The Owners of Hellenic Hill
The majestic backdrop to Jamaica Pond, Hellenic Hill, has a storied history. Although known as Hellenic Hill since about 1968, probably because of the alliteration, for three centuries it was called Spring Hill. Few sections of Jamaica Plain hold in their history so many famous names: Elder Isaac Heath, Rev. John Eliot, Royal Governor Sir Francis Bernard, John Prince, Joseph Goddard, Robert and Gaspar Bacon.
Spring Hill rises 229 feet above Jamaica Pond, one of a string of drumlins that sweep over to Allandale Street. The hill is also the southern rim of the huge glacial basin that formed the "Pond Plain." The northern rim is Parker Hill, called Great Hill in the 17th century.
Spring Hill was so named because it was the source of the Muddy River. That storied, natural stream begins deep in the folds of the hill, down the slope to Perkins and Prince streets, and into Jamaica Pond. Long covered over, it enters Jamaica Pond through a stone drain near this corner and emerges as a bubbling brook over an artificial rocky falls below the steep Perkins Street retaining wall of Ward’s Pond. Muddy River then weaves its way through Olmsted Park. At Boylston Street it becomes the wide sculpted stream that forms the boundary between Boston and Brookline. It then disappears into a huge culvert at Brookline Avenue and the Riverway, then turns and runs under Kenmore Square into the Charles River at Deerfield Street.
Through deeds, it can be traced that the first Europeans who owned the flatland and slopes of Hellenic Hill, from Prince Street and the Arborway, were Elder Isaac Heath and Reverend John Eliot.
Elder Heath was the friend and confidant of Reverend Eliot of the Roxbury First Church. Heath was born in Hertfordshire on February 13, 1587 (old-style calendar 1586), and emigrated with his brother William on September 11, 1635. Isaac Heath was an arms maker and his home was near the present-day corner of Washington and Vernon streets. He was admitted a member of the First Church on May 25, 1636, and a year later elected Ruling Elder, second to Eliot. Heath ran the daily administrative affairs of the church and was Eliot’s associate in the work to build the Indian towns, beginning in 1651. In 1659, he was on the committee that set out the boundaries of the Natick Plantation carved out of Dedham.
Like all those who emigrated at their own expense, Heath was granted fifty acres of common land by the General Court. His farmland and woodlots included land around Great Pond in the Jamaica section of Roxbury (now Jamaica Plain), below Hellenic Hill. Church leaders were also paid in land that would be leased out to farmers, cattlemen, and foresters. By 1654 Isaac Heath owned 265 acres throughout the town of Roxbury. Elder Heath died on January 21, 1660, at the age of 75. It is estimated that his lands in Jamaica Plain ran from present-day Pond Street to Orchard Street, along the pond and the lower slope of Hellenic Hill at Prince Street.
Reverend Eliot owned 75 acres of land around the Great Pond that ran from about Pond Street up to the southern edge of the hill. Much of the land was used as a woodlot, and would not look like the thickly-shaded hill of today.
If there is a patron saint of Roxbury, of which Jamaica Plain was an integral part for over two centuries, it is the Reverend John Eliot. Eliot’s life spanned the entire tumultuous 17th century. Born in Nazing, Essex in 1604, he emigrated at the age of 28 to Massachusetts Bay, which was then a commonwealth chartered by the king. When he died in 1690, he was a British subject in a crown colony. Eliot was appointed the first pastor of Roxbury First Church by Governor John Winthrop on June 25, 1632. At the age of 46, Eliot began the study of the Algonquin language (he was a skilled linguist) with the help of a Pequot slave owned by the fur trader Richard Collicott of Dorchester.
Eliot established sixteen Indian towns, beginning with Natick in 1651. Eliot had experienced the ill-disguised opposition among his church members to sharing seats and communion with the baptized Massachusett individuals. Roxbury settlers did not want those they called "Americans" living among them. Eliot decided that the best course was to petition the General Court for separate Indian townships, far removed from English settlement. The first was at Natick, and in 1657, 6,000 acres were set aside out of Dorchester for an Indian town called Ponkapoag, today mostly in Canton.
