The Perkins Estate

450 Warren Street, Brookline

Entrance to 450 Warren Street, Brookline, January 2024. Photo by Sayako Aizeki-Nevins.

Thomas H. Perkins (1764-1854) was one of the Boston area’s wealthiest individuals during the 19th century. He and his brother were the namesakes of James and Thomas H. Perkins and Company, a Boston-based trading company established in 1792.*

In 1799, Perkins purchased 53 acres of land on Heath and Warren Streets. Soon the property expanded to 70 acres. This was a time when a number of affluent Boston-area merchants were moving to the “countryside” of Brookline.

Known as “the Merchant Prince,” Thomas H. Perkins originally called his new landholding Brookline Farm. In the early years of Perkins’s ownership, it had domesticated animals, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, the purpose of which was to provide food for his Boston establishments. Soon, Perkins had the house that already stood on the property torn down and a large, plantation-style summer house built in its place. Over the years, greenhouses and other buildings—including a gardener’s cottage, a guesthouse, and a billiards pavilion—were erected. Perkins had a team of gardeners, reportedly spending more than $10,000 per year (an amount, in 1825, worth about $320,000 today) to build and maintain a beautiful landscape that included ponds, winding paths, huge lawns, and flowers and shrubs from all over world.

What makes Thomas H. Perkins’s estate noteworthy—apart from its size and the wealth it reflects—is how the merchant trader accrued the money that paid for it. (James Perkins built a lavish summer home, which no longer exists, at Pinebank, overlooking Jamaica Pond, in Jamaica Plain.) Prior to the establishment of Perkins and Company, the two founders’ business activities included slave-trading in Haiti. Their new company, with its base of operations along Boston’s waterfront and its fleet of ships that transported goods around the world, gained much of its tremendous wealth from smuggling opium into China. In this fashion, Thomas H. Perkins contributed to widespread drug addiction in China and to the imperialist Opium Wars that devastated the country. At “home,” Perkins employed his wealth in a more beneficent manner to fund key local institutions—from the Boston Athenaeum to the Massachusetts General Hospital. Perkins also donated one of his homes (and his name) to what became known as the Perkins School for the Blind.**

The Perkins family retained the property at 450 Warren Street until the 1950s. What remains of the estate is today a property of about 22 acres that (according to a 1983 inventory) includes 11 buildings. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the property, which is still privately held, has an estimated value (in 2024) of $47 million.

Main residence of the Perkins Estate, circa 1983. Source: Massachusetts Historical Commission 1983.

Getting there:

Green Line (D Branch) to Reservoir station or Green Line (C Branch) to Cleveland Circle. 1.5 mile (35 minute) walk. MBTA buses pass much closer to the site.

To learn more:

Wayne Altree, “Some China Trade Figures in Antebellum Brookline,” Brookline Historical Society Newsletter, Annual reports Issue, 1990: 3-7.

Martha Bebinger, “How Profits from Opium Shaped 19th-Century Boston”, July 31 2017.

John Haddad, America’s First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

John Haddad, “New England’s Opium Overlords,” Tablet, November 23, 2022.

Massachusetts Historical Commission, National Register of Historic Places nomination application, May 1983.

Keith N. Morgan, Elizabeth Hope Cushing, and Roger G. Reed, Community by Design: The Olmsted Firm and the Development of Brookline, Massachusetts, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.

Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, Merchant Prince of Boston: Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764–1854, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

*See the entry for Central Wharf/James and Thomas H. Perkins and Company in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.

**Regarding the Perkins School for the Blind, see the entry for South Boston District Courthouse in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.