9. “All the Boston towns”

Before there was Brookline,  there was Cambridge;  in the sense,  that is,  of the original purpose-built American suburb.  By whom built and with what morivation — and with what entirely unexpected result,  finally — is to be discovered somewhere between the metropolitan attitudes of two of Cambridge’s leading Boston Brahmins, late 19th century landscape architect Charles Eliot,  and mid 20th century art historian John Coolidge.

“Boston’s Left Bank” is what Cambridge’s municipal tourist office now calls the most venerable of all Boston’s satelites.  More than a breezy modern version of Henry James’s Victorianism about Cambridge — “the academic suburb” — the modern term in its reference to the two sides of Paris acknowledges that though Cambridge has still its suburban quarters, its most important neighborhoods  (and nearby Somerville too)  are now part of core Boston in every way —  culturally,  economically and socially —  except for local politics,  sisters to Back Bay and the South End and so on, what the world recognizes today as classic Boston.

B O S T O N ‘ S    I O N I C    C O R R I D O R

John Singer Sargent, to be  irreverent,  can be seen as somewhat of a tour guide,  historically,  to this core Boston, as it had become by the first world war.  His murals glorifying Boston’s rise from city to metropolis and megalopolis,  from Athens to Rome — the urban face of what Eliot’s parks were the suburban face of (as we explored here last time) — map very well indeed the profile of  20th century core Boston, itself the child of the great new Victorian civic center and cultural agora of Copley Square. From the square’s Public Library westward along Huntington Avenue to the Fenway and the new art museum of 1909,  and northward up Massachusetts Avenue — the Main Street of core Boston — to Harvard’s Widener Library in Harvard Square,  Sargent’s murals are,   so to speak,  the holy places,  the earliest hot spots on what MIT architectural historian Mark Jarzombek calls  “Boston’s Ionic Corridor”,  20th century  Boston’s  “Power Corridor”  the less architecturally minded might prefer to call it.

Beginning with the tremendous Ionic architecture of   the Harvard Medical School quadrangle at the head of Avenue Louis Pasteur ,  the Ionic profile was invariably chosen to order Huntington Avenue’s landmarks — the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Opera House and  the New England Conservatory of Music, and as one turns up Massachusetts Avenue both Symphony Hall and Horticultural Hall. And in nearly every case it is the most severe Ionic so beloved of Boston from 18th century King’s Chapel and Bulfinch’s Massachusetts General Hospital to the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common;  only at the great domed Christian Science basilica as one turns up Massachusetts Avenue, as at Widener Library later on,  does the traditionally female Corinthian order appear,  tribute surely in each case to women donors.

Continuing up Massachusetts Avenue toward the river, the Ionic re-establishes itself at Boylston Street in the ornate State Street Bank building,  and then achieves gargantuan splendor at MIT,  and hardly less distinction in Harvard Square and Harvard Yard in Bulfinch’s University Hall and, overlooking Harvard Square,  Lehman Hall.  Finally,  the climax comes in the giant Ionic colonades  further up Massachusetts Avenue at Harvard Law School and at the Littauer Center , ancestor to what is now  the Kennedy School of Government.  From that campus south of Massachusetts Avenue, moreover, one can easily see the Ionic parade at Harvard Business School, not far behind which begins the Longwood Medical area our tour began in.

This is metropolitan scale, from Harvard Medical to the art museum to Symphony Hall to MIT and Harvard Law. and these are the Boston neighorhoods that together with the always constant downtown Financial District constitute 20th century core Boston, its academic center Harvard Square, in that respect successor to Victorian Copley Square.

