Robert Treat Paine Housing Reformer

Robert Treat Paine

Robert Treat Paine

Robert Treat Paine was named for his great-grandfather, the lawyer and judge.  Judge Robert Treat Paine was born at Boston in 1731, and was part of the generation of the first Americans.  As delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, he signed the Declaration of Independence.  He was Attorney General of Massachusetts and a justice of the State Supreme Court.

Robert Treat Paine’s father Charles was born in 1808 and died in 1865.  He was an attorney, but preferred a quiet practice that gave him time to do historical research.

Robert Treat Paine attended Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1855 and Harvard Law School in 1856.  His classmate Phillips Brooks became a lifelong friend.

Paine came out of the Civil War generation – those who came of age personally and professionally during and after the American Civil War – a war in which he did not participate.  All three of his brothers served in the war.  His youngest brother Sumner was a second lieutenant in the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers; he was killed at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, at the age of 18.  One of the stone lions in the Grand Staircase of the Boston Public Library honor the officers and men of the 20th Massachusetts.

Paine practiced real estate law.  Through the war years he wisely and very profitably invested in Michigan copper mines.  He was the principle investor in two western railroads, the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy.  Foreseeing that land values would increase as a result of these railroads, he invested heavily in Nebraska land bonds.  He was very wealthy by 1866.

In 1862 he married Lydia Lyman.  They lived and raised a family of seven children at 6 Mt. Vernon Place, a row house built in 1833.  Mr. and Mrs. Paine summered in a house in Waltham on land given to the couple by Mrs. Paine’s father from his own land holdings.  In 1883 Paine asked the architect H. H. Richardson to enlarge the house.  The magnificent result, built out of glacial boulders dug up on site, is one of the greatest houses in America.  It was completed in 1886.  Paine lived at 6 Joy Street and summered in Waltham for the rest of his life.

Trinity Church
Paine’s boyhood friend Phillips Brooks returned to Boston in 1869 when he was made Rector of Trinity Church then located on Summer Street.  Paine and his wife Lydia quit King’s Chapel and became members of Trinity Church.  In 1870, the Church voted to move to a new location and on January 1, 1872, it acquired a triangular lot on Copley Square.  Eleven months later the old granite church was destroyed in the Great Boston Fire.  Granite blocks from the old church would be used in the foundation of the new building.

In 1870 Paine became chair of the building committee charged with raising the money required to build the new church; the first gift was his own $2000.  Paine and his committee selected H. H. Richardson in June of 1872 to design the new church.  In practice since 1866, the Louisiana-born architect had designed Brattle Square Church in 1869, recently dedicated two blocks from Trinity Church’s new site.  Trinity Church would make Richardson famous, and it would also change the direction of Robert Treat Paine’s life:  in 1872 he quit his law practice and followed what Phillips Brooks preached – to live a purposeful life.  In 1904 Paine wrote in his autobiography that he regretted the decision to quit his business for years, but in the end concluded that “we had this life on earth only once [and] I was not willing to devote the last half of it to the mere business of making money.”

If there is a monument to Robert Treat Paine, it is Trinity Church.  After his death, his children donated the carved wooden pulpit in honor of their father.  Carved by one of the talented artisans in the John Evans Studio, “the Great Preachers’ Pulpit” was dedicated on December 10, 1916.

Boston Cooperative Building Company
Tenement house reform – the elimination of slums and unsanitary housing – became a major urban movement in large eastern cities after the Civil War because of the enormous influx of impoverished immigrants.  Desperate for housing, they lived in alleyway shacks, basements and attics, often crowded several families to a room by unscrupulous landlords in a city without zoning or building codes.  Good housing was rightly seen as a health issue, and the first reformers were physicians.

Dr. Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, a friend of Phillips Brooks (and a Jamaica Plain resident), had been concerned with the health conditions of the overcrowded North and West Ends of Boston since he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1832.  Looking for solutions, he became interested in the successful efforts of British housing reformers, and in 1870 spent six months in London.  He met the distinguished housing reformer Sir Sidney Waterlow, who founded the Industrial Dwelling Company in 1863.  This company built model tenements for factory workers that Bowditch toured with Waterlow.  Dr. Bowditch returned home convinced that Boston could do the same.

