The Transformative Power of History

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The farmhouse, April 2014

How history is made isn’t always the result of momentous events. Very often, it is the passing down of a legacy and the ongoing stewardship of that inheritance that determines historical import. A prime example of this history-making process is the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm. A part of Boston’s landscape since the late 18th century, this once obscure property has been transformed from a blight spot in its Mattapan neighborhood into a community institution with a bright future.

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The farmhouse, March 2018

When I learned of the existence of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm in 2013, I was surprised, for a few reasons. For one, there are few historic sites for which Mattapan is recognized, none that would draw tourists to that part of Boston. I had attended elementary school just a few blocks away and had no idea that this colonial-period farmhouse with its big red Victorian-era barn were nearby (although being in grade school, the uniqueness of the property probably would not have registered with me).

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The farmhouse, October 2013

Later, as a teenager growing up in Mattapan, I don’t think I ever even saw the property; surely if I had, I would have remembered the sign over the front door that bore my last name. In truth, there was really no reason that the former farm’s history would be widely known because the quaint house and barn at 487 Norfolk St. was a private residence that had never been publicized as a historical site. That, no doubt, was how the Epsteins—Jorge and Ida—wanted it. For Jorge Epstein, who operated a part of his architectural salvage business from his yard, it was the history of the stuff that he stored on his property, not the history of the property itself, which he advertised.


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The barn, April 2014

Upon visiting the property, I wondered why this out-of-place-looking site had never caught my eye, considering the number of times I had driven on Norfolk Street. It had been obscured, set back from the street and partially hidden by garden masonry and fencing that Jorge Epstein had fashioned as well as by trees and overgrown shrubbery, nestled among a variety of architectural styles: brawny, late-Victorian-era residences, early-20th-century three-deckers, nondescript midcentury brick apartment buildings and compact modern single-family houses. The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm was easy to miss. It took abandonment, dilapidation and near loss to a developer’s wrecking ball for this gem of a property to garner the type of recognition and attention that would save it and give a vibrant role in the community.

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The barn, May 2018

I decided that the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm would be the perfect topic for my master’s degree capstone project at the Boston Architectural College. Initially, I thought of my idea as a novel little notion with a relatively straightforward outcome: the preservation of an endangered historic site that was once part of a large farm, devoting its substantially smaller landscape to urban agriculture. I perceived it simply as saving a part of the built environment that would recall the area’s long-passed agrarian tradition. I did have a slight sense that I was onto something potentially much bigger, in part because Boston had recently adopted a zoning provision that allowed for urban farming. As I delved into the research for my capstone project I began to see to see that my idea was relevant not only to historic preservation but that it might also address some contemporary social concerns, not only in Boston but also around the country.

Now Mattapan is home to a premier historic site, the steward of an important Boston legacy. This place of pride is the headquarters of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, which, in addition to growing food at the property, will serve as an urban farming education and training center. Rehabilitation of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm shows the past at work today for the future. It is a testament to how history is made.

This post originally appeared May 18, 2018, on the website of Historic Boston Inc. at



Stewardship for the ages




An edited version of this article was published in Antiques and the Arts Weekly.

The Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain isn’t a traditional historic house museum. In fact, there are those who say it isn’t a house museum at all. To be sure, visitors can drop in for tours of the 1760 grand Colonial mansion, located at 12 South St., on Sunday afternoons from April through December, or at other times by appointment. But the place is almost always stirring with activities and events that reflect its role as a community institution, not just another house museum.

It is the unique stewardship model employed at the Loring-Greenough House that imbues the property with a current-day vitality that maintains its historic character while averting the sometimes static and staid atmosphere that can settle over house museums. The owner, the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club, has operated the house this way since saving it from demolition in 1924.

Besides tours, during which visitors can hear about the many experiences of those who resided at the mansion during its 164 years as a private home and learn about local history, including the rebellious colonists’ military use of the property during the Revolutionary War, the public can partake in activities and programs such as “Thursdays on the Lawn,” which features a farmers’ market; luncheons and high tea parties; artists’ open studios, where artwork can be purchased; author readings; a concert series; movie nights and the “History Happy Hour,” to name a few. The Loring-Greenough House is also available for wedding rentals and other private functions.

Remarkably, management of the Loring-Greenough House is an all-volunteer affair, from the docents on up to the board of directors of the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club. Established in 1896 during the nationwide women’s club movement, the Tuesday Club – which now admits men – has expanded its community-oriented founding mission to serve as a center for historical, cultural and educational activities initiated by the club as well as other organizations in Jamaica Plain.

