Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Birds of Passage

Longfellow House. Built in 1759 for Colonel John Vassall, merchant and loyalist, this is one of seven colonial era mansions built along the old road to Watertown in Cambridge that have come to be known as ‘Tory Row.’ Vassall, and virtually all of the owners of these estates in 1775, were forced to flee their houses to the ‘safety’ of occupied Boston, and subsequently left the Boston area for good with the evacuation of British troops on March 17, 1776. The house became the headquarters of George Washington after his arrival to take command of the nascent Continental Army in July of 1775. However, the house is today known primarily as the residence of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Excellent tours of the property are run by the National Park Service. All photographs in these entries were taken by me unless otherwise indicated.

“…And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight…”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,

from Birds of Passage, 1858.

 

The old ‘Watertown Path’ of 1630 is today known as Brattle Street, as stated on the street sign in the photograph below. This ancient road is one of the earliest roads by which travelers journeyed to inland points of Massachusetts as well as to the other colonies recently established in America by migrants from Britain. It takes its modern name from the Brattle family, a once prominent family, whose most famous member, Major-general William Brattle, built a mansion in 1727, which still stands on land he purchased along this road. Brattle, reputedly one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts at the time, was forced to flee his estate in late 1774, and died in Halifax, Nova Scotia, less than two years later, a casualty of the conflict in and around Boston that ultimately became the American Revolution.

Brattle’s estate was not the only one affected by the events of 1774-1776. In total, seven impressive mansions were built on contiguous estates along this road in the years preceding the outbreak of hostilities between the crown and many of its subjects in the American colonies, extending along the length of the original road in Cambridge all the way to the Watertown border. Remarkably, all the houses survive today, although one has been moved a short distance from its original location and substantially altered. However, at the conclusion of hostilities in 1783 only one of the properties, that of Judge Joseph Lee, saw the return of the occupants prior to the Revolution, while General Brattle’s estate was ultimately passed on to his son only after years of acrimonious legal dispute. Almost all the families in these seven mansions were connected to each other by marriage in some way, all were loyal to the Crown as the Revolution approached, almost all of them were forced into exile, and thus the entire street has taken on a third sobriquet, ‘Tory Row’, a reflection of the political affiliations of those families residing along the Watertown path on the eve of the American Revolution.

Detail of Map of Boston Area showing Cambridge and the ‘Road to Watertown’ by Henry Pelham in 1775/6 and published in London in 1777. Note that five of the seven ‘Tory Row’ estates are labelled; the remaining two estates (Henry Vassall, directly across the road from John Vassall’s estate, and William Brattle, the house below the ‘C’ in ‘Church’ in the center of the map) are shown on the map but are presumably too close to Harvard Square for their names to be added to the map. Incidentally, Henry Pelham was a Boston artist, engraver, and cartographer as well as half-brother to painter John Singleton Copley. A loyalist, Pelham was in the group who left Boston in 1776. Original map from Leventhal Map Collection, Boston Public Library.

 

 

Today there are many more than the original seven houses along Brattle Street and yet the general effect is still one of genteel elegance, perhaps unsurprising considering the proximity of the area to the Harvard campus. The sole exception is the short stretch of Brattle Street extending from Brattle Square almost as far as Mason Street, an area that is today primarily part of either Harvard University or the commercial center of Harvard Square. The junction of Brattle and Mason represents the merging into one road of the two major routes from Boston west to Watertown and beyond: Mason Street represents the final stretch of the old road from Charlestown, while Brattle Street is the final stage of the road leading along Boston Neck, through Roxbury, Brookline and Allston, crossing into Cambridge at the bridge over the Charles River, a subject discussed in many of my previous entries.

There is a remarkable diversity of architecture as well as a marked transition in the mere five hundred yard walk along Brattle Street from Brattle Square to Mason Street, from the inauspicious beginning at one Brattle Square, a modern functional yet dull commercial building, to the leafy and tranquil neighborhood full of lovely houses and churches. Indeed, the first building after one Brattle Square is Brattle Hall, built in 1891 by the Architects Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow, for the Cambridge Social Union. Today the building is occupied by the Brattle Theatre, which I discussed in my most recent entry, as well as by a restaurant, Alden and Harlow (why not Longfellow?), in the space formerly occupied by Casablanca and the Cafe Algiers (also discussed in the last entry). The Cambridge Social Union occupied the adjacent building at #42 Brattle Street as well, the first of the Tory Row mansions, William Brattle’s house of 1727.

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#1 of the ‘Tory Row’ estates: William Brattle House, 42 Brattle Street. Built in 1727 by wealthy merchant William Brattle, for whose family the street is named. Brattle was Major-general of the Provincial Militia in 1774 and was subsequently forced to flee to Boston for protection. Today the house is occupied by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Some of the original detail is still visible if you wander in for a look around.