No doubt learning of Bowditch’s travels, and inspired by ideas from Phillips Brooks, Paine likely talked over the housing problem with Bowditch.  In his 1904 autobiography, Paine wrote:  “In 1870 my attention was drawn to the need of more and better homes for the masses of poor people.  I was thus led to study housing conditions…”

In May of 1871 Bowditch formed the Boston Cooperative Building Company (BCBC) with Martin Brimmer as President.  Robert Treat Paine and Phillips Brooks were board members; Mary Parkman (sister of the historian Francis Parkman) and architect and contractor George W. Pope were also on the board.  Pope would play a significant part in the next 25 years in design and construction of affordable housing.

The BCBC was the first of the private stock companies that offered shares for limited dividends of 5% to 7% — well below the market interest rate of that day.  The board sold shares and soon raised $300,000 to capitalize the renovation of existing tenements and also to build small homes for working-class men.  Its first venture in new housing was 23 small homes on East Canton Street in Dorchester, built in 1872 to 1873.  These were rented out to workers who had to pay one month in advance and provide references.  (These homes have since been demolished.)

In 1873 the BCBC board approved a program to build small houses in the suburbs near a commuter rail station.  Early in 1874 it bought ten acres on Harvard Street, near the Mt. Bowdoin railway station and not far from the Washington Street horse-car line.  Two new streets were laid out and George Pope designed and built 16 wood-frame homes between 1874 and 1876.  The streets were named Waterlow and Sidney after the English housing reformer who greatly influenced Boston’s first efforts to build homes for the working poor.  (Sidney Street is now Elmont Street.)  Sales suffered because in 1873 the nation was crushed by the worst depression in its history, causing unemployment and reduced wages.  Only five homes were sold by the end of 1874.  These cost $650 with a $200 down-payment and a $25-per-month mortgage.  Three more homes were built and sold in 1876.  By the end of that year a total of eight homes had been sold; three were rented and five were empty.  The mortgage plus the train fare proved too big of a burden for the average factory worker, and he did not buy.  All the other lots were sold at market rate after the economy improved in 1878.

In 1902, the BCBC closed its books on a thirty-year career in which it only built 78 houses and built or renovated 311 apartments.  Nevertheless historians credit the Boston Cooperative Building Company as being the first significant model housing company in the United States.  It also motivated Robert Treat Paine to build low-cost homes himself. All the Waterlow houses remain today.

Workingman’s Building Association
Greenwich-Sussex Homes
In 1878 Paine organized Associated Charities as a way to better coordinate philanthropic giving; he remained its president until 1904. (Today it is known as the Boston Foundation.)

Paine believed in self help, not handouts; all his ventures to help the poor and low-wage earner were based on self reliance, part of which was home ownership. A person needed to become part of the community, and owning a home was the best way to achieve that. Owning a home would also increase Americanization – the assimilation of the foreign born into the American way of life. Boston’s tenements created a problem pattern of the same people living together, speaking the same language and sharing the same culture. The foreign born felt more comfortable this way but the tenements were also self isolating, and the tenants easy prey for the loan shark and slumlord. Living in one’s own home in a diverse community made good Americans.

Most housing reformers looked at zoning and building codes and public health laws as the answers for unsafe housing (the only government involvement they could understand); or they raised the capital themselves and sought to recoup their investment through low-interest mortgages. Paine sought a way to finance the homes he would build through a unique and wholly American way – the cooperative bank. In his 1904 autobiography Paine wrote that the cooperative banking system he began in Massachusetts in 1877 was based on the Philadelphia model: “I became president of the Workingman’s Cooperative Bank [in]1880 and guided it for 23 years.” In the Workingman’s Cooperative Bank shares were purchased at $1 each and would earn $200 at the end of ten years. The wage earner was able to save modest amounts, which would earn income to make a down payment on a home.

