Monday, January 31, 2005

Meet me at the club, old sport

"At the Somerset," St. Botolph members have long chuckled, "they have the money; at the Union, they manage it; at the Algonquin, they’re trying to make it; and at the St. Botolph, they enjoy it."
The on-line edition of the Harvard Crimson provides this excellent article on the history of Boston's "clubs" — those establishments where the right sort of gentlemen could, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, go to drink, smoke, dine and socialize with their peers. It is fascinating to read that most of these century-old institutions are still in existence, and even more fascinating to read their associated lore and traditions.

And just when you thought all things Victorian were dead and buried, what?

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Cold enough for ya?

Image: Digital Snow Museum

The modern benchmark for New England snowstorms is, of course, the Blizzard of 1978, which paralyzed the region and was responsible for 17 deaths. Previously this distinction was held by the Blizzard of 1888, during which some 400 people died, 200 ships were grounded and $25 million in property damage was done.

Yet for over a century prior to that, New England's most famous blizzard was the Great Snow of 1717.

Beginning on February 27 and ending on March 7, the Great Snow consisted of four successive blizzards, occuring almost without interruption. Conditions over the span of that week were such that, as one colonist described,
"...scores of [cattle and sheep] were buried and then of course they froze to death before help could reach them. In the spring some of the cattle were found standing erect, frozen solidly in their tracks. In other places the sheep had huddled together for mutual warmth and had succumbed in that way."
In Boston, snow accumulation reached four feet, with 25 foot drifts that covered entire houses. Families burnt furniture for heat, since they were unable to get outside for firewood, and roofs collapsed under the weight. Cotton Mather, in a letter to the Royal Society, reported the storm to be "so violent as to make all communication between Ye Neighbors every where to cease." Deers, meanwhile, found themselves unable to run in the deep snow, and thus fell as easy prey to packs of wolves — which fast depleted the nearby forests, and were subsequently forced to raid Boston's outlying farms for sustenance.

It took weeks for the Bostonians to dig themselves out of their homes once the storm had passed. Indeed, Mather's congregation was not able to attend mass for two weeks, which, given the piety of the early Puritan settlers, is quite remarkable. Postal riders were likewise prevented from carrying out their routes, thus effectively cutting off all communication between the city and its neighboring settlements. The snow from the blizzard lasted until April, when, as it melted, it muddied roads and fields, making travel both difficult and exceedingly messy.

So, my dear readers of Boston and environs, if you think this particular week has been bad...

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Dancing in the streets

There is more to Boston than dusty history and crooked streets. Fueled by three music colleges and numerous universities, our charming city is also home to a vibrant music scene, which Boston Rocks Live does a most admirable job of tracking, dear readers.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Narrow and crooked streets

For out-of-towners who have not mastered Boston's labyrinthine system of roads, your humble correspondent recommends this funny yet informative article on the subject.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

I demand satisfaction!

Boston's most famous duel was fought by one Henry Phillips — a studious and quiet young man, and the second son of a successful publisher named Samuel Phillips. He had graduated from Harvard College in 1724, at the age of twenty, and immediately thereafter had joined his brother Gillam in the family's book business.

Despite his supposedly meak demeanor, Phillips was known to frequent Luke Vardy's Royal Exchange Tavern, itself opened in 1726 on the corner of King Street and Exchange Place. Today that site is occupied by the mammoth Exchange Place skyscraper, but in Phillips' day it was a rough-and-tumble establishment, widely known as a place of gambling and vice.

On the evening of July 2, 1728, Phillips further proved the Tavern's reputation by engaging Benjamin Woodbridge, the son of an admiralty judge, in an altercation. The nature and cause of their argument is lost to history, though folklore says they were bickering over a woman with whom they were both in love.

