In the Fifties and Sixties Urban Renewal came to Boston in the form of the draconian Central Artery, Charles River Park and Government Center projects. Together, these efforts were heralded as The New Boston. The next phase in Boston’s evolution is now unfolding in the guise of the Big Dig. This is partly a rollback and partly a further evolution of the ideas that underlay The New Boston.
Here is what Urban Renewal replaced.
Most people think of Boston as a dense city, and it is, especially by American standards. Today’s city is, however, a pale shadow of the medieval maze that was Boston before large-scale modern planning and spatial concepts entered the picture.
First the Central Artery elevated expressway project (1959), then the infamous West End clearance (1961) described in Herbert Gans’ Urban Villagers, and finally the Government Center (1963ff) introduced the modernist concept of infinite space into the form of the city.
Medieval Boston survives in the crooked street patterns and canyonlike spaces of the North End and Financial District, but those who do not remember Scollay Square, the West End, the Waterfront and Haymarket from before Urban Renewal are rarely prepared for the reality that survives today mostly in photographs:
Hancock Tavern, 1900
Creek Square, 1896. This street survives in the heart of what is today referred to as the Blackstone Block, though the buildings that fronted it are now gone.
Elm Street, 1920. Faneuil Hall in foreground and the beaux-arts skyscraper Custom House Tower beyond. These two historic monuments are still with us; everything else, including the street, has vanished into infinite space. Faneuil Hall: before it was revered as historic, Pillsbury thought of it as good billboard space.
Faneuil Hall Square, 1925. That is the apron canopy of Faneuil Hall at lower left—needed because the ground floor was a functioning wholesale food market. Both canopy and the function that required it survived until about 1975. Every single thing in this photograph has now vanished.
Coca Cola at Faneuil Hall. The building that hosted the sign would now be in the roadway of a widened Congress Street.
Bowdoin Square, 1929, gateway to the doomed West End beyond.
Faneuil Hall Square, 1860. The Feather Shop was a genuine English medieval building dating from the 1600’s. The reconstructed Paul Revere House has similar lines.
Dock Square, 1900, looking towards Ames Building, an early skyscraper (1889). Note the sign hawking rooms on the left-hand building; people used to live here.
Quincy Market, 1920. Though cars were more common by this time, horses were the preferred conveyance of produce peddlers. Quincy is still a market of sorts; the Rouse Company, prodded by architect Benjamin Thompson, turned it into the first Festival Marketplace (1976); the above building functions today as a vast food court.
Blackstone Street, Haymarket, 1933. Buildings on the right demolished for Central Artery ramp, ca. 1957; buildings on left mostly cut down to one story, some with basement retail when Haymarket in session. The bend in the street is still there, of course, as is Haymarket, though it looks a little different.
North Street was a major link from Dock Square to the North End in 1885, and is poised to become so once again now that the elevated Central Artery is coming down. The artery cut North Street in two; it is discontinuous but it can be found both north and south of the highway. Buildings on the right are all gone, victims of an Artery ramp; a hotel gobbled up most of the ones on the left, but guiltily mimicked them in general form.
Atlantic Avenue, 1905. Loitering menacingly down by the waterfront, these guys seem like the spiritual forebears of coke dealers. This area is now a waterfront park.
Medieval Boston survives in the crooked street patterns and canyonlike spaces of the North End and Financial District, but in the West End, Scollay Square, Waterfront and Haymarket, the Middle Ages were bulldozed into oblivion by Urban Renewal, the New Boston and most of all, the Central Artery:
Before Urban Renewal, as now, one epicenter of the city was Dock Square, site of Faneuil Hall, built as a produce market with public meeting hall above. Here the Continental Congress met and took steps toward American independence. Here also, before landfill, the residential North End met downtown for commerce and public activities. The Waterfront was the third participant in this colloquy, but it has since been ordered into the distance by landfill and other large-scale planning gestures.
Dock Square, 1928, Faneuil Hall at right middleground. If the present City Hall had existed in 1928, this would approximate the view from the mayor’s office. (Faneuil Hall’s first designer was the portrait-painter, Samuel Smibert, 1742. In 1805, Charles Bulfinch enlarged the structure and added a third story). A statue of Samuel Adams has displaced the premium ham.
Faneuil Hall, 1923, with Quincy Market beyond. The Harbor—fully connected to the city—appears in the background. In true medieval fashion, mansards and additional stories are beginning to appear on what is today called North Market Building—really numerous buildings until 1976, separated by party walls and property lines, but intended by architect Alexander Parris to be unified by identical façade treatments to create the illusion of a single vast structure. The owners had their own ideas.