In 1886 the Workingman’s Building Association – an arm of the bank – purchased a tract of land off Tremont Street in lower Roxbury near Madison Park. The land was at the edge of the factory district near rail and streetcar lines. Architect George Pope designed several blocks of row houses on Sussex, Greenwich, and Warwick streets, modeled after the brick row houses that architects in Philadelphia began building in 1810. Pope designed 80 small, narrow attached townhouses, built between 1886 and 1890. Greenwich Street and Sussex Street row houses were built in1886, and Warwick Street in 1888 to 1890. Paine, his brother and father-in-law supervised construction and held the mortgages. They were sold at $2500 each with a $100 cash down payment and a 5% mortgage.

In an undated memorandum pasted in Paine’s scrapbook, probably written in 1888 before the Warwick houses were built, he describes the Greenwich Sussex houses: “I have built 45 small brick houses, 7 on Hammond St., 16 on Greenwich St. and 22 on Sussex St. These were built up on the usual pile foundations on thick stone [caps].”

Investors were enthusiastic. In a letter to Paine dated July 29, 1888, Reuben Kidner expressed his “gratitude for the buildings which we opened today. Without you these would not be…you have been willing to give your time, thought and money…”

But not everyone was happy. A writer in the Feb. 20, 1892 issue of the Boston Weekly Index Knights of Labor (which Paine saved in his scrapbook) stated that “six years ago [Paine] was concerned in a charitable building association which operated in the vicinity of Hammond Park [sic]. He built houses which would be charitable to call dog houses. He sold them like hotcake at 35% interest.”

Workingman’s Building Association
Sunnyside-Roundhill Homes
Following the lead of the Boston Cooperative Building Company, the second phase of Paine’s housing program consisted of single-family homes on a large tract of land outside the core city, along a railroad and electric car lines. Homes for workingmen in the suburbs – living outside the crowded city – was Paine’s ideal housing. He felt that the expansion of electric streetcar lines – a cheaper mode of transportation that he strongly advocated – would enable the worker to afford to buy a home and take the streetcar to his factory job.

Using Paine’s own funds added to those of investors in the Workingman’s Cooperative Bank, the Workingman’s Building Association bought twelve acres of the Susan Weld farm in a valley below Centre Street on March 21, 1888 for $45,000 (Suffolk Lib. 1826 Fol. 570. It was originally part of the William Heath farm, sold to Joseph Weld, a barrel maker, on April 15, 1700). Another acre was acquired soon after on Creighton Street. The land was adjacent to breweries and near the Heath Street rail station. The tract was large enough to demonstrate that with sufficient capital and enough land, a large-scale housing development could be built that was affordable to the working man. In a way not realized on Waterlow Street, Sunnyside-Roundhill introduced city planning ideas to low-cost housing development. Common lot sizes, repetitive building styles and curving streets all added to the suburban quality with a density that kept costs down.

Architect George Pope was vice president of the Workingman’s Building Association and Paine was president of the Workingman’s Cooperative Bank (from its opening in 1880 until 1903). Pope designed housing styles and supervised construction of 112 wood-frame cottages far superior to the usual cheap construction of similar housing. “[I was] greatly aided,” Paine wrote in 1904, “by the advice and indefatigable supervision of my friend George Pope who took the whole practical charge of construction…my share being chiefly that of working out plans for greater comfort of the occupants.”

Included in the Weld farm property was a farmhouse, two attached stables, and one outlying barn. Paine decided not to raze the house and subdivide the property into two house lots; instead, in 1889 he had the house repaired. An L-shaped addition was added and the stables taken down. The renovated and enlarged farmhouse was sold to John Morrell who had been living in the house before it was acquired by the WBA. On March 21, 1889 the WBA board approved funds for the construction of two streets through the Weld property that were named Sunnyside and Gayhead streets. Morell’s house became Two Sunnyside Street. In 1897 Morrell built two storefronts onto the house – numbers 341 and 343 Centre Street (permit dated April 21, 1897).

It is possible that the double lot and enlarged house were sold with the potential in mind for storefronts on Centre Street. What is not described in the available scholarship on Sunnyside-Roundhill houses (or indeed in all of the three Paine housing developments) is that the WBA included rental and retail in their subdivisions and these were among the first constructed.

