Hill History: Museum, med school were seeds of LMA

Though the Longwood Medical and Academic Area (LMA) now seems like the natural center of large institutions in Boston, it was originally intended to be luxury housing like the Back Bay.

Before famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted got to it, the LMA was a marshy area subject to tidal flow, storm flooding and sewage discharge. Under his direction, starting in the 1870s, as part of the Emerald Necklace park system project, the Fens were dredged, leveled, planted and turned the Riverway and Fenway parkways.

Flooding is still an issue in the area—the Army Corp of Engineers is currently at work on the Muddy River to address this same problem.

Boston leaders expected this newly hospitable area to be the city’s next wealthy neighborhood. Instead, it drew major institutions.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wealthy socialite and art collector, took the hint. As her Back Bay home—already enlarged once—was quickly being overrun by her art collection, she bought land in the Fenway in the 1890s. She decided to build a magnificent home for her art collection, modeled after Renaissance palaces in Venice. Fenway Court, as today’s Gardner Museum was known at the time, opened in 1903 at 280 The Fenway. It was a museum from day one. Gardner lived on the fourth floor.

Soon after, in 1905, the Harvard Medical School (HMS) was suffering similar growing pains. Even though the school had a fairly new building on Copley Square (on the current location of the Boston Public Library’s 1972 Johnson building), it was already outgrowing it.

The Francis estate, as it was then known, was purchased because it was a large and easily accessible tract of land, HMS librarian Jack Eckert told the Gazette.

“It was pretty much open land. It was a farmhouse,” he said.

Construction began in 1899 and HMS opened its now-famous quad at 250 Longwood Ave. in 1906. From then on, schools and teaching hospitals began setting up shop in the vicinity of HMS, some wanted to be near HMS. Others, like HMS and Gardner, just found cheap parcels of easily accessible land.

The Museum of Fine Arts relocated from Copley Square to its 465 Huntington Ave. location in 1909. The Winsor School moved from Beacon Hill to its current campus at 103 Pilgrim Road in 1910.

Across the street from the LMA, the Wentworth Institute, today’s Wentworth Institute of Technology, opened its 550 Huntington Ave. doors in 1911. Northeastern University moved out of the Huntington Avenue YMCA and into its own Huntington Avenue buildings in 1913.

Two of the many hospitals that now make up Brigham and Women’s Hospital—the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and the Robert Breck Brigham Hospital—opened on Francis Street in 1913 and 1914. Boston Children’s Hospital relocated to its famous copper-domed Hunnewell Building at 300 Longwood Ave. in 1914.

Wheelock College, founded 1888 as a kindergarten teacher one-year training school, moved to the Riverway in 1914.

Deaconess Hospital, now part of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, opened a 50-bed surgical hospital in the LMA in 1907. Beth Israel followed suit in 1916. The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, then the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, moved to the LMA, across the street from HMS, in 1918.

Emmanuel College, then a women-only institution, opened at 400 the Fenway in 1919. The Boston Latin School, founded in 1635, moved to its current home on Avenue Louis Pasteur in 1922.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, founded as the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation, was founded in 1947. And most recently, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, a Harvard institute with a site in the LMA, was launched in January 2009.

While land is no longer cheap and plentiful in the LMA, institutions continue to grow and set new benchmarks. In the last 100 years, the LMA has produced the first test-tube babies, the first woman to receive a doctorate, the first human organ transplant and research that directly led to the polio vaccine. The future can only build on these traditions.

Information for this article was taken from the institutions’ websites and from a 1907 edition of The Outlook newspaper. 

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