Each of these neighborhoods took their cue,  however,  from the the 17th and 18th centuries,  when the Back Bay was still marshland and Boston’s  “Main Street” by the late 18th century was a route up King (later State) Street from the harbor and down Cambridge Street to Harvard Yard in Old Cambridge. (Writes Bunting:  “The oldest corridor of transportation and the most important . . . was the Massachusetts Avenue -Main Street – West Boston [now Longfellow] Bridge axis (the present route of the subway). The earliest public service over this route [made possible by the 1793 West Boston Bridge] was a daily stage established by 1795”).  For if Brookline would emerge to fullfill Boston’s need for a  country refuge in the 19th century,  Cambridge much earlier fullfilled its need for an  institutional or academic refuge.  While removed from harborfront and intown bustle to encourage godly thought in greater peace and quiet,  Cambridge was was always intended to be a much more public than private satelite,  unike Brookline, the significance of which can be  seen in the role it played in the third great fact on the ground that after the new civic center of Copley Square,  and Eliot’s metropolitan parks,   really created and structured the “Boston/Brookline” model, as I have called it,  of  the Boston metropolis.

S  T R E E T C A R S    A N D    S U B W A Y S

Thus it was that the horse-drawn omnibus,  which according to Charles Bahne first appeared in Boston in  1826,  established  a transportation corridor ,  historian Bainbridge Bunting wrote,  between Beacon Hill and Harvard Square via the predecessor of the Longfellow Bridge, ” the present route of the subway”,  today’s Red Line.    The earliest public service over this route was a stage first run in 1795,  which Binfield reports was succeded in 1834 by an  omnibus  three years after the first one run in New York.  Bunting,  however,  is very clear that  the real significence of this corridor comes much later:  “in 1862 hourly runs were established, apparently the first high-frequency transit route in America,  and one that developed two years before the appearance of the omnibus in Paris,  three years before those in London.” 

When one recalls from last time the  “three railroad lines into Boston before a locomotive hit London”,  this may not surprise. But the importance of this early transportation on  the creation of the Boston metropolis cannot be exagerated.  And the foundational “Main Street” of the day between Beacon Hill and Harvard Square was only the beginning.   “In 1834 the Boston and Worcester line provided rail service for suburbanites traveling from Brookline to Boston”, for example,  prompting  “Henry David Thoreau  to note  enthusiastically in his journal,  ‘Five times a day I can be whirled to Boston within an hour.” Indeed, westward transit corridors developed early.  “Commuting in New England got a significant boost in 1843,”  Warner writes, “Before then,  the distance between home and regular place of work could be no further than a person could travel in an hour on foot or on horseback.  In 1843,  however, the rail line that for almost a decade had carried goods between Boston and Newton introduced the regions first rail car intended for regular daily commuting service.  It immediately attracted passengers to Boston,  and the suburban land boom began.”

Technological advances multiplied.  According to Bahne,  “Boston was the worlds fifth city to develop a horse drawn street railway system,  after New York,  New Orleans, Paris and Brooklyn”.  Then “in 1899 Boston was among the first cities to adopt electric trolley cars”, Arthur Krim testifies,  and Lawrence Kennedy notes that Boston’s street railways was “the world’s first system to electrify”. Then again,  progress is as progress is.  According to Krim,  the Beacon Steet line to Brookline was  “widely recognized as the first successful electric railway in a major city”, but more or less compromised Brookline as an elite suburb,  opening it up to  “working class residents”. Brookline survived!

The Boston businessman,  in fact,  who did for the Boston metropolis what no politician could was himself a resident of Brookline, which if it was a laboratory for Boston’s parks, was also the home base  of  Henry Whitney,  who united Boston’s dozens of independent rail systems into his West End Street Railway,  so that,  however balkanized politically,  “Boston boasted”,  according to Kennedy,  “the first unified public transit system in the world”.  Indeed,  the international stature of Boston’s metropolitan park system was more than matched by the similar stature of its metropolitan transportation system.  “A Bostonian could travel”,  wrote Kennedy,  “to all parts of the mertropolitan area for a nickel.” It was in the wake of all this that Boston in 1897 built America’s first (and only the worlds fourth) subway.