Housing reformers like Paine looked on rental housing as a problem. Most post-Civil War tenements were badly built, unsanitary, and badly managed; moreover, in the minds of the housing reformers, renters did not have any stake in society that only property ownership would provide. However, reformers realized that rental housing was necessary, but required better sanitary construction, better screening of leaseholders, and property management that also overlapped with social services. At lower Roxbury Paine built at least two documented apartment houses; one built in 1874-1875 was at Three Ruggles Street, at the corner of Tremont Street. It was big enough to include ground-floor retail (the apartment house was replaced by Whittier Street public housing about 1951). The other was a four-story attached apartment house at 86-88 Hammond Street, built in 1875, eleven years before the Greenwich-Sussex-Warwick row houses were begun. In fact, number 86-88 Hammond Street – presumably designed by George Pope, although this is not documented – abuts numbers 1-3 and 5 Sussex Street, the first houses built at the Greenwich-Sussex development.

No doubt to raise capital for the ownership houses, two buildings were built in 1890 at 319-329 Centre Street, and each had ground-floor retail with four apartments (permit date May 2, 1890). The annual report of the WBA for 1893 stated that these had earned $3300 in rental income from the merchants and the families who lived above. Number 319 Centre Street was built next to St. Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church, built between 1874 and 1884 at the corner of Walden Street. The church was built on a 5000 square-foot subdivision of the Gardener Brewer estate. Walden Street was built in 1874 through Brewer property, which suggests that the church – the first one in the community – was constructed about 1875. On June 5,1889 WBA bought 77,230 feet of Brewer land for $6000, land through which Roundhill Street was built in 1893 (Suffolk Lib. 1881. Fol. 390-391). In a dramatic departure from anything Paine and the WBA had built before, the parcel in the middle of the 1890 apartment houses, numbered 323-325 Centre Street, was built in 1892 with a one-story store (permit Oct. 2, 1892). Designed by George Pope, it was a big building that filled the whole lot. Because of the steep slope, the Roundhill Street side was two stories high and may have contained a livery or wagon shed. As reported in the 1893 annual report of the WBA, this brought a total of six stores and four apartments to the Sunnyside-Roundhill development. These stores and apartments were owned by, and brought income to the WBA for nearly twenty years, until all three buildings were sold to Alfred E. Baker on March 1, 1910, a few months before the death of Robert Treat Paine (Suffolk Lib. 3431. Fol. 304). In 2004, the three lots were combined – the bulk of which by that time was just a cellar hole – and a three-story brick and wood frame, eighteen-unit apartment block with ground-floor stores and offices was built, called Hyde Square Commons (permit Jan. 5, 2005). This was developed by the Mayo Group and designed by Myron Hartford. A garage was built under the building, taking advantage of the steep grade at Roundhill Street.

In 1889 one of the earliest houses designed by Pope was number 333 Centre Street at the corner of Gayhead Street, next to the apartment house. Purchased by Julia Hayden by 1899 from the original owner, who bought it from the WBA, she had the house razed and built a three-story brick apartment house with two ground-floor stores in 1901 (permit Sept. 25, 1900).

Paine and the WBA were also not averse to selling house lots for one to (presumably) build one’s own house. This also brought in revenue. The third annual report for 1890-1891 stated that eight lots had been sold, including a 3700 square-foot lot at 351 Centre Street, sold to Mary Lathrop for $1494. (She built a two-family house on the lot by 1895). The fourth annual report for 1892 of the WBA stated that 21 vacant lots had been sold and that number 58 Roundhill Street had been built by the purchaser. The lots averaged 3500 square feet, and the average price was $900.

