In November we become thankful for all kinds of things, including philanthropy. Over the years, Boston has benefited from the generosity of many families and individuals who decided to share their wealth to improve both the city and its residents.
Last month I took a Boston Benefactors tour at Forest Hills Cemetery with local historian Anthony Sammarco. I had taken other tours with him and know how Mr.. Sammarco shares his own wealth—the information he knows about Boston’s history.
In this month of thanksgiving, I want to introduce you to one of my favorite philanthropists, George Robert White (1847 – 1922). His donations built and contributed to many parts of the city but he is almost unknown outside of certain circles today.
George Robert White
In a previous post about the Angel of the Waters, I detailed how Mr. White earned his fortune by working from the ground up at the Weeks and Potter Drug Company until he eventually bought the firm. His company gave consumers worldwide the antibacterial Cuticura Soap, a familiar brand with an unusual scent that many of us remember well.
Mr. White, a lifelong bachelor from a small family, gave generously of his money to the City of Boston during his life and established a fund to ensure that his good works would continue after his death. He served on the Board of Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts and of Forest Hills Cemetery. In addition, he gave substantially to the MFA, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the New England College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.
Author Samuel McComb said of Mr. White that “His helpful hand was always stretched out to assist the weak. He was devoted to the highest welfare of the city.”
Named in His Honor
Several structures around Boston were either built with his donations or named for him in honor of his contributions to the institution.
Massachusetts General Hospital: People going through the main entrance at MGH enter the hospital thorough the White Building. The architectural firm of Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott designed this 13-story structure in the form of a cross.
Funds for its construction came from the 1930 will of Mrs. Harriet J. Bradbury — Mr. White’s sister — and the Humanitarian Fund in his 1922 will. His will also included bequests for the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston Children’s Hospital.
Museum of Fine Arts: The George Robert White Wing, designed by Hugh Stubbins, opened on the west side of the MFA in 1970. It created space for a conservation laboratory, library, restaurants, classrooms and administrative offices.
The George Robert White Fund
Mr.. White also established a permanent charitable fund with a $5 million bequest (about $72,912,247 in 2016 dollars) to be used solely for creating public beauty and utility for Boston’s residents. In his will he suggested the fund’s managers allow its value to build so that the money could be concentrated on substantial projects.
A short list of the many projects funded through Mr. White’s foresight includes:
- The George Robert White Environmental Conservation Center
- The George Robert White Fund Children’s Zoo at Franklin Park
- Boston Public Health Center (now Julie’s Family Learning Program)
- White Stadium in Franklin Park
- George Robert White Center and skating rink in Mattapan
- George Robert White Veterans Memorial Park in the Fens
Mr. White himself has been memorialized in several ways.
Artwork: A 1917 portrait sketch by John Singer Sargent (above) and full portrait painting by Théobald Chartran were donated to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Public Garden Memorial: The Angel of the Waters, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, standing above a beautiful fountain, graces the northwest corner of the Boston Public Garden. Since I wrote a post about it, neighbors raised a fund and collected enough money to restore the fountain to its former glory. When the work was completed in November of 2016, water once again began flowing from the matching rams-head cornucopias into the pebbled basin. The Angel now casts her bread upon clear water.
Forest Hills Cemetery Memorial: Mr. White, his sister and brother in law are buried at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain. Another Daniel Chester French sculpture, the Angel of Peace, presides over the site on Magnolia Avenue, which was landscaped by the firm of Olmstead Brothers.
In contrast to the dynamic Angel of the Waters, the Angel of Peace stands calmly on a granite plinth with hands clasped and a serene expression on her face. Classical robes drape her figure and her wings spread out behind her. When you stand directly in front of the sculpture, the wings don’t appear very imposing because the Angel’s body hides a third of their length. Only when you look at the statue from the side do the wings show their full magnificence. Unfortunately, the site is landscaped in a way that makes access from the side difficult.
A Model of Philanthropy
George Robert White was a great man, a real Horatio Alger story at work and a model of philanthropy in his private life. I’m sure that many people who benefit from his donations, bequests and fund allocations have no idea who the man was or what he accomplished in his life.
How many visitors who enter Mass General through the main door, enjoy the serenity of his Public Garden memorial, browse through his wing at the MFA or walk past his resting place at Forest Hills know anything about him? I wish that a biography of some kind could be placed where the general public could read it and appreciate all that he has done for the city. Like a hologram, it would spring into life when people pass by. In his life and afterward, Mr.. White gave Boston much to be thankful for and deserves to be remembered.
Directions to the Angels
You will find directions to the Angel of the Waters in the Boston Public Gardenin my previous post.
To find the Angel of Peace, go to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plan. Once through the main gate, turn left past the Martin Milmore Memorial onto Consecration Avenue. Turn left again onto Magnolia Avenue. As you approach the curve look to the left and up the hill.