Modeled after  a  subway line in Budapest that opened the year before,  Boston’s 1897 tunnel from the eastern  border of the Copley Square area at the Public Garden to Park Street downtown,  was soon followed  by others,  most notably the 1912 subway via the new Longfellow Bridge which updated the venerable Beacon Hill to Harvard Square route.  And when one recalls that according to Bunting the 19th century omnibuses which succeded the original 18th century stages over that route in 1862 established a high frequency urban transit line that predated any in Paris or London,  it is  perhaps  easier to explain why America’s first subway was thought necessary to respond to the urgency of Boston’s growing transit crisis at the end of the 19th century.  Indeed, in addition to the 1897 downtown tunnel and the 1912 Beacon Hill to Harvard Square tunnel,  there was also in 1904  another,  “the first underwater rail tunnel in the U.S.” according to Bahne, built between downtown and East Boston.

It was  also more than appropriate that ground was broken for the first subway of the New World — and huge celebatory crowds thereafter in Copley Square witnessed the descent into it of the first car when the tunnel was opened — within sight of the original buildings in the square of MIT  because one of MITs leading civil engineers,  George F. Swain, was chair of the commission that built the first Boston subway. And when one remembers that Charles Eliot launched his truly epochal vision for the Trustees of Reservations and the metropolitan park system also at MIT, one begins to sense what  a fructifying center of events that great civic center had by the 1890s become.  From that square too, as we have seen, developed the institutional surge down Huntington Avenue and up Massachusetts Avenue,  already discussed here.  All roads in Boston, above or under ground, in the  1900s seemed  to lead from or to Copley Square.

T H E    G O D S    C O N V E N E

Was this deliberate?  Was even Copley Square itself deliberate?  Or was it all instead more or less an accident?  “Overcoming the knowledge of the outcome”,  and  “grasping the past as the present it once was”,  is the chief demand,  in historian Bernard Bailyn’s words,  rightly made of any good historian;  while anachronism  (“mistak[ing] cognates”,  in Bailyn’s words,  “for real identies” )  however much the scholar may stress the contingencies in any situation,  is the chief error against which we all must guard.

Was Copley Square more or less  “an accident”,  as my old friend and mentor,  historian Walter Muir Whitehill, contended?  Much research later Walter did not know of I would have to say it was much less of an accident than Walter concluded,  as I hope will be more and more evident as these online essays unfold over time,  and in aid of this contention I will bring up Bailyn’s too often overloooked corollary to the principle that contingency always rules:  what he calls  “latent history”, which is to say historical  “developments that the participants were not themselves aware of”.  He instances,  of whole populations,  “shifts in the birth rate”.  My example,  of  development the guiding hands behind which may not be known by all even of the developers,  would be the history and evolution of Copley Square into  a great institutional and cultural agora dominated by Harvard Medical,  MIT,  the Museum of Fine Arts, Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library.

Not certain to have happened,  never announced as any one person’s or institutions goal,  Copley Square,  in a situation of city becoming metropolis where the values of  Boston’s Brahmin aristocracy  were controlling,  as Domish has documented,  was if not certain to have happened,  then certainly very liable to have happened,  the very dictionary definition of contingency.  So liable,  in fact,  one is not surprised to discover that the dominant institutions founded in  the square participated in a system of interlocking boards of trustees, including MIT, the Museum of Fine Arts and Trinity, a system in which both Harvard and the Public Library also participated. That alone would indicate a distinct community of purpose and intention.

On the other hand,  that events soon enough got the better of the vision is clear in the fact that within a mere 25 years Harvard Medical School abandoned its proud new building  to move to a vastly larger quadrangle,  while the Museum of Fine Arts lasted in the square only five or six years longer, and  within 50 years of  locating in the Copley Square area,  MIT,  the Museum of Natural History (now Science) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,  all of  which had built expensive new headquarters there,  had also moved away to much larger quarters.   If Copley Square was a huge success in creating new and bringing together old elements of institutional Boston into a great New World agora,  as I have called it,  of faith and learning,  arts and sciences,  it was to be as a cradle soon outgrown by all but two of those institutions,  Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, the two that could not ever move, their buildings having become American icons..