Sunnyside-Roundhill houses were built largely between 1890 and 1892. The first house was number Five Gayhead Street, sold in May 1889 after the street was built. The final houses sold were numbers 5-26 and 53-65 Edgehill Road, and 54-56 Day Street in 1893. All houses sold quickly, yet at an average price of $2600 it was well beyond the income of the regular shop-floor worker, who had the down payment and the $17-per-month mortgage to pay. Moreover, in 1893 the worst depression of the nineteenth century gripped the country, forcing unemployment and wage reductions for all working people. (One recorded foreclosure occurred in April 1893 when Thomas Fitzgerald’s house at 21 Sunnyside Terrace was taken by the Workingman’s Cooperative Bank and his furniture was auctioned off. An assistant keeper at the county jail on Charles Street, Fitzgerald had purchased the new house on Nov. 9, 1891.)

Speaking at a housing conference in 1896, Paine said that the Workingman’s Building Association had “carried through successfully a scheme [to build] wooden houses just outside the city proper…the land bought by the Building Association was bought for 9 cents a square foot, retailing 20 cents after streets, sewers and construction expenses had been paid.” A month later Paine read another paper in which he said that the Sunnyside-Roundhill houses “were sold at prices varying from $2500 to $4000, in demand as fast as they were built by artisans, railway conductors, engravers, by clerks and small tradespeople. (The fourth annual report of the WBA said the average price of a home was $3300.) In 1888-1889 some of the occupations of homebuyers were listed as mason (39 Sunnyside), housepainter (37 Sunnyside), railroad engineer (40 Sunnyside) and a professor (43 Gayhead).

Like the Boston Cooperative Building Company, the Workingman’s Building Association also had investors to satisfy – usually at 3% to 5% limited dividends. Most mortgages were six years (24 Edgehill Road, for example, was bought in August of 1890 and the mortgage was paid off on March 14, 1896). The sixth annual report dated March 15,1894 summarized the completion of Sunnyside-Roundhill houses. “The experiment of purchasing a large tract of land in the suburbs of Boston and dividing it into lots of about 4000 square feet to be sold to workingmen of moderate means [now] in the sixth year has completed the venture. Six storefronts have been built and 112 houses built totaling $340,000 [to build]. Roads, sewers and grading cost $19,488 and the land cost $61,504.” In total Sunnyside-Roundhill cost just over $420,700, all starting with investors’ capital of $79,100. “A fair return for fair [prices],” declared philanthropist Alfred T. White of New York in 1885. “Not that which is falsely called charity. To make a good example [of good homes] accomplishes a great goal, it must be shown that is in the interest of capitalists to follow it.”

In the words of historians Eugenia Birch and Deborah Gardener writing in 1981: Paine was not seeking to adjust capitalism, but to work within its constraints.

In his 1971 Ph.D. dissertation, historian David Culver called Robert Treat Paine the most prominent housing reformer in the nation. Culver wrote that the slum became the vivid symbol of America’s class divisions and social problems. Better housing would transmit middle-class values to the foreign-born immigrant and the working-class man (often one and the same). Paine was prominent among housing reformers, but he called himself simply a friend of the working-class man and the poverty stricken. He saw that the tenement dweller was also America’s victim.

Housing reformers believed that housing determined character; Paine himself addressed the issue in highly moralistic terms. In ways a Puritan would understand, Paine put the words of Phillips Brooks spoken from the pulpit of Trinity Church into works – in heavily charged Christian terms. “The moral impulse,” wrote Edward Saveth in 1980, “was the most important motive. … [Paine] did not hope to eliminate poverty, [he] wanted to make the deserving poor [out] of the undeserving poor.”

Paine saw three levels in urban American society: the “submerged tenth,” the unskilled working immigrant, and skilled artisans and mechanics. One of his earliest uses of the term “submerged tenth” appeared in a February 10, 1895 Boston Globe column – “There is in city life a population of the ‘submerged tenth sinking to lower levels’ that must be reduced.”

In 1903 W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “The Negro race is going to be saved by the talented tenth.” Paine worried that another tenth – the submerged tenth – would ruin urban society if efforts were not taken to improve the lot of the “armies of immigrants and unskilled people who pour into [our] city.” For forty years he worked to find ways to elevate the submerged tenth into the ranks of the skilled workman with an increased earning capacity.

This was the world that Robert Treat Paine lived in for forty years. Saveth named him a patrician philanthropist, one of those who felt it a responsibility to alleviate poverty and help the poor. No other man or woman of his class and no other philanthropist devoted forty years to the task of being a friend to the poor.

