Tuesday, March 7, 2017

I Seek Newton, Part VII: Thompsonville

From Dave Brigham:

Is there silver in them thar' hills? Or remnants of a Baptist mission on a street corner? Or even radical Italian political literature socked away in the woods?

I would wager that a significant portion of the residents of Newton, Mass., have never heard of Thompsonville. The smallest of the city's 13 villages, T'ville, as some call it, for many people functions as little more than a pass-through between the shopping centers of Route 9 in Chestnut Hill and the boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and banks of Newton Centre.

But there's more, of course, some of it still standing or at least possible to find by poking around the bushes and woods. Other parts of the backside of T'ville exist only on old maps, and in memories and rumors, which make them more intriguing.

Welcome to the seventh part of my ongoing series about the backside of Newton, Mass., my adopted hometown. For links to the previous six parts, see the bottom of this post.

With each successive post about the villages of Newton, I dig deeper and take more photos. So although T'ville has a pretty small footprint, get ready for a long post with tons of pictures.

My wife and I lived in Thompsonville from late 1997 to the summer of 2000. We rented a small house on a dead-end street off the busy Langley Road, which connects Newton Centre to Route 9. Our Italian-American landlord, who had grown up in the house but lived elsewhere in Newton, called the place La Casita Flatita, which he translated as "the tall skinny house," although if you look it up in Italian or Spanish there's no such word as "flatita."

The house had just two bedrooms and one bathroom, unless you counted the disgusting, outhouse-level loo in the basement. The basement was also where our landlord's father had mashed his own grapes to make wine. There was ledge protruding into the basement, which his father had chipped away at, so as you walked from the bottom of the stairs toward the back of the basement, you had to gradually lower your head until you were barely stooping when you found the old wine barrels.

We liked living there; the street was quiet, there was a conservation area just steps away, and we could walk to Newton Centre for breakfast or dinner and drinks. When the landlord told us he was going to sell the house, we talked it over and made an offer. He rejected our offer, so we looked elsewhere and bought a house about 15 minutes away in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood.

It took a while, but eventually a developer paid not much more than we had offered for La Casita Flatita. He leveled it, blew up the ledge that was impeding expansion and built a side-by-side duplex that squeezed onto the lot like a potbelly pig on a postage stamp. Not long after, another developer (or perhaps the same one) bought the house next to our old one, where an elderly shut-in lived, as well as the house beyond that. Now, where once stood houses with history and stories and quirks, there are generic townhouses assessed at between 2 1/2 and nearly 4 times the amount we offered our landlord for the cute little house with wine barrels in the basement and old grape vines hanging in the backyard.

(Townhouses massed along Carlisle Street, replacing the old, single-family homes that stood when I lived there in the late '90s.)

Even the witch's house has been rehabbed of late.

For years this place was run down, with peeling paint, a useless jalopy in the driveway, overgrown bushes and shrubs in front and along the sides. When my wife and I lived just around the corner all those years ago, we noticed over the course of a few days a dead crow and squirrel on the sidewalk in front of this house, where an old woman lived. We joked that she must be a witch, because of the deceased animals and the overall creepy vibe of the place.

(This old garage maintains its, shall we say, lived-in look while so much around it goes high-end. The house on this property dates to 1900; not sure about the garage.)

The tide really began to turn toward faceless, upscale housing with the 2003 construction of The Terraces, a 48-unit complex of townhouse-style condos built in the woods directly opposite the street I used to live on. Where there once was a nice wooded area, there now stands this:

Despite all of the high-end housing in Thompsonville, and the even higher-priced stock a short walk away in Newton Centre, Thompsonville still maintains somewhat of a backwoods vibe.

When I lived there, I took full advantage of walking 50 yards to the dead-end, scooching down the small incline where the pavement broke off, and descending into the little hidden valley of Cohen Conservation Area. Developers haven't changed this element of Carlisle Street...yet.

Walking down into the Cohen woods is Newton's equivalent of goin' down in the holler.

