Rethinking Beacon Street

The recent year long restoration of the Somerset Club has focused my attention on the Beacon Street block of which that institution is so romantic a landmark, which may seem too local a topic for this blog. I don’t think so. That would be to confuse local with personal. Global Boston as much as local Boston,  however expansive and cosmopolitan is the first perspective — always mine here — and however limited and narrowing in my view the second,  always begins with the personal.  Emerson, afterall,  Boston’s iconic thinker, was nothing if not personal in his teaching,  memorably relating biography to history, for instance. Yet the American Plato was also quite global: if you do a Google search on him you’ll find a Boston Buddhist center named after him that comes up on the first screen. And he understood too, not just the open-mindedness of the wider perspective, but also its romance.  As do we.  Think of the way the mind’s eye still can see clipper ships in Boston Harbor.

All of which brings to mind a time-worn volume of mine, “Romantic Days in Old Boston”. Rather an indifferent production, I urge it on no one. The best thing about it,  in fact,  is the title,  the way it conveys the personality of things. Misleading on the book’s cover,  it is very apt for the Somerset Club block of Beacon Street,  the character of which was caught so well by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., when he called Beacon the street of “the sifted few”.

No more,  of course;  not as Holmes meant it. With a few exceptions,  America’s onetime most plausible aristocracy departed Beacon Street sometime ago, surrendering the mandate of Heaven with haste really. In part I think this is because keeping up the side in this case can be a more weary business for lord and lady than for cook and butler. (It was upstairs that ended it all,  not downstairs,  I recall a member of the Royal Household,  no less,  telling me once).  And in Beacon Street’s case,  morever,  a most seminal event is pertinent:  the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution.  The loss of nerve evident when the Brahmin commission of inquiry hardly upheld the moral high ground was devastating.  The caste lost all face,   particularly to so many of their children, whose own children have made haste ever since in large numbers to escape as far as they can from what might be called the Boston demand  which their parents  had so conspiciously failed to live up to.

It is true that for every Brahmin failure there were many more triumphs.  To this day the legacy of  the  founder of modern Harvard,  Charles Eliot,  so progressive a liberal,  and of that Titan of American music,  Henry Lee Higginson,  never mind  the  work of  those global thinkers Emerson and William James and literary and scientific figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr  and Jr. are the most important stones in the  foundation of Boston’ s place in the world.  But nothing is clearer than that this tradition was best carried on by the Jewish Brahmin’s — Louis Kirstein,  Bernard Berenson,  Louis Brandeis,  to name three — all of whom felt more welcome on Back Bay Commonwealth Avenue than on upper Beacon Street,  which,  however,   made the first claim in the late 18th and early 19th century to be Boston’s Grand Canal.

Beacon Street Palazzi

Upper Beacon street takes its character,  of course,  from the State House,  Charles Bulfinch’s masterpiece of the last decade of the 18th century and the inspiration for the street’s architecture,  never mind for every American state capitol and the capitol in Washington too, the first dome of which Bulfinch raised . That, of course,  is the seat of state and pomp. But the romance is in the streets palazzi, not the least boast of many a  Beacon Street grandee now gone,  five of whom built very grandly indeed between Walnut Street and Spruce Street,  including in 1804 Mayor John Phillips at what is now 1 Walnut,  where the great Abolitionist Wendell  Phillips was born in  a house now sadly altered to an extent that leads us quickly to focus on its next door neighbor, the Appleton-Parker house at 39-40 Beacon.

The work of Bulfinch’s disciple, architect Alexander Parris, and notable for its large scale and really bold classicism,  the Appleton House particularly at number 39 has a most picturesque history.  Here it was,  for instance, that the young Edgar Allen Poe was shown the door during a soiree at which he seems to have had much to much to drink. (  That this house is just across the street from the Frog Pond on Boston Common may not be unrelated to Poe’s invariable habit of refering to his native city as “Frogpondium”).. Certainly his memories of this house were quite different from those of Fanny Appleton, who married poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow here in 1843.  A “quietly sumptuous” wedding,  it was called,  it took place in the second floor bow window,  behind which stretches a splendid enfilade of reception rooms where the festivities continued in the manner always cultivated by the houses builder,  Nathan Appleton.  A father of the Industrial Revolution in America and a textile merchant who played a leading role in the later phase of the China trade,  it perhaps gives more than a clue to his character that Appleton made quite a study of the matter of which of Boston’s first families had a crest, concluding certainly that his was among same despite many dissenting views.

