Bromley Park: The Origin of the Name
Bromley Park today is one half of the twenty-three acre public housing development in the north end of Jamaica Plain known as Bromley Heath. Early in the creation of public housing in Boston, it was decided by the Boston Housing Authority that developments would be named for a major street or landmark in which they were located. The Housing Authority Board wanted the tenants to feel they were part of the community and not in a separate corner of it. Heath Street Houses took its name from the thoroughfare on which it was built. The name also commemorates Major General William Heath, George Washington’s second-in-command. The development was built on what was once the pasture of the Heath farm.
Bromley Park was a 680-foot long residential square set perpendicular to Bickford Street and dead-ended at the old Boston and Providence Railroad right of way. The street was lined with brick, bow-front, row houses and divided by three rectangular strips planted with trees, grass and shrubs exactly like those town-house blocks built in the South End such as Rutland Square, Worcester Square and Braddock Park. Bromley Street and Albert Street came off Bromley Park at right angles and connected it to Heath Street. The Bromley Park playground, 50 to 60 Bickford Street and 950 to 954 Parker Street now occupy what was Bromley Park for 75 years.
On March 10, 1785, Judge John Lowell bought a ten and one-half acre farm and farmhouse, which fronted on Centre Street for 750 pounds (Suffolk Deeds: Book 147, Page 269.) Centre Street - known then as “The Great Road to Dedham and Providence” - was one of the principal thoroughfares through Roxbury. The house stood about where 267 Centre Street is today. In the 17th century the land was originally owned by John Weld, one of the founding families - and one of the richest landowners - of Roxbury. (Note: until 1851 Jamaica Plain was a part of Roxbury; called the Jamaica end of the town of Roxbury as early as 1667). The Weld planting fields adjoined the farm of William Heath - another founding family, which stretched up to Parker Hill.
Lowell, described as a “solid citizen of Bristol,” determined at the age of 68 that the future was in the New World. A man of wealth, he left England in April 1639 with a party of 16 people; his two sons John and Richard and their wives, servants, furniture and livestock.
It was out of the chaos of the Revolutionary War that the Lowell family emerged as a family of enormous wealth and influence in Massachusetts and established themselves among the highest of the Brahmin class. Judge Lowell was by inheritance, temperament and the society in which he lived and worked, a Loyalist. That is; a Tory, loyal to the rule of the King of England. But he was a shrewd man and like his forebear, Percival Lowell, he was alert to the fact that the New World had greater things in store than the monarchy of England. So; although he knew the last two Royal Governors personally, he threw his fortunes in with that of the nascent nation and joined the political arm of the Nationalists; known as the Committee of Safety, as an elected Selectman from Newburyport.
Lowell seized the opportunity left by the fleeing Loyalists by filling the void they left behind. The Capital was almost empty of attorneys and Lowell prospered as legal advisor to the State Commissioners responsible for Tory property seized by authorization of the 1779 Confiscation Act. This closely followed the Banishment Act of 1778 that ordered all those who sided with the King to leave the Commonwealth. Lowell drew up Deeds of Sale and arranged leases and auctions of the properties. The sale of Loyalist properties and leases of others - such as the Amory House which Lowell rented from the Commonwealth - helped pay for the costs of the Revolutionary War. But he made most of his fortune during the war years in managing the legal work on captured ships and commerce seized by privateers from the British. In 1782, Congress appointed him Judge of Appeals for Admiralty cases.
Judge Lowell took great interest in the growth of Boston. If his contemporary John Adams worked on the national level, John Lowell worked to strengthen Boston and Massachusetts in the years after the Revolutionary War. In 1783, Lowell was one of the founding directors of the First National Bank of Boston. (His son John would be one of the first vice presidents of the Provident Institute for Savings in 1817.) He invested in shares in bridges, canals and toll roads.
After he moved to Roxbury he commuted across the Boston Neck to his law office but mostly he conducted his business on the farm. And for good reason. Writing in his 1946 biography of the Lowell family, “The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds,” from which much of this history is taken, Ferris Greenslet described the Lowell estate just above Hogg’s Bridge where Centre Street crossed Stony Brook: “In the old Judge’s time and that of his son, it must have been retired and lovely. To the north across the short-pitched valley of Stony Brook, the steep acclivity of Parker Hill hid the spires and soft-coal smoke of Boston. Towards the sunset stretched the shaded hills and bowery hollows of Brookline. Eastward, the old Judge, taking his hundred steps on a sunny morning, could see the bright waters of Boston and Dorchester Bays.”
