Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Club: Gaining Ground - A History of Landmaking in Boston

I was able to access this very nice book through the Minuteman library network - delivered straight to my local branch library. Nancy S. Seasholes put this book together out of her Ph.D dissertation - a common incubator for such books. And while it does bear the mark of such books - detail piled on detail in places - don't let that put you off. Within the fourteen chapters is the story of Boston's evolution from island town to metropolitan city.

The book's subject is the made land of Boston. This included the obvious - the Back Bay and the South End - plus the less-considered: Charlestown, East Boston, South Boston and the Dorchester shore. As Seasholes points out, the growth of Boston's land are didn't begin with the Back Bay - Bostonians were already filling in shoreline during the 18th Century. Wharves were built out, filled in and built out into the harbor again. Coves and mudflats were filled piecemeal and in 'projects.' And hills were leveled across the town to provide the fill.

Each new landmaking project is described in detail from primary sources, including the controversies that often arose from them. The book is very well illustrated with maps and photographs - for a map-o-phile like me, this is one of the prime virtues of the book. Throughout the book, the author gives you contemporary street maps with the original Shawmut peninsula outline (circa 1630) overlaying it. This is a great tool for keeping the reader oriented.

This isn't a book to read from cover to cover, but that is not a bad thing. Think of it as a reference book - a book to both study and browse. If you really want to know Boston, this is a book to have on your shelf.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Link Time - Scollay Square

I was going to do a post on the late, great Scollay Square. I was going to, until I found this fabulous Scollay Square web site. Here's where Boston got turned upside down - and it was within my lifetime, if not in my experience. I can imagine a great college class covering just the evolution - and demise - of Scollay square. The information and photos offered on this site are so great, you could find yourself spending an entire night working through the different pages. Two thumbs up - all I've got - for this fine site.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Boston College - South End Campus

Boston College postcard.

Boston College, 1895. The T-shaped building is the school (click on map for larger image).

After some starts and stops, Boston College opened in the South End in 1859. Initially, the school was both a high school and college. The Immaculate Conception Church was built to the left of the school at the same time. After one more interruption, the school was chartered by the legislature in 1863, and reopened the next year. In time, the school outgrew it's location, and land was purchased for a new campus on the Newton-Boston border. Building began there in 1909, and proceeded for many years. The high school, now a separate institution, stayed in the South End until the 1940s, when it, too, outgrew the site, and a move was made to Morrissey boulevard.

Both the church and the school building are still on Harrison avenue. The school is now housing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Club: Boston's Back Bay

Two Northeastern University faculty members have written a book focusing on the filling and building of the Boston's Back Bay. William A,. Newman and Wilfred F Holton tell the story from geology to architecture, with special attention to why this area of wetlands and mudflats was filled. The answer to that question is that there were multiple reasons to fill the Back Bay, each needing to be examined in its turn.

The first answer is obvious only if we keep the original Shawmut Peninsula in mind - the town of Boston was tiny. Even after hills had been leveled and coves filled, Boston was essentially an island, and a small one at that. As Boston grew from town to city, it needed more space to grow.

Second, an failed attempt to dam and use tidal power in the back bay area lead to a hygienic and aesthetic disaster. Sewers poured into the now-damed bay, and artificially permanent low tide conditions within the damed area caused the obvious problems. Boston - now filling with immigrants - sat beside a permanent sewer.

The third reason to reclaim the bay was not so obvious to me. The city wanted to keep its well-to-do Protestant population, and they needed new homes. Boston Neck was being filled to create the new South End, but it quickly turned into a district of boarding houses and working-class homes. If Boston wanted to keep her upper class - now with railroad access to suburban communities - it needed to have a new district dedicated to their interest. And so, the new Back Bay district was designed and zoned to attract and keep Boston's WASP population.

All in all, a good read, and at less than 200 pages, a quick one as well. The story of the actual filling work is told, with a steam shovel specially designed for the work devouring sand and gravel in Needhan, and trains carrying the loads twenty-four hours per day, every day of the year. Different street layouts were proposed, and different funding mechanisms attempted. In the end, the work was done with remarkable efficiency.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Link Time: Boston 1775

If you are interested in Boston's role in the Revolutionary period, Boston 1775 is the place to be. J.J. Bell gives you everything you ever wanted to know, and more than you ever imagined existed when it comes to both the buildup to the revolution and the war itself. He does yeoman's work correcting myths and straightening out scrambled stories. He's also a great sources for coming lectures and events covering the same subjects. This is what makes the internet great.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Boston Opera House

Boston Opera House - Postcard.

Opera House outlined in red. YMCA building shown to the right and across Huntington avenue.

The Boston Opera House opened in 1909. Funded by Eben Jordan Jr - who also paid for the New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall - and designed by architects Wheelright and Haven, the building stood on Huntington avenue. Apparently, opera lovers in Boston had over-reached, because in 1915, the opera company went bankrupt. Visiting opera companies used the venue, as well as other musical and theatrical acts - even prize fights were held there! By 1958, the building was considered unsafe, and was torn down - with difficulty - to be replaced by Northeastern's Speare Hall. And this explains why the short street that runs between Huntington avenue and St Stephen street beside Speare Hall is named Opera place.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Club: Boston - A Topographical History

This will be the first in a series of book recommendations. The first edition, written by Walter Muir Whitehill, was published in 1959. It is now in its third edition, with added chapters by Lawrence W. Kennedy that bring us past the New Boston period and right up to the year 2000.

