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”

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 http://www.sarahsmith.com/ 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.