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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Boston’s Belmont Square: A “Country in the City” Ideal

As we conclude Historic Preservation Month and anticipate summer, it seemed fitting to hear from you about something we all appreciate this time of year: Boston's green space. Thank you, Dan Bailey, for this guest post!

May 30th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance

First Stop: London 

Brophy Park is a three-quarter-acre rectangle of green space at the top of a hill in the Jeffries Point section of East Boston. I’ve lived near it for the past five years, and for most of that time I assumed the space was just a small, neighborhood park. It wasn’t until I started looking into my neighborhood’s history that I discovered that Brophy Park isn’t really a park at all. It’s something much older, a sort of proto-park called a garden square. When Brophy Park was originally laid out over 180 years ago, it was called Belmont Square, and it was created not as a public park, but as a private amenity for homeowners in the surrounding area, a secluded green space where residents could sit or take a leisurely stroll. At the same time, the square’s landscaping was meant to provide scenic views from the surrounding houses.

Brophy Park, East Boston.

Garden squares originated in 17th and 18th century London, where they provided a way to replicate the ambience of an English country estate in an increasingly dense, urban environment (a concept known by the Latin phrase rus in urbe, or ‘country in the city’). London garden squares from this period share the same basic features—row houses surrounding a fenced, central garden made up of a lawn and shade trees. The gardens were usually privately owned and were only accessible to the residents of the surrounding houses, making them secluded oases in an otherwise gritty, industrializing city. London real estate developers created garden squares as a strategy to attract wealthy residents to fashionable, new residential districts.

The residential development at Franklin Place, shown here in 1856, included Boston’s first garden square. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Boston architect Charles Bulfinch imported the idea to Boston in his design for Franklin Place, a residential development completed in 1798 with a small fenced garden at its center. Franklin Place was demolished just 60 years after it was built to make way for encroaching commercial development, but like so much of Bulfinch’s work, it had an outsize impact on later development in Boston—it was not only the city’s first garden square, but also included Boston’s first row houses.

Louisburg Square, located near the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, was Boston’s second garden square. It was designed in 1822 and houses were built on the surrounding lots between 1834 and 1844. Like Franklin Place and the London squares that inspired it, Louisburg Square was designed as a private residential retreat. Today it remains a Boston landmark, a picturesque tourist destination, and one of the city’s most exclusive addresses, home to some of Boston’s wealthiest and most prominent residents, including former Secretary of State John Kerry.

East Boston: A Planned Neighborhood 

Unlike most of Boston’s earlier neighborhoods, which grew organically over time, East Boston was planned. Boston’s third garden square, Belmont Square, was central to East Boston’s original design. A group of investors acquired Noddle’s Island in Boston Harbor in 1833 and formed a real estate venture called the East Boston Company to develop the island into a new neighborhood. Almost immediately after it was founded, the East Boston Company set to work selling lots for development on the island. As William Sumner, the founder and first president of the East Boston Company, put it, “A primary object to be attained in this sale was to secure purchasers whose position in community would give character to the enterprise, and who would erect such buildings as would induce others to settle at East Boston.” In other words, the company wanted to attract wealthy people into the new neighborhood. To this end, the first lots that were sold in East Boston were located in what the East Boston Company considered to be the island’s most desirable area, a hill known as Belmont at the southeastern tip of the island overlooking the harbor and downtown Boston beyond. Although the area’s panoramic harbor views were the main attraction, the East Boston Company also set aside an acre of land at the top of the hill for Belmont Square as a further incentive to attract wealthy buyers. They hired S.P. Fuller, the same surveyor who had designed Louisburg Square a decade earlier, to lay out the new garden square.

Belmont Square, shown here on the original 1833 plan for East Boston, is part of the neighborhood’s original street design. Courtesy of the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

The East Boston Company had a lot riding on Belmont Square. It was the first area of East Boston that was opened to residential development, and its success or failure would set the tone for development across the rest of the neighborhood. When the lots surrounding Belmont Square went up for auction in the spring of 1833, nearly all of them sold, and many of the buyers were wealthy merchants and other members of Boston high society, just as the East Boston Company had hoped. But the new owners were reluctant to invest in building houses, since, at the time, East Boston was a brand new, almost completely uninhabited neighborhood. Despite encouragement from the East Boston Company to build, most of the Belmont owners instead decided to leave their lots vacant while they waited for the value of their land to appreciate.

Beginning in the 1840s, demand for housing in East Boston skyrocketed thanks to the neighborhood’s flourishing shipbuilding industry, and the Belmont owners began to build. They followed the precedent set by Franklin Place and Louisburg Square, building brick row houses along the perimeter of Belmont Square. In 1847, Benjamin Lamson, a wealthy cabinetmaker and early investor in the East Boston Company, built a row of nine bow-front row houses along Webster Street at the southwest edge of Belmont Square. Lamson spared no expense in building these Greek Revival style houses, adding carved brownstone trim to the facades, setting the row back 20 feet from the street to allow for large, front gardens surrounded by ornate cast iron and granite post fences, and laying out a rear service alley to provide access to stables behind each house, all features that were omitted from the more commonplace bow-fronts around Louisburg Square.