Clubwomen’s Work

It was mid-1924, and the Georgian manse had been cleared of its furnishings, readied for razing; the owner, David Stoddard Greenough V, had sold the property to a group of speculative developers who planned to transform the site for commercial use, keeping apace with the modern changes that characterized the immediate area in this “streetcar suburb” of Boston. It was one of the last surviving 18th-century homes in Boston’s Jamaica Plain section, and though its occupants had taken their belongings and moved out, the residence had not been stripped of its character-defining features. The Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club took on the challenge of saving the house from demolition. The club’s intent was to use residence not only as its headquarters but also to establish it as a community betterment institution. Tuesday Club members were also keenly aware of the historical significance of the property because of its Colonial roots and the role it served during the Revolutionary War, recognizing the contribution that the continued existence of the house would make to heritage preservation.

The Tuesday Club didn’t have enough capital to buy the property from the developers until member Marguerite Souther stepped in to fund the purchase in July 1924, using a $15,600 loan she obtained and securing a bank mortgage of $30,000. In March 1925, she transferred ownership to the Tuesday Club. Among the conditions the Tuesday Club agreed to was repaying Souther for the personal loan and paying off the mortgage within three years.

The Landed Gentry

Five generations of the Greenough family had owned the homestead, acquiring it in 1784 when it was part of an agrarian estate that encompassed at least 60 acres. The estate was created in 1760 by Joshua Loring, who, though having advanced from a privateer for Britain to a commodore in the Royal Navy, was a Massachusetts native and had grown up in the town of Roxbury, not far from Jamaica Plain. Severely wounded in August 1760 on Lake Ontario during the French and Indian War, the disabled Loring retired to his Jamaica Plain estate, living the life of a gentleman farmer, in part on his pension from the British government.

The Lorings resided at their country estate for 14 years; because of the increasing Colonial dissent, the Loyalist retired commodore fled with his family, to Boston, seeking the protection of British forces. The Lorings then made their way to Nova Scotia and finally to England. They never returned to Jamaica Plain, though it seems the commodore thought that they would; besides leaving many of their belongings in the house when they fled, the commodore had bricked up his wine and liquor cellar, to be discovered in the mid-1800s during the installation of an iron vault by David S. Greenough III for the family’s silver near the west chimney on the first floor.

With the Lorings gone, the property became the headquarters for Nathanael Greene, a major general in the Continental Army, in the spring of 1775. On June 23, 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress seized the property and used the house as military hospital. The property remained under military control until March 1776, after which it was confiscated by the state, which leased and later sold it. On April 5, 1784, a wealthy widow named Anne Doane bought the estate in anticipation of her marriage to David Stoddard Greenough I.

Georgian Splendor

The architect of Loring’s two-and-a-half story, grand-style residence is unknown. The timber- frame, clapboard-sheathed structure is capped with a hipped roof and dormers, which provided light in the garret servants’ quarters. Although the main entrance to the house faces south, the building’s design gives the appearance of three façades, with the south, west and north elevations featuring pedimented center entryways.

The interior was designed with the traditional Georgian floor plan containing a center hall with two tiers of rooms on either side, all with fireplaces. These included a drawing room, dining room, kitchen and breakfast room on the first floor and on the second floor, a bedroom and adjoining dressing room, a nursery, two small bedrooms and, what most likely was Mrs. Mary Curtis Loring’s room, which she called “the Blue Chamber.” Much of the original building materials and architectural features from the Lorings’ residency are still intact, such as paneling, finishes, doors and hardware. The 12-panel front door with its HL hinges and massive rim lock date to the 18th century.

The successive generations of Greenoughs made various modifications and upgrades to the house, among them, the 1811 construction of an ell that features a summer kitchen on the main level, servants’ quarters on the second level and an excavated root cellar, cistern and smoke chamber; and much later, after the turn of the century, the addition of central heating and an indoor bathroom, and a coal-burning stove in the kitchen. Also by this time, subdivision had whittled the once 60-plus-acre estate down to its present size of just under two acres.

Antiques Galore

None of the furniture and fixtures is original to the Lorings or the Greenoughs. However, the house is furnished and decorated with antiques donated over the years by Tuesday Club members or friends of the Loring-Greenough House, as were the collections held there. These historically significant items include china and decorative art, American and European paintings (including several Greenough portraits), folk art, ornate calling card cases, dolls and other toys, handmade beaded bags, quilts and period costumes.

Next year, the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club is planning to honor the 300th birthday of Commodore Joshua Loring, who was born on August 3, 1716.

The Loring-Greenough House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and designated a Boston Landmark in 1999. Visit the house online at or

A Lost Sense of Place



The Parks Department installed an interpretive sign at the site, with some information errors, about the history of the Pinebank homes.

