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History time: The origin of Egleston Square's name

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  November 15, 2011 09:00 AM

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Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the first installment in a two-part series about the origin of the name Egleston Square.

Egleston Square is a classic example of housing development following public transit lines. It also shows how the expanded capacity of the transit lines made possible public acceptance of increased density with the development of multi-family housing between 1910 and 1930.

In 1867 the Metropolitan (Horse) Railroad Company bought a half acre of land at the corner of Washington and School Streets for a horse and car barn for the extension of their transportation route from Dudley Square to Forest Hills. Two years later, the real estate investor and contractor George Cox bought three acres of land and by 1873 there were fifty-five new homes and three new streets all clustered around the new station.

Forty years later, Simon Hurwitz did exactly the same thing when he bought a two-acre estate at the crest of Walnut Park and built fourteen multi-family houses on it in the wake of the new Boston Elevated Railway opening at Egleston Square in 1909.

Cox created a village of two story wood frame houses on narrow lots, some of which were duplexes and many can be seen today on Weld Avenue and Beethoven Street. This type of density was unusual beyond downtown where land values were high, but Cox could justify it because there was now regularly scheduled fixed rail transportation from Egleston Square to downtown or to steam rail connections at Forest Hills and Jackson Square. He was right; almost every house lot was sold and built on in three years. All the houses were built around the station too; none were built on the north side of the Square.

Hurwitz could also justify the expense of building what was at that time a very large and dense cluster of three story brick buildings because of improved transit. The elevated trains stopped at the new station down the hill and could carry 500 to 800 people every eight to ten minutes directly into the main transit system.

The homes built on the Cox lots were in the architectural style of the day, many in the fashionable French Second Empire style. Hurwitz built apartment houses, which had only recently become socially acceptable in Boston. The concept of several unrelated families living together on the same common floor was slow to gain approval by Bostonians. One or two family hotels - as they were called - did appear, most notably the Dunbar Hotel in Dudley Square built in 1885 and the taint slowly wore off. Two of the most revolutionary buildings in Egleston Square are both four-story brick apartment houses opposite each other at 3125 and 3122 Washington Street developed by the Littlefield brothers. Built four years apart, in 1893 and 1897, they are among the first apartment buildings built in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. The Littlefields recognized that apartment living was gaining respectability but they also recognized one other factor - that the rapid electrification of the old horse car lines begun in 1887 would dramatically increase fixed rail transportation. Electrified streetcars could carry many more people much faster than the horse cars and more people could be encouraged to live out in the suburbs - only three blocks away from the new Franklin Park too. Like Cox, the Littlefields built their apartment houses next to the streetcar barn.

Both Littlefield buildings had ground floor retail space, which was also uncommon beyond downtown. The first sign of the evolution of the Square from strictly residential to mixed use came in 1882 when Francis Kittredge built 3013 Washington Street at the corner of Beethoven Street. Is was originally a double wood frame two story building with ground floor shops and apartments above. A doorway in the center gave access to the upstairs flats (half of it was razed in the late 1980’s.)

The elevated rapid transit transformed the residential landscape of Egleston Square like nothing before but along the same tends - faster trains carrying more passengers on a fixed route brought more people to live in the district who needed more housing. With the establishment of both rapid transit and apartment house living, Egleston Square was set to take advantage of its third opportunity: large lots of vacant or underused land that varied from one-half to two acres. From 1910 until 1929, thirty-eight multi-family buildings were built in the Square bounded by Westminster Avenue, Walnut Avenue, Columbus Avenue and Bragdon Street. Around these homes were built six new storefronts housing over a dozen businesses, a church, a new school, a movie theater, three public garages, a taxi company, two filling stations and a streetcar barn built adjacent to the elevated station for Grove Hall and Mattapan feeder lines; all completed by 1927.

The third phase of residential development was by government intervention through urban renewal and was marked by assembling and clearing large parcels of land for the construction of dense, high rise, low income multi-family housing. There were two in Egleston Square - Academy Homes I & II and the brick infill houses at 2010 - 2030 Columbus Avenue. Both were experiments in prefabricated interchangeable building forms developed to reduce construction costs so that rents would be affordable for the lowest income family. The third was an elderly apartment house developed by the Boston Housing Authority built right next to the elevated station in 1968. It is the only round tower residential building in Boston and is a textbook example of the tower-in-the-park concept of urban housing that originated in France in the 1920’s and advocated in America by Frank Lloyd Wright.

There are no designer name buildings in Egleston Square; although Carl Koch comes closest with Academy I & II and Westminster Court. Instead there are sets of sound multi-family housing designed by the best practitioners of apartment house design working in Boston from 1910 to 1930. Among the best of this class are Fred Norcross and CA & FN Russell. Charles Russell designed one of the two earliest apartment buildings in the Square - and among the first in the city - at 3122 Washington Street.

Fred Norcross together with David Silverman of Silverman Engineering designed four multi-family housing blocks that have defined the community since 1912, at Bancroft, Dimock-Bragdon and Wardman Apartments and 1891 Columbus Avenue; and Isodor Richmond’s elderly residents tower is the lighthouse of Egleston Square.

Egleston Square needs to be looked at as a whole to understand its significance. It has lessons of how to create low income and market rate housing mixed with retail to make maximum use of the large vacant parcels of public and privately owned land around transit stations.

© Richard Heath / Jamaica Plain Historical Society 2011

This column is a submission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at: http://www.jphs.org/.

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