It is difficult to underestimate this achievement. During the Puritan era, which ended when Massachusetts Bay became a crown province in 1689, only church members could be elected to the General Court, and only the General Court elected governors and lieutenant governors. Had King Philip's War of 1675 not occurred, the Massachusett of Natick and Ponkapoag and the other towns (and the Nipmucks of Grafton), who were church members, could have been elected to the General Court to represent these towns.
The crowning achievement of John Eliot's life was the translation of the Bible into Algonquin in 1663. This was the first Bible published in North America, and the only transliteration we have today of the Massachusett language, for the Massachusett had no written language. A Massachusett named Nesutan joined Eliot as an interpreter in 1646. Without him and a 19-year old Nipmuck from Grafton, known as James the Printer, the Algonquin Bible could not have been written or published. Eliot assigned a written word to a spoken sound, and Nesutan used that to test the phonetic spelling. James was apprenticed to a skilled British printer, and he set type and galley proofs. Two of these Bibles, dated 1663, are owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Boston Public Library and the Congregational Library (Boston) each own a copy of the 1685 edition. Nesutan was killed fighting for the English in King Philip's War. James fought for King Philip. Taking advantage of the post-war amnesty, he returned to his printing press.
John Eliot died at his home on May 20, 1690 and was buried with his wife in the parish tomb at the Eustis Street burial ground. In 1858, a sandstone table monument was placed over the grave.
When Roxbury mayor Henry A. S. Dearborn planned Forest Hills Cemetery in 1848, he proposed a 42-foot-high Corinthian column, carved in limestone, to honor John Eliot. This was to be located on Eliot Hill, the furthermost western hill in the cemetery. This monument was never built. But after Dearborn died, a similar limestone Corinthian column was set up over his grave at Mt. Dearborn. On May 30, 1990, an oak tree was planted on Eliot Hill by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and Forest Hills Cemetery, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of John Eliot. The oak tree, which had a curved planting bed around it (since removed), was reminiscent of the famed Eliot Oak in Natick. On August 2, 1992, a plaque to honor Eliot was set in a conglomerate boulder and was dedicated by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and Forest Hills Cemetery.
In 1674, Rev. Eliot became interested in the education of blacks, many of them slaves, because he felt they were being ignored. He asked families within two or three miles of his home (on Washington Street near Heath’s house) to send their Negro servants to him for lessons in reading and writing.
On July 10, 1689, Eliot placed 75 acres of his land in trust, this land "being part of the Pond Plaine…for the support of a school and schoolmaster in that part of Roxbury for the teaching of children together with such Negroes and Indians as may or shall come to the school.” The trust was recorded on May 30, 1690, ten days after Eliot’s death. John Weld was the first trustee (Suffolk Deeds, 15, p. 44). The Eliot Bequest was divided into three lots of 39, 15, and 21 acres in the Pond Plain, Great Pond, and boundary road, probably today's Pond Street.
Some of the income from Eliot’s land was used to build the third schoolhouse in 1832 at 24 Eliot Street. By that time most of the land had been sold as house lots, except for the half-acre of school grounds.
In his will, Isaac Heath gave his lands around Jamaica Pond to his son-in-law, John Bowles (Suffolk deeds, 7, p. 310; will of Isaac Heath, New England Genealogical Register, vol. 10, July 1856, p. 264). There is some evidence that in about 1668, Bowles built a house and barn beneath the slope of Hellenic Hill near the pond.
On October 3, 1765, Sir Francis Bernard, governor, and commander-in-chief of the province, bought for 960 pounds, fifty acres, with a house and barn originally owned by Bowles (Suffolk Deeds, 108, p. 89). The deed explains that it was the same land from the estate of Isaac Heath, sold on September 6, 1711, with house and barn on the shores of Great Pond. Bernard added another ten acres and began landscaping it with specimen and fruit trees.
Born in 1712, Bernard was the 9th royal governor of the colony. After serving two years (1758-1760) as governor of New Jersey, King George III appointed him governor of Massachusetts Bay on August 2, 1760. His administration was a tumultuous one: it was his responsibility to enforce the various revenue acts passed by Parliament to pay down the enormous debt of the French and Indian War. The war had ended with the British conquest of Canada, and the end of French rule in North America, in 1763.