His brother Thomas settled in Brookline and by 1674 owned 175 acres of farmland over what are today Leverett Pond, Pill Hill, Cypress Street and Route 9. He became the richest landowner in the Muddy River section of Roxbury.
But more than this Roxbury farm linked the Lowells and the Gardners; the two great families of Salem were connected by marriage too. In September of 1797 John Lowell’s daughter Rebecca Russell married Samuel Pickering Gardner at the Roxbury house. Pickering Gardner was born in Salem in May of 1767 but like his father-in-law recognized that the future lay in the capital city of Boston and he moved there in 1793. (Their grandson, John Lowell Gardner, married Isabella Stewart in 1860.)
A great lover of England, he revisited London in the spring of 1806 and toured the hilltop market town of Bromley ten miles south of London. In the words of the 1876 “Handbook to the Environs of London,” Bromley is situated: “on the banks of the Ravensbourne River on high ground in the midst of richly wooded and picturesque country much in favor with city merchants.” It reminded the now homesick Lowell of the Stony Brook valley in Roxbury. Greenslet writes, ” the long ridges overlooking the smoky valley of the Thames and the distant spires, towers and domes of London recalled the Roxbury hilltop he had inherited … Then and there he determined to christen the estate Bromley Vale.”
Lowell The Rebel succeeded his father as president of the MSPA. He was an honorary member of the Horticultural Society of London, founded in March of 1804, and he corresponded regularly with its founder and president Thomas Andrew Knight. Knight sent scions of pear, cherry and plum trees to Lowell as well as seeds for distribution to members of the MSPA. In 1806 six bundles of fruit trees arrived from France and in 1823 the first fruit trees cultivated by the London Horticultural Society arrived in Roxbury. Lowell would plant the trees and vines at Bromley Vale and determine which ones were hardy enough for the New England climate. He would distribute cuttings from his fruit trees to anyone and in time this established a New England fruit nursery system. As he wrote in 1822: “We are utterly destitute in New England of nurseries for fruit trees. We have no place to which we can go for plants to ornament our grounds.” In another letter of 1824, he had in his mind the germ of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. “As to horticulture, it is newly explored. I recollect the first boxes of cultivated strawberries ever sent to the Boston market; they are now in profusion, of excellent quality, although they can be better.”
At his death on March 18, 1840, the periodical, “New England Farmer” (established in 1822) wrote “the agriculture of Massachusetts was indebted to him more than to any other individual living.”
On June 11, 1834, the Boston and Providence Railroad opened its passenger line along the valley of Stony Brook through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, making it one of the first rail lines in Massachusetts. The railroad skirted the Lowell property and crossed Centre Street at grade. In 1866 when the Boston and Providence Railroad announced that it planned to widen its right of way and expand service to include freight cars for the burgeoning industries in the valley, Lowell and his son Augustus, both living at Bromley Vale, realized that section of Roxbury was dramatically changing. Augustus (1830 - 1900) moved to a nine and one-half acre estate on Heath Street in Brookline that he bought in that same year which he called Sevenels after the seven Lowells in his family.
On May 10, 1870, three large parcels totaling 3 and 3/4 acres facing Centre Street were sold to his neighbor Owen Nawn for $85,000. Nawn lived in a large house on 2.29 acres of land directly opposite Bickford Street. (Today, Chestnut Street goes through the former Nawn property.) This sale included the stone tower and walls near Bickford Street that John Lowell The Rebel built in 1807. The deed restricted that the road which Lowell intended to build from Heath Street (i.e. Parker Street) be kept open as a through way.
On April 1,1884, Owen Nawn sold a 30,000 square foot lot on the east side of Bickford Street for $2,000 to the City of Boston for the Lucretia Crocker School (Book 1631, Page 614.) This was the second school built in this rapidly growing corner of Jamaica Plain; in 1874 the Lowell School was built on Centre and Mozart Streets.
After the mansion was destroyed, the only architectural fragment that recalled the name of Lowell was the school at the corner of Mozart Street. This was razed about 1963 and Mozart Playground was built. Today, only the name Bromley Park remains to recall the Lowell family.
June 30, 1999
Catharina Slautterback helped me greatly by finding travel books about Bromley in England and for helping me with portraits of the Lowells. Sally Pierce vastly improved this paper for suggesting I look at “Cultivating Gentlemen.”