Walking in a Victorian gentleman’s shoes

A friend recently offered me the opportunity to experience a history topic I didn’t know much about. He arranged for me to stay at the St. Botolph Club in Boston.

Boston is one of my favorite cities because like most East coast cities its history is rich and compelling and consists of many layers. I always like to explore the Back Bay area known for its rows of Victorian brownstone homes. It is one of Boston’s most expensive residential neighborhoods. Originally a bay, it was filled in during the 19th century.

Commonwealth Avenue is one of the major streets of the Back Bay area. It’s lined with 19th century rowhouses and it is divided by a grassy mall, called the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, puncuated by statues and memorials and running east to the Public Gardens. People often compare it to a Paris boulevard, but I can see reflections of London in its character.

Sitting on Commonwealth about two blocks from Copley Square is the St. Botolph Club, a gentleman’s club of the late nineteenth century.  Private member clubs like this  date back to the 18th century in England, but became popular in the United States in the late 1800s. Today they exist predominantly in the UK and Commonwealth countries and in the U.S.  Most major American cities have at least one club, but more exist in the East coast cities. Philadelphia and Plymouth, MA have two of the oldest clubs in the United States dating to the 1700s.

The St. Botolph Club was a men’s art club, formed in 1880 and named after the VIIth century abbot  whose monastery stood in the fens of East Anglia at Botolph’s Town, later corrupted to Boston. Botolph became patron saint of Boston, England and thus the connection with the New England city.

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It formed with the intent to connect patrons to artists and writers and to foster the art community. Its founders included some well-known names in American history: sculptor Daniel Chester French and writer William Dean Howells; members included politician and historian Henry Cabot Lodge, publishers Houghton and Mifflin, and poet Robert Frost. Over the years the club has held some major exhibitions, including the first Monet exhibition in Boston. Artist John Singer Sargent exhibited his work at the club’s first exhibition.  His painting of club member Jack Gardner’s wife was considered a bit scandalous at the time. Gardner was angry that his wife was the subject of gossip and demanded the work never be displayed in Boston again in his lifetime. A copy of the painting hangs in the entrance of the club, installed in 1988 to mark the hundredth anniversary of Sargent’s exhibition. The original hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, named for the subject of the painting.

While a men’s club for most of its existence, the St. Botolph finally admitted female members in 1988. It remains a vibrant place that promotes the creative and intellectual pursuits of its members through periodic club nights that foster intellectual and social, as well as cultural exchanges. And, as in years past when quartets from the Boston Symphony would present concerts, occasional visits by world-class musicians fill the club with beautiful music.

The interior has the features one would expect in such a place: leather chairs, bookshelves, gleaming furniture and chandeliers. The small ancient elevator with sliding metal gate reminded me of the old buildings of Europe and seemed suitable for this history site tucked away in the toniest of Boston neighborhoods.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
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2 Responses to Walking in a Victorian gentleman’s shoes

  1. Katy says:

    Love this! So fascinating; thanks for sharing these tidbits most of us are not familiar with.

  2. Pingback: Boston favorites | historyplaces

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