On June 15, 1768, a committee of 21, led by John Hancock and Samuel Adams, called on the governor, at his Jamaica Pond estate to protest the seizure of Hancock’s ship for violation of the revenue laws. Facing increasing unrest, Bernard made the fateful decision to order British troops to Boston in October of 1768.
Bernard’s grand summer home faced south on Pond Street. He enlarged the Bowles farmhouse to three stories, remodeled the reception rooms, and added a greenhouse. All of these changes were no doubt inspired by, and resembled, Commodore Joshua Loring’s mansion built in 1760 on the main street of the Jamaica Plain section of Roxbury. Bernard probably used Loring’s builders. The house stood approximately where Pond Circle is today.
King George made Bernard a baron in August 1768, and he returned to England the following year. Lady Bernard remained at the mansion until her return to England in 1770.
In March of 1775, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seized the property as the contraband of disloyal citizens. It was used as a hospital for Roxbury troops and also as a base camp. According to James H. Stark in The Loyalists of Massachusetts (1910), soldiers were buried on the slope of Hellenic Hill some distance from the house. Stark does not document this notion, and it has never been verified.
The Boston Gazette, on March 10, 1775, published an advertisement for the property for sale: "...extensive and beautiful with fruit trees, lemon and lime trees in a greenhouse.” The property included sixty acres with a three-story house, stable and coach house.
The Confiscation Act of 1779 made Bernard's estate the property of the Commonwealth. On August 18, 1779, the mansion and grounds were purchased by Martin Brimmer at auction for 18,952 pounds (Suffolk Deeds, 130, p. 178). The orchard and woodlot covered the lower slope of Hellenic Hill.
Brimmer was born in Boston in 1742. He was the son of Martin Brimmer who born at Oster near Hamburg, Germany in 1690. The older Brimmer emigrated to Boston in 1723. He married Susannah Sigourney on October 24, 1726. A French Huguenot, she was a descendant of the first Sigourney in Boston, Andre, a shoemaker, and distiller.
The younger Brimmer, who probably lived on School Street in Boston, was a merchant who owned stores on T Wharf and apparently was successful enough to buy a landed estate for 19,000 pounds. He died in 1804 and is buried in the Brimmer family tomb on Indian Ridge at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. His namesake son was mayor of Boston from 1843-1845. Martin Brimmer (1829-1896) became an incorporator and first president of the Museum of Fine Arts.
On April 15, 1806, Captain John Prince bought fifty acres of the estate of Sarah Brimmer for $5,666 (Suffolk Deeds, 23, p. 278). On July 13, 1807, Prince bought an additional twelve acres from Andrew Brimmer for $889. The deed in Suffolk Deeds (28, p. 11) describes the land as a wooded lot at the foot of the spring, with a right-of-passage to the spring by the abutting landowners; one of whom was Joseph Goddard, who bought eight acres at the crest of the hill on March 23, 1802.
In 1809, Prince razed the governor's mansion and built a road through the property that connected Pond Street with Perkins Street. Prince Street was established as a town road in 1855, four years after West Roxbury seceded from the town of Roxbury.
On June 12, 1834, Alexander Wadsworth surveyed the lower slope of Hellenic Hill from the shore of the pond, up the hillside, and laid out fourteen large lots from one to three acres (Norfolk Deeds, planbook 2, p. 7). These lots were sold at auction in July.
In April 1844, Daniel C. Bacon, a retired sea captain from Barnstable, bought about two acres of Prince Street land. After twenty years as a ship captain in the China trade and Pacific coast fur trade, Bacon became the owner in the mid-1820s of thirty ships at Boston wharves, with a house on Temple Place. Bacon built his home nestled in a wooded dell on the northern slope of the hill overlooking Jamaica Pond. The driveway to the Daniel Bacon house can still be seen behind rusted chain-link fencing on Prince Street. The drive was cut into the slope and flanked by two granite posts still visible although buried in overgrowth and over-shadowed by large trees. Included in the Bacon title were the springhouse and underground pipes that fed into Jamaica Pond (Suffolk Deeds, 145, p. 317). The springhouse was probably built by John Bowles about 1686 and led John Prince to name his land Spring Hill Farm.
