Harvard Avenue was part of a highway that was set out as early as 1638 to link Boston with Harvard Square, Cambridge. By the mid 18th century, much of the land on either side of Harvard Street, north of Brighton Avenue was owned by the Thomas Gardener family. A leader of the cause for independence, Thomas Gardener died at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
Prior to the coming of the electric streetcar in l909, Harvard Avenue, particularly the segment between Brighton and Commonwealth avenues was lined with the substantial homes of Herricks, Morrison, Browns and Emerys. A major watershed in the development of Harvard Avenue was the establishment of the first railroad depot in 1867 at Franklin and Cambridge Street, at the northern extremity of the district.
During the 1880s and early 1890s, a node of architecturally noteworthy commercial blocks evolved at the northwestern corner of Cambridge and Franklin Streets, including the Chester Block at 381 to 385 Cambridge Street and Allston Hall at 10 to 14 Franklin Street. Across Franklin Street is the Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge designed Allston Depot (1887) at 353 Cambridge Street, an early work by H.H. Richardson's successor architectural firm.
During the 1910s and 1920s, Harvard Avenue was radically transformed from an upscale residential thoroughfare to a major commercial artery of handsome one and two story business blocks and a handful of apartment houses. Today, Harvard Avenue is a still vital commercial strip lined with businesses geared toward the college students and immigrant groups living in the area. Over time, Jews, Irish and Italians have been superseded in numbers by Southeast Asians, Brazilians, Hispanics and Russians.
As early as 1638, the Roxbury Highway was set out to link Cambridge directly with Boston. Harvard Avenue represents a segment in an eight mile road that passed through Boston, Roxbury, Brookline and Little Cambridge (Allston-Brighton) in a great arc shaped configuration. In Allston, this road ran from the Great Bridge (built in 1663, superseding ferry service established in 1634) over the Charles River, following North Beacon Street, a portion of Cambridge Street to Harvard Avenue. It was over the Roxbury Highway that Williams Dawes, the other important, but unsung, "midnight rider," made his way to Lexington and Concord to warn the populace that the British were marching to confiscate supplies; this warning was the prelude to Lexington and Concord.
In 1734, the inhabitants living south of the Charles River successfully petitioned the colonial legislature for permission to hold religious services in Little Cambridge in winter. This petition was initiated purely as a measure of practicality on the part of the Little Cantabridgians who are said to have been as yet unwilling to separate from the parent church, north of the Charles River. The earliest meeting house has been described as a deserted farm house which is said to have stood at the southwest corner of Cambridge and North Harvard Street (Harvard Avenue). The establishment of a seasonal meeting house in Little Cambridge, nevertheless, represented a step towards independence from the mother town. In 1744, a formal meeting house was erected at the northeast corner of Washington and Market streets at Brighton Center.
In 1747, Richard Gardner, father of the famous revolutionary hero Thomas Gardner, purchased a 110 acre estate that included land on both side of Harvard Avenue or "the lower Roxbury Highway" paying more than 3,000 pounds for the property. Gardner's house stood at the northwest corner of Harvard and Brighton avenues. Amazingly, the house, a commodious gambrel structure, still stands, although in altered condition at 22 Higgins Street, on the south side of Union Square. It was moved there in 1850. It is the oldest house in Allston. Thomas Gardner was born in 1723, probably in Brookline. In 1755, Thomas Gardner married Joanna Sparhawk, a member of one of Brighton's founding families. Thomas Gardner, a major political figure in Massachusetts on the eve of the Revolution, was in the forefront of those urging resistance to the King's dissolution of the General Court in 1774, following the Boston Tea Party. He was chosen to represent Cambridge in the Middlesex County Convention, called to consider measures for public safety, as well as in the First and Second provincial Congresses. By May of 1775, with his election to the Revolutionary Council of Safety, Gardner was at the pinnacle of his powers as a fervent revolutionary. Additionally, during the spring of 1775, he was commissioned a colonel of a regiment he had organized largely at his own expense. Gardener's meteoric rise to prominence and power was tragically cut short when he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in June 1775. Lingering until July 3,1775, Gardner was the second highest ranking American officer killed at Bunker Hill. His funeral services were attended by General George Washington. The Gardner name lives on in Gardner Street, east of Harvard Avenue and in the north central Massachusetts's town of Gardner, named in his memory in 1785.
