipps, Morton, and Downes Mansions have disappeared, many equally imposing residences remain, testifying to the special character of this elite enclave.
At 77 Englewood Avenue, stands a French chateau style edifice built for Mr. & Mrs. Brackley Shaw in the early 1890s. Mr. Shaw was a prominent shoe manufacturer. The house, now a synagogue, was designed by C. Howard Walker, an architect with an international reputation, who later headed the Department of Design at the MFA and also served as editor of the Architectural Review.
At 89 Englewood Avenue stands one of the oldest of the neighborhood’s large-scale residences, an elaborate brick Queen Anne style mansion, built in the late 1880s for roofing contractor Frank W. Krogman. The architect of the Krogman house was C. R. Beal.
Also impressive is a large stone and shingle manor house at 14 Selkirk Road. This lavishly detailed seventeen room mansion, designed by G. D. Mitchell, and dating from 1899, sits high off the street on a piece of ledge. It was built for Charles A. Walker, a leading Boston painter, engraver and watercolorist.
As befits a neighborhood of such stylistic vitality, a number of architects resided in Aberdeen. These included Edward Little Rogers, who designed a series of Aberdeen houses for his own use, before relocating in New York City. Houses by Rogers include 48 Lanark Road and 15 Orkney Road. Other resident architects included William H. Andrews, who lived at 22 Sutherland Road and Edward H. Hoyt who resided at 24 Cummings Road.
Especially worthy of note are three magnificent stone mansions at the southern end of the district, all built in 1910 for William H. Munroe, a Brighton businessman and landowner, on a speculative basis. One of these houses, 1642 Commonwealth Avenue (now the Hasiotis Funeral Home), is conspicuously sited and handsomely landscaped. The other Munroe houses, at 4 and 8 Egremont Road, though less conspicuous, are equally magnificent. The architect of all three of these edifices was Harry M. Ramsey, an Allston-Brighton resident.