Jamaica Plain's Two Streets Named After the Chestnut

Under the spreading chestnut tree the mighty smithy stands.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Jamaica Plain has two streets named after the Chestnut tree with its distinctive leaves and blossoms. They probably got their names from these prominent trees that years ago grew on location here. Fine chestnut specimens (aesculus hippocastanum) can be seen in the Arnold Arboretum or the Public Garden, America's first botanical area.

The name is popular in the City of Boston for streets, named from trees growing long before downtown Boston annexed other neighboring areas unto itself, and is to be seen in Brighton, South Boston, Charlestown, and Hyde Park in addition to Beacon Hill's candidate. Yet rare is the municipality with two streets of the same name!

Chestnut Avenue
To a Jamaica Plain resident, Chestnut Avenue, paralleling the railroad and Lamartine Street between Centre and Green, is the first to come to mind. It is in the densely populated portion of our area and is the older of the two Jamaica Plain Chestnuts. Laid out early in the 19th century, it is seen already developed in our first real estate atlas (1872). At one period it was called Curtis from the pioneer Roxbury family (through whose lands it passed) and also Nebraska Street, when that state made history in the 1850's as a slave state vs. Kansas as a free state.

A walk today along this up-and-down, sometimes one-way street reveals a wide array of older dwellings that tell the street's story: originally a rail commuter suburban street of wooden residences. Many of these (14 in all) are included in the 1978 Jamaica Plain Inventory issued by the Boston Landmarks Commission that speaks of especially prominent architectural edifices. Chestnut Avenue near the railroad is a kaleidoscope of dwellings for people of all social classes and means and is entirely residential. Only the building at #145 was originally a primary school building (1872)-a rare extant frame schoolhouse in the city!

The terminus at Green Street is tree-shaded and immediately sweeps upward along the back of Sumner Hill. One can't fail to notice #305/7 with its Greek Revival temple form with Ionic columns. The house was built in the 1840's for the ship carving Fowle family of Roxbury and until 1884 (when moved) stood on larger acreage facing Green Street with barn and pond. In typical fashion the owners needed money and sold off their land, so that the house is now surrounded by later housing, including three-deckers.

This Chestnut Avenue is fairly narrow, but eyes are easily diverted to other notables on the 1978 Inventory. Most prominent are the Victorian mansard and Italian villa manses on the street's crown, sitting far back from the street in solitary splendor as they were intended to be. No difficulty with snow removal since the lay of the land helped greatly in that regard! One wonders if any of these were the homes of owners that overlooked their businesses in the Stony Brook Valley below as on Centre Street in the Roxbury Highlands.

There is a steep incline down the back of Sumner Hill, and the grander houses of the concluding part of the last century with its gross materialism in New England disappear. They are replaced by a different array of middle-class housing, built near the street and close together. Snow removal was a problem in this flat area. Luckily fire was not, and this type of housing is preserved on the rest of Chestnut Avenue with some of the most recent housing in Jamaica Plain filling the lots near Centre Street.

The architecture is seemingly humbler as one approaches Centre Street at Jackson Square; it once housed the poorer immigrants of Jamaica Plain. These places were built by the Irish and Germans who worked the breweries of Stony Brook Valley. Their descendants, churches, social clubs and shops moved out in several decades into all areas of America. Now it serves as the living quarters for yet another tide of first generation Americans who in time will move out from this nursery of immigration and democracy.

Chestnut Street by the Pond is one street in a web of streets in that area of Brookline that are named for trees. The Brookline section came first and then the connector from the rotary to Perkins Street by the Cabot Estate high up on its hill above. For in early Jamaica Plain the park land was inaccessible by road on the Brookline side, being all private land, dating back to land grants made to the early Roxbury settlers as Brookline was then called Boston Plantation.

Chestnut Street
Chestnut Street on the Jamaica Plain/Brookline border has a different tone. Park land abuts it as it turns at the borderline rotary. The recent removal of the Brookline Hospital at the edge of the Cabot Estate has added to the green space. Then apartment houses spring into view in this Chestnut Street that few Jamaica Plain residents ever see. Upon swinging past High and Cypress, the street takes on characteristics of its counterpart by the railroad.

Private residences of all dates and types abound, and the street becomes one way against its terminus on Walnut Street. It becomes more exclusive with older houses set back on large lots. For the traveler is approaching the former epicenter of Brookline as attested by the First Church, an ancient cemetery, and a memorial-a sure sign of former prominence.

Thus our area's unique similarly-named streets act as mirror images, both revealing the social and economic history of their environments. Both have been spared catastrophe and so show themselves almost as a museum. Even if excess development had occurred, these byways would tell a story in records, if not houses. The discerning eye will see much architectural taste and history beyond a streetscape but especially here.

By Walter H. Marx. Sources: A Forbes, Town Seals of Massachusetts; Boston Landmarks Commission, Jamaica Plain Inventory, 1978

Reprinted with permission from the July 15, 1994 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.