Daniel Bacon's son William inherited the land on May 21, 1851, and built his own house just below the crest of the hill. The approach drive with granite posts is also still visible behind chain-link fencing and thick overgrowth. He also leased over an acre of pasture land from the Eliot School, about where the Hellenic College seminary residences were built in 1982. William Bacon purchased additional land from the Joseph Goddard family, and by 1874 owned the whole of Hellenic Hill on the Boston side. This land would remain in the Bacon family for the next ninety years.
Joseph Goddard was born in London in 1655 and emigrated to Boston in 1665. In 1680, Goddard had married and lived in Muddy River, a section of the peninsula of Boston at the far end on the Roxbury line, used chiefly as grazing and farmland for Boston town residents. In 1713 it became the town of Brookline. On March 22, 1713, Goddard, who was a leather-worker and shoemaker, probably inherited fifty acres of land, including a house and orchard on the Roxbury line. It is not clear if this land included Hellenic Hill. It was originally common land owned by the town of Boston, and granted to Dorman Moreau in 1702.
By 1807, the Goddard family owned twenty acres on the northeast slope of the hill, including the highest crest overlooking the pond. A flat-front, hip-roof farmhouse set back at the corner of Prince and Perkins streets was built, probably by the third generation Joseph Goddard about 1810 (more research is required to document this). The Goddard land swept down to the pond shore, and he subdivided his property after 1809.
In 1856, a portion of Goddard land was purchased – or acquired by marriage – by William Goddard Weld. His son, the noted physician Charles Goddard Weld
(1857-1911), built on the hilltop a high-Georgian mansion in 1901, designed by William Y. Peters. Incidentally, Charles Goddard Weld’s inherited China trade wealth enabled him to collect and donate to the Museum of Fine Arts 1000 Japanese and Chinese paintings.
In 1846 the pianoforte manufacturer Jonas Chickering purchased a parcel of land on Jamaica Pond from the Goddard family, and later added four other lots, on which he built a summer house he called Sunnyside, along with a boat dock.
On May 6, 1854, the great historian Francis Parkman bought three acres from Chickering, including the cottage and boat dock, for $10,000. He regularly rowed on Jamaica Pond from the boat dock. Parkman summered there until his death in 1893.
In 1894 the Boston Park Department united all the land between Prince Street and the pond shores, including Sunnyside, as part of the Jamaica Park portion of the Boston park system. Prince Street was included in the plans as the public boundary road, a drive exclusively for through traffic. A parallel road for park users was designed through the Parkman estate and the Jamaica Pond Ice Company called Parkman Drive. A 555-foot-long supporting wall was built to hold up the slope of the hillside for the park road, which was opened for public use at the end of 1898.
Perhaps the most illustrious resident of Hellenic Hill was Robert Bacon. Born in 1860, he spent his young adult years living in his father William’s mansion. After Harvard, Robert Bacon joined the investment banking firm J. P. Morgan. He was made partner at age 34. He was one of the team of financiers sent by the House of Morgan to Washington, D.C., at the request of the Cleveland administration, to help control the financial panic of 1894-1895. The team literally directed the Secretariat of the Treasury.
During the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, Bacon was Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for Cuba, Columbia, and Panama. In 1909, he became Secretary of State and concluded the Panama-United States treaty signed in March of 1909, that resulted in the construction of the Panama Canal.
Under President Taft, he was ambassador to France. But at the outbreak of World War I, he found himself in his Jamaica Plain manse, retired from both finance and government. He recognized the need for an efficient overseas medical service and returned to Europe as a medical volunteer. While there he organized and managed the American Hospital in France and the American Field Ambulance Service. Later in the war, he was aide-de-camp to General John J. Pershing, who assigned him as the American Chief of Mission to the British general headquarters. The war literally wore Robert Bacon out, and he died of complications from inner ear surgery on May 29, 1919, a month short of his 60th birthday.
The last of the Bacon family on Hellenic Hill was the fourth generation's Gaspar, who was born on March 7, 1886, and lived on the family estate. Harvard educated like his father, Gaspar organized student groups for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign. Joining the army, he served as a cavalry private in the 1916 Mexican campaign against Pancho Villa, and during World War I as a major in an army reserve artillery unit. After the armistice, Gaspar Bacon entered Republican politics in Massachusetts and was elected to the State Senate in 1925. In 1929 he became Senate president, a position he held until 1932 when he became lieutenant governor under Governor Joseph B. Ely (1932-1934).