The Boston metropolis itself  came into being in a not disimilar manner, one I call here  the  “Boston/Brookline” rather than the  “New York/Brooklyn” model.  This is true as well  of the result as of the way.  And whether or not this model is accounted success or failure according to contemporary discourse depends on whether  one sees the  “Boston/Brookline” model as urbanologist Kenneth Jackson does,  which is to say as achieveing a positive result in eschewing  what he calls  “municipal imperialism”,  or,  as urbanologist James Carroll does,  as negative in its acceptance of what he calls  the  “municipal fragmentation”  that was the result of Boston being  “the earliest large city to halt annexation.” 

In like manner,  however Bostonian one sees Balkanization on the one hand,  or autonomy on the oher,  the answer to our presiding question here —  who is and who is not a Bostonian,  then and now —  rather depends on whether you take the view of Werner Heggeman from Berlin that Boston’s not creating a viable metropolitan political government was the result of  “isolational individualism” of the sort a follower of Emerson might not have been surprised by,  or the view from New York of Lewis Mumford,   that the  “Boston/Brookline”  model had yielded not a less ,  but only a different  kind of metropolitan experience,  one that was accomplished,  unlike the   “New York/Brooklyn” model,  “without”,  in Mumford’s words,  “loss of local autonomy”.

If one takes Mumford’s view,  as I do,  the  “Boston/Brookline” model is a case of,  not localism triumphant,  but of localism transcended —  an attitude of mind,  an approach to things,  I will insist again once can be seen in the hostilities between Paul Revere and General Gage in the 18th century,  when a hundred and more town meetings was from one point of view as inefficient a way of governing  “all the Boston towns”  as it  was characteristically Bostonian,  American if you like.    Yet it would be as great a mistake in respect to the construction of the Boston metropolis,  as it was of General Gage’s then of revolutionary era Bostonians, to conclude that as clear a unity of purpose as one can see in Victorian Copley Square,  and in  the metropolitan park system,  and in Boston’s emerging late 19th century transportation network,  would not  in the end triumph  over all quite effectively.  One catches,  I think,  more than a glimpse of that approach to things and that unity of purpose,  in the vision already discussed at length here of landscape architect Charles Eliot. Eliot’s  “all the Boston towns” is a pitch perfect Bostonian response in the 19th century to what David Hacket Fischer calls in the 18th century  “the autonomous New England mind”.  And how sure-footed of New Yorker Mumford, after all a Bostonophile, to notice in the 20th century that Boston accomplished metropolitanization without any  “loss of local autonomy.”

  It can  be seen even more clearly,  I beleive,  in the vision of metropolitan Boston of art historian John Coolidge.

P L A I D    V E R S U S    T E S S E R A E

The mid 1960s director of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum and  trustee and sometime president of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts,  Coolidge seldom wrote explicitly about Boston’s history overall,  though his first book, Mill and Mansion,  was a well received excursion in the area’s architectural history,  but when he had something to say about Boston it was invariable penetrating. 

“[Americans have] visualized a large city in two ways,”  Coolidge opined in a review once in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians:  “Olmsted and his fellows thought of it as a mosaic whose tesserae are indeed neighborhoods . . . . By contrast,  planners like Burnham and the statisticians of the Census Bureau have seen the metropolis as a continuum modulating from the center to the fringe,  a plaid,  as it were, . . . patterned by highways,  waterways and railways.”  Coolidge,  whose powers of visualization were intense,  never doubted he was,  so to speak,  a plaid man,  unmoved by tesserae, and he described the plaid as mapping  “the way we really are”,  not minding at all that meant  “never mentioning neighborhoods.” 

