As the home of the first country club in the United States, Brookline boasts the status of poster child for the nation's affluent suburbs. Indeed, its staunch resistance to annexation by Boston made it an island of privilege surrounded on three sides by Boston neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the Brookline story is far from simplistic.
Leading members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony discovered the advantages of future Brookline almost immediately, claiming grants of farmland here beginning in the 1630s. The bridge at Muddy River (now Brookline Village) attracted those wishing to escape the Shawmut Peninsula in the colonial period, with the Punch Bowl Tavern as the established focus of village life by the mid-eighteenth century. If Muddy River provided the commercial heart, the civic and religious function removed in 1711 to a meetinghouse on Warren and Walnut streets as the official town center.
The establishment of a suburban mentality coalesced early in Brookline. The construction of a milldam across Back Bay in 1821 facilitated the exodus of those who could afford a daily commute. Among the more distinctive early characteristics of exurban flight was the group of country houses on Warren and Cottage streets with two-story arcades, possibly influenced by plantation architecture of the Caribbean. More pronounced were the first two planned suburban communities at Longwood (BR1; 1849) and Cottage Farm (BR7; 1850), developed by the Sears and Lawrence families. The Brookline branch of the Boston & Worcester Railroad in 1848 and the Beacon Street extension in 1850 made access to the new suburb quicker and easier for many. Unlike the suburbanization story of many Boston-area communities, however, Brookline did not build many local industries, and wealthy residents continued to divide their time between both communities throughout most of the nineteenth century.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, two Brooklines emerged—a northern district of more intensive development and a southern zone of larger estates, roughly divided by Boylston Street (Route 9). As elsewhere, streetcar lines brought linear growth to the northern community. The West End Street Railway (1889) opened Beacon Street to more intensive development, including row houses and apartment buildings along a corridor laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted. Although single-family homes predominated, some two-family and three-decker enclaves emerged to serve other clientele. The ethnic mix also increased as first Irish and later Jewish communities moved into northern Brookline. The Country Club became the symbol of southern Brookline, attracting large property holdings in the surrounding areas. Substantial lots with professionally designed landscapes complemented houses of exceptional scale and quality. With the passage of the graduated income tax in 1913 and restrictions on immigration in the 1920s making servants harder to find, the estates gradually shrank in size or were divided for institutional uses. During the last half of the twentieth century, most of the remaining great estates in southern Brookline were subdivided for large houses. At the same time, blocks of condominiums displaced small commercial structures in the north part of town as new ethnic groups, particularly from Russia, settled here.
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