Appleton mixed learning and culture with business in the best Beacon Street way. In 1818,  for instance,  the year his house was built, a life insurance company was founded to support the new Massachusetts General Hospital which its actuary made into a sort of “Savings Bank for the rich”,  to quote Russell Adams,  a savings bank that became “the nations first corporate trust operation…inspir{ing} counterparts in other cities,  most notably the New York Life Insurance & Trust Co. ” In this venture,  furthermore,  not only Appleton was a heavy investor,  but his friend David Sears, who according to Marion Whitney Smith in 1816 ,”inherited from his father the largest estate which had descended to any young man in Boston, amounting to some $800,000, which his father accumulated in the China trade,”surely the explanation for  his  decision to build next door to Appleton’s house yet another, and by the same architect.  And in a life of many wise investments and not  a few good deeds — several in connection with St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral across the Common — Sears never builded better.  So much so that when he died in the early 1870s the Somerset Club he and a number of his friends had founded further up Beacon Street some years earlier promptly took up residence in what remains surely the most magnificent today of all the palazzi of Beacon Street.

Interestingly,  it was also the fate of Appleton’s house,  in the early 20th century,  to become a club,  though a much less exclusive one:  the Women’s City Club.  As liberal in tone as the Somerset came to be conservative,  the WCC,  though its founder was the formidable  Helen Osborne Storrow of happy memory, was oriented more towards career woman than towards socialites,  and in the end it did not survive.  As  later at Harvard,  where what came to be the most democratic club,  the Hasty Pudding,  fell on hard times,  while the very “select”  Porcellian continues to thrive,  so on Beacon Street the Brahmin propensity to social and cutural conservatism and intellectual and political liberalism played out in private as in public,  and it is the Somerset which has survived very well,  thank you,  and preserves today in so far as it is possible the late 18th and early 19th century lifestyle of patrician Beacon Street.

The Sears Palazzo

Even though very few ever enjoy its splendors,  one can only applaud the Somerset for keeping up so well its magnficent interiors,  several of which are worthy of the White House.  Certainly this is true of the great entrance hall,  surmounted by Alexander Parris’ soaring dome of almost two hundred years ago now,  and the crowning glory of the main floor reception rooms, “the huge double parlor ornamented with gold eagles, arrows and medalions in the Directoire style”,  in Alexander Williams’s words,  designed by Herbert Browne and Ogden Codman.  Yet the most discreet splendor,  Williams is right to point out,  is to be found on the second floor:  “when the upstairs {oval dining room} is set for thirty with the Daniel Webster silver {candlelabra and centerpiece} it is a spectace indeed”,  he notes,  and to my mind never more so when,  for example,  it is arrayed for the Keechong    Society,  which Walter Muir Whitehill has explained continued the tradition of  “past and present members of  the {famous China trade} firm of Russell & Co.  dining at the Somerset Club”,  a tradition Whitehill noted half a century ago had “begun almost a century” before that.


Now that’s as romantic as a men’s club,  as the Somerset then was,  gets, and points somewhat to the clubs repute as,  historically, “the most buckish”of Boston’s clubs — I am quoting from the 1883 King’s Dictiionary of Boston –and if that sounds more Southern than Northern in the American context and more British than American, that’s not wrong.  The Somerset,  the domain of Boston’s “Lord’s of the Loom”,  had many Southern members before the Civil War , and in so far as the British context is concerned still has close relations with London’s Whites Club.  That’s the club where the Duke of Wellimgton,  I think it was,  discovered one  rainy day in the bay window looking out and asked what he was doing,  turned cheerfully around and announced he’d been  “looking at the damned people get wet”.  Which puts one in mind of Frances Carruth’s “Fictional Rambles in and about Boston” of almost a hundred years ago now,  in which she recounts how “the Somerset…{was} the rendezvous of Marion Crawford’s ‘American Poliician’ and his friends, one of whom, Vancouver, was particularly fond of standing in one of the semi-circular windows and watching the passers by”. Mercifully,  perhaps,  there is no dialogue.

I say that because those apertures between one world and another figure importantly in the most controversial Somerset story,  that when Colonel Shaw led his black troops past the club the members stood in the  windows hissing.  Whitehill laid that story to rest as quite untrue in his centennial historyof the club,  but his recounting of what did happen, on the authority of a member of the time,  is hardly less shameful by our lights today : members “simply re:treated in their disapproval to the back of the building”,  perhaps  “first pull{ing} down the front blinds”.

