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The Tontine


In 1793-1795 Boston architect Charles Bulfinch proposed an elegant crescent of sixteen houses, inspired by similar urban schemes he’d seen in Paris. And like the French prototypes, he intended it to be a novel financial model called a tontine. Essentially the investors contract with one another that, upon the death of each, that share is divided among the others until the entire project is owned by the sole survivor. Ghoulish, isn’t it. The Massachusetts courts were uncomfortable with such an innovative arrangement and refused to permit it, so the project depended upon Bulfinch’s wits alone. Despite that, it was among the most sophisticated urban schemes in the early Republic.

Called “Franklin Place”, it survived just sixty-five years, demolished in 1858, though the graceful curve is echoed in later buildings of no significance. Georgian cities like Edinburgh and Dublin are rich with similar forms—but I doubt they were also examples of tontine ownership. Architecturally, however, there were few other projects of such unity and elegance found in the early United States.

I can appreciate Boston’s Tontine Crescent (the way histories consistently reference it) at three levels: 1) as a work by  Bulfinch, whose career received little if any treatment in history surveys; 2) in the context of Georgian Bath or the “Regent Street” projects by John Nash; and 3) as a rare instance of tontine ownership. The last “tontine” I can recall was a bottle of Napoleon brandy, which was drunk by the surviving investor—with considerable smugness, I suspect.

Agincourt has its tontine; you knew it would, just because it’s exotic in the American architectural experience. But it is also considerably less elegant: a humble lake cabin at Sturm und Drang in which Howard and Rowan own a share. I’ve neither designed that cabin nor found a suitable “donor” but the night is young, as they say. In the meantime, I thought you ought to know about Boston and Mr Bulfinch, simply as a curious moment in U.S. architectural history. It also makes an exotic scrabble word.


PS: Like the so-called Ponzi Scheme, named for a swindler in the U.S. and Canada of Italian ancestry, the tontine is named for Italian Henri de Tonti, a soldier, explorer, and fur trader in service to the French. I simply point them out as both having been Italian and both having developed financial schemes that bear their names.

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