Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review: Cityscapes of Boston

Cityscapes of Boston is a classic Then and Now photography book of Boston's buildings and street scenes. The content comes from photo-essays that were originally featured in the Boston Globe magazine. Architectural critic Robert Campbell and photographer/archivist Peter Vanderwarker do a good job of showing changes over time. The emphasis here is on architecture, so the text features that Voice of Architecture style that will please some and send others turning the page for the next photo. You'll know which side you're on when you consider whether the word 'suburban' is geographic locator or an epithet.

The collection of old photos is a good one, with quite a few new to me. The book was published in 1992, so there have already been quite a few changes in downtown Boston that aren't covered here, including the removal of the Central Artery.

Minor quibbles/major rant: when they leave downtown Boston and look at surrounding communities, things start going wrong. Jamaica Plain's Centre street is featured in a pair of then-and-now photos. Here, we get the following text: " In the 1950s when everybody began to have cars, it was exciting to abandon the screechy, slow sociable streetcar - and, sometimes, to abandon the old corner merchant as well - and instead drive to the new supermarket or the Mall."  I was born in 1954, and in fact, my father rode the streetcar to work every day through the 1960s, my mother brought me shopping downtown on the streetcar, and I went to school on the streetcar or a bus or the elevated train throughout those years. We had a car, but saved it for when public transportation didn't get us where we wanted to go. And regarding the 'sociable' aspect of riding those old cars, I have to question  whether Mr Campbell ever rode them in those years. If sardines in a can are socializing with one another, then I socialized with my fellow riders. Campbell is referring here to the evolution of the nation in the post-war years, not, in any accurate sense, to 1950s Jamaica Plain.

A puzzling factual error is also thrown in. In the later photo, the second story of a storefront building is missing. Campbell says "The street wall is lower now because second-story uses on Main Street don't do well in a car culture." No, in fact, the street wall is lower because there was a fire in the bowling alley/pool hall that filled the second floor of the relevant building, and the cost of replacing it was prohibitive. This is what happens when you lead with your ideological chin.

All in all, a good coffee table book to impress your friends with.

 Cityscapes of Boston

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review: The Boston Jazz Chronicles

This is a book I've been meaning to read for a while. While it may seem to be a book strictly for jazz fans, it actually fits the subject of this blog quite well. The years covered are mostly the 1930s through about 1960, and as is true of many locations featured here, most of the old clubs and bars and dance halls have been lost to urban renewal and the hazards of time. For anyone interested in mid-20th century Boston, there's much to learn in these pages.

Did you know that Huntington avenue was the home of big-band dancing in Boston? Or that strippers and gay bars existed in the Lower Washington street area before the closing of the Old Howard and the destruction of old Scollay Square? Or, (for the jazz lovers) that you could have seen Miles Davis with John Coltrane near Copley Square for no cover, no drink minimum?

The Boston Jazz Chronicles is full of historical nuggets, and tell of a time that some still alive remember, but has been totally lost to the New Boston. Definitely recommended.

The Boston Jazz Chronicles

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review: Boston's Changeful Times: Origins of Preservation and Planning in America

I've just finished Michael Holleran's 1998 book on the evolution of the preservation movement in Boston and America. It started a bit dry and academic - no surprise there, given the subject - but it went on to be quite informative. Featured are the early battles over the old Brattle Square and Old South churches, the Old State House, and the loss of the Hancock house on Beacon Hill. Over time, we see questions of motivation arise - what is worth saving, and why? A chapter on parks and open spaces leads on to a exploration of the skyline and building height limits, with an emphasis on Copley Square and Beacon Hill and the State House. The book ends with the institution of zoning regulations around the time of the First World War.

All in all, an interesting entry in the story of Boston and how the past was integrated into the modern city.

Boston's Changeful Times: Origins Of Preservation and Planning in America, by Michael Holleran.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Taverns of Boston Town.

Lamb Tavern - site of the later Adams House, Washington street. First stage coach to Providence started there in 1767. Present during the Siege of Boston, pulled down in 1845 for the Adams House.

City Hotel, Brattle street, ca. 1860.

A stage coach terminus, the building was taken down in about 1868. It is reported that for almost 100 years, a cannon ball fired by Washington's troops sat lodged in it's wall.

The Province House

King's Head Tavern, North and Lewis (or Fleet) streets. Erected in 1691, This etching was drawn from an 1855 photograph. 

Green Dragon Tavern.

One of Boston's most famous tavern, frequented by patriots during the run-up to the Revolutionary War. Also the first Boston headquarters of the Freemasons, Joseph Warren being the Grand Master. The building was torn down when the street was widened in 1828. 

The Sun Tavern was built in 1690, opposite what would be Faneuil Hall. A James Day kept a tavern in the building in the 1750s, and the Portsmouth stage coach stopped there.

Hancock Tavern.

Province house, 1679, 1864 fire - residence of Royal Governors, Inn and boarding house, Mr T. Wait.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Roxbury Fire of 1894

Boston baseball grounds before the fire (BPL Leventhal Map Center).

Boston has suffered many disasters in her history, but most, putting aside a single big earthquake and the odd hurricane (and the molasses flood), have been fires. Colonial Boston was a city of wood frame buildings, and was swept repeatedly by fire. While the memory of these events are lost to all but the specialist, most Bostonians are familiar with the great fire of 1873, which left much of the warehouse district in ruins.  But gone from popular memory is the city's second largest fire, the great Roxbury fire of 1894.

The Heart Of The Fire From The Corner Of Tremont and Cabot Streets (From the Boston Globe, May 6, 1894).

The Boston Beaneaters were playing the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, May 15, 1894. The ball park had been built in 1871, and rebuilt and enlarged with new stands in 1888. After the end of the third inning, smoke was noticed coming from under the right field bleachers. Reports after the fire said that a small group of men saw the fire, and could easily have stomped it out, but a policeman told them to leave it alone, and that he would take care of it. When Beaneater right fielder Jimmy Bannon saw flames through the stands, he ran to put it out. A gust of wind fed the flames, and Bannon was driven back. Soon, the right field bleachers caught fire. From there, the outfield fence caught fire, and ran to the left field bleachers, engulfing them as well. Fans stood in the middle of the field to avoid the flames.

1890 map showing where the fire would occur.

 Observers later said that district fire chief Sawyer, present at the game, refused to call in the alarm until it was too late to prevent the spread of the fire from the bleachers to the grandstand and out into the surrounding neighborhood. The buildings that backed on Berlin street were soon burning. In an hour, twelve acres had burned, 200 buildings had been destroyed, and 1900 people were homeless. 

1895, showing lost buildings in the burned district.

From Berlin street, the fire spread to Burke, Cunard, Coventry and Walpole streets. driving people from their homes so fast that they didn't have time to save any of their property.

Looking At The Fire From Rear Of Ball Grounds.

Three Abandoned Engines on Tremont Street

The Burned District.

Scene At The Ruggles Street Church.

Friday, April 26, 2013

New Boston Blog: Retro Boston Remembered

Charles from Shopping Days in Retro Boston has a  new blog: Retro Boston Remembered. Make sure to check it out - Charles does a lot of work for his posts, and always comes up with great material .

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Boston's Film Debut: 1901-1905

I just wanted to share this link to four short films made in Boston at the very start of the 20th century, courtesy of the Boston Public Library. The quality isn't good, but then again it comes from the start of the cinema era. Enjoy.

Boston's first movies.