The Brattle family had a long association with Boston and Cambridge prior to the events of 1774-1776, as evidenced by the fact that there is a Brattle Street in both Boston and Cambridge.  Thomas Brattle (1623-1683) lived in Boston and one son Thomas (1658-1713) was a principal founder of the Brattle Street Church in Boston, while another, William (1662-1716), was minister of the First Church of Cambridge from 1696 until his death.

Minister William Brattle’s son William (1706-1776) had the mansion built in 1727. The younger William Brattle, as the principal male heir of the third generation of a family of means in Massachusetts, inherited a substantial sum of money upon the death of his father in 1716. Upon coming into the sizeable Brattle estate at the age of 21 in 1727, William Brattle undertook to build the mansion that remains still on the street that now bears the family name. Brattle for decades served in prominent political positions; as early as 1729 he served as both a town selectman in Cambridge and as a representative in the General Court (what we would today call a state representative). Later he would serve on the Governor’s Council during the last two decades of royal rule. Simultaneously, Brattle made his way through the ranks of the Massachusetts Militia: a major in 1728 (at the age of 22, surely a merit-based promotion!), Colonel in 1739, Adjutant-general in 1758, Brigadier-general in 1760, and finally, Major-general in 1771. According to one author, he was the wealthiest man in the Commonwealth at the time, although the author in question, James Henry Stark, made this comment in a book about Loyalists which had nary a negative thing to say about most of the ‘Tories’, Brattle included, except that the poor man was hounded out of Massachusetts.

The picture of Brattle becomes somewhat cloudier upon closer examination of the documents and facts related to his life. The most interesting period of Brattle’s life to me is the period from about 1769 until his flight to Halifax in 1776. Brattle served on the Governor’s Council from 1755-1773 with the exception of 1770, when he was ‘negatived’ by the Governor, presumably for his position as an advocate for popular rights. As Lucius Paige puts it in his History of Cambridge (1877, pp. 500-1) “But soon afterwards he received new light concerning the matter in dispute between the provinces and Great Britain, and was allowed to resume his seat on the Council….and from this time the Government had not a more devoted servant.”

From this point on, Brattle was clearly seen as an ally of the crown, referred to by John Adams as the ‘deputy serpent’ to the ‘vile serpent’ Governor Thomas Hutchinson. His position was further complicated by his role in the Powder House Alarm of 1774, when it was widely believed that he had been responsible for the forcible removal by British troops of the Gunpowder stores in a magazine in what is now Somerville. As a direct result of this action he was ‘persuaded’ to flee to the relative safety of Boston, where the bulk of British troops were stationed. When British soldiers evacuated Boston in March, 1776, Brattle accompanied the fleeing troops, for which he received a final cutting farewell from his critics in Boston, some of whom referred to him as ‘Brigadier Paunch’: “he was always allowed to have a talent for running away.” (from an article in New England Chronicle May 1776, quoted in Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, volume 7, p. 23).

William Brattle, by John Singleton Copley. Painted around 1756, this portrait of Brattle indicates clearly his wealth, status, and appetite. Twenty years on, Brattle died in Halifax after being forced to flee Boston during the American Revolution. Image reproduction courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums.

Ultimately his property in Cambridge and elsewhere (in Boston as well as in Brattleboro, Vermont, which is named for the family which once owned most of the land on which the town now sits) was seized. During the Revolutionary War, the Brattle mansion in Cambridge was converted into the Headquarters of the Commissary General of the Continental Army, Thomas Mifflin. After the cessation of hostilities, Thomas Brattle, the son of William Brattle, managed to recover the house in Cambridge, apparently through a combination of lobbying by his sister who had remained in Massachusetts during the war, and his reputed efforts to aid American prisoners of war in England, where he had ‘found himself’ when the Revolutionary War broke out. Brattle was a ‘bachelor’ who never married and died as the last male in the Brattle line.

Margaret Fuller briefly lived in the house in 1833 when it was owned by an uncle, but by 1870 the house had been purchased by the Cambridge Social Union, an organization whose mission included “providing a means of social and intellectual improvement”. In 1938 the Union merged with the Boston Center for Adult Education and by 1941 became the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which maintains its offices in Brattle’s mansion to this day.

In many ways the story of William Brattle, the first of the ‘Tory Row’ loyalists is an anomaly relative to the other members of this august set. As we shall see, many of the others residents of Tory Row were relatively recent arrivals in Massachusetts, principally from the Caribbean, where they also had large holdings, naturally including many slaves. The Brattle family, on the other hand, had resided in Boston since at least the mid-seventeenth century.  Most of the other members of Tory Row were members of the Anglican, or Episcopalian church, whereas the Brattle family were prominent members of the Puritan ‘aristocracy’; indeed William Brattle’s father was the minister of the First Church in Cambridge.