This is the book you need to read if you want to understand the building of the city of Boston. And by that I mean both the architecture and the literal building of the land now considered Boston proper. The story - of hills removed and coves and bays filled - is both told and illustrated, with maps, prints and early photographs adding greatly to the effort.

If it was up to me, Boston would be laced with painted lines of different colors, showing the old shorelines and the sites of now-leveled hills. There was a sort of diorama of the growth of Boston thorough the years that sat on the observation level of the John Hancock building. When the owners of the building cynically took advantage of the 9/11 attack to close the observation room to take back the floor space to profit from, the diorama lost its home. Without such graphical displays, it is near-impossible for the average person to envision the evolution of the city.

You can get this book at the library, but if you have sufficient interest to read it, I recommend buying it. It's so chock full of information, that you'll want to keep it at hand, and return to it over and over again. Through the good graces of, you can have a used copy for the price of shipping - or at least the shipping charge Amazon allows its sellers. At that price, its worth it for the photos alone. Permberton square, Tontine crescent, Boston neck, with just a handful of buildings showing, the Back Bay, filled and virtually empty - each will change how you see the city.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The South Boston Bridge

Lithograph of the South Boston (or Boston South) bridge, circa 1820s *BPL Flickr group.

At the turn of the 19th Century, a group of land speculators who had developed parts of Beacon Hill looked south and east for another investment opportunity. Together, they purchased empty land across the South Bay on Dorchester Neck. This land was close to the Boston waterfront, but separated from Boston by a cove that reached south along Boston Neck to the towns of Roxbury and Dorchester. The investors then went to the state Legislature and got the land annexed to Boston - with no compensation to the Town of Dorchester! Sound like the Beacon Hill shenanigans we are so familiar with now are not a new phenomenon.

Hales, Map of Boston - 1819 (BPL).

With Dorchester Neck now South Boston, our speculators got permission to build a toll bridge to access their land, and open up development. The cove was still used for shipping - there were warves in Roxbury and along the Neck at the time - so their choice of construction locations was limited. They built the bridge from Dover street (now East Berkeley street) and Harrison avenue (that being the waterfront at the time. The Hales map shows Washington street - the original road through Boston Neck - and Harrison avenue (then Front street) running parallel, and Dover street a single block between them.

The get their money back, the investors set the toll higher than people were willing to pay, and eventually a free bridge was built to the north, cutting down the distance between Boston and South Boston. The bridge was sold to the city at a loss, but land in South Boston did become valuable for industrial use. In the end, the greatest use of the old South Boston bridge seems to have been as a place for young couples to stroll and look back at the city. That's what we see in the print above. Put yourself in the same place now, at the railroad yard running along the Southeast Expressway just across from the South End, and imagine being able to see the State House on Beacon Hill!

There is still a bridge at the same site, and as you cross it you can still see water from what is now the Fort Point Channel. The rest of the bay that once separated Boston from old Dorchester Neck has been filled, without the fanfare or romance that marks the same work done in the Back Bay.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Link Time

I've added a link in the right margin to The City Record and Boston News-Letter blog. If you're interested in Boston history, give it a look. The site is no longer active, but there's lots of interesting information there. In fact, I've had to drop two possible posts because I see that he's already covered the topics. For a start, did you know that Boston once had an Edgar Allen Poe Square?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

South Boston Marine Park - What's Missing?

The Head House - South Boston Marine Park.

Pleasure Bay, South Boston 1919. The red arrow locates the Head House. The yellow arrow indicated the Aquarium.

Once upon a time, there was a giant gingerbread house at Pleasure Bay in South Boston. Actually, it was the Head House, designed by E.M. Wheelwright and built in 1894-95. Wheelwright was the official architect of the city of Boston, as well as designer of Horticultural Hall, the Longfellow bridge and New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. The building was modeled on the German Pavilion at Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893. It contained cafes, rest rooms, retiring rooms for men and women, restaurants and office space. Extending from the building was a long row of changing rooms.

This postcard shows the Head House and adjoining boat landing. A pier was built extending out from behind the Head House.

Looking out from the back of the Head House, a covered pier extended out into the bay for strollers to enjoy the cool breeze. The Hurricane of 1938 tore through the middle of the pier, and it was never repaired. In the 1950s it was replaced with a solid causeway that extended to Castle Island and enclosed Pleasure Bay. . The hurricane damaged the Head House as well, and it began to fall into a state of disrepair. When a fire tore through the building in 1942 - just a week after the infamous Coconut Grove fire, the fate of the Head House was sealed. It was soon torn down.

Pleasure Bay, with the Aquarium roof seen in the background.

The South Boston Aquarium, built by the city following the inspiration of the Boston Society of Natural History (already discussed here). The Aquarium was built in 1912 in the Marine Park on filled land diagonally across from the Head House. The Aquarium and the Franklin Park Zoo were opened around the same time, and competed for both funding and public attention, with the Zoo getting the better of it. Starved for funds, the Aquarium gradually fell into disrepair, and in 1954 it was closed for good.

For photos and discussion of the Head House and Aquarium, see South Boston, by Jim Sullivan

Interior and exterior photos of the Aquarium.