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.

Somerset Club

42 Beacon Street, Beacon Hill

First established in 1826 as an informal group, what is today the Somerset Club became formalized as the Beacon Club sometime thereafter. In 1851, the club purchased a house at the corner of Beacon and Somerset Streets to serve as its home. Renamed the Somerset Club the following year, it is the oldest of Boston’s private clubs.

Original home of the Somerset Club, corner of Somerset and Beacon Streets, 1860. Photo by Josiah Johnson Hawes. Source: Arts Department, Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

In the years surrounding the Civil War, political tensions permeated the Somerset as many of its members were “Copperheads”—Democrats strongly opposed to abolitionism, the war and President Abraham Lincoln. This led to one of its members on the other side of the political divide to found the Union Club nearby (on 8 Park Street) in 1863.

Reflecting the Harvard ties of many elite social clubs, the Somerset is now located in what was the mansion of David Sears (Harvard class of 1807). The club purchased the property in 1871.

The Harvard Crimson newspaper has characterized the Somerset as “traditionally . . .  the haughtiest and most prestigious of clubs.” One does not to ask to join the Somerset, but rather one is asked. The club is so secretive that one needs to be a member to access its website.

Long associated with Boston Brahmins and WASPs—its members have included powerful Yankee politicians and businesspeople and deans from the area’s elite institutions of higher learning—the Somerset did not admit women until the late 1980s. While its membership still reflects “old money” and proper “pedigree,” the Somerset, like Boston’s private social clubs as a whole, is no longer at the center of the area’s pyramid of power. Given large political-economic shifts over the last several decades and the internationalization of Boston’s economy, the Somerset’s status is somewhat a relic of the past.

Somerset Club, 42 Beacon Street, March 2017. Photo by Eleni Macrakis.

Getting there:

Red or Green Line to Park Street Station. 0.3 mile (seven-minute) walk.

To learn more:

Samuel Hornblower, “Fifteen Minutes: The Old Boys’ Clubs,” The Harvard Crimson, April 27, 2000.

Alexander Whiteside Williams, A Social History of the Greater Boston Clubs, Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1970.

The Country Club

191 Clyde Street, Brookline

The County Club, circa 1910-1915. Library of Congress.

Boston Brahmins were eager to have a private club for racing horses and associated activities, yet free of the gambling which took place at public racetracks and which they found repulsive. So, in 1882, they founded The Country Club on 100 acres of land. Brookline, with its then-open countryside and proximity (in terms of travel by horse coach) to their homes in Boston, was an ideal location.

Horse-related activities dominated The Country Club for only a brief period. By the early 1900s, it was a multipurpose establishment dedicated to a variety of sporting endeavors, but still ones seen as “rural”—such as lawn tennis. Indeed, by this time what had been the racetrack was part of the golf course.

The Country Club, the first such establishment in the United States, both reflected and helped to define what it meant to be a member of Boston’s upper-class establishment. And, by inspiring the founding of other country clubs across the United States, it helped to produce the suburban lifestyle of the affluent and the associated landscape on a national scale. Long a bastion of WASP male privilege, The Country Club reportedly did not admit Jews until the 1970s, women (as full members) until 1989, and its first African American member until the following year.

Today, The Country Club sits on 236 acres of land. The privatized property is Brookline’s largest “green” space. Its membership of approximately 1300 individuals is secret, but it includes some of the Boston area’s most powerful individuals. Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots football team (who lives in an adjacent estate), is reportedly a member. And, until moving to Florida in 2020, so, too, were team quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Giselle Bundchen, his spouse.

Getting there:  

A MBTA bus, which runs between Forest Hill Station (Orange Line) and Reservoir Station (Green Line, D Branch), stops near the club’s entrance.

To learn more:

Richard J. Moss, Golf and the American Country Club, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Michael Rawson, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.