United States > Massachusetts > Greater Boston > City of Boston > Jamaica Plain > Woodbourne

Designed on Garden City ideals. Woodbourne is the southernmost neighborhood within Jamaica Plain. It was strongly influenced by the Garden City movement of the late 1890s and early 1900s. The proponent Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) advocated for communities to be surrounded by greenbelts of parks and forest, and urged architects to retain the uneven character of the landscape to preserve a more natural setting within the city. The places inspired by this movement – including Letchworth in England and Forest Hills and Kew Gardens in Queens, New York City – are some of the more charming and beloved neighborhoods of their era.

Woodbourne was developed between 1911 and 1945 as affordable housing for workers. However, the setting and residences were so attractive that they began to draw more affluent residents. As an aside, the opposite is more often the case – the East Boston neighborhood of Eagle Hill was intended as an affluent enclave but ended up becoming housing for nearby workers in the shipyards. That said, those historic, vernacular houses are now regarded as quite charming and it is now, after a hundred and fifty years, drawing the affluent residents for which the original developer had hoped.

Surrounded by parkland. Woodbourne is flanked by the 265-acre Arnold Arboretum, a holding of Harvard University that is also part of the Emerald Necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Forest Hills Cemetery, and Franklin Park (also designed by Olmsted).

Woodbourne was built from several 1800s estates into a model of housing built on Garden City principles. This approach emphasized surrounding communities with greenbelt of parks and open space, working with the landscape to preserve a sense of nature within the city, and roads winding around hills and rocky outcroppings. While it was intended as middle-class housing, it ended up being so attractive that it quickly attracted more affluent residents.

The residences represent the housing styles of the first four decades of the twentieth century: Arts & Crafts, Colonial Revival, Craftsman, Queen Anne, and Shingle Style. These are a mix of single-family, two-family, and triple-decker houses.

Best blocks and notable buildings

The Woodbourne Historic District was developed out of 1800s summer estates into an enclave of reform-minded housing designed with early 1900s Garden City ideals. Rather than flatten the landscape into uniformity, the architects and planners deliberately retained the uneven character of the landscape to preserve a country-like character within the city. The result is a setting that is naturalistic, romantic, and picturesque. Because of the topography, the street design is curvilinear and varied. There are no grid patterns; each block has its own unique shape and configuration. The district encompasses Walk Hill Street, Bourne Street, Florian Street, Wachusett Street and Goodway Road.

The original plans for Woodbourne were drawn up by the Olmsted Brothers, modeled after their earlier projects Riverside, Illinois and in Forest Hills Gardens in New York City. However, one of the developers modified this plan in order to [reduce costs], and went with design by Robert Anderson Pope, who was influenced by Ebenezer Howard and Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), a Russian prince who renounced his title to turn activist. Pope adopted Kropotkin’s belief in decentralization, cooperation, and communal spaces. He created something that struck a balance between cutting costs and being inherently desirable: "[Pope sought to] minimize development cost by economizing in use of land and by fitting as close to possible the roads to existing topography ... He also advised using a greater amount of the existing vegetation. He redesigned the plan for the knoll — 18 house sites at the same elevation, grouping the houses to make possible a “picturesque result”, saving the important pines on the slopes and using existing old roads." Perhaps if more developers today realized that they could save money by leaving the landscape intact and building around it, we would have more interesting contemporary projects.

Bourndale Street, especially the top, offers the highest elevations and the more expansive views. The original nineteenth-century estate houses were located here, and along a section of Northbourne Road.

15 Bourne St. was built 1909 in the Shingle Style.

Woodbourne Clubhouse (84 Bourne St.) was designed by Charles Collens (c.1873-1956), who also designed several residences in the neighborhood, although he is best known for Riverside Church and the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum, both in Manhattan. The clubhouse was built in 1914 as a focal point for the concept of communal living in the development. It is now a private residence.

