Saturday, January 29, 2011

That Controversial Roxbury-South End Border

J.H. Colton & Co. 1855 (BPL). (click on map for larger image). Approximate path of today's Melnea Cass blvd. marked in red.

Every so often, a news item will locate a particular address as being in the South End or Roxbury, and people will argue for one or the other. Of course, today the various districts of the City of Boston have no official boundaries between each other. In some cases, City Hall has been historically careful to not define boundaries, for fear of offending residents - and losing votes.

We can, however, start with the knowledge that there once were official boundaries between the various towns that were annexed to Boston during the 19th and early 20th Century. While the towns of Brighton and Charlestown are mostly isolated from the rest of the city, Dorchester, Roxbury and the short-lived town of West Roxbury did share defined borders. While districts like Jamaica Plain and Roslindale were never legally separate (nor Dorchester and Mattapan), when we are dealing with two communities that were once separate municipalities, we can use history to give us provisional boundaries, at least.

Before the land around Boston Neck was filled in during the 19th Century, the town ( and then city) of Boston was essentially an island connected to the mainland by a thin strip of land at Roxbury. The new, filled land on either side of Boston Neck was named the South End, and in time blended seamlessly with the adjacent lands of lower Roxbury.

Roxbury (recently having changed from town to city) was annexed to Boston in 1868. Fortunately for us (or at least those of us who care about such things), we have maps available from then-recent years. A section of one of those maps is shown above. The boundary between Roxbury and the still-expanding South End of Boston is clearly shown.

Please note Harrison and Shawmut avenues and Washington street (and Tremont street, unlabeled) coming down through the Neck from upper right towards lower left. At a right angle to those streets, near the mainland of Roxbury is Northampton street and Chester street, including the green of Chester square. For reference, Chester street is now Massachusetts avenue.

Now we can see that the border at the time followed Kendall street - or rather a stream just south of Kendall street. Luckily for us, Kendall street still exists, running at an angle between Shawmut and Tremont streets. That won't mean anything to anyone but a local resident, but Kendall and Shawmut street are now two blocks north of Melnea Cass boulevard. Kendall now empties out on to Lenox street, which is about seven short blocks north of Melnea Cass blvd. on Tremont street. On

So now we know where the mid-19th Century line was drawn between Roxbury and Boston's South End. However, we need to allow some slack for the intervening years in two ways. First, Melnea Cass blvd. was laid out over the path of the notorious and never-built Inner Belt highway that was to join the Southeast Expressway with I-93 in Somerville. When properties were taken for that project, entire blocks were torn down, and the neighborhood re-made. Given the width of Melnea Cass and the barrier it creates to pedestrian travel, I think we could be pragmatic and say that the two communities are now separated by four lanes of traffic by this road.

A second issue to consider is neighborhood opinion. If the people who live north of Melnea Cass think they live in Roxbury, can we tell them they are wrong? It depends. That is, it depends on whether a consensus has formed for a new boundary. This area has long been home to a relatively transient population. That is, few residents born there in the first half of the 20th Century probably live there now. Thus, an oral tradition of location identity may have been lost over generations.

Ultimately, if the local residents think they live in Roxbury, who are we to say otherwise. It has been 140 years since Roxbury was annexed - and the border eliminated - so nothing can be carved in stone. Still, we can point to solid evidence, and hope that history will be respected. Regardless of Zip codes or parking permit districts (or real estate weasels and landlords trying to pump up property values), Roxbury is Roxbury, and the South End is the South End. It would be nice if the historical difference between the two could be recognized and respected.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Massachusetts State House - Bigger and Bigger.

Massachusetts State House - 1875.

Massachusetts State House - 1883

Most Bostonians know that the State House on Beacon Hill replaced the original (and still standing) State House on State street. The 'new' State House was designed by Charles Bullfinch, and erected in 1798 on land previously owned by John Hancock.

State House with back addition.

State House addition - 1902.

In 1898, there was a significant expansion to the back of the building, designed by architect Charles Brigham. A few years later, Brigham would design the First Church of Christ, Scientist on Massachusetts avenue.

Wings added - 1917.

The East and West wings were added to the building in 1917 by architects Sturgis, Chapman and Andrews. I can't find any photos of the State House showing the buildings siting in front of the West Wing.

Buildings removed from in front of West Wing, 1928.

Finally, the contemporary State House.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Boston's Newspaper Row

Boston's Newspaper Row.

Washington street, 1895 (click on image to enlarge).

There was a time when Boston institutions and Boston businesses were in Boston. In Boston proper, that is. Not in the Back Bay (filled wetlands) or the South End (filled, as well), but within the boundaries of the old town of Boston. Some left for new, more spacious locations to the south, and of course others simply went out of business.

In this entry, I'm focusing on Boston's newspaper business. While long-lasting newspapers often went through multiple locations, the top of Washington street came to be known as Boston's Newspaper Row, with multiple publishers within a block of each other. To orient you, the map above shows Old City Hall at the lower right, and Old South Church near the top center. Starting at the top, we see the Boston Transcript on the east (left) side of Washington street. The Transcript was founded in 1830, and lasted until 1941.

The Transcript, before and after the Great Fire of 1872.

Opposite Old South Church is the Boston Traveler. The Traveler name was used in various forms in the early-mid 19th Century. The Evening Traveler was founded in 1845, and three newspapers merged into the Traveler in 1857. The Traveler was acquired by the Herald in 1912, although the Herald continued to use the Traveler name. In 1967, the Herald suspended publication under the Traveler name and became the Herald-Traveler.