Regardless, the two gentlemen agreed to duel over the matter. So, after dusk on the following day, both Phillips and his opponent — unaccompanied and bearing swords — met at the far end of the Common, near the Frog Pond. In the ensuing melee, Phillips was wounded in his stomach and slashed across the hands, but attained victory after he felled Woodbridge with a fatal stab to the chest. Phillips then fled the scene, stopping only to notify an in-town surgeon as to the whereabouts of Woodbridge's body before heading to his brother's shop for sanctuary. There his injuries were dressed by Gillam and certain friends, who then smuggled Phillips aboard a ship which was about to sail for London.

Phillips arrived in London some months later, where he was taken in by Gillam's brother-in-law, Peter Faneuil (yes, that Peter Faneuil). Fearing that he would be extradited back to Massachusetts, however, he quickly arranged passage to the French city of La Rochelle.

Yet Woodbridge's death bore heavily on Phillips' soul; he escaped justice, but he could not escape a guilty conscience. Within weeks of arriving in France, Phillips lapsed into a deep depression, and from there into illness and ultimately death. He did not leave a will, and so for the next ten years his brother fought numerous legal battles in order to inherit the young Phillips' substantial estate, which under colonial law was supposed to fall to his mother and sister. A decade of contestation came to naught for Gillam, however — he had assumed himself a rich man with the demise of his sibling, but the courts awarded the estate to its statutory heirs, and rejected all of Gillam's numerous appeals.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

My ol' banjo

Did you knows, dear readers, that the first banjos in the United States were manufactured in Boston?

Monday, January 17, 2005

Art Deco Boston

Widely known for its bow-front townhouses and cobblestone streets, Boston is not a city that one typically associates with Art Deco. In large part this is due to the economic circumstances of the decades that surrounded the movement, for while the years following the Great War were boom times elsewhere, in Boston they were ones of stagnation and decline. By the time Art Deco reached the height of its popularity, Boston, as Jane Holtz Kay describes, "was idling in the economic slough of Depression...her mills in decline, her port slipping, her financiers cautious." It was a city that "lived on past glories...not great expectations."

Yet scattered throughout Downtown, one can spot a handful of buildings designed in the Art Deco style. They are rare, yes, and are often ignored by both tourists and historians, whose interests typically do not extend beyond the Revolution. But they do exist, and your humble correspondent hopes that this quick guide to Art Deco Boston will open his dear reader's eyes to this hidden and overlooked aspect of our city.

First is the Wyndham Hotel, formerly known as the Batterymarch Building. Located at 89 Broad Street, it was designed by Harold Field Kellogg, and was the tallest building in Boston when it opened in 1928. Like most Art Deco designs, the Wyndham is a rather plain-looking affair except for the entrances and first floor, which are highly stylized and embellished. What makes this building unique from other such examples of the style in Boston, however, are the three "towers," shown above, that dominate the side facing Batterymarch Street — where the building's main entrance was located until its restoration by David Manfredi.

75 Franklin Street, seen above,was completed in 1929, having been designed by Thomas M. James. For a time this building served as the headquarters for State Street Bank; today its 21 floors house individual offices for many private businesses. At the very bottom of the photograph, where the first and second floor of the building meet, one will note a series of bronze panels running the length of the building. These are original bas-reliefs that were restored in 1997, depicting — in addition to many muscular and semi-nude men — industry, agriculture, finance, art and other such testaments to human achievement.

Paid for by Paramount Studios and designed by Arthur Bowditch, the eponymous Paramount Theater was opened in 1932 as a place to show "talkie" films. Although it has been closed for decades, the Paramount still represents an era when Washington Street was a vibrant, party-all-night district of jazz clubs and vaudeville acts, and is accordingly both a prominent fixture of Downtown Boston and a National Historic Landmark.

Until 2002, the Paramount was in a horrid state of disrepair, as can easily be seen in the photograph below. Its marble facade was crumbling and stained, its sign entirely burnt out, and the once-grand interior torn to pieces owing to asbestos removal. It was only due to pressure from the hyper-prestigious Ritz Carlton Towers, located across the street from the Paramount and only recently opened, that prompted the restoration of its facade and roof. For the time being the interior remains desolate, though there are plans afoot to have it entirely renovated and re-opened.