It appears that Brattle saw his future as linked to that of his other wealthy neighbors; at least one source (Edward Abbot, author of the chapter on Cambridge in Samuel Drake’s History of Middlesex County, p. 338) suggests he began attending services at the newly established (1759) Christ Church on Cambridge Common. After the war broke out, virtually the entire congregation fled Boston during the evacuation. Sadly, it seems Brattle’s ambition was stronger than his fealty to his local roots. By putting all his chips on the Crown, Brattle ultimately was forced to leave his comfortable life as the scion of local elites, and all that remains is the mansion on the street named for him and his family. One wonders what his legacy would have been had he remained an ‘advocate of popular rights’.

*****

The next building along Brattle Street at number 48, the Design Research Building (1969) could not be more different from the eighteenth century mansion next door. This oversized concrete fortress with protruding glass watch towers is purportedly a building “of enduring architectural significance” which might just mean that people still build shit like this in the misguided belief that people actually like it. Personally, to me it looks like an alien transport crash-landed here and the aliens inside are busy plotting the takeover of Planet Earth. Apparently the building was designed by an architect named Benjamin Thompson (Faneuil Hall Marketplace, South Street Seaport and other tacky attempts at commercializing the history and culture of old cities) to house his reputedly influential modern design and furniture store Design Research (D/R). I would devote more time to it as it is apparently an influential building but it is supremely ugly and I hate it, so…moving on…

Dexter Pratt House (1808). Air-conditioning for the village blacksmith!

On the right hand side of the street heading out of Harvard Square are a series of buildings occupied by various outposts of Harvard: The Department of Continuing Education is ensconced in what looks like an early twentieth century apartment building, the Gutman center is another of the type of buildings architects gush over (but is really just a sister ship of the alien invaders across the street, don’t let them fool you), Radcliffe (formerly College, now Institute, part of Harvard) takes up various buildings of different periods and styles, and lastly we pass some Harvard dormitories.  Harvard just keeps spreading like a crimson stain across the landscape…

Meanwhile, on the left hand side of Brattle Street we pass one or two red brick commercial buildings of the type of modest scale more suited to human beings, in the middle of which sits the delicate and charming Blacksmith House, also known as the Dexter Pratt House (1808), a second outpost of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE). In my younger days this was a cafe, and before that was, according to the website of the CCAE  “The Window Shop, a Cambridge citizens’ organization that assisted European refugees with training, counseling, and employment. It offered people fleeing from Hitler good jobs in its clothing and crafts shop, tea room/bakery known for its Viennese pastries, and restaurant that became a gathering place for Europeans, including architect Walter Gropius. The Window Shop also hired African Americans, one of the few businesses in Cambridge to do so in the early 1940s.”

Brattle Arms Apartments. Raymond Chandler or Dorothy B. Hughes would feel at home here.

It was here that Dexter Pratt, the real-life ‘Village Blacksmith’ of Longfellow’s poem practiced his trade ‘under the spreading chestnut tree’. Alas, in 1870, in another victory for transience over endurance, the symbolic deep-rooted tree was uprooted and felled when Brattle Street was widened. A chair produced from wood from the tree was presented to Longfellow by the children of Cambridge and can be seen today in the study of Longfellow’s house, one of the Tory Row mansions a little further down Brattle Street.

Loeb Center, home of the American Repertory Theater. Not my favorite building, but at least it is low, relatively unobtrusive, and serves a useful purpose. Still, possibly another alien ship waiting for the right moment…

After passing the red brick Brattle Arms apartment building, with its cool neon sign over the entrance, we reach the Loeb Center (1960), home of the well-known and influential American Repertory Theater (ART). Interestingly, although the ART was founded in part to improve Harvard’s theatrical program, an earlier offer of a donation to establish a theater at Harvard was rejected and the donation instead was given to Yale, which used it to establish the Yale School of Drama. Ahhh, sibling rivalries…

The next house on Brattle Street is the elegant Greenleaf House (1859) at number 76, which is the residence of the dean of Radcliffe, followed by another more modern Radcliffe building. Across Brattle Street, near the intersection with Mason Street, we enter the ‘Old Cambridge Historic District’ and the houses are primarily residential from here on. The house on the corner dates to c. 1847 and, although hemmed in by the angled corner of Mason and Brattle Streets, is one of my favorite residences along this street of elegant and distinctive houses.

One of the houses on Brattle Street that is NOT a part of Tory Row, this house from c.1847 is one of my favorites. Despite being set in a quirky and cramped lot in a fairly busy location, the house still exudes a sense of genteel elegance, yet to be restored like so many other poor waifs along the road which have been ruined ‘renovated’ by the barbarians at the gates.

At Mason Street, the road from Charlestown meets the road from the ‘Neck’ and the two roads continue out of Boston and Cambridge along today’s Brattle Street. Incidentally, Old Cambridge, what we think of today as Harvard Square, was originally surrounded by a palisade, which ended at roughly the junction of Mason, Ash, and Brattle Streets: in other words, the gate out of the town of Cambridge would have been located roughly at this spot in the seventeenth century.

