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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).   These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution. 

James Holton's Legacy

In 1864, James Holton, a wealthy resident, left the town of Brighton the sum of $6,000 for the purchase of books for a public library. There was a catch, however: Brighton had no public library! Despite repeated pleas, the town had consistently refused to appropriate money for that purpose. Since further refusal would mean the loss of Holton’s generous bequest ($6,000 being a large sum in those days), the town finally relented, and on April 8, 1864, authorized the establishment of the Brighton Public Library.


James Holton

It should be emphasized that Brighton was not particularly laggard in dealing with the public library issue. The first public library of consequence had opened in Boston in 1854, a mere ten years earlier. Brighton was thus among the first towns of Massachusetts to take the important step of establishing a free library for its citizens.

Brighton. in fact, had a long history of establishing libraries. The earliest such facility, the Brighton Social Library, dated from March 1, 1824---four decades earlier---and was one of the first libraries of its type to be established in the Commonwealth.

The Brighton Social Library occupied two buildings during its existence of thirty-four years. From 1824 to 1830 it operated out of this private residence which stood on the north side of Washington Street in Brighton Center midway between Leicester and Market Streets. The Social Library was obliged to relocate in 1830 when the Cattle Fair Hotel was built on the site.

From 1830 until its demise in 1858 it was headquartered in a small building that stood adjacent to the old Winship Mansion on the site of the present Brighton Police Station. The Social Library shared this building with a lawyer named Abraham Edwards, a prominent figure in the town who served both as Town Moderator and Selectmen in the early 1830s. Other Social Library members of note included Captain Jonathan Winship and his younger brother Francis, the founders of Brighton’s oldest and most extensive horticultural establishment, Winship’s Gardens.

The Brighton Social Library, it should be emphasized, was very much an upper class institution catering to the local gentry. Its annual membership fee of $5.00 was quite high (manual laborers were earning less than a dollar a day at the time), and the terms of membership were rigid.

Brighton Social Library members were entitled to borrow only two books at a time, which they could keep for a period of one month. However, the opportunities to visit the library were few, since it was open only once a week for a period of just six hours---from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays. Moreover, a stiff fine of 25 cents per volume was levied for overdue books.

Also, the members (or “proprietors,” as they styled themselves), exercised a right of censorship over the Social library’s contents. “The proprietors shall retain the right,” article IX o the Society’s by-laws stipulated, “of expelling any volume however introduced upon the shelves of the library which they shall deem demoralizing in their influence upon the minds and morals of the reader.”

While the library contained a mere 504 volumes in 1836, this was probably due to the relative unavailability and high cost of books at that time. Since a catalog of the collection was published in 1836, we can gauge the reading habits of Brighton’s upper class residents at that time. The Social Library’s collection reflected the conservative tastes and values of its membership.

The authors most extensively represented in the collection in 1836 were British novelists. Sir Walter Scott, with 21 volumes, headed the list by a wide margin, followed by the British poet Lord Byron, who had nine works to his credit. Other well-represented British authors included the novelists Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Lytton Bulwer, and Thomas Moore.

The two most popular American writers of the period. Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, were represented, but the collection contained little else by Americans. Its biographical and philosophical contents also reflected the political conservatism of the local gentry. There was nothing in the collection, for example, by Thomas Jefferson, save his non-controversial “Notes on Virginia,” and nothing whatever by that darling of the contemporary working class, Thomas Paine.

The Brighton Social Library collection also contained many works by female novelists and writers, the popular group of women writers that Emerson dismissed as “a pack of scribblers.” The best represented was the Anglo-Irish novelist and writer of moralistic tales Maria Edgeworth. Others female writers represented in the collection included Amelia Opie and the Poret sisters. Anna Maria and Jane, British writers one and all.

Interestingly the collection did not contain the works of a local novelist, Hannah Webster Foster, the wife of the Reverend John Foster, written in the First Church parsonage here on Academy Hill Road, who in 1797 wrote the first novel by an American female, “The Coquette or the History of Eliza Wharton.” However, by 1836, Mrs. Foster was living in Montreal, Canada, and her works (the most popular in New England in her day) were decidedly out of fashion.

The Brighton Social Library survived for thirty-four years, from 1824 to 1858. These years, it should be emphasized, witnessed far-reaching economic and social change in the town of Brighton. Back in 1824, the town had been served by a single church and single minister---a Unitarian church presided over by the Reverend John Foster, Doctor of Divinity. By 1861, by contrast, Brighton contained six churches representing six separate and often contentious denominations---Unitarian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Universalist, Methodist, and Roman Catholic.

The construction of the Boston & Worcester Railroad through the town in 1834 had revitalized the local cattle industry, the principal economic mainstay of Brighton, to the point that by 1850 the Brighton Cattle Market was doing $2.5 million of business a year. In addition, Brighton’s landscape was dotted with more than 40 slaughterhouses as well as a number of important horticultural establishments.

The rise of a related manufacturing sector, producing buttons, soap, candles, lard oil, whips, wheels, and varnish was another important feature of the period. The commercial vitality of the town was such that by 1854 Brighton Center was also the home of no less than two commercial institutions, the Bank of Brighton and the Market National Bank, at a time when most suburban towns were without banks.