Seaver School Residences (35 Eldridge Rd.) is an H-shaped building cut into the hill. It was built in 1930 in a spare and elegant Colonial Revival style, and has since been converted into condominiums.

47 Patten St. was built in 1899.

55 Patten St. was built in 1899.

Olney House (56 Patten St.) is the oldest house in the neighborhood, built in the 1860s. In 1864, Richard Olney (1835-1917) purchased a house with stables and ten acres of land along Walk Hill Street, and it was thought to have had one of the first private tennis courts in Boston.

6-8 Rodman St. was built in 1889.

16, 28 and 34 Rodman St. were built in 1905, in the Shingle Style.

162 Wachusett St. was built in 1898 in the Queen Anne style.

186-188 Wachusett St. was built in 1911 in the Shingle Style.

71 Walk Hill St. Built in 1896, this Queen Anne house is the earliest house within the historic district. While the Olney House is older, it is not part of the district because of alterations.


There are no subway stops within Woodbourne, although residents can walk to the Forest Hills station in Forest Hills for the Orange Line and Commuter Rail, or to the Roslindale Village station at Roslindale.

To put today's transit options into historic context – a news article describing Woodbourne in December 1911, described its location as "a half-mile beyond the new Forest Hills terminal of the Boston Elevated Railway." But more importantly, “[It was] within fifteen minutes of the business center of Boston on a five-cent fare.”. Transit service is worse today, btw.


Woodbourne is regarded as the southernmost neighborhood within Jamaica Plain. To the north is Forest Hills, to the west is Roslindale, and to the east is Forest Hills Cemetery, and beyond that, Mattapan.

Woodbourne was once part of the original 1630 land grant to the colonial town of Roxbury. In 1851, West Roxbury (including Forest Hills, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale) separated from the rapidly urbanizing town of Roxbury. With the annexation of the various towns, each of these became a distinct neighborhood of Boston.

The Town of Roxbury was divided with the legal separation of West Roxbury (including Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and Forest Hills) in 1851, which was in turn annexed to Boston in 1874.

The 30-acre parcel of the National Register district consists of three historical parcels, each with their own history. Located within the Jamaica Plain area,

The northern section of Woodbourne, above Walk Hill Street, was the summer estate of the Peters family. The family had a mansion on South Street in Jamaica Plain, and their son, Andrew J. Peters was mayor of Boston from 1918-1921. The Peters family ended up purchasing the adjacent Olney estate.

The section from Walk Hill Street to Hyde Park Avenue was the estate of Richard Olney (DATES). He served as Attorney General (1893-95) and as Secretary of State (1857-97) under Grover Cleveland. He also argued successfully in favor of the unconstitutionality of the Income Tax Law before the Supreme Court in 1884 (it was later enacted under President Woodrow Wilson). In 1864, Olney bought 10 acres of land with a house and a stable along Walk Hill Street, abutting the Minot estate. Olney’s house, at 56 Patten Street, is the oldest in this area. He reputedly had one of the first tennis courts in Boston.

In 1845, this section of Jamaica Plain, a charming wooded area of rolling hills and the meandering Stony Brook, attracted many Bostonians.

The electrification of the streetcar system by the West End Railway Company by 1890, and the opening of the first subway route in 1897 improved speed and accessibility to more outlying areas, setting the stage for the Woodbourne developments. Several lots were slowly sold off and by 1898, modest construction had begun.

A later purchase in 1901 of the remaining Peters/Olney estates by Hosford and Williams signaled a new phase of development for this country retreat. The developers subdivided it and laid out Rodman, Patten, and Eldridge Streets. They advertised lots, stressing the proximity to Forest Hills Station. By 1904, Rodman and Eldridge Streets were open and Wachusett was extended to Eldridge Road. While full-scale subdivision did not begin until 1901, several houses were erected on Walk Hill Street, Wachusett Street and Rodman Road beginning in 1898. Construction continued until 1916 but was interrupted by the onset of World War I. Construction was later resumed in 1922.

