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Friday, November 7, 2008

Book Review: Historic Photos of Boston

In the three and a half decades since I moved to Boston, I've seen many changes to the city's landscape. The changes run deeper than the departure of jazz clubs Paul's Mall and The Jazz Workshop or favorite restaurants such as Ken's on Boylston Street.

Over the decades new skyscrapers have sprung up - not only in the financial district, but in historic Back Bay where the Prudential and John Hancock Tower had once symbolically stood as Beantown's sole tall buildings. The Hancock Tower, a 60-story modernest structure designed by I. M. Pei was nearing completion when I arrived in 1973, but it was also famous for its construction or design flaws: Large glass windows would spontaneously pop out in the wind and crash onto the busy streets far below. You can imagine the terror and concern this created in the Back Bay area and the attention it got in the media. Large pieces of plywood were temporarily hammered into place to replace glass that had fallen to the ground. Although you could see that a lot of plywood had replaced broken windows, to my knowledge no body was injured by falling glass.

Cities are always evolving, and Boston is no exception. Even though I have witnessed enormous architectural change in the span of just a few decades, it is interesting to view the photographic record of a city over a much longer time period to get an even broader sense of this dramatic change. The impact on the urban landscape on our lives is far reaching and pervasive. It says legions about the culture and consciousness of a city's inhabitants.

My latest table book - Historic Photos of Boston - is an album of well-selected photographs that chronicle the history of Boston. The book is remarkable photographic record of the rapid changes in architecture that occurred in the city from the mid-nineteenth through to the mid-twentieth centuries. I am entranced by the story told by every photograph, each of which is dated and explained in captions that are painstakingly researched by the author - landmark preservationist Timothy Orwig. Most of the photos were obtained from the Print Department of the Boston Public Library.

The earliest photos in this volume, dating from about 1850, are ghost-like images of structures and a cityscape that no longer exist in my modern city - such as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Franklin Street which was built in 1800-03 by the important American architect: Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch was a visionary, and as Commissioner of Public Building, he put his indelible stamp on not only Boston, but Washington D.C. where here designed the Capital building. He had studied in Europe and incorporated European ideas and concepts into his American projects. Among his many local architectural accomplishments are: Faneuil Hall, the Boston Common, and the Massachusetts State House. Photographs of most of these buildings are represented in the publication.

It's good that the camera was invented when it was, since many structures in Boston burned down in the Great Fire of 1872. That dreaded event consumed 776 buildings in a 60 acre area and changed the downtown area forever (Several photos in the book document this disaster).

As someone who did not move to Boston until the early 70's, it is fascinating to see what the city looked like long before my time. Yet there are many streets, parks, and structures that still exist today but stand in an entirely different context, such as historic Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. Having lived in the North End for a number of years (see my blog post North End Stories dated 7/2/08), much of that neighborhood looks very similar to what we see in photos dating from the 1920s and beyond. For example the Paul Revere House in North Square is shown in the book in a photo taken in 1909, and amazingly it looks quite the same today! That wood building stands solidly as the oldest structure in Boston. It was built around 1680.

Also looking virtually unchanged compared to a photo in the book is the Union Oyster House restaurant - the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the nation! (btw, their New England clam chowder is superb).

It's nice to see what the Cyclorama looked liked when it opened in 1884. Today this building is home of the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End.

The stylish Majestic Theatre is shown in a 1903 photo that reveals what it looked like in its' heyday. Originally designed as an opera house, it still functions as such and was beautifully restored by Emerson College in 1989.

One thing that seems to have changed multiple times over the years is North Station on Causeway Street. A photograph from 1901 shows the massive Union Station (1894) which connected to several rail lines including the Lowell and Fitchburg systems. Union Station was leveled in 1927 to build North Station and the Boston Garden, which more recently was succeeded by the TD Banknorth Garden built over the tracks. Somehow the elegance and meaning of train stations as both a functional and symbolic port of entrance to the city has been lost in our current society. North Station today may be efficient, cost-effective, and functional, but it is also bland and without a soul.

The facade of South Station on the other hand was maintained, and it looks much like it did in the 1901 photo in the book - although the elevated railway is long gone.

Every city has its disasters, and one of Boston's worst occurred on January 19th, 1919 in the North End. It was the Great Molasses explosion that killed 21 and injured 150 . Several photographs in the book document the devastation, which was extensive as its 8-foot wave of molasses engulfed the area knocking down everything in its path.

I think my favorite photo is a two-page spread of Symphony Hall as it looked in 1916 at a time when German-born conductor Karl Muck would have been the orchestra's Music Director. The world-famous concert hall looks about the same today (see my 9/25/08 post about Rush Tickets or 10/24/08 BSO Concert Review). In the photo you can clearly see the upper arched windows in the hall which were rediscovered and restored just this year. A trolley car (#733) buzzes by on Mass Ave in the foreground of the photo as a traffic jam consisting of black Model-T Fords drop off their Boston Symphony patrons. The brick building shown standing on the corner of Westland and Mass Ave was an industrial storage facility that no longer exists.,_Boston

Books such as Historic Photos of Boston allow us to take in the enormous change that naturally occurs in a vibrant and continually-adapting city. Some of these changes are unfortunately regrettable. One observation that strikes me concerns the impact that automobiles have had on city life. You can clearly see that as the number of cars increase over time, the quality of neighborhood life goes down. It's not simply a matter of aesthetics, but about the utilization of space and public mass-transportation. Old cities were not designed by city planners like Charles Bulfinch to accommodate the incredible volume of automobiles that we have on the streets today.

If you want to take a trip back in history to view Boston as it was, I strongly recommend this book. Although you will see that much has changed in the city over the years, we can be proud that many historic buildings and landmarks survive.

You can find the book on Amazon...

Historic Photos of Boston
Text and Captions by Timothy Orwig
Copyright 2007 Turner Publishing Company, Nashville TN
ISBN 1-59652-305-0