7. Idealist Bigots

If art and architecture  (beginning in the 1870s with Richardson and Olmsted)  and the emerging field of city planning and urbanistic thought  (beginning in the 1900s with Geddes and Mumford)  went far to accomplish what Greater Boston’s politicians couldn’t — the creation of a real sense of Boston metropolitan unity — there was a real sense in which at the heart of that accomplisment was the fascinating though  problematic figure of the artistic bigot,  perhaps as well a progressive bigot, certainly an  idealist bigot.

What else call so many of Boston’s historic patriciate in this historical context?  Their retreat to Brookline,  involving as it did a significant reduction in their proprietory role in the core city,  preserving only their abiding passion for money making and for  the intellectuality and high culture of its institutions,  constituted an abdication of moral authority that no amount of   back door influence through state government could ameliorate.  Nor was the Brahmin retreat excusable by the fact that Irish-Catholic demagogues  were  ever eager to fill the vacuum thereby created.  Of course,  what was call and what response,  as the liturgists say,  remains a nice question still,  endlessly debated.  But  in my view   “the closest thing to an American aristocracy,  the Brahmin class of Boston”,  in Notre Dame historian James Turner’s words,  if they showed themselves bigots,  also showed themselves, I will insist,  to be artistic bigots,  as well progressive bigots,  certainly idealist bigots.

How so?  There were always,  as I have previously suggested here,  better reasons for Boston Brahmins to opt for suburb over city all the year through,  not just in summer — think the Adams’s Quincy —  than too many immigrants in the core city.  Tamara Plakins Thornton details  these reasons very well in her  “Cultivating Gentlemen: The Meaning of Country Life Among the Boston Elite”,  the title and subtitle of which says it all.  She backgrounds her study with a discussion of the  “urban explosion that transformed Boston [after the War of 1812  when the once fashionable] North End was left to the lower and middling classes,  while the rising elite moved to new residences developed on Beacon Hill or to nearby estates in Cambridge,  Dorchester,  Brookline and Roxbury”,  emphasizing,  however,  that  “since the prosperous in these peripheral areas still looked to urban life and institutions,  a new metropolitan consciousness developed…..[They] were all ‘Bostonians’.”

Furthermore,  “country life and its mythic values”,  as Catherine Howett put it in a review of Thorton’s book,  were not without value either in the new regional,  metropolitan ethos,  as has also  already been touched on here.  Nor were these values entirely private or only local.

S I L E N T   C I T Y   O N   T H E   H I L L

Witness Blanche M. G. Linden’s book of that title,  sub-titled  “Picturesque Landscapes of Memory and Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetary,”  thanks to whom we know a good deal about this legendary cemetary on the Cambridge/Watertown line north of the core city.

Early 19th century Boston was in some respects slow off the mark.  It needed London in 1805,  New York in 1822,  Paris in 1826 and Philadelphia the year after,  to convince Bostonians, for instance,  to found a horticultural  fellowship — the Massachusetts Horticultural Society — such as those other cities had.  Indeed,  more  than alittle prodding from British essayist Sidney Smith in the Edinburgh Review was required.  Euro-centric and Anglophile Boston,  Linden notes, was always most sensitive to to criticism from abroad,  Britain especially, and it needed Smith’s admonishiments to spur Boston’s  citizenry  to found in 1831 a great garden cemetary in the picturesque landscape style,  inspired by Pere la Chaise of 1804 in Paris. 

In the matter of the cemetary Boston in the New World took the lead.  And even as “Mount Auburn quickly became Boston’s chief tourist  attraction”,  landscape historian Robin Karson emphasizes that this was true not only  “for the elite, who came by carriage, but also for the working class,  who arrived via new streetcar lines . . . . delight[ing] in the landscapes use as pleasure grounds.”  Furthermore,  as cemetary director William Clendaniel observes:  “as the first North American large-scale designed landscape open to the public,  Mount Auburn served as a model for . . . ‘rural’ cemetaries . . . across America . . . . [and] led directly to the creation of our public parks,  starting with Central Park in New York City.”

Mount Auburn was entirely a private venture  –  though the public was free to enjoy it –more and more  the  Brahmin model — because all efforts at burial reform by politicians had gone nowhere,  and this despite much furor over the continued use in the increasingly crowded city of church crypts for burial  and the evident development skills of Mayor Quincy,  he of the Quincy Markets.  “When Quincy proved unable to create [a] cemetary under municipal auspices,  [New England Galaxy editor] Joseph Buckingham”,  in Linden’s words,  “advised Bostonians to take matters into their own hands”,  another example of how in mertropolitan affairs — it was given that such a cemetary could not be in the city proper —  it was often individual initiative that best served to accomplish anything.

