This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Horace Gray: Father of the Boston Public Garden
Horace Gray, the father of the Boston Public Garden, is a somewhat shadowy figure who deserves to be better known. A man of great vision and high public spirit, he was the prime mover and chief financial prop of the early effort to transform the swamp like western fringe of the Boston Common into the park that we today know as the Boston Public Garden.
Gray was very fortunate in the circumstances of his birth and upbringing. Born in 1800, he was the fifth son of William Gray, "Old Billy" Gray, the wealthiest man in New England (some said in the entire country), owner of a fleet of more than sixty square-rigged vessels.
The son of a Lynn master shoemaker, Horace's father made a fortune from privateering during the Revolution. After the war Billy Gray grew richer still trading with Russia and the East Indies. A man of unerring business judgment, he is said to have refused ever to be rushed. "I'll think on't" was his favorite expression.
The senior Gray also pursued a highly successful political career, becoming one of the leaders of Massachusetts' Democratic Republican Party, the supporters of Thomas Jefferson, rising in the 1810 to 1812 period to the rank of Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts.
In 1809, "Old Billy" moved his family from Salem to an imposing mansion at 57 Summer Street, corner of Kingston Street in downtown Boston. According to historian Samuel Adams Drake, Summer Street, now in the heart of the city's commercial district, was in the early 19th century "the most beautiful avenue in the city. Magnificent trees then skirted its entire length, overarching the driveway with interlacing branches, so that you walked or rode within a grove in a light softened by the leafy screen, and over the shadows of the big elms lying across the pavement."
Horace Gray received an excellent education under private tutors, earning an M.A. from Harvard in 1819. He then entered his father's mercantile house. Upon the elder Gray’s death in 1825, Horace came into possession of the family's Summer Street mansion, which remained his home for the rest of his life.
In 1827 Horace married Harriet Upham of Brookfield, Massachusetts. Their eldest child, Horace Gray, Junior (1828-1902), was to become one of the nation's leading jurists, attaining the rank first of Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and later, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Another son (from a second marriage), John Chipman Gray (1839-1915), became a leading legal scholar and longtime Story Professor of Law at Harvard.
Though Horace Gray's achievements may seem less important at first glance than the financial successes of his father or the professional successes of his sons, in laying the groundwork for the establishment of the Boston Public Garden, and sustaining that fledgling institution through the first decade of its existence, this worthy gentleman had a profound impact upon the quality of life in our city for which all of us should be thankful.
While active in business as a commission merchant (Horace Gray & Company with offices at 52 Broad Street), bank and insurance company directorships, and the iron business, Gray’s deepest interest always lay in horticulture and landscape design. Here we have an early example of the shift of focus in many of Boston Brahmin families from a preoccupation with business and politics, to increasing concern with educational, cultural, and philanthropic ventures.
The year 1837 marked a major turning point in Horace’s life. First came his second marriage (his first wife had been lost in a shipwreck in 1834) to Sarah Russell Gardner, daughter of the great merchant Samuel Pickering Gardner. Sarah’s younger brother Jack would later marry Isabella Stewart of New York, the famous "Mrs. Jack" of Fenway Court. The Gardners, who also lived on Summer Street, maintained one of the finest gardens in Boston. But the garden behind Horace Gray’s mansion, which extended back along Kingston Street, was even more celebrated, its outstanding feature being a conservatory in which Horace raised prize camellias and other exotic plants.
Eighteen thirty-seven also marked the inception of the Boston Public Garden. On September 25 Horace Gray and several other avid horticulturists petitioned the Boston City Council for permission to utilize the swampy twenty-four acre site at the western edge of the Boston Common for the creation of a botanic garden. On November 6 they were given permission, with the condition that no buildings be erected on the land apart from a greenhouse and toolhouse.
Not until February 1, 1839, however, did Gray, George Darracott, Charles P. Curtis, and other interested parties formally incorporate as the “Proprietors of the Botanic Garden in Boston,” with the right to hold and manage property worth up to $50,000, a substantial sum at that time.
The transformation of this acreage into a handsome public park was fraught with difficulty, for it lay below street level and was subject to tidal flooding. First, a boardwalk was built from west to east from the Garden’s entrance on Beacon Street, which was lined with ornamental plants and trees. The proprietors hired an English gardener, John Cadness, to oversee these and other plantings.
In addition, a former circus building that stood near the corner of Beacon and Charles Streets was leased and converted into a conservatory for exotic plants and birds. Gray is credited with having imported the first tulips into this country in the late 1830s to embellish the grounds of the conservatory. This building contained four galleries, each devoted to a different variety of plant. The Boston Public Garden soon became a great place of attraction for the people of Boston.
Over the next nine years the primary financial support for this singular public amenity came out of the deep pockets of Horace Gray.
Gray had in the meantime expanded his horticultural endeavors to the suburban town of Brighton, where he purchased a country estate of more than a hundred acres. Gray's Brighton horticultural venture was every bit as imaginative as his activities in the downtown. According to Wilder's The Horticulture of Boston and Vicinity, on Brighton's Nonantum Hill the wealthy Bostonian "erected the largest grapehouses known in the United States, in which were grown extensively numerous varieties of foreign grapes. For the testing of these under glass in cold houses, Gray erected a large curvilinear-roof house, two-hundred feet long by twenty-four wide. This was such a great success that he built two more of the same dimension.”
Horace Gray’s horticultural ventures, both at the Public Garden and in Brighton ended abruptly in the 1847-48 period when he lost the bulk of his fortune as a result of faulty investments. Compounding his problems was the destruction by fire a short time later of the Public Garden's beautiful conservatory.
Fortunately, Gray salvaged enough of his fortune to retain ownership of his Summer Street mansion with its splendid garden. Here the great horticulturists lived out the last quarter century of his life in gentlemanly retirement.
At the time of Gray’s death in 1873, scant note was taken of his passing in the city's press. His obituary in the Boston Herald, for example, identified him only as a former active merchant and the father the State Supreme Court judge, with no mention of his singular contribution to the beautification of Boston as the founder of the Public Garden.