The conservation area is a small area (about 7.6 acres) that abuts the Webster Conservation area, the size of which may be threatened by the recent purchase by Boston College of a nearby synagogue and surrounding acreage. In the small pocket of the Cohen woods there are rock outcroppings, slivers of Thompsonville Brook, portions of ledge and your everyday hand-cut stones with trees growing through them.

(Culvert for Thompsonvlle Brook in Cohen Conservation Area.)

(There are quite a few pieces of hand-cut and polished stone that obviously have been sitting around Cohen Conservation Area for quite some time.)

All of this stuff is fascinating enough, but there's also a whiff of mystery here:

"In the woods near Thompsonville, a few hundred feet south from the road, and where a silver mine was reported to have been discovered in the autumn of 1877, the granite rocks are curiously split and cleft asunder; and beautiful quartz clusters and lumps of milky quartz are found. There are also deposits of mica, and very interesting specimens of carbonate of lime. The particles of silver are too minute to be of much value." -- from Samuel Smith's History of Newton, Massachusetts, which was published in 1880.

Funny how Smith goes from talking about a "silver mine" to indicating that the silver is more or less worthless.

The Cohen paths never veer far from the dead-end streets off busy Langley Road. But you feel as though you're in a hidden valley.

(Looking out from the conservation area toward Madoc Street. From the street, a path continues into the woods and connects with what appears to be the remnants of Carlisle Street, where I once lived. A 1929 maps of Newton shows the streets meeting up, with Carlisle continuing through the woods and joining with nearby Elgin Street -- see photo below. I'm not sure if those streets actually ran through the woods or if there were perhaps just plans to have them do so. Either way, there are power lines along the wide path.)

Also at the end of Carlisle Street there is a short, nicely wooded path connecting to Houghton Village, a community of low, moderate and market-rate rental units, something in short supply in Newton.

(A plaque at the entrance to Houghton Village memorializing Eloise Houghton, who was active in the Newton Community Development Foundation, which provides affordable housing in the city.)

(A path behind a Houghton Village unit leading into the conservation area.)

Walking out of Houghton Village toward Langley Road, the main artery running through Thompsonville, I saw numerous townhouses and duplexes, similar to the ones that replaced the house my wife and I once lived in.

I also saw lots being cleared in advance of new developments.

The bottom photo shows clearing at a site where at least two houses once stood. I haven't been able to determine what's going in here, but according to the Newton Assessors Database, the same trust owns the two lots in addition to an empty lot, so I imagine there will be several homes or townhouses going in here.

Directly behind that site is Bowen Upper Field, where you'll find soccer and baseball fields. This is also the general area where the original Bowen School stood (the school was knocked down many years ago; a newer school is located on the site of the old school's playground).

(Old staircase and stone wall leading from Langley Road to Bowen Upper Field, sitting where the old Bowen School once stood.)

The dead-end streets off Langley Road have some nice old-world features to balance out the new-world condos and townhouses. Through the trees in one yard on Beecher Place, I spied what I believe is a root cellar. Looks like it might still be in use.

If you were to walk through the back yards of Beecher Place, or follow some of the trails in the Cohen Conservation area, you'd end up in the back parking lot of the Mall at Chestnut Hill. Built in 1974, the mall stands approximately on the spot of the most unusual property owner listing on any old map of Newton I've seen: Gabriele d’Annunzio Club of Newton.

It's not unusual to find names of clubs, businesses and organization on the old Atlas maps of Newton, of course. Trustees of Newton Y.M.C.A., Boston Academy of the Sacred Heart, Albemarle Golf Club, etc. I'd never heard of Gabriele d'Annunzio, however, so I looked him up. According to Atlas Obscura, d'Annunzio "was a war hero and famous libertine, and he essentially invented Fascism as an art project because he felt representative democracy was bourgeois and lacked a romantic dramatic arc."