Paine did most of his work through the Wells Memorial Institution that he founded in 1879. It soon became the largest workingman’s club in the country. It first opened in rented quarters at Washington and Dover streets with a recreation hall, reading room and classrooms. In 1881 he bought a parcel of land at 985 Washington Street (about where Herald and Washington streets are today) and erected a five-story brick clubhouse, certainly designed by George Pope. Paine endowed it with $70,000 and enlisted the Lowell Institute to provide free classes in steam engineering, carpentry, mechanical drawing, and electrical engineering, among other courses; for women he sponsored classes in cooking, millinery, hygiene and dressmaking. He even allowed labor unions to meet there. Each summer members and staff of the Wells Institute joined him and his family for a picnic at Stonehurst – a short walk from the Waltham railroad stop. In the Wells Memorial Institute building were located the Workingman’s Cooperative Bank on the street level and the Workingman’s Building Association; Paine served as president of all three for 23 years.

Sunnyside-Roundhill was followed by a housing development in Dorchester that is not well known or studied. In the spring of 1892 Paine bought 13.5 acres between Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue. Only 55 homes were built before all operations ceased in 1900. Unlike the first two developments, Bowdoin-Geneva was never completed; indeed, barely one-quarter of the house lots were built on, and much of the land was still vacant at the time of Paine’s death in 1910.

Paine realized by 1902 that the private-sector capitalist could not build housing affordable to the working man. Ten years later the Boston Dwellinghouse Company was incorporated and began building Woodbourne (in Jamaica Plain) in the last attempt of the private sector to build homes for the wage earner; it met the same fate.

The 1890s were difficult for Robert Treat Paine. In 1893 his lifelong friend Phillips Brooks died and in 1897 his beloved wife Lydia died. Sunnyside-Roundhill floundered during the 1893 depression. Paine did see the completion of the great decorative porch of Trinity Church in 1897 – a project he supervised. A pacifist since the Civil War, he was a pioneer in the peace movement from the 1890s, in the American Peace Association which advocated European disarmament; he was its president until the end of his life.

His fortune was made by the age of 35; it was vast enough and safely invested enough to withstand the two worst economic depressions of the 19th century in 1873 and 1893. His philanthropic goal to raise up the submerged tenth and help the unskilled immigrant thrived for another half century through the Wells Memorial Institute, before it closed in 1950.

In 1887 the St. Andrew’s Mission opened at 27 Chambers Street, funded by Paine as a place to minister to the sick and destitute. In 1906, when the neighborhood was by then largely Jewish, the Episcopal Mission became a settlement house.

Paine spent his last decade active in the Wells Memorial Institute and the peace movement. He died on August 14, 1910 and was buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

This article is based on a lecture by Richard Heath presented on April 12, 2011 at the former Cheverus School in Jamaica Plain. The lecture was sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. Editorial assistance has been provided by Kathy Griffin. A PDF and an identical PowerPoint file with photographs and other images illustrating the lecture is available to accompany the article.

Selected Bibliography
“Chairman of the Building Committee: Robert Treat Paine” by Thomas M. Paine, chapter 3 of The Makers of Trinity Church, edited by James O’Gorman, UMass Press, 2004.

Autobiographical Sketch dictated in 1904 by Robert Treat Paine”  from, The Paine Ancestry, The Family of Robert Treat Paine, compiled by Sarah Cushing Paine , edited by Charles Henry Paine. Printed for the family. 16 State Street. 1912.

“Patrician Philanthropy in America: the late 19th and Early 20th Centuries” by Edward N. Saveth, Social Services Review ( University of Chicago), March 1980.

Hall, Peter D, Inventing the Non Profit Sector, Johns Hopkins Press, 1992.

“Tenement Reform in Boston: 1870- 1920. Philanthropy, Regulation + Government – Assisted Housing”, Christine Cousineau, Tufts University, 1989. American City and Regional Planning History.

Culver, David M, Tenement House Reform in Boston: 1846- 1898, PhD dissertation, Brown University, 1971.