Brookline,  of course,  was the first place all eyes turned to.  But  Cambridge,  at the Watertown line,  became the final  choice because many  more people  in the 1830s,  it turned out,  were seeking to buy into Brookline’s picturesque landscape tradition than to relinquish sites for same in the public or at least semi-public realm.   Indeed,   a generation later,  Frederick Law Olmsted, the guiding light of American park design  (responsible with Calvert Vaux for  New York’s Central Park),  when  he visited Brookline was at once confirmed in his gathering decision to swap New York for Boston;   “Olmsted”,  historian Cynthia Zaitzevsky has written,  “considered Brookline a particularly advanced community”.  It resembled more and more,  in fact,  a mid Victorian version of the late Georgian Federalist town of Boston,  the  streetscene  paintings and prints of which are  today so beguiling, what might be called the town Jane Austen inspired and Charles Dickens fell in love with.

In the case of Brookline,  it was a town Olmsted would himself still further bless.  As Zaitzevsky continues,  the majestic trees and picturesque landscape of Olmsted’s Fisher Hill subdivision, ” today the most intact Olmsted-designed subdivision in the counrty”,  though originally not innovative  (it is very reminiscent of his earlier Riverside project in Chicago),  has over time come to be seen as a  “masterpiece of curvilinear planning”.  Now,  like another Brookline subdivision,   Cottage Farm,  it is a National Register Historic District.

The contrast with other communities,  themselves once famously endowed with the seats of Boston’s elite,  must have been rather stark to contemporaries.    “The tradition of grand horticultural estates continued in Brookline long after such had been abandoned in annexed towns like Roxbury and Dorchester”, one such reported,  which struggled to maintain even relatively modest showplace neighorhoods like Ashmont and Carruth Hills in Dorchester and Roxbury Highlands in that town.  Instead, street after street of three deckers were too often erected,  in themselves a considerable housing advance for the lower and middling classes,  but which did not lend themselves to horticultural display or picturesque landscaping.

It was from his refuge  in the  “advanced community”  of Brookline, indeed,   that Olmsted presided over the creation of the mature masterworks of his most productive period.   And  when one remembers that the Brahmins had attracted Olmsted to Boston in the first place,  one could argue that in doing so and giving him refuge  (from a New York so corrupt he despaired)  in their special town — their utopia  (New England indulgence)  — they were no less than in the case of the areas schools and museums and such contining to  enable the core city even while so many no longer felt able to live there.  Certainly the park system,  no less than the public library,  was a part of their continued ongoing endowment of Boston as a whole.

Indeed,  consider if Brookline’s anti annexationist vote cannot be said to have been distinctly offset,  historically,  by the way Brookline developed into something like a laboratory of the landscape movement that was to become so  key to spearheading the Boston metropolitan movement.  Charles Sprague Sargent,  director of the Arnold Aboretum in Jamaica Plain,  where he worked with Olmsted,  led Brookline’s commisioners and made his estate there a hoticultural center,  where he lived within steps of Olmsted and H. H. Richardson, whose stations  on the Boston and Albany were so aptly landscaped by Olmsted, whose firm, in turn,   located  in suburban  Brookline,  designed the Boston park system.  All this registered very strongly and simultaneously,  furthermore,  in the new civic center of the core city:  Sargent  taught a course on horticulture under the auspices of MIT across the street in Copley Square from Richardson’s Trinity Church,  two blocks from the Commonwealth Avenue parkway that opened into Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens.

All the while,  of course,  the (after 1884)  Boston-based Olmsted continued to direct a large national practice,  including the  design of the U. S. Capitol in Washington,  the plan of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and ( in tandem with Richardson’s  office) ,  the campus of Stanford  University in California.  Furthermore,  he developed a distictive landscape design for the semi-arid American West.  Never mind the suburban subdivisions  for cities like Los Angeles and Seattle,  Washington,  designed  by his firm,  Olmsted  carried on a diversified practice from wilderness to city,  “from Yosemite in California to Boston’s urban park system”,  this last by no means his firm’s  only Boston area accomplisment,  where Olmsted Jr  developed the nation’s first landscape architecture program at Harvard in the 1900s,  producing  nearly all the leading landscape architects of the first half of the 20th century.

As much as Richardson with his path-breaking suburban railroad stations and libraries,,  moreover,  Olmsted was,  in fact,  the creator of the visual image of the American suburb,  shaping the American city not only by designing parks and such,  but in  “creating a new kind of community”,  one that was “linked by rapid transit to a central city working place”,  a community that fused  “access to city opportunities with the pleasures of the countryside”;  in short,  the metropolitan ideal of idealist Brahmins.

A R T   M A N – M A D E  A N D   N A T U R A L

Charles  Eliot,  Olmsted’s younger partner and son to Harvards then president,  brought his own genius to the task Olmsted pioneered,  and therein the first and second of our future  “facts on the ground”   turned out  to be much less in tension than in fusion.

Eliot was  “[an] environmentalist long before that term had been coined”,  as historian Keith Morgan has put it.  “Olmsted’s parks were created through design;  Eliot’s . . . were products of choice,  preservation and improvement” adds Morgan,  the younger man’s basic goals having been   “to preserve scenery,  make it accessible  and improve it.”  Finally,  Eliot’s resembled a  “a philosophy of landscape theory variation on the theme of  ‘form follows function’,   the battle cry of the Chicago architect,  Louis Sullivan”‘,  himself to be seen much in Copley Square in the year he studied there at MIT.

