Preservation and affordability advocates call truce in JP

It’s an odd alliance at first glance. The Boston Preservation Alliance and Occupy JP have united to oppose demolishing the “Knight’s Children’s Center” on Huntington Ave. The Home for Little Wanderers is relocating to Walpole, and the latest plan for its site is to tear the buildings down and put up a high-end apartment building.

Here are the basics of the dispute from the Jamaica Plain Gazette:

Occupy JP calls for the space to be filled by owner-occupied triple-deckers, a homegrown remedy to poverty with a proven record,” the statement continued. “Spread the wealth or find the homeless, orphans, widows and others sleeping on your doorstep.”

Curtis Kemeny, whose Boston Residential Group is planning the high-end apartment building, previously told the Gazette that the existing buildings cannot be reused due to their age and the difficulty of reconfiguring them.

That includes a 1914 brick building at the core of the complex. Neiswander, a Jamaica Plain resident who said she was writing with the permission of the BPA’s board and executive director, noted that several other S. Huntington Avenue institutions have reused historic buildings. She noted that the 1914 building is “a sturdy brick building of human scale that should be eminently adapatable for residential use.”

It’s worth pointing out that the proponents of historic preservation and the proponents of affordable housing are not always natural allies. Often as not, for example, in the case of St. Aidan’s in Brookline, finally converted to affordable housing in 2010, housing advocates come up against preservationists and others who don’t want to see changes made.

Today, Tim Fernholz argues at GOOD that, “Local policies about land use and transit make America’s most productive places—our largest, wealthiest cities—prohibitively expensive for many people.”

The people already residing in those cities have enacted policies that have, in essence, built a wall around them. Limits on the size of buildings mean that fewer apartment units are built; demands that the needs of cars take precedence over the needs of people create vast parking lots that take up valuable land; zoning restrictions make it harder to create thriving neighborhoods with many types of housing and businesses. In his polemic, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” Matt Yglesias notes while residents fight to preserve the character of iconic neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown, those neighborhoods would be illegal to construct today.

Fernholz argues that high costs of living, combined with rising college debt, keep people from making the move to one of the country’s historically magnetic cities, like New York. Forget Georgetown. More dramatically, there’s the height restriction on all buildings in Washington DC, which gets a lot of blame for that city’s rising rents.

In the JP case (which, just to clarify, doesn’t involve affordable housing) the figurative keys to the bulldozers currently rest in the hands of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) after the Boston Landmarks Coalition (BLC) imposed a 90-day moratorium.

So, JP-ers, keep an eye on the alphabet soup and ponder this one awhile.

Photo shamelessly stolen from the Home for Little Wanderers’ incredible Flickr stream. If you like that one, check out the kids occupying this tree house on Halloween. The Thanksgiving turkey drive. Man, I could go on and on.

The Blackstone Block

Photo via the Boston Public Library Flickr stream.

A narrow alley, only six feet wide: hardly the sort of careful, modern road we’d lay downtown today. Once more, we take you back to the environs of Quincy Market, where you can walk the last traces of the city’s original street grid.

The ‘Blackstone Block’ is the area sandwiched between Union, Hanover, North and Blackstone Streets. These are some of the city’s oldest routes. Sadly, the city was not laid out laid out along cowpaths. That’s a charming urban myth. The cramped layout owes more to “unscientific” planning and natural obstacles like hills and brooks. Blackstone Street actually lies on top of the old Mill Creek, which was crossed by drawbridges and, you guessed it, powered a mill.

That’s the wide open City Hall Plaza in the center, and the Blackstone area in the bottom right.

Author/historian Walter Muir Whitehill once wrote that the Blackstone Block “represented a chronological history of buildings in Boston.” The 17th century streets and alleyways are lined with mostly 18th and 19th century buildings, all built within what was then spitting distance of harbor (land later expanded as real estate grew more valuable than the old docks). The original structures would have been made of wood.