The Otis Palazzo

No such issues as beauty inside and truth outside,  entirely too simple a proposition anyway,  present themselves at our fourth Beacon Street palazzo,  yet another design of Charles Bulfinch.  And this time it is the outside of the house that commands attention as simply the single most beautiful facade on Beacon Street,  the gift to one and all now of a prominent lawyer and sometime politician who no less than Appleton and Sears lived in Whitehill’s words in  “the generous manner of a prosperous Federalist, with a full ten-gallon Lowestoft punch bowl on the stair landing to assist the weary in their ascent to the drawing room”.  Indeed,  what less was to be expected from a man who Cleveland Armory reports  “wore gold-laced hats and the costliest waistcoats in town….{and started every day with} a breakfast of pate de foi gras”.  And it never stopped.  Otis received a sitting president of the United States in this house (Munroe),  and so startled Charles Dickens with his hospitality that the author reported in something like awe of  Otis’s  “two mighty bowls of hot stewed oysters,  in any one of which ‘, Dickens said,  “a half-grown Duke of Clarence might be smothered easily”. Or so at least Lucious Beebe maintained.

It was not always food and drink with Otis,  however:  for Bulfinch achieved here so bravura a performance that William Pierson could assert the facade was “one of the first creative outbursts by a native architect in American history”,  marvelling at its “buoyancy and grace”,  and backing it all up with a very solid analysis of whence all this proceeded from. “The refined adjustments of shape and interval,  and the elegant rhythmic sequences…achieved by the architect through an extraordinary economy of means {are such that}…the ultimate experience of the {facade} is primarily an experience of proportions.  The shape and location of the windows”,  Pierson concluded, “are the design”.

The Fifth Palazzo

Windows again.  As controlling architecturally in one case  as significant socially in another,  in our final Beacon Street palazzo — so grand the very entrance doors are windows,  their huge sheets of glass encasing elaborate wrought and cast ironwork gates of  truly baronial splendor — it is  their iconography,  their symbolism,  that is  telling:  the ironwork design centers on  the lyre,  boldly  blazoning for all to  see that  46  Beacon Street,  the Jordan House,  is supremely about music,  which may begin to explain why although thus far our tale  here could be more or less told out of published  sources,  some well worn,  the history of this last of the great palazzi of Beacon Street  remains rather mysterious, and somewhat makes its debut here..

We are,  to be sure,  talking  Theodore Roosevelt  rather than Robert Adam  in this case,  for the Jordan House is — oh, dear — clearly a brownstone,  and unabashedly Victorian.  Because its present owner,  the Unification Church,  is not much more welcoming of strangers than the Somerset Club,   it is a great stroke of good fortune that a substantial architectural archive about the erection of this house — the work of  Haven and Hoyt,  not the least incarnation of the firm founded by Edmund Wheelwright  and responsible for the Harvard Lampoon Castle and for  Horticultural  Hall —  is carefully preserved in the Fine Arts Department of  the Copley Square library,  an archive  that documents the fact that this house was created  as a considerable enlargement of an older domicile in 1913.  Its author was Eben Jordan Jr.  A department store king,  Jordan is  best remembered today,  when he is remembered at all,  as the  donor and builder of a small opera house in the downtown theatre district,  the Majestic Theatre,  and of the New England Conservatory of Music and Jordan Hall.  His greatest claim to fame, almost forgotten today, is that he was the founder of the Boston Opera Company, a story for another day.

The interior finishes alone of the Jordan House compel attention:  beyond the striking ironwork entrance doors are marble floors, gold-plated hardware and electrical fixtures (some ordered from Paris) and in one room “white enamelled woodwork {of} … gloss enamel rubbed with a pumice stone and water — to give a dull finish”,  an indication of the level of craftsmanship everywhere evident in this palatial house.  Often, too,  by leaders in their fields in their time.  Metalwork is the work of two New York firms,  Edward Caldwell and William H. Jackson;  the Alps green marble mantlepiece of the Dining Room is from the Huntington Avenue studio of John Evans,  the leading American architectural sculptor in stone then, while the woodwork throughout the main floor is by William Ross of  Boston. On the Ross invoices,  moreover,  the name of Johannes Kirchmayer.  an American architectural sculptor of unique genuis,  stands out,  and it is very likely Kirchmayer himself did  the principal carving of  Jordan’s music room.  Huge (it seats 170)  the interior finish of that one room cost in 1913 over $25,000,  the cost then of a good sized town house.  Encased in Circassian walnut,  and one of the most spectacular rooms of Edwardian Boston,  it was known too for its superb acoustics.  Nor is it any surprise these were the work of Wallace Sabine of Harvard,  most celebrated for his work at Symphony Hall.  (Sabine’s work for Jordan included according to a letter in the library , “construction  and experimentation on a small model” of the room).

If the Jordan House was dedicated quite explicitly to its master’s great love of music,  it shared no less than its illustrious neighbors in being  also built for town life on the largest scale.  All this the newspapers followed closely, and although rather down at heel today in its appearance,  it is not hard to credit press reports in the 1910s of “scores of carriages and limousines pressed into service to carry guests to the Jordan mansion on Beacon Street, where a reception was held … {with} dancing to Mrs. Hawkesworth’s orchestra”.  Mrs. Jordan, another account noted, wore  “a Worth gown of white peau-de-soire,  low neck,  her only ornament a long rope of exquisite pearls”. It is very likely Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba and other stars of the world of opera of that time passed through Jordan’s entrance gates;  though he entertained publicly after the opera at the Lennox,  private soirees often followed.