Woodbourne’s core or middle section belonged to the Minot family, who initially used this as their summer estate. William Minot purchased the original parcel of land in November 1845 from Ebenezer Weld, a successful local farmer. Minot, like many other elite Bostonians such as Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Benjamin Faneuil, Joshua Loring, William Fletcher Weld, John Lowell Gardner, and Francis Parkman, purchased this outlying property as a summer home to escape Boston’s summer heat and seasonal cholera outbreaks. He was later joined by his children, William, Jr., Mary and Julia, who bought and built a house in close proximity. It soon became a compound of the extended family, with the father summering and the rest of the family living here all year round.

William was the son of George Richards Minot, a historian, lawyer and judge (1758-1802). His accomplishments included being the Orator of Boston and being a judge of the Probate Court and Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas as well as the Municipal Court Judge of Boston in 1800. He was also one of the original incorporators of the Massachusetts Historical Society. His son, William, was born in 1783 in the family house on Spring Street in Boston. Married in 1809, William Sr., moved to a town house, reputedly designed by Peter Banner at 61 Beacon Street opposite the Common in 1817. He made this his primary residence; the property at Woodbourne was his summer estate. He managed the Benjamin Franklin Trust for the City of Boston. He died on June 2, 1873 leaving the Woodbourne property to his children: George Richards Minot II, William Minot, Jr., Julia Minot, and Mary Minot.

The Minot houses were built in the 1840s; William Sr.’s was constructed in 1847. The houses were located atop a hill with scenic views to the Blue Hills. The estate was named Woodbourne by Julia Minot, the invalid daughter of William, Sr. It was named after the home of Guy Mannering in the novel Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott in 1829. Not only did it match the description of the woods along Bourne Street, the description of the house must have reminded Julia of her own home.

Woodbourne was a large comfortable mansion snugly situated beneath a hill covered with wood, which shrouded the house upon the north and east; the front looked upon a little lawn bordered by a grove of tall trees; beyond were some arable fields, extending down to the river, which was seen from the windows of the house. (Guy Mannering, Vol. 1. Chapter XIX, 1895 edition).

In 1855, some land was sold to Charles Eliot Guild for a summer retreat. It later became the house of Massachusetts Governor Curtis Guild.

The Minot compound contained several households, including children, servants and often guests. The terrain had a large grove of pine trees on the north side; the southern and western areas contained a landscaped area of garden, trees, and shrubs. Both father and son loved landscape gardening and made Woodbourne into a showplace. In 1850, William Minot, Jr. wrote about the estate:

Our roses are just out. Our honeysuckles too. The new mown hay, almost half a ton, lies spread on the garden lot. The pears are shaping themselves. Strawberries ripening. Raspberries well formed. The laurels are opening new leaves. All is green, growing, gracious.

In 1850, Minot and his two sons, William, Jr. and George Richard bought a large parcel on the east side of Bourne Street (originally part of Ebenezer Weld’s land), enlarging their holdings. In 1864 William Jr., who resided in his father’s house year round, purchased another parcel, which included three houses (site of #114 and #124 Bourne) at the corner of Eastland Street. George Richards Minot bought the western parcel in 1856.

George Richards Minot, the eldest son of William, built a summer residence in 1846 near his father’s house. After attending private school he became a merchant like many of his Minot and Weld relatives. He began working for the firm of Chandler & Howard on Commercial Warf as an apprentice in 1829 at the age of 16. He sailed on East Indian ships for the next 10 years before opening his own Indian trading company, Minot & Hooper of Marblehead in 1839, sending ships to India and China. After a financial collapse in 1857, his firm became agents for Southern cotton mills. After the Kingston Street firm’s headquarters was destroyed in Boston’s 1872 fire, his son George Richards Minot II, rebuilt for his father who was in Europe at the time. George II lived with his wife on Pinckney Street on Beacon Hill and summered at Woodbourne; he and his family relocated to Jamaica Plain in 1849. He had vegetable gardens, pigs, horses and cows. His animals used the Stony Brook for water. George died at Woodbourne in December 1883 of a heart attack. He had been looking at the house Cabot & Chandler were designing for him at 254 Marlborough Street in Boston. His wife and children moved back to Boston after his death.

