I have sometimes wished it was my destiny…

In the spirit of Looking Backward, pointing you to this letter featured on the Paleofuture blog, written by Benjamin Franklin to the Reverend John Lothrop of Boston, May 31, 1788.

An excerpt:

I have sometimes wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific, and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will before that period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages, but have my curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner turns 173

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“Every year,” writes Patricia Vigderman, “on her birthday, April 14, a Mass is still said in the chapel she installed on the third floor of that palace. I attended the seventy-ninth performance of the ritual, where I sat beside a long wooden carving that unfurls the injunction to say only good of the dead. I heard the little bells, smelled the incense; around me were prayers responses, sunlight and quiet, the fountain splashing in the courtyard below. Se monumentum requires, circumspice, said the priest. He was referring to Christopher Wren and his St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, but also to the woman in whose house we were sitting. We have to thank her, he concluded cheerfully, for giving us something to talk about.”

The opening lines of The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Looking Backward…on 2010

Featured imageWith a title like this blog has, a couple of days late for a retrospective on the previous year seems almost appropriate. 2010’s most viewed?

1

Boston’s Oldest House March 2010

2

Portrait by a Poet: A Romance June 2010

3

Let Them Eat Cake, Election Cake January 2010

4

The Beginning and End of the East Boston Immigration Station June 2010

5

Memories of the Great Molasses Flood February 2010

Some of these seem pretty obvious candidates. Others, honestly, less so. Chime in if you have thoughts to share, or hopes for the new year.

Roadtown Solves Problem of Living

We’ve covered other un-built schemes to reach from New York to Boston. This one, from the brain of inventor, Edgar Chambless  reached new visionary heights.

Chambless, who lost his job and savings in a financial panic–this one in 1898–had come to sit on top of a hill in Los Angeles to think.

Chambless seems to have had a knack for coming up with uses for unwanted and unused items. Considering the ground beneath him, he concluded it was only worthless because it was so hard to get to. Moving back east to New York, where little land in the city lacks activity or exhorbitant property values, Chambless took a ride on the subway and another seed was planted.

Working in the patent office going through hundreds of abandoned ideas, he writes, true to form:

I began to dream of new conditions in which some of these shelved inventions might be utilized to ease the burden of life for mankind. One plan after another was abandoned until the idea occurred to me to lay the modern skyscraper on its side and run the elevators and pipes horizontally instead of vertically.

Chambless called this structure Roadtown. He imagined that, not having to deal with the physics at work on tall buildings, Roadtowns could extend for thousands of miles. He proposed a monorail running below to transport residents and a bikepath along the roof (also available to roller-skaters). Like any good utopian plan of the era, Chambless planned for shared housework, with fresh meals delivered from a central kitche by train, and a central laundry. Other featured would let residents engage in gardening or light manufacturing in their spare time.

Hi 1910 book on Roadtown got a buzz of press. The New York World noted in its oddly-named article ‘Solving Problem of Living':

A Roadtown man may work at a machine till his eyes and fingers are tired, and then go out and feed the chickens. This is the idea industrial life for which the philosophers of all ages have have striven but which is becoming more and more impossible under our present scheme of civilization.

Chambless announced he was ready to work with the first bidders proposing a practical site. He thought a logical starting place for a Roadtown could run the Bronx to the city of Boston.

More reading: The entire Roadtown, by Edgar Chambless, 1910 is on Google Books. A quick run through some other linear city proposals also found here.

Airships Over Boston

The airship of ‘boy aviator’ Cromwell Dixon was among the international array of biplanes, monoplanes and balloons assembled for the Harvard-Boston Aero-Meet in 1910. Dixon, who lost his father at a young age, had invented his ‘sky-cycle’ at age 14. Encouraged by his mother, he had already exhibited it around the country for several years–sometimes sending her up in his machine.

For this display, months after the first, high profile airmeet in Los Angeles, Harvard organizers leased 700 acres in Atlantic, MA –now Squantum– and promptly named them Harvard Aero Field. In ten days of contests held in September participants competed for speed, altitude, duration, distance. Events also included interestingly, ”Dropping Bombs on Battle ship,’ and ‘the Boston Globe Special’–no clue. President Howard Taft was in attendance.

The Globe ran daily reports from the trials, including this gem:

The person who has not seen a flight before tiptoes breathless on first witnessing the marvel of a machine leaving the ground. This afternoon when the first machine went up, a policeman from one of the suburban details on duty at the grounds quite lost his official reserve, and danced up and down like a boy at a ball game. “Gee, but that’s great!” said he. “Ain’t that great? Why, that’s the greatest thing I ever saw in all my life.” And the good man was on duty all the time.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the contestants in air meets did a lot to create visibility, and a sense of the viability and possibilities of human flight. They also became a lot of the early casualties of what was still an erratic and dangerous activity. Dixon died the year after this meet in an accident, at age 19. This occured days after he become the first pilot to cross the Continental Divide.