But there is a reason that of the two pre-eminent American musical performing  arts organizations — the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera — the opera is in New York.  Brahmin Boston’s greatest failure was in not endowing the city with a sister  organization to the Symphony,  an opera company, and there is more than a little evidence to suggest  Jordan trying to do so was,  if not opposed,  than not heartily welcomed,  for if the Brahmin”s strength was his  aristocratic vision and  intellectual curiosity, his weakness was the sort of moralism that disliked the plots of most operas more even than the scandals of its stars.  Beacon Street was vey clear on this. And it is worth noting that while Jordan belonged to the Country Club in Brookline and the Eastern Yacht Club,  his town club was the Algonquin.  Unlike so many members of the Appleton and Sears and Otis families,  Jordan was not a member of the Somerset Club.

Cleveland  Amory muses in “The Proper Bostonians”  that while Jordan was of the right generation — “the Golden Gates” as Amory calls them of Boston society “clanged shut” in the 1870s — he was, afterall, a department store magnate,  not an East India merchant.  And although there was not in America the British distinction between aristocracy and trade,  in Boston clear distinctions were made  between elite trade and common trade. “Merchant”, Amory argues,  meant in Boston what Dr.Johnson meant: ” trafficks to remote countries” — which Washington Street,  site of Jordan Marsh & Company — wasn’t.  When trade came to mean that sort of thing it was “no longer a word to be used in connection with founding a First Family”.  Jordan was the ‘wrong’ type of merchant.

The Idea of the Global

Looked at this way,  it becomes clear how deep seated among Yankee Brahmin’s was the global Boston perspective this blog explores., even to a fault.  And if excluding a man of Jordan’s wealth and civic stature discloses what the French call the weakness of the strength of this attitude,  it also documents that this global perspective clearly transcended,  historically,  both ethnicity and class.

This is even more clear — to touch finally again on our theme here of outside and inside — in historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recounting of a certain newspaper boy and child of the slums who although an outsider spent many hours each day on Victorian Beacon Street.  “Johnny stood  right in the middle of the most aristocratic quarter of the city,  in sight of some of the finest and most elegant residences,’ Goodwin notes.  And even though he fought with the boys who lived in those houses — the snow ball fights between the two groups on the Common were legendary — the owners of these mansions fired  young Johnny’s imagination greatly. Writes Goodwin:

Johnny developed a heroic image of Boston’s ‘merchant princes’ who had built their fortunes out of their own

enterprize,  and then turned their energies back to the benefit of their city. In his fertile imagination,  he could

see himself standing in their place….Even as a young boy he felt a special tie to Boston….convinced that the

heritage of patriots and abolitionists,  the clipper ships and the counting houses,  belonged to him as much as

it did to anyone else.  Required to read Dickens’ glowing description of Boston in school,  Johnny took it so to

heart that years later he could still recite large portions of it to his daughter Rose.

By then John F. Fitzgerald was mayor of Boston,  of course,  at which he could have done better to say the least.  But we forget that it was the hard finances of a slum family he needed at an early age to support that turned  “Honey Fitz”  to politics,  and forced him to drop out of school.  Beacon Street’s  most famous  Irish Catholic outsider,  when the choice   was his,  had  become a student in  one of  the proudest monuments built by Beacon Street’s  Brahmin insiders — Harvard Medical School.


Adams, Russell. THE BOSTON MONEY TREE (Crowell) 1977.

Amory, Cleveland. THE PROPER BOSTONIANS(Dutton) 1947


Chamberlain, Allen. BEACON HILL(Houghton) 1925

Eaton, Quaintance. The Boston Opera Company(Appleton)1965

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS(St.Martins) 19

Haven & Hoyt Collection, Fine Arts Research, Boston Public Library

Jordan newspaper accounts: BOSTON GLOBE (Jan.26, 1904; Feb. 20, 1916)



Metcalfe, Pauline OGDEN CODMAN (Athenaeum)19


Prouty, F> Shirley. JOHANNES KIRCHMAYER (Randall) 2007


Whitehill, Walter Muir, and Whitney, Hugh THE SOMERSET CLUB (The Club) 1951

”                                 ”               PORTRAIT OF A CHINESE DIPLOMAT (Athenaeum) 1974

”                                 ”               TOPORAPHICAL HISTORY OF BOSTON (Harvard) 1959

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