William Minot, Jr. felt most at home at Woodbourne. He was born (1817) and raised in Boston, first on Charles Street and later at 61 Beacon Street. After graduating from Harvard in 1836, he joined the family law firm. In 1842, he married Katherine Maria Sedgwick (1820-1880), the niece of Maria, the well-known novelist. They lived on Beacon Street until moving out to Woodbourne in 1847. His first child was named after this estate, Alice Woodbourne, born that same year. William Jr. was an accomplished gardener and spent much of his time improving he grounds.

William Sr. died in 1873; sister Julia died in 1875 in her Woodbourne house; Katherine died in 1880 and his other brother in 1883. Alice also died in 1883, leaving William, Jr. the lone survivor. He moved back to Boston in 1884, into a town house at 22 Marlborough Street. The estate reverted back to a summer residence. The Minot houses were torn down when the estate was sold in 1911. The family is buried across Walk Hill Street in the Forest Hills Cemetery. Those who died earlier were reinterred from the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston to Forest Hills.

In 1895, another momentous change came to this area. The Boston & Providence line of the NY, NH & Hartford Railroad was elevated. A viaduct designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge was designed and constructed in 1898 that rerouted the Arborway under the new 4-track design. This massive elevated structure was demolished between 1981 and 1984 for the Southwest corridor project. In 1909, the Boston Elevated Railway built the new station at Forest Hills designed by Alexander W. Longfellow.

Early in 1911, Robert Winsor, investment banker with the firm Kidder, Peabody & Company, and one of the directors of the Boston Elevated Railway, raised the possibility of building a model residential enclave near the carbarns of the elevated railway system at Forest Hills for its conductors and motormen. Its location was “within fifteen minutes of the business center of Boston on a five cent fare.” He began discussing the idea of creating a “scientific, model residential enclave for its conductors and motormen as an alternative to the ills of urban housing and congestion” with an additional goal to be an “object lesson, which will lead others to make similar investments.” He also sent agents to study developments in Europe. Among developments investigated were the projects built by the London County Council as well as a large private development in London. The agents also went to Liverpool, Birmingham and Germany.

Debates over congestion and substandard housing were abounding in Boston at this time. “Boston-1915”, founded in March 1909, by Edward Filene (retailer) and other civic, educational, and business leaders hoped to provide a blueprint for coordinated response for every department in Boston. It aimed to increase efficiency and cure many of Boston’s problems.

This concern about housing workers had evolved in New England during the nineteenth century — from mill girl boardinghouse system of industrial textile centers; company-owned family tenements in factory villages; and widespread speculative building in and around large cities. A few industrialists adopted “model” housing and developed communities with an eye to sanitary, aesthetic and landscape concerns. Manufacturers willing to develop factory communities according to the ideals of the professional architects and landscape architects provided the first testing ground for the new multiple-family housing designs and garden-suburb planning. The garden-city solution was the idea of Ebenezer Howard: new towns on less expensive, cooperatively-owned land developed either to support a local industry or connected to urban centers by rail. In America, the ideal garden city became a small garden suburb at the edge of the urban core linked by transportation. Such residential developments tended to be guided by traditional American ideas of philanthropic investment: the housing was expected to earn a modest profit. Model towns based on cooperative schemes similar to those in Britain met with resistance. However, in both countries, the high cost of model housing meant that it could compete with speculative building only through “collective” purchase, design, and development of a large site.

The efforts at inexpensive home ownership in a planned natural environment required architects to define what a home should be. The home must look like a house, whether for one or two families. It must be domestic in scale and sited to provide open space for fresh air, light, privacy and recreation.

