A Good Neighbor: John Chipman Gray the Elder
By Karen Falb
Mount Auburn Cemetery and the nearby Larchwood Neighborhood (Fig. 1) have a history going back to the Cemetery’s founding in 1831. At that time, the neighborhood was an estate owned by John Chipman Gray (1793-1881), a state politician and horticulturist who resided on Boston’s Summer Street. He used his Cambridge property as a family farmstead and summer residence convenient to Boston, where he served as both a state representative and senator from 1829 to 1852. Researchers today can find him listed as John Gray, John C. Gray, and John Chipman Gray the Elder. His estate was inherited by his nephew John Chipman Gray (1839-1915), son of Horace Gray, Harvard Law Professor and partner in the law firm Ropes and Gray. After the death of the younger Gray, the estate was developed into the Larchwood Neighborhood in 1915.
John Gray was one of the many gentleman farmers of the Boston area involved with prominent voluntary associations such as the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Society for the Promotion of Massachusetts Agriculture. He was also a founding member and first vice president (1829-1833) of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society during its early years, when it championed the project of developing a rural cemetery. Although the Society’s president Henry Dearborn and corresponding secretary Jacob Bigelow were the masterminds of what became Mount Auburn, the support of people like John Gray made their efforts successful.
One of the most important of these supporters was the merchant and art collector George W. Brimmer, whose land bordering Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge became the core of the Cemetery (Fig. 2). Beginning in 1825, Brimmer had purchased acreage in Watertown and Cambridge with the idea of making an estate. But by 1831 he had given up the idea because of ill health, and was eager to sell the land to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for its new cemetery. One of Brimmer’s original Cambridge parcels was purchased from John Gray’s father, the Boston merchant and Massachusetts politician William “Billy” Gray. However, Gray had retained 1.3 acres directly in front of his mansion and the triangle of land between Brattle and Mount Auburn Streets.
When his father died later in 1825, John Gray inherited the 1.3-acre parcel with the estate and mansion. He then sold that land to George Brimmer in September 1831, adding to the total area purchased by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. And later that fall, he helped support the Society’s financing of the cemetery land by buying three contiguous lots for the Gray family’s future needs. Since he and his wife, Elizabeth, had no children, those future needs included those of his older single brother, Frances Calley Gray, and his younger brother Horace Gray and his family. His parents were already interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Tremont Street in Boston.
Located on a foothill by the intersection of Hemlock and Lily Paths, the Gray family lots are on a line from the original mansion house site to the Mount Auburn mount. Perhaps the lots were chosen by John and Elizabeth for existing views both from and to the mansion. 25 years after their purchase, the first burial was of Frances Calley Gray in 1856. His poignant marble memorial of an old loyal dog catches one’s attention to this day. The next burial was of Horace Gray in 1873, marked by a simple marble stone. John’s wife, Elizabeth Pickering Gardner Gray (aunt to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s husband), followed in 1879, and John joined her in 1881 (Fig. 4).
What should John Gray be remembered for today? Certainly his support of the Cemetery during its first year is important. This included his leadership in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society as well as personal decisions to sell land to complete the cemetery and provide financial support by buying lots. Later he was a Trustee from 1845-1849 and a neighbor for fifty years. It is easy to imagine, though, that as a horticulturist he must have been at least initially disappointed when the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s goal of developing experimental gardens in or near his former 1.3 acres was dropped by 1835 when Mount Auburn became a separate corporation.
Meanwhile, the Larchwood Neighborhood still memorializes him as well, especially his interest in trees. Its name was inspired by the trees he and other family descendants planted at the edge of the estate for privacy. Many of these interesting estate trees were saved by the architectural landscape firm Pray Hubbard and White when they planned the neighborhood in 1915. A few from the Gray estate survive to this day. (Fig. 6 – top photo. A memorial commemorating the 100th birthday of the neighborhood placed in the Larchwood cul de sac on Fresh Pond Lane. Photo by Karen Falb.)
Karen Falb is a retired biology teacher and landscape historian. She and her husband, Peter Falb, have enjoyed the Cemetery’s beauty and history for almost 50 years as neighbors living in the Larchwood Neighborhood, almost on the original site of the Gray’s family mansion now located on Larch Road.