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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. 

Building Commonwealth Avenue

There has been much improvement in the condition of Allston-Brighton’s streets of late. The long delayed removal of the MBTA tracks from Brighton Avenue, Cambridge, and Washington Streets, and the rehabilitation of these key arteries through repaving, new sidewalk construction, and the introduction of plantings has greatly improved the appearance of the community. 

There is, however, one very important local thoroughfare (arguably the most important) that is still greatly in need of rehabilitation---Commonwealth Avenue. Hopefully, the city will soon undertake the major refurbishment of the avenue that have long been promised.

The overall conception for Commonwealth Avenue, which was built in stages between 1885 and 1895, was provided by the leading landscape architect of his day, Frederick Law Olmsted, then a resident of Brookline.

Brighton’s Commonwealth Avenue and Brookline’s Beacon Street were projected at about the same time, both based on Olmsted plans, and a lively competition arose between them for investment and development.

The construction of Beacon Street, which involved the widening of a preexisting country road into a Parisian-style grand boulevard, was the brainchild of transportation mogul and real estate developer Henry M. Whitney, the owner of the West End Street Railway Company. Whitney owned much of the acreage adjacent to Beacon Street and stood ready to provide the completed avenue with public transportation.  

When Commonwealth Avenue was first put through in the 1885 to 1888 period (a more elaborate second stage of construction followed between 1890 and 1895), it was immediately hailed as the “the prime driveway of our city.”

In August 1888 the Brighton Item  noted proudly of the then almost completed boulevard: “It is no wonder that Bostonians are proud of the avenue, or that [President Benjamin Harrison] on Wednesday last should have been driven over it as Boston’s most finished, and it might be added polished, driveway.”

Called at first Massachusetts Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue acquired its present name on March 1, 1887 when the widening of old Brighton Avenue (the portion of the avenue between Packard’s Corner and Kenmore Square) linked the Brighton roadway with Commonwealth Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay.

Commonwealth Avenue was built through the least populated section of Allston-Brighton (the poor quality of its soil there and the many ledge outcroppings had made farming impractical and thus retarded development). As a result no more than a half dozen buildings had to be removed to make way for the two-mile long avenue.

In August 1887 the Boston correspondent of the Hingham Journal  visited Commonwealth Avenue (then nearing completion), and wrote as follows of the area through which it was being built: “I knew [the area] as a boy. Then it was famous as the finest sporting ground around Boston, where before the game laws were passed the crack of the shot gun and rifle were heard in season and out of season, and from which the sportsmen in the days of old...would return at the close of the day with game bags well filled with rabbits, gray squirrels, partridges, quail and woodcock for the Boston market.”

The journalist also recollected that a large piggery had once existed where Sutherland Road now crosses Commonwealth Avenue. “Now what a change!,” he declared. “It is still the primeval forest with its magnificent growth of pines, oaks, and chestnuts, and the outlines of the old piggery grounds are still visible. But through its very center almost is the finest avenue in the country with a bottom as solid, and a surface as smooth and well-rolled as the avenues leading to the costliest estates of the old world.”

The proposal for Commonwealth Avenue enjoyed the support of thirty-seven Boston-area businessmen and real estate owners, several of whom offered free land to the city for the construction of the roadway.

The principal promoters of Commonwealth Avenue included Charles Francis Adams, Jr., railroad promoter, descendant of two presidents and a key Boston civic leader, Isaac Pratt, a local iron merchant (after whom Allston’s Pratt Street was named), Joseph Sawyer, the retired President of Vermont’s huge Burlington Woolen Mills, and the heirs of Boston merchant Ebenezer Francis, who owned about seventy acres on lower Commonwealth Avenue.

In late 1887, Boston Alderman John H. Lee, a popular Brighton Center saloonkeeper, noted on the floor of the City Council that Adams, the Francis heirs, and several other local property owners had contributed land worth some $425,000 to the city for the construction of Commonwealth Avenue.