*****

It is the remaining stretch of Brattle Street that truly puts the ‘Tory’ in Tory Row. As mentioned earlier, many of the landowners along this stretch were also prominent Episcopalians. At least four of the remaining six families were original petitioners to have an Episcopal church built in Cambridge and, in 1759, they succeeded in bringing the first ‘non-Puritan’ church to Cambridge. Christ Church still exists, a mere 400 yards away from this spot, turning right down Mason Street and then right again at the Common a few yards to the right on Garden Street. John Vassall (#105 Brattle), Joseph Lee (#159 Brattle), Jonathan Sewall  (as well Richard Lechmere, the owner, until 1771, and builder of what is today #149 Brattle Street), and Thomas Oliver (#33 Elmwood), the owners of four of the six houses along this stretch of Tory Row in the 1770s, all variously served as wardens of Christ Church in the decade preceding the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 (Paige, 310).

I am certainly not the first person to bring this up, but it seems clear to me that religious affiliation was also a political statement in Boston in the mid-eighteenth century.  Lucius Paige, in his History of Cambridge gives a concise account of the fate of the Church after 1774: ” The congregation had almost entirely dispersed at the beginning of the war. Of all the persons who took part in its concerns, including the sixty-eight original subscribers for the building (several of whom, however, were of Boston), and twenty original purchasers of pews, not a name appears on the records after the Revolution but those of John Pigeon, Esq., and Judge Joseph Lee. The former espoused the patriotic side ; the latter was a loyalist, but being a quiet man and moderate in his opinions, remained unmolested.” (Paige, 308) Virtually the entire congregation was forced to flee by late 1774, and the church did not reopen fully for services until 1790.

By 1900, however, with the increase in the number of immigrants of different (meaning principally Catholic) religion and ethnicity and the rise of working-class political awareness, there seemed to arise in the refined air of academic circles a nostalgia for all things English, and thus the Episcopal church again became fashionable in Cambridge. Indeed, many of the sources of that period seem to wish the whole ‘unpleasantness’ of 1776 had never happened. As I mentioned earlier, James Henry Stark, in 1907, published an entire book entitled The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution, in which he literally calls John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock thieves and liars in the first paragraph while praising the gentle yoke of English rule. One wonders what tome might have been put forth by Stark in today’s climate: Why White Male Wealthy Christians are Better than Everybody Else? How Democracy Ruined America For White Men. I digress.

***

With the exception of the bucolic campus of the former Episcopal Divinity School just ahead across Mason Street (which recently merged with Union Theological Seminary and decamped to New York), now in the complicated throes of a potential sale of the property partly occupied by Leslie University, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) a little further down on the south side of Brattle Street, the remaining buildings on the route are principally residential, even if a few are still connected to institutions as we shall see. And what residences these are! Such a varied collection of the best of eighteenth and nineteenth century American architectural prowess is unlikely to be matched anywhere in the country. First up at 90 Brattle Street (1883), one of the earliest and finest examples of the Shingle Style Architecture, designed by none other than H.H. Richardson, one of my favorite architects. There are many, many other examples of fine Victorian-era architecture in this neighborhood and this ground has been covered by many others (The Blue Guide to Boston and Cambridge is particularly good on this topic). Much as I would love to stop and write about every building along this stretch, I need to focus on what specifically is of interest to me along this road, the traces of the past that date from the colonial era. Even here there is an overwhelming amount of material to examine; specifically, there are still six more of the ‘Tory Row’ mansions to pass in the next three quarters of a mile.

#2 Of Tory Row Houses: Henry Vassall House (1746) at 94 Brattle Street in Spring, when the lilacs are in bloom. The building served as Army Medical Headquarters when Washington commanded the Continental Army from across the street.

Henry Vassall House in Winter, when the view of the house is more visible but not as charming. As the ‘Surgeon General’ of the Continental Army, Dr. Benjamin Church presided over the Medical Corps here until caught sending correspondence to General Gage, for which he was arrested, tried, and banished.

Although it is possible for me to empathize with the plight of William Brattle, who after all made a conscious choice to pursue a particular lifestyle and gambled on the wrong side, I find myself less capable of putting myself in the shoes of the remaining ‘Tory’ landowners along this road. Take the next house along Tory Row at number 94 Brattle Street, built in 1746 for Colonel Henry Vassall. Though no less interesting than Brattle, Vassall and the plight of his family leave me cold. In part this stems from the late arrival of the Vassall family to Massachusetts, as part of a general exodus north of landowners from the Caribbean (although they held on to their lands in Jamaica and Antigua). Leonard Vassall, the patriarch, moved to Boston from Jamaica in the 1720s. The owner of large sugar plantations, the wealthy Vassall became a prominent member of Old North Church (Pews #10 and 11). Upon Vassall’s death his son, Colonel John Vassall inherited a substantial sum of money. John seemed to go on a real estate bender, buying almost ALL of the property between the Watertown Road (Brattle Street), and the Charles River, from the Mason Street junction to the Watertown line. He sold some of this land to his brother Henry in 1741, on which the house stands today.

