Coolidge Corner by Linda Olson Pehlke
Linda Olson Pehlke is an author and urban planner living in Brookline. The series "Places: Past and Present" was originally commissioned by and published in Our Town Brookline
magazine in 2005 and appears here with the permission of its publisher and the author.
Coolidge Corner is a bit mysterious to the newcomer. Where is it? What is it? Everyone talks about it, but it is not on most maps. It is not located on Coolidge Street. The biggest clue is the T stop, with its painted sign proudly naming the location. The mystery is solved when we discover the name's origins: the legacy of the Coolidge family, and the general store they built at Harvard and Beacon Street. Today the corner is easily identified by its distinctive tower, the S.S. Pierce building, which serves as a highly visible landmark. Characterized by crowded sidewalks lined with busy stores, restaurants, and the movie theater, Coolidge Corner today is bustling with activity, and is the commercial heart of Brookline. It's come a long way from its beginnings!
Creating Beacon St.
Coolidge & Brother Store, circa 1880
Imagine a landscape of rolling hills, marshes, farms, orchards, and woodlands, and you have an idea of north Brookline in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Brookline's boundary once extended to the Charles River on the north, and to Kenmore Square to the east, yet access to and from Boston was difficult. It was not until 1821, when a dam and road were built across the Back Bay, that movement between Boston and Brookline became easier, encouraging a few wealthy Boston businessmen to build summer homes in Brookline. Still dominated by large farms, the area's major landowners of the time were the Sterns, Griggs, Coolidges and Coreys, all names familiar to us now. Thirty years later, in 1851, Beacon Street was built, extending the Mill Dam Road. Initially only 50 feet wide, Beacon Street was built in conjunction with the Longwood and Cottage Farm residential developments of David Sears and Amos Lawrence. As a result of their efforts, small country estates now dotted north Brookline. As the land became subdivided and crisscrossed with roads to service these estates, the corner of Harvard and Beacon Street became a logical place to locate a general store; and, in 1857, the Coolidge and Griggs families built one. Managed by the Coolidge family until 1884, the store became a landmark, and the corner became known as Coolidge's Corner.
The End of the 19th Century Begins The Period of Rapid Growth
Same View, 1905
In 1874, Brookline gave up its Charles River frontage in order to provide a land link between the City of Boston and the newly annexed Brighton. Brookline's northern boundary became Brighton Avenue (which later was renamed Commonwealth Avenue). It was not until the late 1880's when Beacon Street was widened to 160 feet and trolley service began on Beacon and Harvard Streets, that the area experienced rapid growth and development, replacing Brookline Village as the commercial heart of Brookline. The 1890's brought the transformation of the area bounded by Pleasant Street on the east, Beacon Street to the south, and Corey Hill to the west, into streets of single family homes and apartment blocks. Many homes in this area were built and designed as part of large-scale developments, thereby endowing the neighborhoods with a consistent scale and quality of architecture, all the while accommodating a wide variety of styles. The recently proposed Graffam-McKay Local Historic District, which was built between 1895 and 1905 and includes portions of Naples, Babcock, Osborne, and Abbotsford Roads, is an example of this. At the time they were built, these neighborhoods' residents were almost all Boston businessmen.
Wallace Pierce built Coolidge Corner's landmark building, the Pierce Building, with its polygonal tower in 1898-99. It is representative of the first wave of commercial building, and was designed by the Boston architects, Winslow and Wetherall. The second floor once housed Whitney Hall (named after Henry Whitney, developer of Beacon Street), which accommodated theatricals, dances, lectures, and parties. The Coolidge Corner Theatre is housed in what was originally the Beacon Universalist Church, built in 1906. The two tile-roofed T shelters located in the Beacon Street median at Harvard Street are the original structures built in 1901 by the Boston Elevated Street Railway. The introduction of the trolley line on Commonwealth Avenue in 1909 reinforced the desirability of the area between Beacon and Commonwealth for housing development. As the building of single-family homes peaked around 1920, 3- and 4-story apartment buildings were being built on streets such as Pleasant, Gibbs, Babcock, and Winchester. While some of these occupied previously vacant land, others replaced existing homes that were as old as the Civil War and as new as 1880. While the Great Depression may have halted the rapid replacement of single-family homes with apartment blocks, many of the single-family homes in the area were converted into multi-family homes during this time.
The Second Wave
A second wave of commercial building occurred in Coolidge Corner during 1920-1930, at which time the Art Deco bank building diagonally across the street from the Pierce Building was built. The Arcade Building at 314-320 Harvard Street was built at this time as well, with its unique indoor atrium and row of bow front stores. The increased density of housing brought a greater diversity of citizens to northern Brookline. The early decades of the twentieth century saw a growing Jewish community arise along Harvard Street, and recently the Asian American population has grown. In the 1980's, improving property values triggered many homeowners in the area to renovate their properties, while respecting original architectural features. Today, Coolidge Corner continues as the vibrant, commercial hub of Brookline, and its many neighborhoods are sought after places to live.
© 2005 Linda Olson Pehlke. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the author.