An Italian who was born in 1863 and died in 1938, d'Annunzio was a self-promoting, sex-obsessed poet and megalomaniac, according to the Atlas Obscura article. He served in many capacities during World War I, and, upset at the end of the war because, well, the war was over, marshaled a few hundred troops and took over the Austro-Hungarian city of Fiume. He installed himself as leader, or, as he saw it, Messiah. He ran the place as a cult of personality, and used "inflammatory speeches full of rhetorical questions from balconies flanked with pseudo-religious icons. He outfitted his troops in embellished black shirts and soft pantaloons, and told them to march through the streets in columns, palms raised in a straight-armed Roman salute that would be plagiarized by the Nazis," according to the Atlas Obscura article.

Read the whole article to get a better idea of how much Mussolini (and, to a lesser degree, Hitler) ripped off d'Annunzio, and to find out why he is still revered in his home town in Italy.

So why was there a club in Thompsonville named after a proto-Fascist? Now, I don't want to get in trouble here, but it seems at one point this little village was somewhat of an Italian enclave. There's not much in the way of a "downtown" T'ville, but two buildings that line the southern end of Langley Road, just before it hits Route 9, are the Italian Benevolent Society Filippo Corsi (founded in 1915) and Trutony's Deli, which specializes in Italian food.

(The Italian Benevolent Society Filippo Corsi.)

(Trutony's Deli, located in a building that dates from 1920.)

(A 1920-era building across from Trutony's.)

Property owner names from the 1929 Atlas include Pignatelli, Spezzano, Gasbarri (there was also a Gasbarri Ave. off Florence at the Boylston angle), Signori, Sostilio, Antonucci, Terzacca, Recchia, Caruso, Paulini, Fontecchio, Cipriano -- in addition to Irish and Anglo names aplenty.

I imagine the benevolent society at one point had ties to the d'Annunzio Club, which was incorporated in 1922, according to some documents I found online. Italian immigrants at the time were discriminated against, so invoking the name of a famous Italian war hero for the name of one's club has some logic to it.

(Remnants of a stone wall along Route 9, near the site of the old d'Annunzio Club, where now stands The Towers of Chestnut Hill condo complex.)

At the end of Langley Road, at the intersection of Jackson Street just before Route 9/Boylston Street, there once was a Baptist Church, according to an 1875 map of Newton I found at the city's web site. I came across a reference to a "Baptist Mission Chapel" on the Village 14 blog, which serves as an online town common for Newton. The blog posted a photo from the dedication of the Bowen School in 1952, which shows a scene from what evidently was a short play. The caption says, "Scene 1: 1878, Baptist Mission Chapel, corner of Langley Road and Jackson Street."

Currently on that location stands the benevolent society.

Along the part of Jackson Street that functions as an off-ramp for Route 9, I spied this battle of man vs. nature.

In the triangle formed by Route 9, Jackson Street and Langley Road stands a war memorial.

On the opposite corner once stood a favorite dinner destination for Newtonites: Tony's Italian Villa. Now the building houses a home theater installation company. A few steps east along Route 9, past the stone wall in front of The Towers, sits Moody Street, a quiet dead-end with some interesting dynamics at work.

(Old foundation -- house? barn? -- on the corner of Moody Street and Route 9 -- that's evidently been like this for a few decades. I'm not sure of the age, but it seems pretty old.)

(Close-up of the old foundation, which I stumbled across while out and about taking photos around Chestnut Hill and T'ville.)

While searching on the Newton Assessor's Database for information about the old foundation's lot, I found that many of the 15 houses and two vacant lots on Moody Street are owned by C & R Trust. A little more research led me to the names C&R Management, the company run by Julian Cohen and Daniel Rothenberg (C&R) that developed the Mall at Chestnut Hill.

Most of the houses on this short street were built between 1940 and 1950; one was built in 1966. After snapping pictures, I chatted with a person who lives on the street (whom I will keep anonymous) and learned that the rental homes "are not well-kept," and that the the trust "regularly asks homeowners (like my source) if they want to sell so that they can control the entire street." My source thinks there is a master plan to build more condos, like the nearby tower units, or an access road to the mall.