Image: Historic Boston

Plans for the "new" Suffolk County Courthouse, located at Pemberton Square behind Cambridge Street, were initiated as early as 1928, it having long been known that the old Suffolk County Courthouse — today known as the John Adams Courthouse — provided insufficient space for both the city and county's judicial needs. The Great Depression stalled construction of the new building, however, and it was only through the intervention of the federal government in 1936 that real work on the Courthouse finally get underway. Yet even then it would take another three years for the new Art Deco tower to be completed and officially opened.

Long considered but one of many hideous buildings that fill the West End and Government Center, the new Suffolk County Courthouse is actually a rather interesting and attractive structure. It contains especially interesting architectural minutae, such as the granite Zodiac signs that surround the level between the first and second floor, and the beautiful bas-relief that looms over the main entrance.

Those aspects of the Courthouse that today seem unappealing are largely resultant of neglect and laziness. Witness, for example, the dozens of air conditioners that fill its column-like windows; a lackluster solution to the question of temperature control that interrupts and ultimately ruins the building's Art Deco design. Fortunately, the new Courthouse is undergoing renovation along with its sister-courthouse and Pemberton Square as a whole. The air conditioning units are being removed, the interior wholly redesigned with modern amnenities, and the facade restored to its original appearance.

Image: Smart Growth

The New England Telephone and Telegraph Company Building, now owned by Verizon, serves as a particularly late example of Art Deco design in the United States. Constructed in 1947, it is unclear as to why such an outdated and unfashionable mode of architecture was employed by the firm of Cram and Ferguson in designing the building. Still, it is an interesting structure that vaguely resembles a step-pyramid or Mayan temple, the lobby of which contains a 160-foot tall mural bearing scenes from the history of the telephone.

Thus it would seem that, after decades of neglect, the Art Deco buildings of Boston are getting a necessary facelift. Indeed, of all the examples given above, only the Paramount Theater remains vacant and unused, and even that charming structure seems to have a bright future in store. This movement toward preservation and reuse is undoubtedly an excellent thing for the city, serving to enrich it for the generations that are to come, and that may wish to view first-hand the works of their grandparents.

[Please note, dear readers, that many of the photographs shown here were taken by your humble correspondent; those that were not were given proper credit. Your humble correspondent would also like to extend a heatfelt thank you to his two stalwart and capable assistants, Tony Z. and Bill B., without whose companionship and aid this project would undoubtedly have been much less fun. Gentlemen, thank you both for your time and energy.]

Friday, January 14, 2005

Cannons on Washington Street

For the first two centuries of its history, Boston's only connection to the mainland was a particularly narrow isthmus of tidal flats. During high tides or stormy weather, this narrow link — referred to as "the Neck" — would sink below the waves, and thus it was that Boston would occasionally cease to be a peninsular settlement, and instead become an island-city.

In 1631, one year after founding the city, Boston's colonists fortified the Neck at its narrowest point in order to help guard against anticipated raids by Native Americans. Presumably little more than wooden stockades, the first fortifications stood until 1714, at which time they were replaced with simple earthen and brick walls, as depicted in the John Bonner Map of 1722:

John Bonner Map, 1722
Image: Mapping Boston

Just outside these walls, and in true European fashion, Boston hung its criminals in cages and from gallows, their corpses serving as a warning to others. Suicides and deceased vagrants were similarly dumped beyond the walls, as Esther Forbes describes in her book Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, both being considered unfit for burial in one of Boston's already heavily-populated graveyards.

General Thomas Gage, who commanded the British "occupation" of Boston, greatly improved upon the Neck's fortifications in 1774 and 1775, fearing an all-out assault by the rebellious colonists who controlled the countryside. Yet his elaborate plans and additions were of little help when the Continental Army, under General George Washington, assumed control of nearby Dorchester Heights and threatened to bombard the city lest the British evacuate — which they did on March 17, 1776.