The streets were once busy and noisily commercial. The neighborhood’s still home to the famed tourist trap, The Union Oyster House. The Blackstone Block’s restoration was carefully done to suggest just how cramped conditions originally were. Borders of brick and cobblestone outline the original streets and buildings (cobblestones = streets; brick = buildings).

In a classic mish-mash of good intentions, “Historic street lamps were found in a scrap metal yard, restored, and fitted with energy-saving lights.”

That Muir quote comes from a fascinating document from the urban renewal area on how the Blackstone Block should be handled and preserved from the wave of change that swept through the areas around this old pocket. The report is from 1964 and observes the block has many vacancies but the future “is very promising.”

The many lives of Paul Revere’s house

Photo by Thomas Marr, via the Boston Public Library’s Flickr stream.

This small wooden house in Boston’s North End belonged to  American revolutionary, Paul Revere — the one who went riding to Concord to warn the original “patriots” that the British were coming. But in the years between housing the famous silversmith and becoming a shrine to revolutionary history, the building housed at a various times a cigar manufacturing operation, a bank, and a vegetable market.

The North End, an old neighborhood in an old city, had long been a point of arrival for new immigrants. So after Paul Revere sold the building in 1800 it became a tenement, and the  first floor went commercial.

By the latter half of the century, the new arrivals to the neighborhood would have been mostly Jewish and Italian. From 1880 to 1905 the neighborhood went from 4% to 80% Italian. That’s what we call a boom, and you can hear it in the names of the Revere house’s late tenants: the FA Goduti and Company Cigar Factoryand the Banco Italiana (1905 photo). The vegetable shop was apparently Jewish.

Back to revering Revere

It’s now the stuff of high school history class discussions that it was Longfellow’s 1861 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and not Revere’s own life, that posthumously made him an American icon. Architect and preservationist Joseph Everett Chandler championed the restoration of the Revere House in 1907 for the Paul Revere Memorial Association. His renovations included knocking off the building’s third story (I would love to see more of Chandler’s thinking on the renovation if anyone’s seen some primary docs).

This all took place just two years before the photo above was taken by Thomas Marr. He was a society photographer who took pictures of many of the most notable people and places of his era.

So long, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.

Drawing for the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Erickson.

Perhaps this is more of a spring post, or just wishful thinking.

But a quick post on the Boston sojourn of a famous architect’s next-of-kin. Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., embarked on his first work apart from his famous father as an apprentice with the Olmsted Brothers. This was the firm of the famous landscape artist, Frederick Law Olmsted. The brief period of Wright’s apprenticeship with the shop in the 1910s came between several years spent at the University of Wisconsin — before he, like his father, dropped out– and a move to California. Wright Jr.’s time chez Olmsted was appropriate for an architect whose reputation would be based on his understanding of the interaction of architecture with the natural landscape.

Wright Jr. had begun drafting for his father at a young age. You can see his skill with a pen above. In his work with Olmsted’s firm, he specialized in horticulture and botany.

The Olmsted Brothers office, “Fairsted,” in Brookline, is currently undergoing a major renovation, with a reopening date set for sometime in 2011.

EPA revisiting environment of City Hall Plaza

boston city hall plaza 1973

Photo of Boston’s City Hall Plaza in August, by Ernst Halberstadt, via US National Archives.

This is, let’s be honest, a very flattering picture of Boston’s City Hall Plaza, outside the Government Center subway station.

It’s also the latest in our series of posts on the Boston photos that came out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project. One of the themes of photographer, Ernst Halberstadt’s photos were pockets of nature where Bostonians relaxed and cooled down (check out another fantastically pleasant-looking shot of City Hall Plaza) in the hot summer of 1973.

In fact, Boston’s brutalist city hall and surrounding Government Center Plaza, built in the 1960s by a team of three then-Columbia University architecture  professors, Kalmann, McKinnell & Knowles is infamously unpleasant to spend time in. As Fast Co. Design charmingly puts it, “the red brick desert has utterly no redeeming social value.”