Instead,  Coolidge always sought the big picture.  Boston,  as he saw it as a native whose field of study was, however,  otherwise,  included much of New Hampshire,  everything east of Worcester in Massachusetts and all of Rhode Island.  “Boston’s population”, he baldly intoned in this review,  “in 1970 was six and a third million,”  never bothering for a moment about the population that year of the core city most Bostonians, of course, would have cited;  its population 641, 021 people.  Never mind Cambridge or Quincy or Framingham,  furthermore,  Coolidge  declared that “the festival centers of the Berkshires,  the ski slopes of New Hampshire and Vermont,  the islands of Maine should be considered satelites of Boston”.

From all this followed not afew insights,  some more cranky-Yankee than not — as when he wrote  “the rest of the country already contributes relatively more money to Boston institutions than to those of any other metropolis” — something only likely to occur to a Boston Brahmin —  and which brings to mind Hackett Fischer’s point about Brookline’s true function as a tax shelter for wealthy Bostonians.  Other insights probed deeper.  A master of the local architectural walking tour,  as I know well as his onetime student,  Coolidge was not beguiled as so many Bostonians then and now are with only  what they call the walking city.  He took exactly the same interest in the non-walking city — the metropolis and,  indeed, the megalopolis of which it was a part — and in thie same review I am quoting from here so extensively he praised the work under review because  “Boston is introduced,  not as a statistical abstraction,  but as a recognizable component of the Boston-Washington area as revealed in an Air Force Force satelite photograph of the lights of the U. S. by night.”

Vintage Coolidge that.  But it was in his introduction to Donald Freeman’s Boston Architecture and in another to the Old Cambridge volume of the Cambridge Historical Commission’s reports on Cambridge architecture,  that he most forcefully declared himself in respect to Boston studies. In the latter work,  for instance,  noting that,  like Chestnut Hill in Brookline (or wherever it is!),  Old Cambridge — the Boston neighborhood in which Harvard Yard is located — in  New York Times-speak “Cambridge, MA. —  has never had any  idea of separate muncipal existence since 1844,  “when it tried and failed to become an independent town”,  Coolidge left the distinct impression,  which I’m sure he meant to,  that the failure was due more than anything else to the fact that Old Cambridge was so Bostonian it hardly had the time to really take up the matter.   “Old  Cambridge’s state of mind,” he wrote,  “[was] concerned with issues and areas beyond Old Cambridge”. And he meant by that things like the Greek independence movement or the China trade or issues in German higher education, not local politics,  though he did note by then Cambridge had become a “fashionable suburb” of a metropolis he described as one in which  “the mayor of Boston is responsible for a smaller portion of ‘his’ metropolis than any other comparable executive, except that ceremonial personage, the lord mayor of London.”

And then Coolidge pronounced on the matter, quite matter of factly, the truth of which evades  so many still:  “from the founding of Cambridge in 1630,” he wrote, “to the establishment of industrial parks along Route 128 in our own day,  Boston has created these out-of-town communities as specialized complements to the central city,” remarking pointedly in relation to what I’ve called here the  Boston and New York models of metropolis that in Boston’s case  “the peculair relationship [of the core city and its satelites] is expressed politically by the fact that there has never been any strong or lasting urge to amalgamate.”

Bit of an understatement there — Coolidge carefully noted that Boston did not create its suburbs as  “havens for escapists” — but his overall emphasis, instead, was on the national importance of Boston’s metropolitan experience,  noting that Boston in Victorian times had more commuters than New York and Chicago combined at one point.  And he quoted Daniel Burnham to the effect that Boston was,  in fact,  among American cities one of the first  “to realize the advantages of cooperation between the great city and the outlying districts.” Indeed.

C L O S E T E D     M E T R O P O L I S

At the end of the day,  as we will explore next time in the last column of this series, Boston had  also created something much larger,  and it had got,  had  it not,  the metropolis it wanted?