The issue of slavery is what keeps me from feeling sorry for the plight of many of the families of Tory Row. The Vassall family had large estates in Jamaica and Antigua, from whence came their large fortunes. These plantations were worked by large populations of slaves, whose forced labor paid for the real estate spree in Massachusetts.  Henry Vassall’s wife Penelope was the daughter of Isaac Royall, another owner of large plantations in the Caribbean. The Royall family estate, which one can visit nearby in Medford, is the only house with extant slaves quarters in the northern United States. The legacy of the Royall family has been a source of controversy in recent years, as a bequest of Isaac Royall, Jr. was instrumental in the establishment of Harvard Law School, the school seal of which, until recently, bore the seal of the Royall family.

Henry Vassall’s nephew John, who lived across the street as we shall shortly see, married Elizabeth Oliver, the daughter of Robert Oliver and Ann (neé Royall), while Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Oliver, Elizabeth’s brother, who resided in Elmwood, the seventh and last of the Tory Row mansions, married John Vassall’s sister Elizabeth. So, Henry Vassall’s niece and nephew John and Elizabeth married his wife Penelope’s (neé Royall) niece and nephew Thomas and Elizabeth. Too close for comfort!

The blood ties extend to the remaining families on Tory Row. Susanna, sister of Henry and John (the ‘elder’) Vassall, married Captain George Ruggles, and they built the sixth of the seven mansions on Tory Row (#175 Brattle Street today).  John Vassall (Henry’s brother, again the older John) married Elizabeth (neé Phips), who was sister to the wives of Judge Joseph Lee and of Richard Lechmere, the families who built the fourth and the fifth of the seven Tory Row mansions. Thus, there was a direct familial link between all of the families in the six remaining houses (#2-7) on Tory Row. That was all very clear, yes? ( for more on this complicated family tree, see Paige, History of Cambridge, 169; and Vassall and his descendants, by one of them. The ‘one of them’ might be Samuel Batchelder, a later occupant of the Henry Vassall house; in any event, the copy I consulted belonged to Samuel Batchelder, who signed it.)

The upshot is that all of the money that built these grand houses came from the labor of slaves in British-controlled islands in the Caribbean, which goes a long way to explaining their loyalty to the crown.

Colonel Henry Vassall was born in Jamaica in 1721, where he appears to have lived until the age of twenty, when he moved to Boston where his father and his brother John had already relocated. He died at the relatively young age of 48, in Cambridge in 1769  and  was buried in a vault in Christ Church, of which he was a prominent member. Vassell is mentioned frequently in James Birket’s diary of his journey through the colonies of 1750 Some Cursory Remarks. Birket, a merchant, hailed from Antigua, and was likely connected to Vassell through commercial interests in Antigua. Regardless of the nature of their acquaintance, Birket spent a great deal of time with Henry Vassell. One entry for instance, dated September 7, 1750 records that he “Dined with Jacob Ryall (Royall) Esquire in company with Henry Vassels and in the evening went with said Vassels to Cambridge in his chase being 8 miles the land way but over Charlestown ferry tis only recon’d 4 miles,” and “Returned from Cambridge to Boston in Henry Vassel’s Chase by way of Charlestown were we crossed the ferry and dined with Captain Combes” the next day. Vassell and his wife Penelope, as well as other members of the Tory Row set accompanied Birket as far as Newport upon his departure for Rhode Island later that month. Birket also dined with other members of what would become the Tory Row families, the Phips’, the Olivers, the Royalls, etc.; At the time of Birket’s visit however, only the houses of William Brattle, Henry Vassell, and Joseph Lee, a little further on, had been built on Tory Row.

Although Penelope Vassall left with the other loyalists in 1776, living for a time in Antigua, she apparently returned at a later date and died in Boston in 1800 at the age of 76. She is buried in the vault with her husband Henry Vassall. Whether she lived again in the house on Brattle Street is not clear to me.

#3 of the Tory Row Houses: Vassall-Craigie-Longfellow House at 105 Brattle Street (1759, see above for a photo of the house). View south from the steps of Longfellow House across Brattle Street towards the Charles River. The house was built in 1759 for John Vassall, who owned, in addition to 7 acres on the north side of the road on which the house sits, all the land south of Brattle Street stretching all the way to the river and west all the way to the Watertown line, as well as another 30 acres on the Brighton side of the river. Hence, on Pelham’s map of 1777 above, notice that there are no properties south of the Watertown Road west of the mansion of Henry Vassall’s widow (the unlabelled box south of the road, just below ‘Col Vassall’).