Visually, Quincy Market’s South and North Buildings were conceived by their architect to appear unified, much as they do today, after their “restoration”. Functionally, however, these were dozens of near-identical buildings separated by party walls and property lines. They were developed in small increments over time, and hence they never actually achieved the unified appearance they have today, because by the time the last unit was built numerous variations, modifications and individual designs had cropped up to disrupt the overall order. Thus the intended Baroque unity was organically medievalized.
The effects of this process of individuation are clearly visible in the depression-era photograph. Most owners have added mansards, extra stories, alternative façade treatments or otherwise modified the basic unit design, so that “North Market Building” and “South Market Building” can not clearly be discerned as entities. By mid-Twentieth Century, one or two units had even evolved into miniature deco skyscrapers of seven or eight stories, complete with elevators.
These were all re-regularized and re-clad by architect Ben Thompson when the Rouse Corporation converted Quincy Market, the wholesale meat market, into Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the retail shopping mall. Internally, Thompson and Rouse unified the buildings with corridors piercing the heavy party walls, at the same time as they also unified the exteriors.
You could say they restored the market buildings to their original historic condition (although before 1976 this condition was only fully realized in the original architect’s mind and drawings). Or you could say with equal justification that Thompson and Rouse really erased the effects of history by restoring the buildings to an appearance that they never actually had.
Which approach, in your opinion, is more faithful to the muse of history?
In the other direction, the view from the Custom House Tower shows Quincy Market in the foreground and looks past Faneuil Hall toward Scollay Square:
Striking is the medieval way space runs in the streets as rivulets defined by buildings. From the standpoint of figure-ground, this is the exact opposite of suburbia, where individual buildings sit objectified in infinite space that extends from here to Nepal and beyond.
The streets look like canyons eroded into the city’s relatively uniform-height roofscape. This uniform height was set by how high people were willing to tromp up stairs. Buildings erected after the elevator’s invention are clearly identifiable; they are the ones over five stories.
Aside from Faneuil Hall, the three market buildings and a few diminutive structures in the Blackstone Block, all buildings in all above photographs are now gone. They were removed wholesale in the 1960s according to a Government Center master plan drawn up by I.M. Pei at the direction of Redevelopment Director Ed Logue, creator of the New Boston. Here is a 1975 view of the same scene, also from the Custom House:
Brobdignagian Fortress Boston hulks sculpturally in its vast brickyard, where formerly teemed hundreds of tiny buildings. In Modernist guise, Baroque absolutism has displaced the fine grained human scale of the medieval city. Where there had been trickles of space there is now spatial infinity, stretching to the far reaches of the Universe. Within this ocean of space, all objects must be seen in the round as sculpture, and they had better be big, to stand up to all that emptiness.
A lengthy (five pages) and interesting thread on City Hall,its plaza, and efforts to replace both:
Another centerpiece of Logue’s clean sweep was the clearing of Scollay Square, which was then noted for burlesque. The old buildings survived until Logue’s giant demolition derby. This was conceived as a one-shot silver bullet to simultaneously cure social ills, physical decay and economic stagnation—all by removing offending buildings. Here are the offenders in their less racy days:
At the end of the street you can see the Old State House (1713), in front of which occurred the Boston Massacre (1770). The Chicago School skyscraper to its left is the Ames Building by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge (1889). When built, this was the tallest office building in the world outside New York, even taller than Chicago’s loftiest. These two buildings survived Logue; everything else was cleared.
Scollay Square, before and after.
Logue abolished not only buildings but streets. Superblocks were all the rage, and Boston got maybe the super-est block of all: the Government Center. Two hundred and seventy-something tiny buildings were replaced by three. An aerial photograph tells you about their scale. These three buildings are not very tall, but their footprints are huge. It is the increment of development that determines scale, not height. And the idea here was to create a zone of monumental scale:
To City Hall’s right, wedged between a small park and a highway ramp, survives the Blackstone Block (really the Blackstone Blocks), where about fifty ancient one, two, three and four story buildings huddle together in about the same footprint as leviathan City Hall.
City Hall and part of its Plaza: bigger than Siena.
Across the expanse of brick lies the yawn-inducing John F. Kennedy Federal Building by celebrated Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus and self-proclaimed inventor of Modernism:
The red-brick plaza of Government Center was to be the pivot of Boston, Hub of the Universe. It was strewn with huge buildings. Unlike the equally huge buildings in the Financial District to its southeast, these were not interspersed with small, old survivors clinging to a medieval street pattern. Therefore (if you should want to) you can get plenty of unobstructed view of them to appreciate their monumental grandiosity:
Until the advent of giant containerships, Boston was a bustling cargo port and home to a large fishing fleet. The Waterfront connected seamlessly to the rest of downtown Boston; it was simply where the city met the sea. You often didn’t notice when a street sneaked onto a wharf. Here State Street becomes Long Wharf:
Long Wharf, 1930
Long Wharf, 1927
There was, however, a Chinese wall of sorts: the Atlantic Avenue El.