In 1934 he ran for governor against James Michael Curley, who regularly berated Brahmins like Gaspar Bacon. Bacon lost, retired from politics, and turned to teaching international relations at Boston University. He then practiced law at Gaston, Snow, and Saltonstall. In his 50’s Bacon served in World War II for over three years on General George S. Patton’s staff.
Gaspar Bacon died in Dedham on Christmas Day 1947. But he had long since sold off the family estate. On May 2, 1939, Bacon sold part of the estate to Vincenzo Barletta, complaining that he couldn’t afford the property taxes. In June 1942, Bacon put the remaining 23 acres up for sale, which Barletta also bought. In December 1941, he razed Daniel Bacon’s house. William Bacon’s house was damaged by fire in April 1945, and although repaired, Barletta razed it in 1952.
On the property that once belonged to Daniel Bacon and in about the same location, Nicola Barletta of Roslindale built a low ranch house designed by Gustav Hagen in 1953, at 150 Prince Street, for $30,000.
The Holy Cross Seminary, founded in 1937 at Pomfret, Connecticut, began looking for a Boston location for its theological school after World War II. In October 1947, it bought the Charles Goddard Weld estate on the northwestern slope and crest of Spring Hill, which was sold by Weld’s daughter, Mary Weld Pingree, for a reputed $176,000. The seminary moved to the hill in 1947, and the magnificent Goddard mansion was converted to classrooms and the Seminary’s administrative offices. The first chapel was in a renovated Weld barn. When the Seminary planned to build a new chapel, one of the design criteria was that it be at the top of the hill. This land was owned by the Barletta family, who sold 31 acres to the Seminary on November 16, 1959. The chapel opened in 1963.
Spring Hill became Hellenic Hill in 1968 when Hellenic College, a four-year undergraduate college, was chartered and merged with the Holy Cross Seminary. The development of Hellenic College – the Malliotis Center in 1976 and resident apartments in 1982, for example – has been low in scale and confined to the southern slope. The college has not touched the thickly-wooded hillside so visible, and beloved, from Jamaica Pond. But up close, it is a decaying forest ruin on gloomy, forgotten Prince Street. Old stone walls flank Prince Street. On the college side, they are as old as John Prince’s day. The Jamaica Park boundary trees match the college grounds in shame and neglect, equally in ruin, and clogged for decades with overgrowth and invasive plants. The Bacon estates are mere fragments today. The massive foundation wall of William Bacon’s mansion can still be seen. Two wells nearby suggest the source of the underground spring. An approach drive from Prince Street runs past the old Goddard farmhouse. A stone boundary wall follows the drive and two, half-buried granite posts, choked by trees and invasive growth, announce the William Bacon estate.
There is some evidence that the Barletta ranch house of 1953 sits on the foundation, or the location, of the Daniel Bacon house. Steps and a garden pool, long obscured by overgrowth, are still in place. An approach road near the edge of the mowed lawns of 150 Prince Street is sunk below crumbling stone walls. A chain-link fence was built against the stone posts. The rusty fence follows that side of Prince Street to the farmhouse, with fallen trees leaning on it.
In 1998, the Barletta family put eight acres of its property up for sale as townhouse development. In February 1998, building permits were filed for eight townhouses of a projected thirty. After public outcry, the plans were abandoned in November. Public advocacy succeeded in getting the state legislature to appropriate five million dollars to buy the hill, but acting-governor Paul Cellucci vetoed the bill. Finally, Hellenic College bought it. In January 2006, the college bought the remaining 6.9 acres of Barletta land, including the 1953 ranch house, for 5.4 million dollars.
The community of Jamaica Plain fights for the preservation of the beloved Hellenic Hill view from Jamaica Pond but ignores the conservation of the land. At the time of the 2006 sale, the Jamaica Hills Association and the Jamaica Pond Association, advocates for the sale to the college, were quoted as saying they wanted the college to do nothing with the hill, and that is what has happened.
January 12, 2019
Editorial assistance provided by Kathy Griffin, Charlie Rosenberg, and Jenny Nathans.