The origin of Egleston Square's Name
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 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 1980s.)
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 1920s 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.
On November 16, 1848, a land surveyor acting on behalf of the Roxbury Latin School produced a plan of house lots and a new street on an eighteen-acre sloping tract of land bounded by School Street, Washington Street and Walnut Avenue (Norfolk County Deeds. Bk. 231. Pg. 19. Plan Book 250. Pg. 77.) This was part of one of the largest bequests ever received by the School founded in 1645, the oldest grammar school in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain and one of the oldest in British North America. At his death in 1672, the merchant Thomas Bell gave all his landed estate in Roxbury, where he had lived from 1635 until his return to England in 1654, to the Roxbury Latin School. Bell’s home was at the corner of Boylston and Lamartine Streets. This land stretched from about Lamartine Street to Walnut Avenue. School Street was laid out through his estate in January of 1662 and was later named for the Roxbury Latin School. The land was rented out or its produce and wood sold for annual income and in 1848 the School looked to sell it to increase its endowment. Connecting Walnut Avenue with Washington Street on the map was a proposed street with ample house lots on each side.
This became Egleston Square in 1866 when the Town of West Roxbury, acting on a petition by a group of citizens, voted to build the new street at the Board of Selectmen meeting on March 24, 1866 (West Roxbury, including Jamaica Plain and present - day West Roxbury, separated themselves as an independent town from the city of Roxbury in 1851. Jamaica Plain was later annexed to Boston in 1874 after Roxbury was absorbed in 1868.)
The town built the public way it named Egleston Square connecting Walnut Avenue and Washington Street at an original width of 48 feet and at a length of 1900 feet. It was a logical extension of two heavily traveled interior roads: Walnut Avenue was one of the first streets in Roxbury built in 1667; Washington Street, or Shawmut Avenue as it was called in 1866 was renamed for President George Washington during the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876. It was first built in 1806 as the Norfolk and Bristol Turnpike, a private toll road for farm and commercial traffic. The petitioners, most likely local landowners seeking to capitalize on their holdings now that a new street railway was being built down Washington Street, were probably influenced by Walnut Park built by the city of Roxbury with a green oval at the crest of the street in 1863.
The original Egleston Square ceased to exist when it became absorbed in the extension of Columbus Avenue in 1895, but by then it had long changed from a public way to the name of a community.
It was a very different community from 1866 as well. Electric street car lines on fixed iron rails embedded in the cobblestones replaced the plodding horse cars: the city built the first school in that part of town and in 1893 one of the earliest apartment houses was built in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain at 3115-3125 Washington Street with storefronts at the street level.
It is harder to discover who or what the petitioners had in mind when they named the new street Egleston Square; there is nothing in the official records. It was common in the 19th century to name squares after English towns or country estates, but there are none by that name in Britain. Egleston is also not a name common to Roxbury or Dorchester; one Bagot Egleston immigrated to Dorchester from Yorkshire in 1630, but he removed to Connecticut in 1633. There were only two men named Egleston living in Boston in 1865 and 1866; one was a merchant who lived on Kneeland Street and the second was a South Boston waiter.
It was also common in the years following Appomattox to name places after veterans or battlefields in the Civil War and here is the closest hint about the origin of the name Egleston. Five Massachusetts men named Egleston served in the Civil War. Two were deserters but two others suggest a possibility. Corporal Charles T. Egleston of Westfield, Mass. was killed at Petersburg, Virginia on May 16, 1864. The second was William R. Egleston of Springfield who served from 1862 until June 29, 1865 in Company M of the Fifth Cavalry (Colored.) It is quite plausible that one of the petitioners for the Square was in command when Corporal Egleston was killed or an officer with the 5th Calvary (Colored.)
Given that West Roxbury was the home of Robert Gould Shaw and the high regard that Boston had for black regiments in the Civil War, it is possible that Egleston Square was named for a black cavalry soldier named William R. Egleston.
By Richard Heath