The primacy of the Roxbury Highway as the principal transportation link between Boston and Cambridge, of which Harvard Avenue was a key component, was challenged in 1793 with the construction of the West Boston Bridge which followed the path of the current Longfellow Bridge. Cambridge Street, which crosses the northern segment of Harvard Avenue, was built in 1808 (along with the bridge over the Charles to River Street Cambridge in 1811) in direct response to the challenge presented by West Boston Bridge. The Hale's Map of Brighton dating to 1830 indicates that the construction of Cambridge Street encouraged the building of structures along Harvard Avenue, with three buildings grouped around the Cambridge Street/Harvard Avenue intersection and five others bordering this thoroughfare between Cambridge Street and the Brookline line. None of these structures are still extant.
By the early 1850s, Harvard Avenue's estate era was well underway; an era that would last until the 1910s when commercialization transformed the thoroughfare of substantial residences on large, landscaped lots to a more urban appearing street lined with one to two story commercial blocks. In 1852, the homes of Herricks, Barretts, Farringtons, Bowers, Morrisons and Harts overlooked Harvard Avenue between Cambridge Street and the future path of Commonwealth Avenue. None of these residences survive.
The beginnings of modern Harvard Avenue's history as a commercial center begin with the construction of the first Allston Depot in 1867. Although the Boston and Worcester later Boston and Albany railroad had been set out through northern Brighton as early as the 1830s, there were no regular stops in the eastern end of the community. Prior to the depot's construction, its site had been occupied by a tiny cobbler's shop. The cobbler kept a few tickets in a box and would occasionally flag down a train for a traveler. The depot stood at the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Cambridge Street, called Cambridge Crossing. This name lead to considerable confusion, with train passengers disembarking at Cambridge Crossing, thinking that they were in the City of Cambridge, over one mile to the northeast.
In 1868, the name of the depot and nearby post office was changed to Allston, in honor of the early 19th century history and portrait painter Washington Allston. The great painter lived for many years in Cambridgeport and was said to enjoy taking walks in then rural North Brighton. Over time, Allston became the name of the eastern end of Brighton, but in fact, was never an independent town. According to Brighton-Allston historian William Marchione, Allston is the only artist's name ever accorded a community in the United States.
The present Allston Depot at 353 Cambridge Street, now a sports bar and restaurant, was built in 1886-1887 by Henry Hobson Richardson's successor firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. In 1881, the Boston & Albany Railroad began the construction of stations on the main line to serve the commuter traffic generated by villages such as Allston Depot. Richardson received several commissions for commuter stations, of which the Auburndale, Newton station was the first, beginning in February 1881. Richardson received the station commission, in part, because of his friendship with Harvard classmate and B &A vice president James A. Rumrill. H.H. Richardson died at the age of 48 in 1886, leaving the station commissions to be completed by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. The Allston Depot is one of the few surviving B&A stations built during the 1880s; most of these depots were torn down when the Massachusetts Turnpike was extended through Brighton and Newton during the early 1960s.
Built c. 1870, the Italianate, mansard cottage at 390 Cambridge Street evidently represents residential construction triggered by the construction of the first Allston Depot. From the 1870s until c. 1910, this house was owned by John English. By 1916, it was owned by Phares E. Dukeshire, variety store owner. By 1925, it was part of the extensive land holdings of W.R. Chester. In 1950, Prank Chiasserini owned this property.
Still extant at "Cambridge Crossing" to provide physical evidence of the post depot era is the node of Late Victorian commercial blocks at the north west corner of Cambridge and Franklin streets including: the red brick, Queen Anne Chester Block at 379-387 Cambridge Street, the Queen Anne Longfellow Block at 4-8 Franklin Street and the 1890 quinine, mansard Allston Hall Building at 12 Franklin Street.
The Chester Block at 381-387 Cambridge Street was built between 1875 and 1885 for developer W.R. Chester. This brick Queen Anne commercial block is of major historical significance as a rare example of Franz Joseph Untersee's commercial/residential work.
Untersee (1858-1927) a specialist in the design of Roman Catholic churches, was born and educated at Glarus, Switzerland. After receiving a degree in Architecture from Stuttgart University, he served as the assistant to the City Architect of Bern, Switzerland. In 1882, Untersee immigrated to America establishing a residence in Brookline and an office in Boston. He designed many Roman Catholic Churches in New England and New York, favoring the Romanesque style in his designs. He was responsible for Church of St. Lawrence in Brookline, St. Anthony's of Padua Church, Allston (1894), St. Patrick's Church, East Jaffrey, N.H. and St. Patrick's at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. He also designed towers for Mission Church, Roxbury and St. Columbkille's, Brighton. His last work was the Mission Church High School, Roxbury, MA. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Chester Block housed Staples and Towse Apothecaries and Holman's Dry Good Store. By the 1940s and 50s, this block's commercial concerns included the Royal Cafe, William B. Fitzgerald, tailor, Handi Sales Co., and the Allston News Co and Aema Electric Co and Wesley W. Gould, plumbers.