Across Route 9 sits this beautifully restored building.

Once a gas station, it is now the fitness area for the the Residences at Chestnut Hill, a large condo complex built in 2004. I was surprised as I walked around south of Route 9, in the area where Thompsonville meets Chestnut Hill, at the number of apartment and condo complexes. Side note: when my wife and I lived in T'ville, we bought our Christmas trees from two guys sitting next to the gas station, warming themselves over a garbage can fire.

Click here to see an old photo.

One of the developments in this area is The Farm, which features units ranging in size from 742-4,283 square feet, with some priced well over $1 million.

I don't know what sort of farm this complex replaced. I dig the old mill stone-type sign at the property's entrance.

Continuing on my merry way, I ended up on Louise Road, which is probably considered part of Chestnut Hill. The road is right on the border with Brookline. For some reason, a barrier was put up between the cities' respective parts of Craftsland Road.

Based solely on circumstantial evidence, I'm guessing this was a Brookline initiative, as the houses on that city's part of the road are much nicer than the ones on Newton's side.

Louise Road borders Brookline's Lost Pond Reservation, which connects to Kennard Park in Newton (see June 6, 2011, "Stonewalling," for my write-up on the park).

Louise Road also borders The Farm, the buildings of which you can see in the background of this photo.

I'm not sure if this was once a road connecting through to the property where The Farm now stands. Certainly looks like it.

Back out on Florence Road, which connects Route 9 eastbound and Hammond Pond Parkway (and which becomes Heath Street once you hit Brookline), I found something I've never come across before: perfectly preserved ghost stairs and a wall.

This area has undergone massive change in recent years. I remember driving past this site many years ago, after spending time at the nearby Atrium Mall (R.I.P.) and seeing a quaint old house. When the nearby Omni Foods grocery store and other old retail and office buildings were torn down to make way for the Chestnut Hill Square retail complex, I intended to take photos of the old house. But I was too late. I'm impressed that this element of the past was preserved.

For more on the redevelopment of this site, see "Chestnut Hill Phoenix" from June 11, 2010, and "UPDATE: Chestnut Hill Phoenix" from January 10, 2012.

My tour of Thompsonville (and a slice of Chestnut Hill that I missed in my write-up of that village) ends on a solemn note.

Chestnut Hill Memorial Park sits just behind the new shopping center. The park memorializes the five people who died in a massive fire in an office complex in February 2000. I'm happy that members of the community and, I'm guessing, the developers, got together to construct this peaceful retreat, which will surely look better in the spring and summer.

Here are links to the previous six installments:

December 5, 2016: Chestnut Hill (#6)

September 26, 2016: Oak Hill (#5)

June 3, 2016: Waban (#4)

March 23, 2016: Newton Highlands (#3)

September 20, 2015: Auburndale (#2)

May 21, 2015: Newton Lower Falls (#1)

I'm not sure what village will be next. I still have to cover West Newton, Newton Centre, Nonantum, Newton Upper Falls, Newton Corner and Newtonville. I'll most likely take on Nonantum, which is close to my house and not as large as some of the others. Stay tuned....


  1. I discovered your blog on Thompsonville through Village 14. I grew up near Langley Road and went to Bowen in the 1950s and '60s with the descendants of all the Italian names you mentioned. My last walk through the area was so disheartening I felt like I was in another world. Your blog (and fantastic photos) showed there is still some mysterious allure there. Thanks for the memories.

    1. I'm happy you enjoyed this post about T'ville. I only lived there for a few years (1997-2000) but it holds a special place in my heart.

  2. Dear Dave,

    Thanks for sharing these photos! My son and I are working on a "then and now" type project about Bowen and Thompsonville for a cub scout badge. Do you have any other photos about the Bowen and Thompsonville communities that you could share?

    1. Hi Jeffrey -- Sounds like a fun project! I definitely have some other photos. You can email me (dbrigham_us@yahoo.com) and let me know what sort of pictures you and your son might want.