Atlantic Avenue with El and Fishing Fleet. The magnificent granite wharf buildings date from the 1840s, and survive as luxury housing. You can clearly see that though unified compositionally they were actually numerous buildings separated by party walls and property lines. Over time, owners raised their roofs and otherwise modified their exteriors to suit their needs, thereby organifying the streetscape.
Atlantic Avenue, 1937. Giant wharf buildings on the right.
Atlantic Avenue El at Street Level: not nearly the obstacle of an elevated highway
Atlantic Avenue, 1942.The car takes over: gas station on the right, and a big notice announcing the El’s impending demise.
The El came down later in 1942. Here only the stanchions survive. Mussolini would have capped them with big globe lights, and maybe gold-plated eagles.
The El fell to the wreckers, but some of its genes were passed on to the Fitzgerald Elevated Highway, aka the Central Artery. The elevated road replaced the elevated train in 1959.
Like the Government Center, the Central Artery was conceived to propel Boston’s moribund economy into a shining future through a huge infusion of government money. The idea was that a truly progressive place had superhighways, not rickety old streetcars and subways. And as in the case of the Government Center, here was a chance to demolish some buildings that looked ugly and unprogressive. In all, 1000 buildings were taken down, and 20,000 residents displaced. The city was sundered:
The Central Artery provided Boston with its biggest-ever Civil Engineering project. Burying it has been bigger still: touted as the costliest public works project of all time. In inflated dollars, the Big Dig cost more than the Panama Canal, built when money was money.
The newborn highway was named for John F. (“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald. He is perhaps best known as the father of Rose Kennedy, for whom in turn is named--fittingly enough—the highway’s successor, the soon-to-be Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Being deceased, Honey Fitz couldn’t show up for the 1959 dedication, so he sent a pair of doubles:
The Urban Village Bites the Dust
The automobile’s campaign to widen Boston’s medieval streets had begun in the 1920’s. Well before the Central Artery was proposed, Boston greatly enlarged Cambridge Street, thus severing the West End from Beacon Hill:
Cambridge Street widening, 1926.
If they had been linguistically punctilious, they would have renamed it Cambridge Road, or perhaps Cambridge Highway. But it still had to do double duty as a pedestrian route for Beacon Hill and the West End to get downtown. Truth is, it never made a good highway because there were too many cross streets, and after widening it ceased to be a good street for pedestrians because there were too many cars:
Cambridge Street, 1930, after widening.
Cambridge Street never recovered. It was the gate through which they hauled the Trojan Horse. Gas stations and parking lots began to appear, and it’s been a disheveled mess ever since, neither quite city or suburb, the edge city stranded in the urban core, Tyson’s Corner transported to Georgetown:
Cambridge Street, 1955
Cambridge Street, 1956
Cambridge Street, 2003
Separated from the cachet of Beacon Hill by widened Cambridge Street, the West End teemed in picturesque shabbiness. The shabbiness masked a vital, healthy working class community, knit together by social ties and a medieval physical closeness.
West End, July 1958. Cambridge Street is the broad thouroughfare at right, marking the boundary of West End and much tonier Beacon Hill. If you are familiar with Beacon Hill, you know it to have a medieval density and diminutive scale. You can see from the photograph that the West End possessed these traits in even greater measure. The streets were canyons.
This place bred, among others, movie stars. The planning authorities, offended by its resemblance to medieval Paris, said it bred crime.
Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek fame, third row right.
Ruth Roman, second row, second from right.
Italian-American social club.
By March 23, 1959, the West End was disappearing rapidly, receding like a hair line:
By September 1960, it was gone. Expunged. Annihilated. Erased. Cleared. Ready for Urban Renewal:
“An Obsolete Neighborhood,” declared the Boston Redevelopment Agency literature, displaying a figure-ground to kill for, “And a New Plan”:
Actually, not so new. Here was the Ville Radieuse, Corbusier’s revenge on the city. Remember, his proposal was to tear down Paris and replace it with skyscrapers in a park. That’s exactly what the planners did in Boston. The West End became Charles River Park. Hundreds of small buildings were replaced by fewer than a dozen big ones:
A traffic-clogged expressway cuts off the project from the river, but nobody minds. As the sign on the expressway famously taunts commuters stuck in traffic: “If you lived here, you’d be home now.”
Suburban living in the city, without a lawn to mow. A doorman, a parking space, security, peace and quiet, and a pool. What more could you want?