Bromley Park: The Withering of a Garden Square

In 1871 John Amory Lowell transformed his influential family’s Roxbury, Massachusetts, estate, Bromley Vale, into a groundbreaking garden square residential development named Bromley Park. Though demolished in 1953 to make way for the city-owned Bromley-Heath housing complex in Jamaica Plain, Bromley Park stood for nearly eighty years as a powerful and fascinating example of how nature and dense private housing could be interwoven in urban design. Several blocks of brick townhouses surrounded more than twenty thousand square feet of green space.

Bromley Park was intended to accommodate six blocks of small townhouses surrounding a common garden area. Planned by John Amory Lowell and built between 1871 and 1873, the design sought to integrate natural, open spaces with dense urban housing. Map from the 1895 Atlas of the City of Boston, Boston proper and Roxbury by G.W. Bromley & Co. Courtesy of The David Rumsey Map Collection.

Bromley Park was intended to accommodate six blocks of small townhouses surrounding a common garden area. Planned by John Amory Lowell and built between 1871 and 1873, the design sought to integrate natural, open spaces with dense urban housing. Map from the 1895 Atlas of the City of Boston, Boston proper and Roxbury by G.W. Bromley & Co. Courtesy of The David Rumsey Map Collection.

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Shady trees, expansive lawns, and wrought iron fences graced the three common areas, which provided a naturalistic oasis for the middle- and working-class immigrant Bromley Park community. This largely forgotten garden square illuminates how Lowell’s desire to provide residents with an experience of nature intersected with the need for adequate housing in an evolving industrial city.

After Old Colony Railroad expanded its tracks through Bromley Vale in 1870, Lowell decided to move from his estate in the industrializing neighborhood to a new estate in Brookline named Sevenells. In determining how to subdivide Bromley Vale, Lowell turned to an urban design form that he knew well from his extensive travels abroad. Garden squares originally developed in London in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Consisting of lush gardens bordered by closely spaced but architecturally refined townhouses, London garden squares constituted peaceful bastions of privilege and wealth separated from the city’s chaotic mix of residents of different classes.

Historical examples in Boston originated with Charles Bulfinch, whose 1793 Tontine Crescent located just south of the Boston Common consisted of a semicircular row of townhouses surrounding a small garden plot. During the mid-nineteenth century builders created similar developments in Boston, including Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square and the South End’s Worcester, Chester, and Union squares. Lowell himself once lived in a now-lost garden square called Pemberton Square. These garden squares joined Boston’s other renowned nineteenth-century public park projects, such as the Public Garden and Emerald Necklace, in demonstrating a new appreciation for creating green spaces to uplift residents and reform the urban environment.

Bromley Park never housed Boston’s elite. With this real estate venture, Lowell designed a much larger and denser version of the garden square that reflected the neighborhood’s transformation from a rural hinterland to a busy residential and industrial zone. Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, once pastoral agricultural towns that supplied Boston with produce, had attracted wealthy families like the Lowells who established estates there in the early to mid-nineteenth century showcasing some of the finest landscape gardening and horticultural practice of the day.

By the early 1870s these bucolic paradises yielded to the pressures of urbanization and industrialization with breweries, tanneries, chemical works, and myriad other industries built along the nearby Stony Brook. Expanded mass transportation routes leading out of Boston drew diverse groups of middle- and lower-middle class white- and blue-collar workers to the area. Other working class residents used the emerging streetcar system to escape the overcrowded and dilapidated downtown tenements.

Lowell, a leader of the Boston Associates textile mill owners, had helped to design the cities of Lowell and Lawrence north of Boston, and had ample experience in shaping industrial and residential growth through architecture and planning. Furthermore, through his philanthropic activities, Lowell was well acquainted with the working-class housing developments in London designed by English reformer Octavia Hill. These progressive residential designs challenged often unsanitary and congested living conditions by constructing model tenements that provided open space, fresh air, and natural light. At Bromley Park, Lowell combined the garden square with a novel approach to philanthropic housing for the working class.

The fluctuating demographics and occupancy rate of Bromley Park provide a vivid snapshot of social change. In 1880, English immigrant Samuel Miller rented 21 Bromley Park and lived there with his wife and a Nova Scotian housekeeper. Miller had a white collar job with the Industrial Aid Society, a poverty prevention organization. Sixty-one people lived in the block of nine townhouses the Millers called home and except for one Irishman, all the residents were born in New England, Nova Scotia, or England. They worked in a range of occupations such as lawyers, machinists, traders, store clerks, and streetcar operators.

When the Thomas Plant Shoe Company set up shop next to Bromley Park in 1899 the makeup of residents changed considerably. Initially a modest operation, the factory expanded quickly. By 1915, it encompassed an area nearly equivalent to all of Bromley Park. Before the expansion, Bromley Park’s green spaces afforded a bit of tranquility within the city; after the expansion the din of machines and reek of leather pervaded the neighborhood.

The introduction and expansion of the Thomas Plant Shoe Company altered Bromley Park’s social and architectural character. Although the garden square had always housed people from a range of backgrounds, the massive shoe factory established Bromley Park as a working-class neighborhood. Scanned image of postcard from Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives.

The introduction and expansion of the Thomas Plant Shoe Company altered Bromley Park’s social and architectural character. Although the garden square had always housed people from a range of backgrounds, the massive shoe factory established Bromley Park as a working-class neighborhood. Scanned image of postcard from Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives.

By 1900 the number of residents in Miller’s home had increased from three to eighteen people. John Canavan, a forty-year-old Irish painter, his wife, and their seven children shared the small house with nine lodgers, eight of whom worked for the shoe company. By 1910 the nine houses along this block held a total of ninety-three residents. First- and second-generation Irish and German immigrants predominated, though Englishmen, Canadians, Russians, and Armenians joined them. Despite Bromley Park’s growing density, its central green spaces continued to serve as a common area in which to hold neighborhood gatherings and festivals. 

Bromley Park’s urban square and townhouses contrasted sharply with the three-deckers, freestanding wood-frame houses, and small private yards that were the norm in the dense suburbs of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. By 1950, many of the park’s townhouses had fallen into disrepair, neglected by absentee landlords. While some residents did own and renovate their units, the City of Boston designated the neighborhood blighted and proceeded to demolish Bromley Park and several adjacent blocks as part of midcentury urban renewal efforts. The Bromley-Heath public housing development rose from the rubble. 

John Amory Lowell envisioned Bromley Park as a philanthropic architectural strategy to improve housing options and integrate nature into Boston’s urban landscape. While the city’s larger urban parks and reservations have been well studied and justly celebrated, more modest attempts, such as Lowell’s, to find a balance between residential density and open space, merit a closer look. Bromley Park may no longer exist, but its rise and fall offer a compelling illustration of the social and economic change that accompanied Boston’s dynamic growth and influenced both the natural and man-made landscape of the city. 

“The Withering of a Garden Square,” by Aaron Ahlstrom, Ph.D. student, Boston University, American and New England Studies. Historic New England Magazine, Fall, 2016. Used courtesy of Historic New England.

Production assistance provided by Jean MacDonald.