The Ash Street Dog: An Unsolved Mystery

The Ash Street Dog
The Ash Street Dog (2011)
The Ash Street Dog (2011)

One of the great pleasures of living in Cambridge is the palpable sense of the past. Scratch the surface, and there’s a story waiting to be sniffed out on virtually any corner in the city. In this post, I nose into the pedigree of a large dog statue that has sat watch in a private garden near Harvard Square for more than a century.

I first got wind of this antique canine curiosity while perusing an essay on the history of the Ash Street neighborhood. Entitled “Windmill Lane to Ash Street,” the essay was presented to the Cambridge Historical Society by its author, Roger Gilman, in 1945. At the end, Mr. Gilman digresses from his historical research to muse about the provenance of a dog statue that had become a neighborhood landmark:

“He sits on a lawn at the corner, as he has for forty years, since he was brought here from the Sands marble works. He is an artistic enigma. We know only that he was one of a pair, made about 100 years ago. Yet he is on a plane above the books of stock designs. Is he a forgotten work of some well-known sculptor? Is he a copy of some late Italian piece – like those Molossian dogs that guard the entrance to the Uffizi in Florence? However he came about, at whatever moment he was intended to mourn, by some base mistake he was sold down the river to our corner….now he is merely a despised Victorian, wasting his grief on an unheeding populace as its waits for the trolley on Ash Street.”

Today, the proverbial dog’s age later, the redoubtable brownstone statue remains in the same garden on the corner of Ash and Mount Auburn Street, having long outlasted anyone who could attest to its true history. My curiosity piqued by Mr. Gilman’s picturesque description, I dug into the dog’s pedigree by pawing through some of the marvelous resources in public and private archives and online. The trail ultimately proved as cold as the stone the statue is made of, but following it reminded me that the thrill of the chase is its own intellectual reward. I could have happily continued sniffing around tangential trails, but for the purpose of this blog, I finally had to pull hard on my own leash and command myself to “leave it!”

What follows is some of what I learned along the way:

The Jennings Dog (British Museum)
The Jennings Dog in the British Museum

The Ash Street dog appears to be a faithful replica of a Roman marble statue dating to the 2nd century AD, now in the British Museum. The piece is called the Jennings Dog after Henry Constantine Jennings, who brought it to England in the late 1750s. In the Victorian era, the Jennings Dog (also known as the Dog of Alcibiades) was widely reproduced in cast stone as a garden ornament. One of these stone copies was displayed in the Oxford Botanic Garden until about 1960, and was likely produced by the British firm of Austin and Seeley.

Garden ornaments proliferated in the Victorian era, and well-to-do Americans wishing to emulate the British gentry created a local market for knock-offs of the classical reproductions adorning English country estates. Might some prosperous Cantabrigian have gone on a Grand Tour and brought home the statue as a souvenir in the second half of the 19th century? Could the dog have originally belonged to Samuel Batchelder, who in the early 1840s acquired the former Vassall estate, which stretched from Brattle Street all the way down Hawthorn Street to the river and boasted acres of prized horticultural gardens?

The Sands marble works, where Mr. Gilman believed the statue might have been purchased around 1900, was a longstanding stone yard and maker of headstones located near Mount Auburn Cemetery. Yet, notwithstanding Mr. Gilman’s morbid allusions, the dog’s energetic, upright pose is more appropriate for a garden than a cemetery, as animal figures on graves are typically recumbent to ensure a peaceful rest in the afterlife. Might Sands may have acquired the statue in an estate sale and later sold it to one of the owners of the house on Ash Street?

Oxford Botanic Garden Dog
Oxford Botanic Garden Dog

The house itself dates to 1853 and is a fine example of the bracketed Italianate style popular at the time. The house is set very close to the street on two sides of its corner lot, and the front garden where the dog sits is quite narrow – hardly the grand country setting for which such a statue was intended. In the 1870s the property belonged to Abel Willard, a tradesman and part owner of the omnibus company (Willard, Stearns and Kimball) that operated horse-drawn coaches along Mount Auburn Street to Boston and Watertown. The house stayed in the Willard family until John Delaney came along, around the turn of the last century. John Delaney and his son Francis were stone masons; might one of them have worked at the Sands company and acquired the dog statue at a discount, or in trade?