Plan of the Neck and Fortifications; Delivd. to H.E. Gl. Gage, June 30th. 1775
Image: American Memory: The American Revolution and Its Era

Traces of the the Neck's fortifications remained until the 1820s, when they were wholly removed in preparation for land-making in the South End. Particularly curious readers may still visit the site of Boston's walls, however, by going to the corner of East Berkeley and Washington Streets, near Peter's Park.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hyperanalysis of six square blocks

The 2004 Student Projects section of the this website is simply amazing. Students select particular neighborhoods or sections of Boston, and then exhaustively study its history, architecture and development over the past three centuries — complete with maps and photographs! My dear readers, this site is an absolute must-see.

Stairs leading nowhere

Image: Rambles Around Old Boston

These worn granite steps join Province to Bosworth Street, and as both avenues are generally inconsequential and lightly trafficked, they tend to attract little interest or attention. Yet once, long ago, they served as the entrance to the Province House courtyard and stables, and are, arguably, the oldest set of stairs in Boston.

Originally constructed by a wealthy merchant named Peter Sargeant in 1679, the Province House was, as Walter Muir Whitehall describes,
"...a high-shouldered building of brick, laid in English bond, with a high attic lighted by dormers, and an octagonal cupola surmounted by Shem Drowne's Indian archer weathervane, which is now, like the royal arms that hung over the front entrance, in the Museum of the Massachusetts Historical Society."
In all it resembled nothing so much as the country manor of some English squire, surrounded by "spacious grounds" into which the granite stairs led.

Sargeant held onto the property until 1716, when it became the official residence of the colony's royal governors, prompting the street onto which the stairs led to be named Governor's Alley. It was only following the Revolution that the Alley's name was changed to that which it bears today, the victors having decided that no remnant of English "tyranny" should sully the maps and signposts of their newly-free city. Thus it was that King, Queen and Marlborough Streets were also wiped from existence, to be replaced with State, Court and Washington — names that better reflected the fledgling nation's republican ideals.

Many decades thereafter, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Nathaniel Hawthorne set four short stories at the House, describing it in the first of these as,
"...three stories high, and surmounted by a cupola, on the top of which a gilded Indian was discernible, with his bow bent and his arrow on the string, as if aiming at the weathercock on the spire of the Old South. The figure has kept this attitude for seventy years or more, ever since good Deacon Drowne, a cunning carver of wood, first stationed him on his long sentinel's watch over the city.

The Province House is constructed of brick, which seems recently to have been overlaid with a coat of light-colored paint. A flight of red freestone steps, fenced in by a balustrade of curiously wrought iron, ascends from the court-yard to the spacious porch, over which is a balcony, with an iron balustrade of similar pattern and workmanship to that beneath."
Each tale is part history, part folklore and part fiction, and one of them, "Howe's Masquerade," even makes reference to the stairs on Province Street:
"...entering the arched passage, which penetrated through the middle of a brick row of shops, a few steps trans­ported me from the busy heart of modern Boston into a small and secluded court-yard."
Sadly, the House burnt to the ground in 1864, thus eliminating one of the last "great manors" of the colonial era.

Today, the notion of having a free-standing house, surrounded by a manicured courtyard, in the midst of Downtown Boston seems an absurdity, almost unimaginable. It is thankfully, then, that the granite steps remain, since they serve as both concrete proof of this history and as a reminder that Boston is an old city with a storied past. True, they are not much — not a church or a townhouse — but when one climbs their meager height, one is following in the footsteps of knights and generals, and where else in urban America can such a claim be made?

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Warding Boston

Interested in maps? Interested in Boston? Then, dear readers, you absolutely must check out WardMaps. Of particular interest is their Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Boston in 1902, which is probably the best historical map tool available on-line.

Loyal readers take note: the site of yr humble correspondent's former residence was apparently occupied by the spacious grounds and townhouse of one Mr. John Webber at one time. And to think, it's all studio apartments these days.