of the speedway
The end of the 19th century was the golden age of urban park development in America. Following architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s success with Central Park in New York City and the Emerald Necklace in Boston – and spurred by the belief that access to fresh air could solve a litany of social ills – there was a push nationwide for more recreational opportunities for city dwellers. In 1893, the Metropolitan Park Commission (MPC, now the Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR) was established in Massachusetts and tasked with creating America’s first interconnected regional park system.
The Charles River Reservation was at the core of this 9000-acre network, transforming a polluted stretch of tidal mudflats into a beautiful riverside promenade, a mile-long harness racecourse, and two-mile long bicycle track. In 1899, the MPC built the Charles River Speedway buildings to support the Reservation, providing necessary space for administration, housing, storage, horse stables and even a cow barn.
Designed in the Shingle and Colonial Revival styles by renowned local architect William D. Austin, the complex looks more like the high-style seaside “cottages” of Newport than a municipal building. This was likely intentional: Austin’s thoughtful design projected dignity and permanence, while also implying that access to nature was not an upper-class privilege, but a public right.
The transition from horsepower to automobiles brought great change to the Speedway; in the 1920s, the open sheds and stables were enclosed, and the two-story stable building was converted into a police station and dormitory. The addition of a nine-bay garage further changed the complex. But the final blow came in the 1950s, when the racetrack was replaced with Soldiers Field Road. The transformation was complete: cars had fully replaced horses.
Over time, park management offices were relocated, tenants moved on, and the building fell into disrepair. As Allston and Brighton grew and changed and the cars on Soldiers Field Road drove faster and faster, it appeared that The Speedway may be lost to time. But it wasn’t forgotten: DCR, local residents and historic preservation groups called for the buildings to be saved and revitalized. Together, they sought a new purpose for the complex and worked to identify potential development partners.
In 2010, The Speedway was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and Preservation Massachusetts included the site on their list of most endangered historic places. Three years later, in 2013, the complex was designated a Landmark by the City of Boston, protecting the buildings from demolition and encouraging their preservation and reuse. That same year, the Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) applied to revitalize The Speedway through DCR’s Historic Curatorship Program. AHF was awarded a long-term lease to redevelop the site into a commercial and cultural gateway to Allston-Brighton and the Charles River.
2013 – AHF applies to DCR’s Historic Curatorship Program to revitalize The Speedway as a commercial and cultural gateway to Allston-Brighton and the Charles River
2014 – DCR selects AHF’s proposal and the Massachusetts Legislature authorizes a long-term lease; community outreach begins
2015 – A fire guts the headquarters and early stables building, showing the site’s vulnerability and adding urgency to the project
2016 – AHF hits a roadblock with the regulatory reviews necessary for financing the project – back to the drawing board
2017 – AHF refines the redevelopment plan as the market around it becomes stronger and more able to support the preservation plan
2018 – The project is approved for state and federal Historic Tax Credits! Pre-construction sitework begins
2019 – The City of Boston awards the project $200,000 in Community Preservation Act funds; AHF secures New Markets Tax Credits, City and state permits, and site control; construction begins in October