Lost Boston, Exposed

Unity Street in the North End of Boston, 1898

Boston is one of the most historic cities in the United States, but it’s managed to lose much more of its architectural past than it retains. Sacrificed to urban experiments from concrete piazzas to towers-in-the-park, generations of honeycombed alleys and densely-crammed pockets of housing have largely disappeared from the city center, their former presence registered only in ancient street plans and ghost-like remains. When I first moved to the area in the late 1990s, I would comb through books of old maps and photographs of the city – such as Jane Holtz Kay‘s Lost Boston – with almost the same enthusiasm with which I set off to explore what was left of the city itself.

The internet has grown to include a wealth of resources to help track down the lost urban fabric of past centuries – not the least of which is the Library of Congress’ vast database of historical photographs. But my interest was piqued this week, when I discovered that the Boston Public Library released its much more intimate, if eclectic, collection on flickr. The photos, prints, and postcards it contains present a city that is both immensely altered and curiously unchanged from its 19th century self, providing the contemporary viewer the opportunity to reconsider just which “history” preserved Boston embodies today.

There are certainly streetscapes that seem almost miraculously frozen in time. Park Street, descending Beacon Hill into the bosom of downtown Boston, looks much the same today as it did in the 1850s. With the exception of some facade interventions – themselves products of the late 19th century – and a backdrop of skyscrapers that have only begun to haunt the vista since the 1960s, this view remains almost completely unchanged today:

Park Street, Boston, 1858

Other parts of “historic” Boston underwent dramatic transformations before the preservation movement froze them in their tracks. The intersection of Washington, Summer, and Winter streets is, today, the heart of a bustling, towering shopping district. But in the 1840s – after over two centuries of settlement and urbanisation – it retained the appearance of an English country town.

The North End of the city is a more surprising example. Today, the neighborhood preserves many of the narrow, sinuous laneways that have threaded between its buildings since the city’s first inhabitants settled there, in the 17th century. Though known for this history, the Public Library collection illustrates what must have been a dramatic change in the neighborhood’s built environment in the early years of the 20th century.

As late as 1898, when many of the library’s photos were taken, the neighborhood was a landscape of tumbledown wooden structures from the 17th and 18th centuries, interspersed among later Federal-style rowhouses — a North End that would be unrecognizable today. The first photo in this thread is an example of the latter building type. Today, the same street is dominated by tenements at least twice the size of the 19th century rowhomes, and stripped of much of their “homely” decoration.

The shift is even more dramatic considering the involvement of the nascent preservation movement around the same time many of the buildings in the earlier photo would have been replaced (or extensively modified). The 1898 collection contains a number of photos of 18th century prints, alluding to the photographers’ fascination with already lost landmarks of Boston’s history. Of course, most depict mainstays of the city’s Revolutionary past – sites such as Benjamin Franklin’s birthplace or the Sons of Liberty tavern (which would, if they survived, undoubtedly be mobbed by modern tourists as well).

Still, there was at least some growing fascination, even at the time, with preserving the more quotidian past of colonial Boston. This wooden house, on the North End’s Prince Street, bears a prominent sign declaring that it was built in 1727:

The intent was clear: to call attention to the provenance of an otherwise unremarkable (and vulnerable) structure, and to elicit some appreciation for its historic value. Unfortunately for the early preservationists who clearly hoped to save this building, it has not survived. Given what often happened to historically significant buildings in the ephemeral world of 19th century Boston – where the wealthy would trot from one newly-built fashionable district to the next every two decades – it is not difficult to sympathize with their concerns. Many were turned into taverns and houses of ill-repute, went into poor repair, were covered in advertising, and demolished without care or question when redevelopment was put on the table. One such building was the “House of General Crane” on Tremont Street, in the developing underworld of Scollay Square:

House of General Crane, Tremont Street, Boston

It was not long before this little building was swept away. Its replacement stood until the 1960s, when the entire neighborhood was uprooted in order to create the stolid, windswept hinterland of Government Center.

Boston’s early preservationists did manage to score the occasional victory – though we might call into question, by today’s standards, what and how they chose to “preserve”. One famous example is the Paul Revere House. Built in 1680 in the North End, it was expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries into a three story building:

Paul Revere House, Boston, 1898

But by the 1930s, after it was purchased and “restored” by local preservationists, the Paul Revere House had reverted to the medieval aesthetic it possessed in the 17th century – or as preservationists believed such a house would have looked at the time:

Paul Revere House, Boston, ca. 1930s

Reproductions only reproduce a history as it was understood to look and feel at the time of the reproduction. Yet in the act of their creation, a very tangible history – in the case of the Paul Revere House, centuries’ worth – is erased. Ironically, the house’s namesake inhabitant, who lived there in the 18th century, might not even recognize it today. The paradoxes of this are such that, were the clock to be turned back on the Paul Revere House again, preservationists would be destroying evidence of 1930s ideas about the 17th century – in an attempt to uncover the 19th.

Iterations of this debate are increasingly common in cities around the world. In Berlin, the demolition of the communist-era Palast der Republik – and its replacement with a recreation of Germany’s old Imperial Palace – has been hotly debated, with both sides urging respect for memory. The overarching theme of the squabble is clear: beyond the debate over whether memory, preservation, or history matters, the debate is about when – what time period – ought to be preserved, and, more importantly, what this choice says about our society in the present day. Boston’s historic streets and buildings do not reflect some static, prewar essence of the city, but a moment when committed activists stood athwart history yelling “stop” – and, in some cases, when they made their own interpretations of what the world would look like if they turned back the clock.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Friday January 30 2009at 01:01 am , filed under Heritage and Preservation, History, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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