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Icons Among Us: Comm Ave

The road that Boston made, and that made Boston

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Photos by Kalman Zabarsky and Seth Rolbein

If roads are a city’s skeleton, then Commonwealth Avenue is greater Boston’s spine. At one end is the statue of Alexander Hamilton and the Boston Common. Heading west, the boulevard serves as Boston University’s main drag and then winds through Brighton and Newton, after which its alter ego, Route 30, reaches all the way to the leafy town of Grafton, near Worcester.

For denizens of BU’s Charles River Campus, “Comm Ave” is the busy, dangerous, cacophonous backdrop to their daily routine. But this road has a deep history rooted in the creation of modern Boston, elevated out of marshes and carved from farms. It was a product of European design mixed with all-American urban boosterism, supported by old money and spurred on by visions of new wealth.

It all started with a dam. Boston originally was a tiny peninsula, little more than one square mile, connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land called the Neck (present-day Washington Street in the South End). In 1821, the Back Bay was every bit as watery as its name implies; a dam was built across it to provide hydropower to mills and as a connecting roadway between Boston and Brookline, running from Charles Street to Sewall’s Point (Kenmore Square today) along present-day Beacon Street.

The dam reduced the bay’s tidal flow, which meant the city’s sewage and industrial runoff collected in shallow waters, stinking and breeding disease. By 1849, the city declared it a public health nuisance. At about the same time, waves of Irish immigrants fleeing famine were pouring into Boston and stretching the city to its limits. These pressures pushed the city to fill in the Back Bay, the South Bay, and other areas, totaling about 2,000 new acres. None of Boston’s original shoreline remains today.

After pausing during the Civil War, city expansion moved ahead rapidly. At the height of the Back Bay’s creation, trains carrying 35 carloads of fill arrived every 45 minutes, every day creating about two new house lots to be sold at public auction.

While dirt flew, the city turned to architect Arthur Gilman to design the new neighborhood. Gilman, still in his 20s but well traveled, proposed a design inspired by broad Parisian boulevards and British urban garden squares. Commonwealth Avenue and its grassy Mall became its core. The work was completed in 1881.

Although the Commonwealth Avenue Mall is known for its statues, they weren’t part of Gilman’s design, which emphasized a straight-line vista beneath a canopy of elm trees from Boston Common to the Muddy River. Upscale from the start, Commonwealth Avenue, with its surrounding grid of streets, was a huge change for Boston’s urban form.

“This was a big, wide-open space in the middle of the city, a totally different feel from neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill,” says Margaret Pokorny, who chairs the Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee for the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. She notes that the upscale, urban parkland aspects of Commonwealth Avenue’s design had to be balanced with its role as the first direct route into the city from the western villages.

Wide, straight, and paved with crushed stone, Commonwealth Avenue was an immediate draw for Brahmin promenading, carriage races, and parades (of veterans, schoolchildren, and bicycles). Motorcades of visiting dignitaries, such as Winston Churchill, came later; touring Boston shortly after World War II, Churchill declared Commonwealth to be “the grandest boulevard in North America.”

Boston’s romance with grids and straight streets was short-lived as Commonwealth Avenue extended westward. Sensibilities changed; an 1895 newspaper column on the brand-new Newton expanse celebrated “the absence of a tedious perspective,” because of the fact that “the straight line is nowhere followed.”

Between 1885 and 1895, sweeping curves of Commonwealth Avenue were cut through the hilly farmland of sparsely settled Brighton, which Boston had annexed in 1874. This section of the road, from Packard’s Corner to Chestnut Hill, was initially called Massachusetts Avenue. It was renamed Commonwealth Avenue in March 1887 after the city widened the old Brighton Avenue between Packard’s Corner and Kenmore Square, which became the Comm Ave BU knows best. Old Brighton Avenue was sandwiched between the Charles River and the Boston and Albany Railroad. The BU Bridge was known as the Brookline Bridge.

Brighton’s portion of the avenue was created at the same time Brookline was laying down Beacon Street, both based on designs by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (then a Brookline resident ad famed for the creation of Boston’s Emerald Necklace of parks), sparking intense competition between the municipalities for investment and development projects. The roads’ construction was closely monitored and lavishly praised in the press.

“It is no wonder that Bostonians are proud of the avenue, or that [President Benjamin Harrison] on Wednesday last should have been driven over it as Boston’s most finished and, it might be added, polished driveway,” wrote one Brighton columnist.

As had been the case on the easternmost section of Commonwealth Avenue and later would be true for the Newton stretch, the road’s principal backers were prominent Boston businessmen and real estate owners such as Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (a railroad promoter and descendant of two presidents), and wealthy merchant Ebenezer Francis, who owned about 70 acres near the junction of Brighton and Commonwealth Avenues. Several of these men offered free land for the construction of the roadway.

Brookline and Beacon Street won the race. Much of the acreage along that road was owned by transportation and real estate mogul Henry M. Whitney, which allowed more rapid construction and lured the big prize: a streetcar line. No public transportation would come to Commonwealth Avenue until 1909, and so the grand boulevard was slow to attract residential or business development. Farms and estates that had been subdivided for houses stood empty. The same newspapers that had heralded its arrival now lamented it as a white elephant.

“Beacon Street definitely got the jump,” says historian William Marchione, who retired this year as president of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society. “But 1909 was the tipping point. After the streetcar, the avenue really began to develop rapidly.”

Skip ahead 100 years, and work to make Commonwealth Avenue a grand boulevard just keeps going. For nearly three years, beginning in 2006, the Massachusetts Highway Department’s Commonwealth Avenue Improvement Project turned BU’s main artery into a maze of orange traffic barrels, construction vehicles, and ripped-up asphalt. Road crews widened sidewalks and spruced them up with additional trees, granite planters, and benches. They also added a bike lane. This past summer, just as that project was winding down, the Highway Department began reconstructing the Newton end of Commonwealth Avenue.

Meanwhile, a significant portion of the expensive task of maintaining the Commonwealth Mall is the responsibility of neighborhood groups. Every year, for instance, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay spends about $100,000, primarily on trimming and protecting trees from disease. Despite the attention, two or three trees are lost every year. In the past decade, the association raised a lot of that upkeep money by selling dedications on the Mall’s curbstones and benches and more recently, new tree sponsorships. The last of nearly 60 benches (sponsored at $4,000 a pop) was installed earlier this year. Heavy traffic rumbling down the divided boulevard today is a testament to Commonwealth Avenue’s continuing split personality as an emblem of Boston’s history, an urban green space, and a heavily used transportation corridor between downtown and points west.

“People don’t think about this as a park,” says Pokorny, as she walks by a diseased elm tree marked for removal by a spray-painted pink X. “There’s always been a lot of interaction between this avenue and the community, which has made it an enormously pressured public space. So protecting it is really hard.”

Special thanks to Margaret Pokorny and her thorough study of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, to William Marchione, whose historical article “Building Commonwealth Avenue” is available here, and to Nancy Johnson, head of reference for the Newton Free Library, for their help.

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Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Icons Among Us: Comm Ave

  • Newark Real Estate Agent on 03.24.2010 at 4:35 pm

    Miss BU a lot!

    Great article. This really reminds me the good time my sister and I had while we went to BU. It’s great to know that the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay spends $100,000 on trimming and protecting trees from disease. Really good work

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