Police stable is living history

August 14, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH


The 1890s stable at the Brandegee Estate looks like a mansion.

K-9 unit thrives in grand quarters

JP History

JAMAICA HILLS—When people talk about the Boston Police stable—and they have a lot lately, with the disbanding of the police horse unit—few of them know the term doesn’t do the place justice. Tucked away on a corner of the Brandegee Estate on the Boston/Brookline border at 165 Allandale St., the stable is likely Jamaica Plain’s least-known grand historic building.??

An architectural beauty inside and out, the 115-year-old neo-classical stable looks more like a fine house. It was “the mansion for the horses,” said Officer James Naughton, the JP native who oversees the stable’s administrative offices, last week on a Gazette tour of the property.

And, though the horses are gone, it’s still a home. Police dogs still train there, sniffing out suspects in exchange for tennis balls and treats, as they have since the Brandegee family donated the first K-9 unit dogs 45 years ago.

“You don’t find buildings built like this anymore,” said Officer Troy Caisey, whose work as the K-9 Unit’s head instructor helps keep the stable a piece of living history.

A new chapter in that history is being written with the controversial dissolution of the Mounted Unit, whose own history predates the stable by 20 years. The Gazette has learned that JP photographer Richard Wilkins, without any publicity, documented the final months of the Mounted Unit in hundreds of photos—including possibly the only full documentation of the unit’s historic “last ride,” a final parade through JP’s Arnold Arboretum.

The horse stalls seem to have passed into history now, standing empty except for the two cats that earn their living the old-fashioned way, by mouse-catching. But the Brandegee family foundation that owns the estate con-siders the horse section to be in limbo and will keep it in police hands awaiting a possible return of the Mounted Unit, according to Charles Boit, a foundation board member who lives across the street.

“I don’t know what other use you could put the property to,” Boit told the Gazette.

‘Magnificent building’

Allandale Farm, which operates a roadside stand farther down Allandale Street, is the public face of the Brandegee Estate. Also owned by the family’s trust, it sprawls across more than 100 acres of Brookline and JP, making it Boston’s last working farmland.

But much more survives on the estate acquired in 1891 by Mary Pratt, who married clothing manufacturer Edward Brandegee a few years later. Mary was a member of the Welds, the ancient Boston family that owned vast tracts of JP-area farmland in the 1600s. Her estate brought some old Weld lands back into the family fold—including today’s Allandale Woods urban wild park, across the street from the stable. That land was once owned by the South-ers, whose long-lost mansion Allandale gave the road its name.

The Brandegees built a lavish mansion of their own deep in the heart of their estate, currently rented by Brookline’s Dexter School as administrative offices.

Around 1893, Mary built the stable—a facility so fine that visitors often mistake it for the Brandegee man-sion, Naughton said.

That is, if they notice the stable at all. It is set back and facing away from the road, screened behind trees, with no street signs advertising its use. An imposing gated drive leading to both the mansion and the stable is flanked by two of Boston’s surviving Victorian gaslamps.

The working entrance, set in the elbow where Allandale meets Elwell Road, has a smaller decorative iron gate hanging slightly askew. Visitors—who can come by invitation only—pass a red sign warning them of police dogs.

The stable is a two-story building with two wings, latticed windows on its massive main doors and decorative wooden trim designed to look like stone blocks. Painted in pastel blue and yellow, it would fit right in among Pondside’s mansions.

The inside features a dramatic, three-story atrium topped with a skylight and pierced by decorative round windows. The floors are of patterned wood, and the horse stalls were heated by a steam radiator—a virtually un-heard-of luxury in its time.

A curving ramp—designed for horses smaller than the police prefer—winds down from the first floor to the basement, where a hand-operated trap door once lowered carriages for storage. The upstairs hayloft has bins for custom-mixing grain, which was sent via wooden tubes to the stalls.

“It’s a magnificent building, no question,” said Boit, calling it a “landmark,” though it has no official historic designation. “We’re definitely dedicated to preserving it,” he said.

Preservation has hinged on active reuse. The late John Brandegee, Mary’s son, brought the K-9 and Mounted units to the stable in 1963-64, leasing it to the city for $1 a year.

“I don’t know what the genesis was,” Boit said of the police stable idea. But, he added, “It was a great way to reuse a building.”

Dog house

John Brandegee actually founded the K-9 Unit in 1963, buying its first three dogs out of some enthusiasm that appears lost to history. One of those dogs, Anchor, turned out to be too tame for policing and became the pet of longtime groundskeeper George Keyho.

The stable has an even older history as home to a different sort of canine unit.

“Mrs. Brandegee bred dogs,” which were kenneled in the stable, Boit said. But Mary preferred a gentlewoman’s breeds: poodles and Keeshonden.

German shepherds prowl the stable today, along with Dutch shepherds, Belgian malinois and Labrador retriev-ers—the K-9 unit’s favored breeds. But the dogs don’t live there—they go home with their human partners.