I bring that up now because Eliot,  indeed,  was of one mind with the creators and stewards of art and architecture in the square,     and in a very real sense took the city as a work of art as a model for the suburbs as works of art.  and brought the standards of the urban institutons of Copley Square to his own subruban task,  famously evolving  his most telling polemnic for the care and nurture of natural beauty from  the polemnic of Copley Square’s art museum and public library.  Most notably  articulated by him in a landmark article of 1890,  “Waverly Oaks”,  a plea for the  preservation of a stand of virgin trees in the Boston suburb of Belmont,  Eliot asserted that just as art and books were celebrated and preserved by Boston’s art museum and public library,  so too should the beauties of Boston’s natural landscape be treasured and protected  and,  so to speak,  well installed as an art object was.

In all this Eliot had two priceless supporters,  Sylvester Baxter,  whose enthusiasm for all things metroolitan has arisen before here, and the distinguished head of America’s royal family,  so to speak,  Charles Francis Adams II.

Baxter it was who played what Lewis Mumford called  “a seminal role  in conceiving of the metropolitan Boston ideal” — note the lofty nomenclature — which Eliot’s park plan became,  in effect,  the speahead for.  Certainly Eliot attatched the greatest possible significance to it in every way, especially professionaly.   “Nothing else compares in importance to us with the Boston work”,   he wrote,  addressing his partners in 1893,  the year the Metropolitan Park Commission was established;  “the two together [the core city emerald necklace and Eliot’s own metropolitan parks] will be”,  Eliot declared,  “the most important work in our profession now in hand anywhere in the world”.

Equally crucial to supporting Eliot in this cause was  the work of Adams,  who was the chair of the park commission,  and whose passion in such matters came as a surprise to many.  Yet in an illuminating article by Paul Nagal,  “A West that Failed: The Dream of Charles Francis  Adams II”,  Nagel emphasizes how  Adams’s failure as both financier and railroad president , as ruminated upon in Adams’s diary, may be contrasted with his exclamations of how moved he was,  almost to exaltation,  by his first sight,  for instance, of Yosemite,  and of the “magnificant country”  he encountered out West.  Indeed,  another Adams emerges,  an Adams celebrated as well by Stephen Riley’s essay,  “Charles Francis Adams, Conservationist”.  Riley links Adams’s love of his family’s suburban country seat in Quincy  and his  dislike of their Boston town house on  Beacon Hill with his love of the western scenery of the U. S. and argues that as a result of Eliot inducing him to become his ally,  Adams through his leadership of the parks commission was able to redeem in his own mind the falure of his western dreams by achieving with Eliot in Boston  “one of the great,  permanent successes of my life.”

Fascinating,  finally,  the way Copley Square and the emerald necklaces,  urban square and suburban park systems,  were  intertwined,  not only in Eliot’s polemnic,  but in the developing landscape movement,  and with such far reaching consequences.    In no small measure because of the Waverly Oaks article,  so dependent on the squares art museum and public library as inspirers,   a conference held in 1890 in the square at MIT resulted in the enactment of legislation  “creating the Trustees of Reservations . . . the first orgaization in the world established to  ‘acquire,  hold,  protect and administer,  for the benefit of the public,  beautiful and historic places’.  Within two years Eliot’s concept was used to establish Britain’s Natonal Trust.”

To be sure the Metropolitan  Water Board and the Metropolitan Sewage Commision played their part in all this.   But Boston’s approach to treasuring its landscape generally and its glorious park systems particularly  — as glorious in their  way as Copley Square itself — reverberated througout the western world with good reason and caught the imagination of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yes,  there was bigotry.  But there was also idealism. Progressive idealism. Unfortunately couched certainly,  and no excuse for its other and more harmful effects. But there was idealism, the effects of which Brahmins did not entirely hoard by any means.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Boorstin, D.  J.  THE IMAGE  (Athenaeum)  1962  

Clendaniel, William.  see Linden

Eliot, Charles.  see Morgan

Howett, Catherine.  Review of CULTIVATING GENTLEMEN in WINTERTHUR  PORTFOLIO  (Winter 1990)

Karson,  Robin.  see Linden

Linden, Blanche M. G.  SILENT CITY ON A HILL  (Univ. of Masachusetts Press)  2007

Morgan,  Keith.  Introduction to Charles W. Eliot,  CHARLES ELIOT, LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT (1902)  (University of Massachusetts Press) 2008


Nagel, Paul.  “A West That Failed” in WESTERN HISTORICAL QUARTERLY  (October 1987)

Riley, Stephen T.  “Charles Francis Adams II< Conservationist” in MASSACHUSETTS HISTORICAL SOCIETY PROCEEDINGS (1978)

Smith, Sidney.  see Linden

Turner, James. THE LIBERAL EDUCATION OF CHARLES ELIOT NORTON  (Johns Hopkins University Press) 2002

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia.  FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED AND THE BOSTON PARK SYSTEM (Harvard University Press) 1982

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