In advocating the Allston-Brighton roadway, these businessmen noted that the Brookline plan was likely to cost much more owing to difficulties of getting around Corey Hill and the fragmented pattern of land ownership in Brookline (notwithstanding Whitney’s extensive holdings). In Brighton, by contrast, virtually all of the land over which the projected avenue would pass was held by just six men. In addition, they pointed out, Allston-Brighton was already a part of Boston, while independent Brookline “with all its wealth, does not contribute by its taxes to the payment of the city’s expenses.”  Clearly it was in Boston’s interest to construct a boulevard in Allston-Brighton, and to do so with all deliberate speed.

By the end of 1888 Commonwealth Avenue had been completed in its preliminary form to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir at a cost to the city of about half a million dollars. It then consisted of a two hundred foot wide strip over which a single driveway meandered with gravel paths on the side for pedestrians. The macadamized central driveway was paved with pressed broken stone to a depth of about twelve inches, its surface held together with tar. 

An article appearing in the Brighton Item  in August of 1889, appearing shortly after the completion of the avenue, described the Allston-Brighton portion in the following terms:

From “the junction of Brighton Avenue...[it] winds to the left , and here we have a magnificent roadway, as smooth as a floor, though of course, not as level, but nicely rounding from the center to the gutters [to facilitate drainage].  As the grade rises above Allston Street there appears to have been some washing of the successive hillsides up to beyond Warren Street, but these have been properly repaired, and the excellent general character of the roadway maintained.  After the second hill is surmounted the settled way of unsurpassed excellence is again met with; but on the rise above Washington Street there is a slight washing on the surface and the sides of the avenue, but this would be hardly noticed on any other but this almost perfect macadam way.  As the avenue inclines downward on the western slope of the hill, there are also to be seen slight indications of washing of the surface, and then beyond the Chestnut Hill Reservoir entrance the way [the Chestnut Hill Reservoir Driveway] is in splendid condition.”

The article went on, however, to find fault with the avenues “mere gravel paths,” contending that what was needed were “edgestones along either side, and then sidewalks beyond them composed of asphalt or concrete or some homogeneous material that would be smooth and easy to walk on.  As it is now,” the paper noted, “the avenue is only a driveway. It should be made so that those who cannot afford carriages can enjoy it on foot.”

Two factors contributed to Beacon Streets greater success in attracting development. First, the City of Boston dragged its heels in carrying out the further improvements (an elaboration of the roadway’s design, installation of sewers, and of access roads to adjacent acreage). And secondly, in contrast to Beacon Street, no public transportation was established on Commonwealth Avenue until 1909, more than twenty years after its construction.

Thus Commonwealth Avenue in Allston-Brighton turned into something of a white elephant. While Beacon Street boomed, no development whatsoever occurred on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston-Brighton, leading to many bitter complaints. The dissatisfaction of the landowners was augmented when the city increased taxes on adjacent acreage based on presumed increases in land values resulting from the construction of the avenue.

As the Brighton Item  editorialized dejectedly on April 4, 1890, a year and a half after the completion of the costly new thoroughfare: “Commonwealth Avenue has been built at an expense of nearly half a million dollars, and there is not yet a house upon it from old Brighton Avenue [Packard Square] to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.”

Allston-Brighton’s Commonwealth Avenue was laid out between 1885 and 1888, but the building of this grand boulevard did not lead to the large scale, high-quality development that its projectors had envisioned. Development of the Commonwealth Avenue would not occur for another two decades.

This failure is partly explained by competition from neighboring Beacon Street. While the two great boulevards reached completion at about the same time, not all of the features of the original Olmsted design were incorporated into Commonwealth Avenue from its inception, while the Brookline roadway conformed to the landscape-designer’s plan from the beginning.  In addition, Beacon Street was more convenient for Boston commuters (being closer to the downtown) and offered amenities, such as sewers, utilities, and easier access to adjacent real estate that Commonwealth Avenue did not furnish. Of particular importance in explaining the earlier success of Beacon Street was the installation of electric streetcar service there by that roadway’s prime developer, Henry Whitney, President of the West End Street Railway Company. 