See more airships after the jump. Continue reading

Dorchester’s Million Dollar Photoplay Palace

Photo via Flickr/UrbanMechanic.

Photo via Flickr/UrbanMechanic.

To attract audiences to Dorchester’s Strand Theater, its promoters pulled out all the stops. The “Multi-Million Dollar Palace,” had mirrored foyers, marble and bronze interiors, electric, crystal chandeliers, an organ to accompany silent films, and a fountain filled with beach pebbles, plants and rare fish.

The building was one of the first theaters built for the movies. For its opening night gala, on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, The Boston Globe reported the theater was lit with celebratory red, white and blue bulbs. Hundreds gathered for tickets, dressed in their formal best. The bill included Annette Kellerman in “Queen of the Sea” and the charming stage and screen actress Marguerite Clark in “Out of a Clear Sky.” Clark plays a Belgian countess who runs away to America to escape a marriage to a German prince. During intermission, a twenty one piece orchestra played dance tunes for the crowds.

In its heyday the Strand hosted a parade of familiar faces. Dorchester native, Ray Bolger debuted on its stage in 1922. Fanny Brice, Alfred Hitchcock, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Duke Ellington and Jerry Lewis, are also said to have appeared there. Closed in the 1960s, the theater was claimed by the city under eminent domain in the 1970s and underwent extensive renovations. Today it is open as an arts and community center.

Bostonian Gives Ideal City Recipe

Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1907

TO MAKE A PERFECT CITY–Take one-half of the culture of Boston and one-half of the energy of Chicago. Mix thoroughly and allow to soak for a while in an atmosphere of civic righteousness. Serve hot or cold, according to taste.– Recipe of John F. Fitzgerald, mayor of Boston, Mass.

“Mayor Fitzgerald of the effete east,” grandfather of John Fitzgerald Kennedy had arrived in “the metropolis of the west” with an entourage to purchase bronze doors for a bridge over the Charles. He further “marveled at [Chicago's] energy and industry, its length breadth and thickness, and its poorly paved streets.” He went on to say:

“We of Boston have the civilization of 250 years behind us,” he said, “while you are a new people and still in your constructive period. If we could give  you half of our culture for a similar amount of your industry and energy what a happy combination it would be.”

Storyville and the Mid-Century World of Boston Jazz

Photo of Storyville on Huntington Ave via MIT Librairies.

In 1950, George Wein, young, out of college, and out of work, opened a jazz club in a rented room of a hotel in Boston’s Kenmore Square.

Wein’s Storyville would go on to become a fixture in an already strong Boston jazz scene.

Fed by homegrown musicians, including Roy Haynes and Johnny Hodges and graduates of the New England Conservatory and Schillinger House (prequel to Berkless), including Sam Rivers and Charlie Mariano, the city supported a row of jazz clubs on Mass Ave in the 40s and 50s. The first of these venues, the Hi-Top, had been followed by a string of others which achiever greater and lesser degrees of fame, including Roseland, the Savoy Cafe, Eddie Levine’s, and Wally’s Paradise.

Storyville would offer up a steady diet of jazz greats to Boston audiences night after night. Marian McPartland (longtime host of Piano Jazz) would recall the club’s early years in 1979:

Jimmy [McPartland] and I were in a house band in Boston at this hotel, called the Buckminster Hotel, in Kenmore Square.  George had the hotel and in the basement as a jazz club.  That’s where I remember meeting Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald.  I had met Sarah Vaughan in Chicago and Dizzy Gillespie and so on.  All of this was feeding into the computer, me!  This is how I learned to play.  In those days there was no jazz education.

A number of excellent role models recorded onstage at the club. The album Billie Holiday at Storyville draws on sets recorded between 1951-1953, including a week of bookings with saxaphonist Stan Getz.

Today, a Pizzeria Uno fills the  site of the former jazz club, but George Wein, who organized the very first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, has continued on to a career of music promotion now into its seventh decade.

Listen to a great show of jazz from 1940s and 50s Beantown.

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

In Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel, Looking Backward, Julian West, visitor from the nineteenth century, looks out on the transformed city of Boston of the year 2000 for the first time from a rooftop.

“Be pleased to look around you,” he said, as we reached the platform, “and tell me if this is the Boston of the nineteenth
century.”

At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller inclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and an architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side. Surely I had never seen this city nor one comparable to it before.