Colonel John Vassall, the aforementioned ‘older’ John who sold the land on which his brother Henry built his house, also purchased land on the north side of Brattle Street. Most of this property was eventually conveyed to his son John, who was a child of nine when his father died young (like his brother Henry), at the age of 34, in 1747. Upon turning twenty one, John immediately took after his father and bought many more acres of real estate in Cambridge, Boston, Dorchester, and many other places in Massachusetts and beyond. On the property on the north side of Brattle Street, John Vassall built the house at number 105, the most famous of all the splendid Tory Row mansions. It was here that George Washington resided upon taking command of the forces newly subsumed under the name the Continental Army. This is one place one can categorically say ‘Washington Slept Here’! The Vassall family on both sides of Brattle Street had already taken refuge in their properties in Boston and were soon to depart for Halifax and eventually for England.

After the war the house was sold to Andrew Craigie, who had served as Apothecary general during the war. Craigie was a slightly disreputable speculator and made a substantial fortune buying and selling real estate. His most notable contribution to the history of Cambridge and Boston was his secretive purchase of much of the land around Lechmere’s Point in what is now East Cambridge. Subsequently he managed to have a bridge built across the river, the successor of which is the site of the Museum of Science. As a result of the increased traffic over the newly built bridge, East Cambridge developed rapidly, particularly after Craigie convinced the county to remove the courthouse to the area. East Cambridge, much closer to burgeoning Boston and easy to reach with the new bridge, quickly grew to become the most populated part of Cambridge, and the area around Harvard became ‘Old’ Cambridge. On a positive note, this probably led to the preservation of most of the important historical monuments that have survived down to the present day.

Craigie’s luck ran out later in his life and, after his death, his wife was forced to take in lodgers to pay the bills. One of these lodgers was a young Harvard professor named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who, after marrying Fanny Appleton, the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer, received the house as a wedding present in 1843. His newly acquired wealth allowed him to quit his day job and devote himself to writing and, in a short time, he became America’s most popular poet.

*****

Understandably, given that the Vassall family were extremely wealthy and had purchased such a large amount of land around the road to Watertown, the next of the mansions of Tory Row is a bit of a walk, a third of a mile to be precise. Along the way on the right, is an Armenian church, plunked down somewhat anomalously in this otherwise ‘Brahmin’ neighborhood. It’s genesis and location will become more comprehensible in the next entry of this series. There is also a succession of exceptional houses built in the nineteenth century, all likely worthy of some comment but alas…

 

The fourth of the seven mansions of ‘Tory Row’ is this house once located at the corner of Sparks and Brattle Street but removed slightly down the road to number 149 Brattle in the 1880s and extensively remodelled.The original house was built in 1761 by Richard Lechmere, whose name is attached to the area of East Cambridge where Lechmere station is located.

The next of the houses of Tory Row is the house at number 149 Brattle Street, the sole house with substantial modifications since its original construction. The original house, built in 1761 by Richard Lechmere, was located at what is now 145 Brattle Street, but was moved in the 1880s by William Brewster, a renowned ornithologist, who built a new house on the site. The house had already been jacked up a story and had a new story built underneath in 1869. Further alterations occurred in 1886 when the top story was removed. What is left is still a pleasant house to look at, but what is original to the house is unclear to me.

Lechmere, another of the wealthy landowners linked by family connections and owner by marriage of most of what is today East Cambridge, sold the house in 1771 to Judge Jonathan Sewall, the last Attorney-general under the Crown. Both Lechmere and Sewall served as wardens of Christ Church, both were forced to flee in 1776, neither returned.

William Brewster, the man who had the house moved, is a well-known figure in birding circles (of which I consider myself a part). A noted ornithologist, Brewster co-founded both the Nuttall Ornithological Club, an early organization for serious birders (those of us who are hobbyists refrain from using the word birdwatcher, although I personally think the term is fine), and the American Ornithological Union (AOU, now the American Ornithological Society, AOS), the organization that, among other things, maintains the current Checklist of the Birds of North America. The annual William Brewster Award is given by the AOS to a person who has published an important body of ornithological research. Brewster was also the curator of the bird collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, a collection in large part created by Brewster himself, and one that is still fascinating to visit, as I have on multiple occasions.

Photo taken from The Auk the journal of the American Ornithological Union (now Society), William Brewster Memorial issue, January 1920.

Cambridge and Massachusetts in general has always been an important center for birders and for ornithological research. Mount Auburn Cemetery, which we shall pass shortly along this walk, has been famous for over a century as a prime location for finding warblers during migration. Harvard is obviously an important factor in this cluster of birding expertise, but is not the only source of birders and birding knowledge: David Sibley, the author of the most well-regarded field guide to birds of North America, lives in Concord, just down the road from Cambridge, a place Webster spent a great deal of time in his pursuit of birds.

