Meet Me in Medford | Architect & Activist Doug Carr
Updated: Nov 19, 2021
by 4Squares Residential Group in Partnership with Judi 411
Architect, historic activist, and urban planning advocate Doug Carr describes himself as someone who embodies both old and new Medford. A life-long city resident, Doug has witnessed enormous change on the Medford landscape – literally and figuratively – and has played an integral part in enacting some of that evolution. At the same time, he’s committed to preserving Medford’s history through his work with The Medford Brooks Estate Land Trust (M-BELT) and on the Medford Historic Commission.
Read on as Doug reflects on growing up in Medford and how Medford has grown, and how we all can play a part in preserving its legacy.
As a third-generation Medford resident, what are some of your favorite memories of growing up in Medford?
My father's family moved from Cambridge to South Medford on Clayton Avenue in the late 1940s. My dad grew up here and started a family here, worked as a teacher in Medford schools for 30 years, and served as a city councilor for two terms from 2001 to 2005. I grew up in the Lawrence Estates in the 1970s, went to Medford High School, left for college, and came back to buy a two-family in West Medford, where I've made my home.
It's interesting -- some favorite early memories as a kid were that we played outside every waking moment. There was a lot less traffic then, and we played football, stickball, hockey with nets out on the street. We played basketball in my driveway and Little League baseball down at Memorial Park and lots of sports atVictory Park -- because it was a few blocks from my house. We were outside all day until it was time to eat, and we were starving by then because we had probably burned 4,000 calories. There was a lot less supervision, and play was very unstructured. It's pretty different today, where activities are structured with time slots and teams. Our kind of play was much more freeform, which is a generational thing.
We also walked to school. Schools were within walking distance. I never had a ride to school in my life. The idea of being chauffeured to school is one I find that endlessly amusing. But there's been a movement in recent years where families walk their kids to school, which I think is great and what I think is unique about Medford:the neighborhood cohesion. Whether it's Hillside, Fulton Heights, South Medford, or West Medford, each area has its distinct sense of place, and there's pride in where you live and the community around you.
What else about Medford has prompted you to stay here? What do you love most about living here?
While the access to Boston is an immense benefit, Medford itself has 27 parks and 25% open space, which it seems that people have rediscovered in the pandemic. I've always enjoyed walks to Mystic Lakes. Pre-pandemic, those trips were pretty quiet, but now, I am never alone. The same goes for the Fells, which residents have flocked to because they've craved outdoor space. The extended bike path/walking trail near Whole Foods is priceless. Medford is slowly but surely building a network of trails from one side of the city to the other along the Mystic River, connecting to Arlington and beyond via the Minuteman Trail and the path leading from Wellington into Boston. It's taken 20 years to get there, but it's almost there. And it's inspiring.
You've played an integral part in the urban planning of Medford, most notably advocating for the Green Line Extension.
Yes, I've been involved with bringing the GLX to Medford since 2005, alongside Ken Krause and many other transit activists. Ken Krause knows more about the Green Line extension than any person in the city. Our group fought hard for it by advocating for the station locations and design and coordinating community outreach to abutting neighborhoods. Come May 2022, Medford will start to see the benefits once the Tufts University station opens, and we are working to create a final stop at Mystic Valley Parkway, at the U-Haul next to Whole Foods Market. A final train stop there will help serve more of Medford, Arlington, and Somerville. That one extra station opens up public transportation to about half the population of Medford. We hope that the transportation money that will eventually find its way out of Congress will serve as the low-hanging fruit to benefit the city overall.
Urban planning has taken a turn for the better here in Medford. Many zoning rules were written in the 1960s and haven't applied to the development since the early 2000s. As an architect, I'm excited to see a revitalized planning department and an administration devoted to managing density in a way that preserves neighborhood qualities while also encouraging development. Imagine Medford Square with increased mixed-use buildings where businesses and restaurants can thrive within walking distance of several neighborhoods. Well-managed urban planning fuels that potential.
While you're devoted to revitalizing Medford, you're also committed to preserving Medford's architectural history and historical legacy, most notably with what is one of Medford's most incredible hidden gems, The Brooks Estate.
Tell us about your work with the Medford Historical Commission and the Medford Brooks Estate Land Trust (M-BELT).
Even though I've lived here all my life, I didn't know of the Medford Brooks Estate until about 25 years ago when I learned that they were trying to build a cell phone tower behind the Shepherd Brooks carriage house.
What I discovered was a remarkable historic open space, an architectural masterpiece, and the story of a family with deep roots in local and national history.
The Shepherd Brooks Manor is a majestic, Queen Anne-style mansion built by the Brooks family in the late 1800s and left to the City of Medford in the mid-1940s. Over the years, it's served as a home for veterans and later a nursing home. Sadly by the late 1980s, it had fallen into a state of disarray and in desperate need of repair. For most of the last 25 years, M-BELT’s only source of funding other than our own donations were the Federal Community Block Development Grants (CBDG). However, in the last 4 years, M-BELT has been able to tap into Community Preservation Act funds to stabilize and restore the Manor for public use. We've put in new infrastructure, including a restored slate and copper roof, five chimneys, seventy windows, two massive porches, an elevator and two rebuilt bathrooms. We're not done yet, but where we're pretty far along.
I think the reason a lot of people don't know about the Brooks Estate is that it is hard to find. Our focus now is redesigning the access drive from Grove Street up to the Manor and building a parking lot so that the people of Medford and elsewhere can fully enjoy the Estate. The vision for the carriage house is to serve as a multi-purpose function facility and economic engine for the entire Estate. Suppose Medford residents wanted to host a small wedding, an art show, a concert series. In that case, they'd be able to because, as Medford citizens, they are literal owners of the property and can get reduced rates for using the building in a multitude of ways.
Many people aren't aware that the Brooks Estate is on the National Register of Historic Places or how the Brooks family contributed to local and national history. The Brooks family fought in the Revolution, and two state governors came out of the family. John Singer Sargent painted some family members, and one of their portraits hang in the Peabody Essex Museum. The Brooks family contributed to architectural history as well. They were developers in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire, working on the cutting-edge of a new form of a building known as the skyscraper. Many Chicago landmarks hold direct ties to Medford.
On top of all this, the Brooks Estate is surrounded by fifty acres of natural beauty. We host tours of the Estate and nature and bird walks led by local naturalists, but one aspect that always surprises people is that the ten-acre Brooks Pond is not a natural feature. We've found photos of the pond being dug by Irish immigrants in the 1880s. The entire space is amazing, and M-BELT is devoted to preserving the open space, habitat, historic landscape, and buildings for future generations.
How can people get involved with M-BELT and help revitalize the Brooks Estate?
We're always looking for volunteers to help cut back the trails, to work on the Manor, and we need a facilities manager for the Manor. Caretakers live on-site, but it's a 10,000 square foot building that requires a lot of maintenance.
Of course, funding is a challenge. Up to now, we've tapped into Community Preservation Act funds to boost our restoration activities, and we've been approved for every grant we've presented, which has been fantastic. The CPA understands that because Brooks Estate is city-owned, it should receive top priority.
Municipal funding is a possibility as well. About ten years ago, we put in for a bond to fund the entire restoration, but the police station, fire station, and library took priority. Now that two of the three of those initiatives are near completion, we many have an opportunity to revisit the idea with the new City Council and get us over the finish line so that the Estate is functioning. Change is in the air, and we need the political will to make it happen.
For readers who are interested in learning more about the Medford Brooks Estate developments, mark your calendars for November 17th, 2021 at 7pm, when Doug and M-BELT will display the design drawings for the access drive for Estate. Click here for zoom details.
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