The group somehow though managed to win an international design competition for the building with their plan in 1962. McKinnell said the architects were drawn to concrete — not yet a common part of the urban landscape — to make a statement.

He told an interesting anecdote in an interview with Mark Pasnik for the Heroic project. (The project highlighted the concrete structures built from the founding of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1957 to the re-opening of Quincy Market in 1976, otherwise known as the catalog of buildings only an architect could love). In their conversation, McKinnell recalled running into renowned modernist architect Philip Johnson, of Connecticut Glass House fame shortly after winning the competition.

[W]e were walking along Madison Avenue, and we spied Johnson coming towards us, waving his arms in typical Johnsonian fashion. “Ah! I’m so happy for you two young boys who have won this competition. Absolutely marvelous. I think it’s wonderful. And it’s so ugly!” We thought that was the greatest praise we could get. And concrete certainly had something to do with that.

The EPA is returning to City Hall Plaza, this time with the Greening America’s Capitals project, which will rethink City Hall Plaza. Paradoxically, this may also be right in line with the architects’ original vision. Also from McKinnell’s interview with Pasnik:

As we all know, Boston’s mayor wants to sell or preferably tear down City Hall. But as Bill LeMessurier once said, it will take a controlled nuclear device to get rid of this building. So in a very real way, perhaps, we have made our legacy using concrete because it is so bloody difficult to get rid of … We were right in the sense that architecture had to be rethought as something which is long-lived and, over time, could be decorated, embellished, and adorned by subsequent generations.

The rise and fall of the Mercantile Wharf Building

brick front of Boston mercantile building with broken windows

Mercantile Building, 1973, photo by Ernst Halberstadt via the US National Archives.

This is the second installment of a series of posts inspired by Boston photos from the EPA’s Documerica project. You can read the first installment on East Boston’s Neptune Road, here.

At the time the Mercantile Wharf Building was erected at Commercial Street and Atlantic Avenue, it was still on the waterfront. Hence the name.

The Mercantile Building was itself built on infill, then beside the water. In these years, much of the new growth on the waterfront was taking place on new land created between some of the old docks, now too small for the latest generation of ships.

It was one warehouse in a maze of support facilities for nearby Quincy Market. Gridley James Fox Bryant, son of the architect attributed with the design of the Bunker Hill monument, designed the building (Interestingly the Bunker Hill monument is attributed with creating a wider market for the granite that prominently features in the carvings and pillars Quincy Market). Bryant is deemed a member of the “Boston Granite School.” Construction concluded in 1857.

This photo was taken between a devastating 1970 fire which raged through the building, and its refurbishment in 1976 with shops below elegant apartments. Today, the building is considered to be an unusually intact remnant of the old harbor commercial architecture.

Along with Boston landmarks, Halberstadt, who, fascinatingly, had also been a WPA muralist captured images of daily life throughout the city in the early 70s. You can find his contributions to the Documerica Project here. The Smithsonian has a transcript online of an exhaustive oral history interview with Halberstadt, which begins with his arrival in Boston aboard a steamship at age one.

Books for children in library

In April of 1890, the Brookline Public Library (est 1857) opened a reading room especially for children. According to the library (so take this with a grain of salt, as perceived influence is always hard to verify) this reading room was not only one of the first in the country, but also instrumental as a national model of library services for kids. Nine years later, the library would add a children’s reference room, also staffed with its own librarian. The room pictured above is neither, as a new building was built in 1910 on the same Washington Street, before this picture was taken.

Below, the reading room for adults.

The building received an addition in 1971.

Read more on the Brookline Public Library’s history here. See more of the Library’s historic photographs here, as part of the Digital Commonwealth project.



Taking advantage of some intriguing photos provided by the Brookline Public Library, it seemed like a good day to take a look at the building’s many incarnations.