The prestige of Brookline was another factor that militated against development on Commonwealth Avenue.That community had long served as an edenic retreat for upper class Boston commuters, those anxious to insulate their families from contact with the congestion, noise, and cultural diversity of polyglot Boston. In addition, the wealthy and self-governing Brookline provided quality public services (excellent schools, well-maintained streets and parks, ample police and fire protection) to its residents.

In  September 1891, sixty-five Boston businessmen, petitioned the city to take the further steps needed to bring Commonwealth Avenue into conformity with the Olmsted Plan. Deeply disappointed at the lack of development the avenue had experienced since 1888, the petitioners declared: “We believe the completion...will prove a great and permanent benefit to the city, because it will create new and desirable investments, and will retain here capital now being diverted to Beacon street in Brookline.”

The city initiated the second stage of Commonwealth Avenue’s construction at the beginning of 1892. Upon completion of this second stage of construction, the Boston Evening Transcript  noted, the avenue would be 240 feet wide from building from to front, a twenty foot setback being mandated, making it 40 feet wider than Beacon Street.

The Packard Square to Warren Street portion of the avenue would include a sidewalk; a 30 foot wide carriage road; a grass plot with trees; a second sidewalk; another 60 foot wide carriage road; a third sidewalk; a grass plot; still another roadway, and yet a fourth sidewalk.

The portion of the avenue between Warren Street and the entrance to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir was to be laid out somewhat differently. Here the grass plots were to be placed at either side of a central 120 foot wide driveway. The altered plan was adopted to avoid the removal of ledges above Warren Street, and also to lend variety to the overall design of the avenue. By virtue of this design alteration, noted the Transcript, it would be possible “to leave on the grass plots, beautiful, picturesque nooks and natural elevations.”

Property owners predicted that these improvements would make Commonwealth Avenue “the most fashionable thoroughfare in the vicinity,” and would give rise to the building boom they had long awaited.

Also, the developers did not foresee the rise of apartment buildings along the avenue. What they visualized at this stage was the construction of large-scale, high style detached houses in the Colonial Revival, Shingle, Queen Anne, and Gothic Revival styles, the sort of development that was occurring in the Aberdeen Section near the Reservoir.In their confident frame of mind, and with  a view to enhancing the avenue’s desirability for residential development, it was also proposed that several parks or “loops” be provided off the avenue for high-style development.  By January 1892 the first of these had been laid out by the city---bearing the name Commonwealth Avenue Park. As projected this roadway,” lying just below Warren Street (Colon Street now covers the site), was to “swing around in a graceful curve leaving a park eighty-five feet wide enclosed within the loop.” It was proposed to place a small pond at the center of the loop, giving the site an even more rustic appearance. “Fountains and summer houses are to be built to make the park still more attractive,” noted the Transcript  in describing the development project. 

The projectors of the Commonwealth Avenue Park project, a group headed by Joseph Comerford, expressed confidence that “these lands, just a little distance from the main thoroughfare” would be “sought for by a class of people who prefer the quiet of a select park to the lots directly on the Boulevard,” and laid out eighteen building lots. As late as 1916 not one of these lots had been built upon. When the area finally experienced development about 1920, it was apartment buildings rather than detached houses that arose there, and the pond, the park, and other rural amenities were discarded.

The high hopes of Commonwealth Avenue landowners were dashed again by a severe economic downturn, the Depression of 1893, which destroyed the real estate market. Six years after the improvements to the avenue had been made, a total of only four buildings stood on the avenue!

Despite improved economic conditions by the late 1890s, the Commonwealth Avenue still lagged developmentally. Beacon Street was the focus of development. The existence there of electric streetcar service was enormous advantage. Until such service was instituted on Commonwealth Avenue, in 1909, little development occurred on the Allston-Brighton roadway.

In 1909 the lower end of the boulevard, between Packard’s Corner and Warren Street, contained just six buildings, two of them private residences. No residential structures whatever stood between Warren Street and Wallingford Road. The upper end of the avenue, adjoining the the rapidly developing Aberdeen neighborhood, contained seven residential structures. No buildings whatsoever stood on the avenue west of the Reservoir.

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