The Parks Department installed an interpretive sign at the site, with some information errors, about the history of the Pinebank homes.

This is where Pinebank stood. Its space has transformed the place.

This is where Pinebank stood. Its space has transformed the place.

When the last structure built as a residence on Jamaica Pond was razed in 2007, the promontory on which it stood was reverted to open space. It was this open space, high on the banks of the water with its panoramic view of what was then the countryside beyond Boston, that beckoned James Perkins to build his summer home here in 1802. The house and its later incarnations, built in 1848 and 1870, were called Pinebank, in reference to the many conifers among which it was nestled. Pinebank’s beauty was known far and wide; the third mansion was featured in the 1879 book “The Homes of America,” in the 1898 guide “Walks and Rides in the Country Round About Boston” and was displayed on a late-19th century postcard. This once-glorious homestead lost that distinction when the property was taken for the creation of a public park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The structure tried to endure as the first home for the Boston Children’s Museum, as headquarters for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, as an arts center, until finally, the city mothballed and abandoned it.

Thus Pinebank began its physical decline, yet the mansion maintained its special presence in the park, even though tucked away on its promontory fewer people were aware of its existence, let alone its origins and life story. Although in ruins, it continued to exhibit its Victorian Gothic aesthetic value, holding court as one of the first buildings in America to make use of terra cotta tiles in its exterior design. It engendered a sense of both the mysterious and the familiar: The park setting made one wonder why this lone building was here, and yet this environment was the perfect place for it. When the ruins became too much of an embarrassment for the city to bear, it demolished Pinebank.

Now called Pinebank Promontory, the site has been returned to its original form as open space. Or has it? Where the house once stood now lies its footprint, traced with granite blocks implanted in the ground. Something important is missing from the landscape, yet something is still here. The space embodies the presence of a place. It is a special point on the landscape. It is no ordinary open field. Park goers slow down and linger here, perhaps to read the interpretive sign posted there (which actually raises more questions than it answers), or in a meditative pause on their walks. The city also schedules occasional concerts in the summer on what was the lawn of Pinebank.

Pinebank continues to stand on the promontory, embedded in a space-time continuum.


Pinebank and “The Other Side of Dark”


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The story and the fate of the Pinebank inspired my friend Sarah Smith to use the mansion as the backdrop for her novel, “The Other Side of Dark.” It’s her fifth novel, and the first one she has written for young adult readers. I met Sarah when I joined Friends of Pinebank, the grassroots group launched by Brookline resident Hugh Mattison to mobilize community support to save Pinebank. Sarah immortalized some of the members of the Friends group as characters in “The Other Side of Dark,” including me.

Sarah specializes in historical novels. Visit her website at to read reviews of “The Other Side of Dark” and explore her other novels.

“Parva Domus – Magna Quies”




The life story of a house (1870-2007)

Photo by Hugh Mattison

It was someone’s home. “Parva Domus – Magna Quies” was its motto – “Small House – Great Peace.” A broken covenant destroyed it.

It stood on a promontory overlooking the banks of a pond, hidden among pines, at the end of a wide, winding path. Pinebank.

It was a work of art.

This beloved domicile was home to the Perkins family, until relinquishing it in 1892 by eminent domain to the city of Boston; all the mansions on Jamaica Pond were taken so that the land could be cleared for the creation of a park. It is one of the links in the chain of urban green space that stretches from Boston Common to Franklin Park, which has come to be revered as the Emerald Necklace.

But Pinebank was spared. It was to be incorporated into the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park system as a “casino,” alternately called a “refectory,” a place where park goers could get refreshments or sit and reflect upon the landscape. Olmsted’s vision for the structure was never realized. The city of Boston would find other uses for this once-fine mansion, a couple of them community minded though somewhat short-lived.

Through neglect, as well as a good measure of ignorance on the part of several municipal administrations, Pinebank was allowed to deteriorate badly. To rid itself of the embarrassment of having allowed this architectural masterwork to become a graffiti-pocked, burned-out shell of its once-elegant self, the city of Boston demolished the mansion in January 2007.

Some token bricks and other remnants of the building’s materials are buried on the site in a crypt, should enough funds be raised one day to rebuild Pinebank (this isn’t how historic preservation works). The majority of the structure was reduced to rubble and trucked to a landfill in Rochester, N.H.  The city of Boston created a monument of sorts on the site, using the footprint of the mansion and some of its foundation stones.”Interpretive” markers dot the landscape with bits of Pinebank’s history. What was once a handsome home is now a monumental tombstone.