In addition, a major influx of impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants began arriving in the market town in the late 1840s, an event that generated enormous anxiety among the native-born who feared a loss of control over the political institutions of the day and sought to offset this by promoting educational initiatives calculated to “Americanize” the alien element.

The generous support the town consistently gave its common schools in the decades of the 1840s and 1850s must be viewed against this background of growing anxiety at the arrival of this alien, impoverished, and mostly Catholic population. Brighton spent more on its schools in this period than all but a handful of of Massachusetts communities.

The nativist concern to promote literacy and “American” cultural values in the face of this massive influx of foreigners also helps explain the rise in the early 1850s of a parallel movement to establish a public library in Brighton---a movement that failed in the short run, but ultimately succeeded with an assist from the nativist philanthropist James Holton.

The movement for a Brighton Public Library was launched in 1853 when a group of prominent citizens petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for the incorporation of a new library association to be called "The Union Association." According to its act of incorporation, this organization was established to provide "a lyceum, a public library, and courses of lectures on scientific and literary subjects." A lyceum is an organization that presents lectures, debates and dramatic performances. Lyceum lectures were very popular in the pre-Civil War period. Unfortunately, The Union Association never materialized. Had Brighton succeeded in establishing a public library in 1853, it would have beaten the City of Boston by a year. What the Union Association initiative demonstrates, however, is the existence in Brighton at a very early date of strong sentiment for the establishment of a public library.

Among the projectors of the association, were Nathaniel Martin and William R. Champney, two of Brighton's three Selectmen. Other incorporators included Edward C. Sparhawk, John Warren Hollis and Jacob F. Taylor, three of Brighton's wealthiest residents.

The establishment of the Brighton Library Association in 1858 that marked the first definite step toward the establishment of a public library. That the goal of its founders was a public library is clear from Article V of the organization's by-laws, which provided that "the trustees shall deliver up to the Town of Brighton, or persons authorized by the town to receive it, the library and other property of the association, whenever said Town of Brighton shall make suitable provision for the maintenance and increase of the library."

It was not until 1864, however, when the will of James Holton provided the additional incentive of a $6,000 bequest, that the town finally took action.

While dependent on subscriptions, the new library association was both more affordable and more flexible than its predecessor, the Brighton Social Library. Any resident 14 years or older could join the new association by the payment of $1 a year (in installments of as little as 5 cents a week). However, there were still major inconveniences: a member could borrow only one book a week, and like the Social Library, provided limited access, opening only once a week, on Saturdays from 2 to 5 in the afternoon and from 7 to 9 in the evening.

At its inception, the Library Association contained about 1300 volumes, and was thus a good deal larger than the Social Library. Many of its volumes were from the old collection, however, for the new organization had absorbed the old one. The collection was a good deal more varied, however. It included, for example, more books by Americans--- notably Hawthorne, Emerson, Poe and Prescott. The trustees were somewhat slow to recognize native genius, however, for the library's shelves contained nothing by Whittier, Whitman, or by Francis Parkman, and only a single volume apiece by Longfellow and Melville. The Library Association made its home in the Brighton Town Hall in Brighton Center.



Brighton Town Hall

It was, of course, James Holton's $6,000 bequest that finally motivated the town to establish a public library. The terms of the Holton will were very precise. The $6,000 sum was earmarked for the purchase of books, and only books. For the town to qualify for the money it had to provide "a suitable room and furniture, and appoint a suitable person and librarian, who shall safely keep said books and care for the same." The will went on to provide that "if said town shall refuse to accept the bequest on the above-named terms, then I shall give and bequeath said six thousand dollars to my residuary legatees hereinafter named." On April 8, 1864 the the electors of Brighton, in town meeting assembled, voted to accept the terms of the Holton bequest, and also to incorporate the collection of the Brighton Library Association into the new facility, as provided for in that organization's by-laws.

Before proceeding to discuss the early history of the Brighton Public Library, we should say something of the public benefactor whose generosity prompted the town to establish a public library in 1864. Born in Brighton in 1800, James Holton was the eldest child of Major Benjamin Holton and Mary (Shed) Holton. When James was five, the family moved to the Deacon Hill house on Faneuil Street (on the site of the present housing project). This was James Holton's residence for the balance of his life. Holton never married.

His wealth stemmed from a combination of inheritance and success in the maritime trade. In his youth he frequently went to sea, and in his later years often traveled to Boston on sundays to worship at the Seamen's Bethel, presided over by the famous Father Taylor.. According to Reverend Frederic A. Whitney of the First Church (Unitarian), Holton was "deeply interested in modern spiritualism."

Whitney left a lengthy description of Holton. This portrait of is rather unusual, however, in the degree to which it criticizes this major public benefactor, a man who left altogether some $60,000 (the equivalent of many millions today) to various public and private charities. "He always loved especially to help the deserving poor and needy," Whitney wrote, but "he would refuse aid to many really worthy causes not of his class , and thus, in the estimation of some, damage his generosity." 

