A Walk Through Brighton's Oak Square
Brighton's Oak Square
Is it possible for a small village to exist in one of the largest cities in America? If so, Brighton's Oak Square would be Boston's best example. Centered around a triangular space where an ancient oak tree once stood along an Indian path, Oak Square resembles an 18th Century village full of 21st Century multicultural hipness. A YMCA, pizza joints and Thai food stand beside some of the pillars of any small town — The local library branch, a brick-red firehouse, a former grammar school and various shops and restaurants. But maintaining such a splendid little scene has not been easy. In the last thirty years, local Square dwellers have had to fight to keep almost every one of the aforementioned buildings from a dire fate. What remains is a testament to residents who have cared enough to protect the village they call home.
The Ancient Oak & Schoolhouse
Following the twists and turns of Boston's street patterns surely gives drivers headaches, but there's something hyper-organic about roadways that harken back to paths worn by the feet of passing Native Americans. So it is in Oak Square, where Nonantum and Faneuil Streets follow trails that passed under the enormous Oak Tree towering over the valley between Nonantum and Washington Hills, headed out to the Charles.
In poor health, the hollowed-out old Oak doubled as a playhouse for 19th Century children who spent their recesses hiding in its 10-foot wide trunk and the rest of the day in the old schoolhouse next door. The tree was said to be the largest in the state when it came down in the mid-1800s. The first and then second elementary school still occupied the common space as late as the 1890s. Eventually, the second schoolhouse was moved up the street, where it was expanded and still stands on Bigelow Street as housing. A third grammar school was built on nearby Nonantum Street and hung on as Boston's last wooden schoolhouse until it closed in 1980. It too was converted to housing and remains part of the square's legacy.
While Oak Square has certainly changed through the centuries, its essence has survived. The common has never looked better and the spot of the old Oak has been memorialized. The two schools remain in altered form and the long-lived public buildings of Oak Square have stood against the many forces arrayed against them. Indeed, one can stand in Oak Square Common today and have very little difficulty imagining the scene 50 or 100 years ago.
Above: The landmark Oak is still remembered in the square's central common. (Drawings courtesy of the B-A Historical Society)
Below: Three photographs looking toward the square from Washington Street. The trolleys that once dominated Oak Square are now gone, but aesthetic improvements have regained some of the essential character that seemed to be slipping away at the time of the 1980 photo. The ethnic diversity of the neighborhood has also changed through the years. Once a largely Irish-Catholic and Italian enclave, today the area includes large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese and Latinos.
(Older photographs courtesy of Charlie Vasiliades and the Brighton-Allston Historical Society)
Above: The second Oak Square Elementary School was originally built in Oak Square Common on the site of the original schoolhouse. In its later years, the school was hemmed in by the more defined street pattern of the square. It was eventually moved up the hill to Bigelow Street where it can still be seen today as a residence. (Older photos courtesy of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society)
The Third Oak Square School
The third version of the Oak Square Elementary School was constructed in 1894 and designed by famed Boston architect Edmund March Wheelright — whose resume included the Boston's Horticultural Hall and the Longfellow Bridge. The school was always tiny, holding just two single classrooms until 1923 when two more were added. Students attended from kindergarten to Grade 3 in its later years. By the 1970s, the structure seemed small and lacking, as the Boston School Department found the school to be "totally inadequate, cramped and disjointed," with a nurse's office and classrooms so tight that children often wound up resting or doing schoolwork out in the hallways.
While the school was very popular among parents and had the third highest reading scores in the city, the BPS was hemorrhaging pupils from nearly a 20% drop in enrollment during those so-called "White Flight" years while also dealing with a property tax fallout from Prop 2 1/2. Judge Arthur Garrity (of Southie school busing fame) put Oak Square Elementary on a closure list in 1980 and this last wooden schoolhouse in Boston finally shut its doors. Still, residents waged a successful effort to save the structure, giving it a new purpose as the home for ten market-rate condos of one and two bedrooms. Today the stately structure has been classified as an official Boston Architectural Landmark and still stands straddling Tremont and Nonantum Street as it has since before the turn of the century.