The stable grounds are used to train the dogs—both from Boston Police and other departments—in patrolling, suspect-tracking and narcotics- and explosives-sniffing. Six wooden boxes with slits in them stand in one yard—places officers hide so dogs can practice sniffing for a suspect under the crack of a door. In another yard is the obstacle course, where dogs practice running up ramps and jumping through the window of a car door. And dur-ing the patrol-dog training, some lucky officer gets to put on padding and get his arm bitten.

The obstacle course is being rebuilt. The Gazette has learned that, as part of the same reorganization that ended the Mounted Unit, the K-9 Unit was going to be moved to Dorchester. That previously unpublicized move was headed off, but not before the obstacle course was dismantled.

The animals can be aggressive, but the training isn’t. To the dog, it’s all playtime.

“We don’t force them to do anything,” Caisey said. “We make it a game so the dog has more desire to do it.”

Early in the tour, the Gazette observed a police dog and his handler embarking on a simulated manhunt deep into the wooded grounds. Later, the dog returned with his man—and a tennis ball, his reward for a job well done.

Caisey wouldn’t bite when the Gazette asked for exciting dog stories, saying the main function of the dog is to discourage an adventurous criminal. “A lot of times, a dog barking in the car is an attitude-adjuster,” he said.

Not only are the dogs intimidating, so are their handler’s orders—which are always given in German. The unit’s German shepherds often really are from Germany, or elsewhere in Europe, where the police dog was first bred. “A lot of dogs are coming from the Czech Republic now,” Caisey said.

John Brandegee flew the unit’s original dogs in from Germany, Boit said, adding, “I suspect that was a little countercultural after World War II.”

Caisey’s new partner, a German shepherd named Bronson, happens to be American-born, and despite his fearsome job is a welcome member of the Caisey household.

Joining the K-9 Unit means having a partner who lives in your yard and demands constant attention and train-ing. Caisey’s dogs even stay with him after retirement, where their active minds still crave training.

“When you’re trying to find an intelligent creature that’s trying to evade you…and just you and your dog find him, it’s rewarding,” Caisey said. And that professional satisfaction is “in addition to the head on the lap and the big brown eyes staring at you.”

Horse history

The Boston Police Mounted Unit was the nation’s first, founded in 1873. It was older than the Brandegee Estate, which it first called home in 1964.

Its 12 horses, 10 officers and nine civilian hostlers disappeared by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. But the stable still holds many reminders, giving it a haunted air.

The atrium is still lined with memorabilia of police horses past and just-past. It is dominated by a large drawing of Prescott, a police horse who lived for more than 30 years and served most of that time. Prescott, who died in 1994, was a gift from former Mayor Kevin White.

Officer Naughton still has plenty to do in his memento-packed office, but the end of the Mounted Unit clearly has taken a toll. “I was real distraught when it happened,” he said of the day the last horses were shipped out to the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department.

Wilkins, the JP photographer, was there, too, as he had been two-dozen times since March, documenting the Mounted Unit’s last days. Members of a camera club he belongs to decided to document events in their neighbor-hoods, and Wilkins knew the police horses would be a good subject when he read about the possible elimination.

Wilkins said he frequently goes to Allandale Farm, but never knew the police stable was nearby. And as a 66-year-old African-American Bostonian, hanging out with cops wasn’t his natural inclination.

“As a black kid growing up in Boston…I had a clear idea of who police were and what I thought about them,” Wilkins said. But behind the scenes at the stable, he got to see officers as people and their bonds with animals.

“The last day, I got choked up,” he said. “It was people crying. It was a shame to see those bonds broken without any recognition of what it meant to people, what that relationship meant for people.”

Wilkins shot not only at the stable, but also at City Council hearings and anywhere else the Mounted Unit’s fate was discussed. That included its historic—but unpublicized and unofficial—last ride on June 17. “It was an incredible exercise trying to run after them,” he said of photographing the last ride’s route through Arnold Arboretum.

Wilkins’ usual work is portraits, including “family documentaries” in which he photographs families candidly at their homes during their normal activities, then gives them the images bound in a hardcover book. His documenting of the Mounted Unit’s last days has a similar family feel, and he is planning a book and exhibits based on it.

But, Wilkins said, he deliberately did not publicize his project while he was doing it, and intended to keep it secret until after this fall’s city elections. He said he did not want to get involved in the political dispute over the unit’s elimination, or have his photos become ammunition in it.

Wilkins said his opinion was that the Mounted Unit should be not only saved, but used more in outreach programs to urban youths. But, he said, he aimed for his project to be “as objective as possible.”
The horses may yet return. The contracts that sent them to Plymouth County, New York City or private owners require them to be sent back if the Mounted Unit reforms. Whoever the future residents of the Brandegee stable may be, they’ll find history alive and waiting.

Corrected version: The orginal version of this article incorrectly combined references to the Mounted Unit’s unofficial “last ride” and an official farewell event at Boston City Hall. This version also adds the specific date of the last ride.

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