Brattle Street itself is a decent place for birding, and as I walk along one spring afternoon, I see and hear numerous species of migrating warblers, as well as the usual assortment of chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, jays, robins, cardinals, sparrows, doves, finches, and crows. A list from this walk yields 23 species, not a bad haul for an activity that is not my primary task.

The fifth of the seven houses of Tory Row, The Hooper-Lee-Nichols House at #159 Brattle Street. Parts of the building date to 1685 and the building today is the home of the Cambridge Historical Society.

Judge Joseph Lee, another of the loyalists with connections to the others on Tory Row, lived in the next of the mansions along the row at #159. The house itself, now the home of the Cambridge Historical Society, was built around 1685, but drastically expanded and renovated in the 1730s. Thus the house has some claim as one of the oldest extant houses in Cambridge. Lee also has the distinction of being the only one of the active members of the Tory ruling class to be allowed to remain, as mentioned above, owing to his ‘moderate’ views.

the sixth of the Tory Row estates is the Ruggles-Fayerweather House at #175 Brattle Street. Built in 1764.

The penultimate estate on Tory Row was built in 1764 for George Ruggles, a Jamaican planter. Immediately prior to the revolution it was sold to Thomas Fayerweather, who remained throughout the revolution and allowed it to be used as a hospital after the battle of Bunker Hill.  Ruggles presumably returned to Jamaica, although little is known of his life after Cambridge.

Immediately beyond the Fayerweather estate the map above shows the old road to Watertown taking a sharp curve towards the Charles River. However, it is obvious that Brattle Street continues directly ahead as I walk. The source of this confusion is that the original road did curve at this spot and is today called Elmwood Avenue after the final mansion along Tory Row. Only at a later date (1812) was an extension to Brattle Street laid out that linked it directly to today’s Mount Auburn Street.

The Brattle Street extension is an interesting story, particularly as it directly relates to the main theme of these rambles, the origins of the various roads heading into and out of Boston. Andrew Craigie, who acquired the John Vassall estate after the revolution, opened the Canal, or Craigie, Bridge in East Cambridge in 1809, which dramatically shortened the distance to Boston. Unfortunately for him, however, the West Boston Bridge (today’s version, the Longfellow Bridge, coincidentally, is named for the owner succeeding Craigie at the Vassall house, who wrote a poem about the original bridge) was also finished in the same period. The owners and shareholders of each bridge naturally wanted traffic from Cambridge and places west of Cambridge to pass over their toll-bridge, and pressure was placed upon the legislature to approve the construction of a turnpike that would make the trip more direct, not coincidentally passing through land that was owned by the proprietors of each bridge. Craigie preferred a road that linked up to Brattle Street and passed his house directly, continuing on through Cambridge Common and down a new road (which his company had already built), today’s Cambridge Street, leading directly to his bridge at Lechmere. The proprietors of the West Boston Bridge preferred a straight road leading directly to their bridge through what is today Kendall Square. Craigie was the loser and Mount Auburn Street was laid from roughly Mount Auburn Cemetery east, in a direct route that passed through Brattle Square (where this walk began, cutting a quarter mile off the distance), leading to what is today Massachusetts Avenue, then along Main Street to the Charles River at what is today’s Longfellow Bridge. Craigie’s road was eventually built in 1812, but the first road succeeded in capturing the majority of traffic to Boston.

On a positive note, Brattle Street maintains to this day the tranquil gentility that likely is little different from the atmosphere along the road in the eighteenth century when the ‘Tories’ actually inhabited Tory Row. The creation of straighter roads and the building of numerous bridges over the Charles River (discussed in a previous entry) in the first decades of independence from Britain, coupled with the rise of newer forms of transport such as trains, dramatically transformed the landscape, as well as the economic development of Boston and the surrounding towns. The distance from Watertown Square, the destination of the following entry, to the Old State House in Boston following the roads I have described in this series of rambles is 8.2 miles, while the most direct route is 6.7 miles, 1.5 miles shorter. More importantly to this project, the old roads became somewhat fossilized, changing very slowly as traffic and development mostly passed the old roads by. Brattle Street is a great example: the once sole road west from Boston north of the Charles River is today a quiet, principally residential street lined with elegant mansions, including virtually every house shown on the 1777 map of Henry Pelham. The slow pace of change along these roads allows for the gradual accumulation of complexity, like a fine wine laid down for years, and is what makes the walks so interesting to me.

The seventh and final house along Tory Row, Elmwood at #33 Elmwood Avenue. This fine estate was built by the last Lieutenant-governor of Colonial Massachusetts, Thomas Oliver. Today it houses the president of Harvard University. Built in 1767.