Indeed,  the significant fact might be,  not that the city of Boston in 2000 was the 20th largest city in the U. S.,  but that the economy of the Boston metropolis in the same era rose according to the New York Times  to be the 24th largest in the  world.  Declared  University of Toronto urbanologist Richard Florida  (he of “The Rise of the Creative Class”  and  “Where the Brains Are” ): if one adds New York’s economy and those of  Los Angelos and Chicago to Boston’s –the result — believe it or not, Belmont, or Framingham — is  a bigger economy than that of  “all of China”.

Charles Eliot’s  “all the Boston towns”  was a more lyrical description of the Boston metropolis, Thoreauian even,  than John Coolidge’s  “outlying districts”.  But like David Hackett Smith, in calling Brookline  “a town within a city”, all three  were describing the same place — the metropolis most Bostonians wanted,  thank you;  which they envisioned as not unlike the American Republic itself.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S.

Bailyn, Bernard.  ON THE TEACHING AND WRITING OF HISTORY (University Press of New England) 1994

Bahne, Charles.  “Street Railways”,  “Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority” inFeintuch, Burt and Watters, David H., eds.,  [YALE] ENCYLOPEDIA OF NEW ENGLAND (Yale)  2005

[Binford, Henry]  Logan, John R. review in AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY (Sept., 1986)

[Boston’s Left Bank] Cambridge Office for Tourism. CAMBRIDGE< MASSACHUSETTS:  YOUR GUIDE TO BOSTON’S “LEFT BANK” (City of Cambridge) 2001

Coolidge, John.  Introduction to Donald Freeman, BOSTON ARCHITECTURE (MIT) 1971

Coolidge, John.  Introduction to the Old Cambridge volume of  Bunting, Bainbridge and Robert H> Nylander,  SURVEY OF ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY IN CAMBRIDGE [MASSACHUSETTS] (Cambridge Historical Commission) 1973


Eliot, Charles.  See Morgan, Keith.

Fischer, David Hackett, ed. BROOKLINE: THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF A SUBURBAN TOWN (Brandeis) 1986

Fischer, David Hackett.  PAUL REVERE’S RIDE (Oxford) 1994

Florida, Richard.  “The World is Spiky” in ATLANTIC (Oct., 2005)

[Heggeman, Werner]. Collins, Christiane C.  WERNER HEGGEMAN (Norton) 2005

James, Henry.  THE BOSTONIANS (1886/1989 ed.)

Jackson, Kenneth.  CRABGRASS FRONTIER (Oxford) 1985

Jarzombek, Mark. DESIGNING MIT (Northeastern) 2004 (MS)

Krim, Arthur. “Urban Transportation” in Feintuch, Burt and Watters, David H., eds., [YALE] ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NEW ENGLAND (Yale) 2005

Kennedy,  Lawrence.  PLANNING THE CITY UPON A HILL (Massachusetts) 1992

Mumford, Lewis.  “The Signifigance of Back Bay Boston” in THE CITY AS AWORK OF ART (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) 1969

Macieski, Robert L.  Introduction to “Cities and Suburbs” in Feintuch, Burt and Watters, David H.,eds., [YALE] ENCYLOPEDIA OF NEW ENGLAND (Yale) 2005

[Mori Foundation] Institute for Urban Strategies. GLOBAL POWER CITY INDEX 2009 (Mori) 2009

Morgan, Keith. CHARLES ELIOT (Massachusetts) 1999

O’Connell, James C.  “Thinking Like a Region” in GOVERNING GREATER BOSTON )Rappaprt Institute) 2002

[Swain, George H.] Prescott, Samuewl. WHEN MIT WAS “BOSTON TECH” (MIT) 1954

[Thoreau, Henry] see Macieski,Robert L.

Warner, Marc.  “Commuting” in Feintuch, Burt and Watters, David H., eds.,[YALE] ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NEW ENGLAND )Yale) 2005

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