Columbus Avenue is one of Jamaica Plain’s best-known border streets. It was once called Lowell Street from its border on the Lowell estate, that nursery of a generation of faded Americans, and later Pynchon Street after the founder of Roxbury and Springfield.
A century ago Americans thrilled at the Columbian World exposition held in Chicago - a celebration of the technological advances of the 19th century centered around the 400th anniversary of the American Discovery. Bostonians couldn’t wait to get there. Special trains took them, and they returned with tales of the Great White Way, Little Egypt, and the Columbus ship replicas, whose next generation graces Boston Harbor at this writing.
Bostonians, proud of their city (recently enlarged by the annexations of Dorchester and Roxbury), wanted to honor the Discoverer with a grand street, and their choice fell on a grand boulevard leading south. The name Pynchon gave way to Columbus.
The avenue (or rather boulevard) was originally laid out in the 1830’s parallel to the Boston & Providence Railroad tracks and yards when that railroad had its depot at Park Plaza (where the Statler Building now stands) after that area of the Back Bay had been reclaimed.
It was a straight shot from the Common with the Park Street Church steeple behind right up to Roxbury Crossing. In its earliest days Columbus Avenue had streetcar tracks to the Crossing for the Boston-Worcester interurban. In this century it was tracked on its other end from the Crossing to Egleston, where it switched to Tremont.
Thus this boulevard was a grand visual link. The Boston 200 Plaque at 405 Columbus Avenue today, mentions and pictures the Centennial of American Independence Parade along it on June 17, 1875.
In this writer’s memory is a motorcade for General Douglas MacArthur in 1951 after he had been dismissed from his command in the Korean War by President Truman, his commander-in-chief.
In the 1940s this writer remembers Columbus Avenue paved with cobblestones with no blacktop, as indeed were many streets even downtown. Occasionally a spur from the nearby railroad crossed the street. This start-of-the-century atmosphere was caught at the avenue’s corner with Appleton Street in the South End in the American Impressionist Childe Hassam’s 1885 painting “Rainy Day in Boston” (now in Toledo, Ohio, and often reproduced). It is the Boston equivalent of a similar cityscape in a rainy Paris done eight years earlier.
Hassam’s misty portrait with its background of bow-front brick homes with mansard roofs is much the same today. Originally developed as a trendy alternative to Beacon Hill after the Civil War as the Back Bay was filled in, the buildings were left high and dry of their original intent due to postwar financial panic and the changing demographics of an increasingly industrialized Boston and Roxbury. The homes were soon cut up internally into rooming houses and in our time have finally achieved their original purpose in housing people. Their exteriors are now intact and restored.
South of Massachusetts Avenue our boulevard lost its residential look that has been retained in nearly all the surrounding streets in the South End. Columbus Avenue headed into Roxbury and Roxbury Crossing, the center of Boston’s brewing empire until the mid-20th century. Abandoning its straight line from Park Plaza, it angled to join Washington Street, Roxbury’s main commercial artery, and the elevated Orange Line at Egleston Square.
The idea of bringing Interstate Route 95 through the city along the railroad tracks in the Stony Brook Valley in the late 1960’s brought massive demolition on both sides of the avenue up to Massachusetts Avenue, where “less desirable” buildings were removed. Although the project was killed due to local opposition, the demolition created an urban desert for years before the Orange Line and Southeast Corridor Park projects lessened the effect. The ravage is still easily seen today.
In the 1980’s construction of the Orange Line - which grafted the old elevated line to the ancient railroad bed south - the avenue’s grandiose symmetry was cut between Ruggles Street and Roxbury Crossing. That section was obliterated, and now Columbus Avenue exists in two unconnected sections off Tremont Street.
Since the residential section north of Massachusetts Avenue is intact and stable, perhaps it is time to re-affirm the Columbus link and the ethnicity of the city’s people by treating Columbus Avenue as New York City transformed its 6th Avenue into the Avenue of the Americas. Let each intersection of that part of the avenue be signed with the arms and flag of a country that Columbus visited in his four voyages to American between 1492 to 1502. There are just enough intersections to match the number of such countries!
By Walter H. Marx.
A Concise Guide to the Streets of JP, JPHS; Boston 200 Neighborhood Booklets series; S.E. Morison, Christopher Columbus, Mariner. Reprinted with permission from the October 9, 1992 Jamaica Plain Gazette. Copyright © Gazette Publications, Inc.