Following the gentle curve of the sidewalk along Brattle Street and onto Elmwood Avenue to follow the original road to Watertown quickly brings us to what is perhaps the grandest of all the estates along Tory Row, Elmwood, a large eighteenth century mansion set far back from the road. The house was built by Thomas Oliver, mentioned above, the last Lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts under the Crown. Another of the loyalists who were compelled to take refuge in Boston at the end of 1774, Oliver was also an important figure in the development of Christ Church, was also born in the Caribbean (Antigua), was related to the other families on Tory Row, and also left Boston in 1776, never to return.

After the war the estate came into the possession of Elbridge Gerry, a wealthy merchant who held many political positions from the 1770s, including being a signatory of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, through to his death, in 1814, while serving in office as Vice President under James Madison (who, incidentally was the best man at Gerry’s wedding). Gerry’s legacy was secured during his stint as Governor of Massachusetts (1810-12), during which he signed into law the redistricting map for the newly redrawn State Senate districts, which were drawn in a contorted manner to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican Party over the Federalists in the subsequent election. One particularly ‘monstrous’ district, Essex South shown below, was mocked in the Boston Gazette of March 26, 1812, as resembling a salamander, and the portmanteau ‘gerrymander’ was created to describe the process of manipulating district lines in a distorted manner to favor the incumbent party in elections. Incidentally, Gerry is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ but the pronunciation of gerrymander has morphed into a soft ‘g’.

The Lowell family were long resident at Elmwood, as were other illustrious families over the course of the next century or so, but today the house is the residence of the president of Harvard University. For those who might be interested in a murder mystery involving Longfellow, the poet James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, as well as the Longfellow House and Elmwood, the First Church of Cambridge and the translation of Dante’s Commedia into English (If you have read this far, how can you possibly resist?) I highly recommend Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club.

The original ‘Gerrymander’, illustrating the contorted district approved by Gerry as Governor that allowed his party win a majority of the seats in Massachusetts despite receiving fewer votes than the opposition. I hear this is still a problem

*****

Elmwood ends abruptly and the tranquility of the walk is rudely terminated as I am forced to negotiate the busy intersection of the previously mentioned Mount Auburn Street and the Fresh Pond Parkway, which was built as part of a park connecting Fresh Pond to the Charles River. Today it is a very busy road which cuts through a portion of the historic Elmwood estate and serves as the main artery for traffic heading from Boston to West Cambridge, Arlington, Belmont, and points beyond. Mount Auburn Street is also a busy road; as described earlier the stretch of road from this point east was built in 1809 to shorten the distance from points west to the West Boston Bridge. The section heading west is part of the original road to Watertown, although it has clearly been straightened and widened over the years.

‘…This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly…’

more from Longfellow’s poem Birds of Passage

Grave of William Brewster in Mount Auburn Cemetery

As I cross these busy streets and head west along Mount Auburn Street, I quickly reach the fence of the Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I mentioned above as a renowned birding ‘hotspot’. It is also a cemetery of historical importance, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the surfeit of sites of historical significance already encountered along this walk. The cemetery was founded in 1831, and its bucolic setting and design became the model for many of the lovely cemeteries built in subsequent decades as part of the ‘rural cemetery’ movement. It is also the last resting place of many notable people, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and William Brewster, three former residents of Tory Row houses. In addition to Brewster, other notable figures buried here associated with birding include Harriet Hemenway, a founder of the Audubon Society, and Ludlow Griscom, another notable in the field of ornithology. Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles Sumner, B.F. Skinner, Buckminster Fuller, Fannie Farmer, and the gravestones of countless others can also be seen here, and the beautiful landscape is worth the visit alone, dotted with many lovely gravestones, sculptures, and memorials. So too are the actual birds of passage. Thus, armed with my binoculars, I take a detour from my own flight of passage through time and space along the old Watertown Path, and head off in search of elusive souls.

 

A modest marker to a great artist. A nearby neighbor to the Brewster grave

 

Main works consulted

Lucius R. Paige History of Cambridge, Massachusetts 1630-1877 (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, Boston: Houghton, 1877).

Samuel Adams Drake, History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. 2 Volumes (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880). Volume 1, pp305-59 Chapter on Cambridge by Reverend Edwin Abbott.

I looked at many other books, magazines, websites, etc. some of which I have linked. However, these two are the most useful for providing detailed information on the people and places discussed, particularly from the colonial period.

 

Wood Thrush, May 14 2018, Mount Auburn Cemetery. Just passing through.

A Bald Eagle wings its way high overhead near Mount Auburn Cemetery, January 31, 2018.

Distance walked in this entry: 1.5 miles

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to Birds of Passage

  1. The discussion in the this entry of the Vassall and Royall families was especially interesting and important because it highlights the fact that New Englanders benefited from slave labor whether directly or indirectly as well as the connections between New England and slave societies during the colonial era and beyond. This material certainly changes the way I think about Tory Row and its former inhabitants.

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