Older photo Copyright Brighton-Allston Historical Society
Our Lady of the Presentation School
The abrupt 2005 closure of Our Lady of the Presentation Grammar School on the Washington/Tremont corner of Oak Square was a crisis for the Archdiocese, the families and the Oak Square neighborhood. Following the devastating sex abuse scandals of the early 2000s, Boston's Roman Catholic Archdiocese sought to close a number of city schools to recoup the millions it had to dole out in a clergy abuse settlement. Because eight of the closed schools around Boston had actually been occupied by protesting parents, the church attempted to head off another occupation by locking the doors on families at Presentation two days before the end of the 2005 school year.
At that point all Hell broke loose. Graduation ceremonies were cancelled, student possessions were left inside and even an abandoned goldfish stirred up concern among children. Protesting parents took to camping out in the Oak Square Common, dividing the tents into "Lennonville" and "O'Malleyville" after Bishop Richard Lennon and Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who received the opinions of protesters through signs reading "Shame on the Archdiocese" and "The Abuse Continues." A Catholic, Mayor Tom Menino jumped into the fray, sending a letter to the church summarizing their actions as a "heartbreaking insult" and then allowing school graduation ceremonies to be held in historic Faneuil Hall. The Archdiocese even found the MSPCA on their doorstep checking on the health of that goldfish — as well as a butterfly and deserted frog.
Although, the Church turned down initial requests to sell the building to a group of interested parents and locals willing to pay market rates and convert the structure into an educational center, the Menino administration and public pressure came to bare. Eventually, the archdiocese sold the 1920s-era school building for some one million dollars less than market value to a group of organizers who transformed the building into a community center. Today the imposing Italian Renaisance structure bedrocks the western side of Oak Square offering daycare and family services.
It nearly took divine intervention but at least a compromise was reached.
Left: The old Presentation School began new life in 2012 as the Presentation School Foundation Community Center
A look at the corner of Washington and Tremont Streets where the Shillaber Mansion once stood. The house was built sometime before 1745 and was home to Boston merchant Daniel Brewster Shillaber. The corner has since been occupied by the former Presentation School building which is now a community center. An early grocery store operated by the Pratt Family can be seen at far right in the older photo.
(Older photo courtesy of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society)
The Oak Square Trolley Yards
For decades, trolleys dominated Oak Square, rumbling and squealing their way through the twisting, circular rotary and heading off to Newton, Watertown and points beyond — or making the turn and heading back downtown. Oak Square was one of the initial stopping grounds for Boston's original electric cars. In 1888, an early electric trolley trial was run out of Oak Square, "Running 16 miles per hour and making it all the way to Cambridge Street" before the electric surge was halted by a dirty track. The return trip saw four wheels jump the track but no one was injured. It was the beginning of trains in Oak Square.
Soon the old carbarns at the east end of Oak Square were dramatically expanded and a rather drab wooden edifice was put up to serve as "Oak Square Station" for the next three decades. Even after those train facilities came down in 1927, the east side of Oak Square was still dominated by such train-paraphernalia as waiting streetcars, a substation and a turn-around track. Meanwhile markets, a flower store, a park and a gas station attempted to live side-by-side with such a cacophonous neighbor through the years.
7,000 riders a day were still riding through Oak Square as late as 1967. But two years later, the MBTA halted service on the old Green Line link to Watertown for an 11-week trial period. As it turned out, it was the end of an era.
Those irritating tracks remained firmly embedded into Faneuil and Washington Streets, as proposals were made to revive the old Green Line route. But the car now reigned supreme and Watertown officials blanched at the vision of trolleys running up and down crowded Galen Street further on down the line. The offending tracks were finally removed from Oak Square in the 1990s leaving public transportation forever to the buses.
In 2001, a dynamic and hugely popular YMCA was constructed on the site of the old station, giving the square another important visual anchor along with the library, Presentation School (now community center) and fire station.
Above and to the left are some of the structures that have stood on the plot of the land on the east end of Oak Square. They include the Brighton Flower Shop, Smith's Open Air Market and Oak Square Station.
The new YMCA had 2,100 members before it even opened in 2001. It features a fitness center, basketball and volleyball courts, a computer training classroom, a teen center, day care area and pool.