The house’s longtime owner knows only that the statue was in the garden when his late partner’s parents purchased the property from the Delaneys more than six decades ago. He corroborated the anecdote in Mr. Gilman’s piece about how the house had narrowly escaped the clutches of an undertaker, who had hoped to buy it on the cheap and open a funeral parlor after the Delaneys fell behind on their taxes during World War II.

One of the Uffizi's Molossian Hounds
One of the Uffizi's Molossian Hounds

The Molossian dogs in the Uffizi Gallery to which Mr. Gilman alludes are Roman copies of a pair of 3rd century BC Greek statues. Two American foundries (J.W. Fiske and Mott) made replicas of the Uffizi dogs in cast iron and zinc in the late 1800s. While the Ash Street statue is very similar in design to these Molossian-style reproductions, its ears are less upright, and its tail is not draped over its hind leg. The so-called Molossian dogs of ancient Greece were the ancestors of contemporary “molosser” dogs such as the Mastiff, Newfoundland, St. Bernard, Leonberger and Swiss Mountain Dog. With its large, muscular build, short muzzle, bushy tail and thick neck ruff, the Ash Street dog looks like a mix of all these breeds.

In Mr. Gilman’s day, the statue faced out toward Mount Auburn Street, and from its base on a stonewall several feet above street level, the looming four-foot-high dog must have been especially fearsome to young children and passersby after dark. Nowadays, the dog sits with its back turned to the street, obscured by a row of towering pleached beeches, which the current owner planted many decades ago. Though the faint of heart no longer need to cross the street to avoid a potentially startling encounter with the dog, it is a pity that he is less of a neighborhood landmark than in Mr. Gilman’s day. In fact, before I read Mr. Gilman’s reminiscence, I had passed the corner countless times without noticing the dog.

The Ash St. Dog (photo by Roger Gilman, circa 1945)
The Ash St. Dog (photo by Roger Gilman, circa 1945)

It always pays to be reminded of how stopping to look closely at the history of any neighborhood enriches our present-day experience and observations. How many of the thousands of people passing through Harvard Square every day know that when Cambridge, first known as “Newtowne,” was settled in the 1630s, an actual windmill caught the breeze near the marshy banks of the Charles River at lower end of present-day Ash Street? Or that in the 1830s, Harvard’s bathhouses were located in the same area, and the street was called Bath Lane? Or that before Memorial Drive was constructed in the late 1890s, the Cambridge elite socialized at a private “casino” with lawn tennis courts, a bowling green and a boat landing near the foot of Ash Street, on the former site of the Cambridge Gas and Electric Company?

People are too quickly forgotten as well. When I began my research, I found conflicting information about the identity of the Roger Gilman who wrote the essay. To set the record straight, let it be known that “our” Roger Gilman grew up on Hawthorn Street (one street to the west of Ash Street) and studied at Harvard and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. A dean at the Rhode Island School of Design and later the publicity director at the Fogg Museum, Roger was related to Arthur Gilman, the founder of Radcliffe College. He lived across Ash Street from the dog statue from about 1930 until his death in 1964, at age 90. His essay on the development of Ash Street is published in Volume 31 of the Cambridge Historical Society’s Proceedings, available in the Cambridge Room at the Public Library.

I am grateful to all those who indulged and abetted my amateur historical sleuthing: Kit Rawlins and Sarah Burks at Cambridge Historical Commission; Gavin Kleespies at the Cambridge Historical Society; Alyssa Pacy at the Cambridge Public Library; Meg Winslow at Mount Auburn Cemetery; and Lindsay Allison, my former colleague at Hammond Real Estate and a longtime Mount Auburn Street resident who loves dogs.


3 thoughts on “The Ash Street Dog: An Unsolved Mystery”

  1. Roger Gilman was my grandfather,and an architect, adding on a library to his house, a classic 1820’s Georgian you can see in the picture. His wife Jane had grown up on a large palatial estate in Cincinnati with Italianate design and gardens. They traveled to Florence frequently. I wonder if they mused on this together. I my.self passed this statue many times. Thanks for all of your research, very enjoyable.

  2. There are a number of similar dog sculptures around the world. In an attempt to discover the workshop that made the marble pair in the Aiete Palace (1893) in San Sebastian, Northern Spain, I just found out there is one more in a street in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and yet one more pair in a private residence, also in Argentina, purchased in Europe in the 1900.

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