Continuing down Washington street past School street, we get to the Boston Post. The Post was founded in 1831, and went on to the one of the most successful of all Boston Newspapers. Although the Post was one of the nation's leading newspapers during the 1930s, competition from radio and the Hearst chain weakened then during the 1940s, and they shut down in 1956.

Next door to the Post was the Boston Herald. The Herald was founded in 1846. Various mergers and acquisitions over the years added the Traveler, as well as long forgotten names like the Boston Chronicle, The Boston Atlas and the Evening Telegraph. In 1972, the Hearst-owned Record-American merged with the Herald Traveler. As I recall, this is when the Herald took on the form of the Record-American's tabloid form.

Across from the Herald and down a few buildings was the Boston Daily Advertiser. The Advertiser was founded in 1813 by Nathan Hale. Hale was the nephew of his namesake Nathan Hale, who was executed by the British for spying for the Continental army. He was also the father of Edward Everett Hale, minister, writer, and once-Boston icon. The Advertiser was purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1917. In time, the name was eliminated from the daily, but continued to be used for the Sunday edition into the 1970s.

Boston Globe building, from Life magazine.

Finally, comes the Boston Globe. The Globe was founded in 1872 by six partners, including Eban Jordan, founder of the Jordan Marsh department store which sat a few blocks down Washington street from Newspaper Row. In 1958, the Globe moved from Washington street to Morrissey blvd. in Dorchester.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Museum of Fine Arts

Original Museum of Fine Arts

I thought I'd stay in the Back Bay and look at Copley square for this entry. While three anchors of the square, Trinity church, the Old South church and the Boston Public Library all remain, a fourth has been lost. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1870, and in 1876 moved into a new building at Copley square. The building was expanded twice, but when still more room was needed, a new location was purchased down Huntington avenue, and the present building was erected in 1909. The old building was torn down and replaced by the Copley Plaza hotel.

Copley Square, 1908. Museum locating is indicated in red. Note that Huntington avenue originally extended through the square to Boylston street.

New Museum site - 1915. The museum was planned to be expanded as necessary - note the 'proposed' wings not yet built.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Two (Former) Back Bay Institutions

Back Bay, 1888 (click on image for larger view).

One of the first things people learn about Boston is that the Back Bay was just that - a tidal bay of the Charles river, filled in during the 19th Century as Boston expanded out from its virtual island form and joined the mainland to the south. The major effort started about 1857, and was finished by the turn of the 20th Century. While the district isn't particularly old, even by Boston standards, it has evolved over time. Of course, there is much original architecture. In some cases, however, the original inhabitants have moved or disappeared altogether. In still others, once-notable building are gone, leaving nothing to attract our curiosity.

Rogers Building, Boston Tech.

In this case, we are looking at three buildings and two institutions. One building still stands, but both institutions have moved on. Along Boylston street, between Berkeley and Clarendon streets, once stood the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Boston Society of Natural History. M.I.T. was founded in 1861, and was, for a time, called Boston Tech. Both M.I.T. and the Boston Society of Natural History were granted land to build on in 1866, and the two institutions were constructed on Boylston street. When the Cambridge shore of the Charles river across from the Back Bay was filled in , M.I.T moved across the water (in 1916) to a far larger campus.

M.I.T. buildings near Copley square, 1917.

This map showing a new M.I.T. campus is from 1917, just after the move to Cambridge, so it shows the extent of the school right before it left Boston. For orientation, the large building in the upper left is the Copley Plaza. Multiple buildings had been erected over the former site of railroad tracks. Boston's disappearing train stations and railroad yards will be the focus of a future post.

Boston Society of Natural History - Postcard (BPL collection)

The Boston Society of Natural History was founded in in 1830 by physicians interested in collecting and studying natural history material. In time, professionals trained by the great Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz at Harvard would take over leadership of the society and do much original research, particularly in American flora and fauna.

After a period of growth and vigor, the society and its collections fell on hard times. During the first half of the 20th Century, the collections and library were gradually sold off or donated to other institutions, and the society morphed into an educational institution as the Museum of Science. In that form, it moved to the Charles River dam, where it sits now. The original building was sold, and became the home to the Lord and Taylor clothing store. The building itself can still be seen on Berkeley street, absent the carved animal heads that once adorned the edifice.

An interior shot of the Museum of Natural History (BPL Flickr group).

Here we see the M.I.T. building shown above being torn down after the move to Cambridge.

The Rise and Fall of the Boston Society of Natural History

History of Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Home of the Bean and the Cod....

Compared to many cities in the world, Boston is a relative youngster. On the other hand, here in the United States, Boston can be considered positively elderly. And just as it's hard to imagine our grandparents as young people, it can be hard for current residents and visitors to imagine the Boston of the past - the city that was there before what we see around us now.

This site is an extension of my local history blogs: Remember Jamaica Plain and Stony Brook: Gone But Not Forgotten. This effort will be less comprehensive. but will follow a similar pattern. That is, there will be little or no pattern to the entries. They will come as I develop them, and they will follow my interests and whims. This will not be a history lesson, but more an impressionistic look at the city as people of the past would have recognized it. If I can get the reader to say 'Hmmm... that's interesting!' then I'm doing my job.

And this is good old Boston
The home of the bean and the cod
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God.