As part of its small town ambiance, Oak Square has long contained various shops serving the locals on the hills nearby. In the middle of the last century, Gray's Market was offering the groceries and "provisions" that Oak Square dwellers needed (as seen in the photo to the left). Additionally, the square featured a number of Mom and Pop stores as late as the 1960s and '70s including Flanagan's Fish Market, Moore's Drug Store as well as shoe stores, spas and soda fountains.
But as in many of Boston's neighborhood centers, Oak Square residents in the 1960s and '70s became more willing and able to jump in the car and ride out to a Stop & Shop, Star Market or even malls in Newton, Watertown and Chestnut Hill. That transformation changed the character of small city centers like Oak Square.
Since that time, stores have moved in and out in a kind of tug of war to determine what kind of center Oak Square would be. The current line-up of businesses seems to have been rather illogically arranged. One finds Thai food, two pizza parlors (within 30 feet of each other), some trending upscale (City Tails, Fiorella's) and some trending down (Gray's revamped as a liquor store, Brighton Nails). The closing of Discovery Used Books and Records and Sips and Licks seems to signal a move away from any attempt to become a JP-like hippie villa and yet the income base of the community doesn't seem quite affluent enough for boutiques and pet grooming. For now, it's a mix and match.
The map below shows a number of points around Oak Square with photos from the past and present. Click on each pin to see pictures from today and yesterday. All older photos are courtesy of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society.
Looking out of Oak Square park to the west up Washington Street. The former Presentation School is at far left. The figures in the older photo were apparently fastened onto the postcard to give it more vitality. (Older photo Courtesy of the B-A Historical Society)
Oak Square's Faneuil Library may be a small but distant outpost in the sprawling Boston intergalactic library system, but when downtown decision-makers tried to close the branch in 2010, they quickly found out how the community stands behind the Faneuil. Constructed in 1931 in the Art Deco style so popular at the time, the library has never grown from its original modest layout. Today, it is stuffed full of books, magazines and the newer essentials for any library — computers and internet stations. Book carts may overflow into narrow corridors and computer consoles may sit uncomfortably close but "save-the-library" protests in 2010 against BPL president Amy Ryan rose to a fever pitch when closure was suggested. This would also explain why it is one of the busiest and most popular branch libraries in the city. Today, thanks to the Friends of the Faneuil Branch Library, the old building seems relatively safe from extinction and continues to serve Oak Square bookworms, galaxies away from BPL's Copley Square hub.
Like much of Oak Square, the local fire station has received a much-needed refurbishment in recent years. Built in 1913, the 12,000 foot firehouse along Faneuil Street had seen better days by the beginning of the 21st Century. Originally built to hold up horse-drawn engines, the first floor was being propped up by wooden beams below while a creaky wooden staircase had earned the station the nickname "Shorewood Forest." Some even worried Engine 51 could fall into the basement. Indeed, fire doors that sometimes had to be opened by hand and peeling paint and water leakages made Oak Square Station one of the least desirable work locales in the city.
But a 2011 renovation brought new life to the old building, including essentially a fresh start on the interior of the building. Reinforced concrete has steadied the structure and the electrical system has been brought into this century. The neighborhood and ever-present Mayor Menino came out for a celebration of the rebirth in 2011 along with a dedication of a memorial plaque to David Middleton, an Oak Square firefighter who died in 2007.
Below: The trains no longer run through Oak Square but this ancient crossroads continues to remain an important destination at the edge of Boston.
We Need Your Help...Do You Remember Oak Square?
Below is a map of Oak Square. We are trying to reconstruct what businesses or organizations occupied each building or plot of land in Oak Square through the years. Please let us know if you "Remember What Was There" using the form below.
Send Your Oak Square Memories & Comments
"Being stationed at E 51 Oak Square...loved that old firehouse worked many tours of duty there, miss it very much. Now retired living in Aiken Sc." -Steve Abbott
"There was a Barber Shop in the 60's I believe was called Nick's. The proprieter was also a lounge musician, Nick Lamberti (?) and he also gave piano lessons in the back room of the barber shop..." -Mike Dwyer
"When we first married, we lived on the third floor of 2 Champnmey St. It was a 4 room apt. We did not stay long after our first child was born because dragging a baby carraige up and down 3 flights was getting old." Martha Powers Johnson