The Longfellow Building at 4-8 Franklin Street was owned during the late 19th century by the great Cambridge poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Late 19th century Brighton Atlases reveal that Longfellow owned numerous parcels in Allston. In 1890 he sold a large tract at Soldiers Field, North Allston to Harvard University for development as an athletic facility. The Allston Hall Block at 10-12 Franklin Street was built in 1890 for Allston book publisher and real estate magnate Samuel Hano. During the early 20th century, it contained the real estate offices of Taft and Waite.
Very few Harvard Avenue buildings predate the 1910-1430 period of intensive commercial development. Still extant to provide a glimpse of the sleepy days of the village at Allston Depot is the c. 1880 Allston Methodist Church at 64 Harvard Avenue. Evidently the prominent meatpacker Gustavus Franklin Smith worshipped at this church as there is a large stained glass window donated by the Swift family on the second floor of the church. The yellow brick, Georgian Revival Harvard Avenue Fire Station was constructed at 10 Harvard Avenue from designs provided by H.H. Steward. Built between 1899 and 1909, Fire Engine No. 40 replaced an earlier wooden fire house.
Public transportation improvements in the form of electric street railways during the late 19th and early 20th century encouraged the breaking up of handsome estates that lined Harvard Avenue, particularly the segment south of Brighton Avenue. Among the noteworthy early commercial blocks built between 1910 and 1920, include the Prindiville Building at 143-155 Harvard Avenue. Designed by South Framingham builder J.J. Prindiville, contractor for the Commonwealth Armory (1914-1915), this Tudoresque commercial block housed offices as well as stores. During the 1920s and 30s, this building was an important focus for local politics, housing the headquarters of the Ward 21 Republican Club. Among the commercial tenants quartered in this building during the early 1930s were Beba's Beauty Salon, Allston Letter Shop, W.B. Whaley Smith Oil Burners and George T. Busset, photography. Professional offices were located on the second floor, including: William J. Kenefica, dentist, Allston Dental Laboratory, Citizens Finance Corps, loans, and the law firm of James L. Dunn.
The tapestry brick commercial block at 132-138 Brighton Avenue was built c. 19l0-19l5 for hotel owner E. Willard Frost. A glance at the list of tenants in 1930 includes a bank, beauty shop and other commercial concerns while the offices of doctors, dentists and lawyers were located on the upper floors. Also noteworthy is the A.J. Carpenter designed Craftsman Style block at 51-63 Harvard Avenue which was built in 1913.
The last major commercial building to be erected on Harvard Avenue was the Gordon Building at 145-179 Harvard Avenue. In many respects this was the most architecturally sophisticated commercial block of the entire avenue. Interestingly, it was designed by apartment building specialists Silverman, Brown and Heenan. Designed in the Georgian Revival style, its second floor originally housed the Allston Branch of the Boston Public Library.
A variety of commercial concerns were located on the ground floor of this building during the early 1930s, including clothing stores, billiard hall, cigar store and an electrical supply company. More specifically, the Gordon Building's tenants in 1930 encompassed: Howorth-Snyder Department Store at 149, Allston Fashion Shop at 153, Mrs. Isaac Veston, Milliner at 155, Friends Bakery at 157, and the Period Furniture Co. at 159. 161, the address of businesses occupying the second floor, included: the Boston Public Library, George Cross Photography, John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co, Sam A. Myerson, dentist, Edward J. Rotenberg, dentist, Ernest A. Knight, billiards, and Stadium Cigar Store Manufacturers. Richard's Gown Shop is listed at 163, the Great A&P Tea Co. at 165, Newton's Shoe Shop at 169, Shawmut National Bank at 171, Union Electrical Supply Co. at 173 and the Home Beautiful Shop at 175.
Constructed in 1916 by contractor Charles A. Dodge, 192-194 Harvard Avenue or the Walton Block, stands on land owned by Edward D. Packard during the early 1900s. Packard was a member of the prominent Brighton Avenue livery stable owners whose name is still associated with the intersection known as Packard's Corner at Brighton and Commonwealth avenues. In 1930, First National Stores Inc. and Brenners Flower Shop are listed at this address.