‘Still Awaiting Its Garden’ 

Despite this elegant new housing, the center of Belmont Square remained a vacant parcel of land. As landscape designer Phebe Goodman, whose research I’m drawing on heavily here, put it, “Belmont was a garden square still awaiting its garden.” In the case of Louisburg Square, the original owners of the surrounding houses immediately paid to furnish and landscape the garden at the center of the square, and to this day, the garden is privately funded and managed by the square’s residents. Belmont Square, on the other hand, never quite reached the same level of affluence as Louisburg Square. Most of the square’s early residents were middle class professionals who simply couldn’t afford to landscape their square. Landscaping the square apparently wasn’t a priority for the East Boston Company either—they instead relied on the square’s harbor views to attract residents to the area.

In 1853, the East Boston Company transferred ownership of Belmont Square to the city, and the Board of Aldermen agreed that Belmont was “to be laid out and accepted as a public square.” At the time, the city had just finished building several garden squares in Boston’s South End. Although the South End squares were developed with public funds, they had the same characteristic features of earlier private garden squares—grass, trees, and an iron fence. And like earlier squares, they were designed to attract wealthy residents to a new neighborhood. By opening the South End to development, the city hoped to entice wealthy Bostonians to stay in the city rather than move to the suburbs.

In the 1990s, when the city wanted to install a chain-link replacement fence around the square, residents lobbied for a replica of the turn-of-the-century iron fence, and ultimately got it.

Unlike the South End, the Belmont area was an established neighborhood in the 1850s, but the city took a similar approach to laying out the Belmont garden, planting a lawn and trees, and installing an ornate iron fence. (The fence, in particular, must have been especially impressive—the city spent $6,000 on it, which is something on the order of $150,000 in today’s dollars.)

The Fence Turns Into a Flashpoint  

The transfer of Belmont Square to city ownership marked the beginning of a gradual transition from a private garden square to a public park. Many of the square’s longtime residents, who no doubt remembered the square’s origins as a private amenity, seem to have actively opposed the city’s efforts to make the square more park-like.

The square’s fence, its defining feature and a symbol of its privacy and exclusivity, quickly became a flashpoint. In 1889, some of the square’s residents petitioned the city council to lock the gates to the square at 9 o’clock each night. The city council refused, with one councilor arguing that “the poor people should have an opportunity of going into the public parks and staying as long as they wish to after their hard day’s work,” while another councilor dismissed the square’s residents as “goody-goody people […] who object to the noise made by the children and by the boys and girls in the park.” And besides, he concluded, “the lovers should be indulged until 10 p.m.”

The city resolved the gate locking issue once and for all in 1891 by removing the square’s fence altogether. The city conceded that “some old residents” wanted to preserve the fence, but these objections were apparently overruled, and the fence, which the city described as a “clumsy […] relic of a past age,” came down. By removing the fence, arguably the defining feature of a garden square, the city seemed to have forgotten Belmont Square’s original identity.

Even as Belmont Square became more of a park than a square, the surrounding area remained one of East Boston’s most desirable places to live. P.J. Kennedy, President Kennedy’s grandfather, marked his business success and rising social position at the end of the 19th century by moving his family from a busy, commercial section of East Boston to a larger house just down the street from Belmont Square.

Photograph of Belmont Square ca. 1905-1915. Courtesy of Historic New England.

Residents Lobby to Save the Square 

In 1936, the square was renamed Brophy Memorial Park after local politician Michael Brophy, cementing its transition from a garden square to a public park. However by the later half of the twentieth century, the replacement iron fence was corroded and crumbling, the lawn was patchy, and all but three of the 56 original elm trees had been lost, likely casualties of Dutch Elm Disease. Rather than paying to refurbish the square, the city proposed paving the garden and turning it into a parking lot. Neighborhood residents organized to save the square, eventually convincing the city to partially repair the fence and restore the lawn. In the 1990s, when the city wanted to install a chain-link replacement fence around the square, residents lobbied for a replica of the turn-of-the-century iron fence, and ultimately got it.

Today, Brophy Park retains its essential nineteenth century character—the reproduction decorative iron fence, the original X-shaped path configuration, and the grassy lawn. Most of the square’s nineteenth century buildings are still standing as well. Only the formal arrangement of elm trees has been lost—a variety of tree species now dot the square at irregular intervals. Although the square’s uses and identity have shifted over its long history, it’s still the focal point of the surrounding neighborhood, and it continues to embody the “country in the city” ideal for those who live in the area. The square deserves to be recognized as a relatively rare American example of a privately developed, 19th century garden square, in the tradition of Gramercy Park in New York City and Louisburg Square in Beacon Hill.

To learn more about Boston’s garden squares, check out Phebe Goodman’s book, The Garden Squares of Boston.

Dan Bailey lives in Jeffries Point with his wife and cat. He blogs about neighborhood history and the trials and tribulations of living in a home built during the Polk Administration at Terrace Place.


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2 Responses

  1. Phebe Goodman says:

    Just came upon your great article! It’s been quite awhile since I did my research so
    I can’t recall some of the facts I unearthed, but you obviously discovered much new information – especially about the history of the fence. I hope you have received other positive feedback. I am curious as to where you found my article, because it no longer seems to be listed on the web under Belmont Square? I assume your local library has a copy!

    Phebe Goodman

    • Dan Bailey says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’m in the process of nominating part of my neighborhood, including Belmont Square, for the National Register. I first came across your book while conducting research for an inventory form for the area, and one of my neighbors later told me that you had also written an article about Belmont Square, which I eventually found at the BPL main branch. A copy of your article has since been making the rounds among various neighborhood groups, and everyone has really enjoyed learning about the square’s significance. I’d love to chat with you further sometime about nominating the square for the National Register and the neighborhood’s plans for managing the square as a historic resource. You can get in touch with me at the link to my website above.

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