One such element were Brighton's non-Protestant poor. The will that contributed $6,000 for the creation of a local public library, left a like sum for the establishment of a "Protestant Pauper Fund"---in effect, thereby saying that "No Catholics need apply!" Yet, Whitney continued, "beneath (Holton's) almost repulsive plainness of exterior was a heart that beat for the welfare of his fellow creatures and, we believe, was right in God."

Once they had authorized the establishment of a public library, the April 8, 1864 town meeting proceeded to choose a Board of Trustees. John Ruggles, the Headmaster of Brighton High School (the school was then situated on Academy Hill Road), was elected President of the board. Ruggles was a Harvard graduate. The posts of Librarian and Secretary went to J.P.C. Winship, son of the founder of Brighton's horticultural industry, later to become the historian of Brighton. Winship bore the responsibility for organizing the collection. Life Baldwin, President of the Market National Bank, served as board Treasurer. Other trustees Reverend Whitney; Town Clerk William Wirt Warren; State Senator Joseph A. Pond; lumber dealer Granville Fuller (architect of the Brighton Town Hall); butcher-horticulturalist Nathaniel Jackson; and Selectmen Weare D. Bickford.

During its first ten years the Brighton Public Library was located on the first floor, right hand side of the Brighton Town Hall. The cost of outfitting these rooms came to $1,133,42.

The new public library opened its doors for the first time on September 1, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War (on the very day that the people of Brighton were examining the new library, the city of Atlanta, Georgia was being consumed by flames). John Ruggles made reference to the war in his first annual report of January 30, 1865: "We cannot forget those of our number, who have not for months, and many of them for years, enjoyed the privileges and comforts of home. (But) even now," he wrote with obvious feeling and with a slap at the relatively unlettered south, "the sun is breaking through the noxious vapors and unwholesome exhalations which have been wafted hither from regions where free schools and free libraries are unknown."

Judging from its annual reports, the Brighton Public Library was from the outset extremely well-patronized. Its collection grew very rapidly. By 1869, Brighton ranked fifth among Massachusetts towns in the size of its public library. By 1872, on the eve of annexation, the collection comprised an impressive 11,000 volumes and had long since outgrown its quarters. The trustees began agitating for improved facilities as early as 1868. "The edifice used for a public library," its report of that year noted, "should be devoted to that purpose alone, and this alike on grounds of freedom from noise and other interruptions and from exposure to fire."

The Town of Brighton approved construction of a separate library building in 1872. The Holton Library, a Victorian Gothic-style structure costing $70,000 and designed by Brighton-born architect George Fuller, stood on the site presently occupied by the Brighton Branch Library. It was nearing construction at the time of Brighton's annexation to Boston in January, 1874.

Holton Library

It was, incidentally, the city's decision to demolish this beautiful structure, that prompted the founding of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society on April 1, 1968, but there is little evidence in the records of the historical society that the organization did much to prevent the demolition of the Holton building: no evidence that petitions were circulated, or letters of opposition written, or that attempts made to apply political pressure to prevent this act of municipal vandalism from being perpetrated. So while the imminent loss of the old library served to foster nostalgia, it did not give rise to a concerted effort to save the doomed edifice from the wrecking crew.

First of all, in 1968, Boston was still in the grips of the “New Boston” movement, which contributed to the wholesale demolition of the West End and to many other unfortunate urban renewal projects, including the raising at just about the same time as the Brighton Branch Library project, of the Barry’s Corner neighborhood in North Allston. The mind set of that day was “out with the old and in with the new.” The Holton Library was outdated, dilapidated, inefficient, unserviceable. Rip it down and put up something that embodied the latest principles of Modern architecture.

The preservation movement in the city’s neighborhoods was still in its infancy back then and the people of Allston-Brighton had only just begun to organize to oppose damaging development. The only community-based organizations that existed in Brighton at that juncture were the Allston Civic Association, dating from 1963, and, as I said, the newly founded Brighton Historical Society.

It is perhaps notable that the first President of the Brighton Historical Society was an employee of the Boston Public Library, who may have been disinclined on that basis to be overly critical of a project her employers were touting as necessary and justified.

I can’t help but contrast the current situation In Allston-Brighton with that of 36 years ago. Now we have multiple organizations that would speak out loudly against any such proposal. We also have a Landmarks Act and a Boston Landmarks Commission that I am confident would rise to the defense of a building such as the Holton Library. But more importantly we have a constituency for historic preservation in the city and in Alltson-Brighton that would not silently accept the destruction of a building of such obvious historical and architectural importance.

The old library was replaced in 1969 by the existing structure, designed by Norman Fletcher of the noted architectural firm The Architectural Collaborative, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Architectural Collaborative, was organized in 1945 under the leadership Walter Gropius, and has been responsible for designing some of the most original structures of the modern period. What we have in the existing Brighton Branch Library therefore is a notable piece of modern architecture. It’s been a controversial building. Its admirers describe this building type as “Humanist Modernism”; its critics as “Brutalism.” In large measure, the criticism that’s been directed at this building parallels that directed at Boston’s City Hall, a which was constructed in the same year as the Brighton Public Library, albeit not deigned by the same architectural firm.

Interior of the Brighton Library 1969

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