In the debate of affordable housing and lack of home ownership, Winsor envisioned his plan for housing as a “solution to some of the most serious problems of city life, the ills of urban housing and congestion.” Not only would it provide decent housing, the model community would be “an object lesson which would lead others to make similar investments.” It was during a period of concern for affordable housing and the lack of home ownership.

On November 30, 1911, the Boston Dwelling House Company was formally organized with a Declaration of Trust to develop a 30-acre site near the carbarns. Henry Howard was named the president and Robert Winsor, Jr., treasurer. The Trust was formed “with the object of providing desirable, attractive, and sanitary homes at a moderate cost or rental for persons, desiring the same and for the purpose of acquiring the real estate hereinbefore described…” The directors were many prominent social, civic and religious leaders including: Robert Woods, leader in the settlement house movement; William Cardinal O’Connell; Frank A. Day; John Wells Farley; Frederick P. Fish; Mrs. Bertha Hazard; Charles H. Jones; James Prendergast, (a Catholic stock broker who encouraged Cardinal O’Connell to join); James L. Richards; Mrs. Richard M. Saltonstall; Frederic E. Snow; and Carl Dreyfus. Two trustees were directors of Filene’s “Boston-1915” which had planning and housing reform as goals.

Henry Howard, vice-president of a chemical company, was a member of the Massachusetts Commission on workmen’s compensation, later the Mass. Employees Insurance Association, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also a classmate of Water Kilham at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Minot estate was bought in 1911. The family had contemplated selling the property off in lots, like Hosford & Williams. The estate was sold to Harriet A. Connors of Ashland on January 11, 1911. Later in the year, The Boston Dwelling House Company purchased the land from her. (The entire BDHC purchase encompassed more than is in the district, another section of Woodbourne Road, Eastland Road and Wayburn Road.)

Stock prospectus and newspaper articles appeared soon after. The trustees announced that they had shared “modern viewpoint of philanthropy, and it justifies itself when placed on a sound economic basis.” The houses would not be subsidized, but would earn an economic return. The architects identified with the project were Kilham & Hopkins, Parker, Thomas & Rice as well as Grosvenor Atterbury of New York and correspondence with Coolidge & Carlson.

After construction began at Woodbourne, Kilham embarked on a trip to England in the autumn of 1911. He visited Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight near Liverpool and then Cadbury Cocoa Village of Bourneville, near Birmingham. He also reviewed Hampstead Garden Suburb.

The emphasis on Garden City tenets and the belief in communal arrangements were designed into the Boston Dwelling House development. There was not only the grouping of multi-family houses, but there were also community gardens and spaces.

Woodbourne, like the Filene Cooperative Homes project in Franklin Heights, Roxbury (several years before) and many others of this period, never fully lived up to the goals of their creators.

Kilham, commenting on the Woodbourne project in later years, describes what he thought went wrong with this and other similar projects for low-income workers. Although they started off with providing “simple habitation for working people,” architects tended to incorporate too many amenities such as “fireplaces, furnaces, and piazzas.” These extras pushed the rental and sales prices beyond what working people could afford. At Woodbourne, stated Kilham, “the apartments were immediately seized upon by teachers, dentists, and so on, and the houses similarly.” The Boston elevated “mechanics and street-car workers never got their houses.” About a decade later this area was predominantly upper-middle class. Kilham & later partner, William Roger Greeley, blamed the failure of reform housing (as did many others) on land and building costs for new construction. Critic Lewis Mumford adopted a similar position, although coming to a different conclusion, during the early years of the Depression. Rejecting the ideas of those who envisioned factory-made prefabricated housing as a panacea, he stated that to “Modernize the dwelling house and create adequate quarters for our badly housed population,” the government must be involved. (Lewis Mumford, “Mass-Production and the Modern House,” Architectural Record 67, no. 7 (February 1930: 116).