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.”

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Road trip: The original fast food chain

The Wakefield, MA Howard Johnson’s franchise opened June 14, 1936, at the head of Lake Quannapowitt. Photo via Digital Commonwealth.

This holiday weekend, at the side of the road, you’ll find one McDonalds after another, Boston favorite Dunkin Donuts, that newfangled McCafe, but back at the dawn of the interstate, the dependable, ubiquitous chain restaurant was Howard Johnson’s from Quincy. Fare: Frankforts, fried clam strips, and 26 flavors of ice cream.

In his new (and frankly, phenomenal) history of the country’s interstate highways, The Big Roads, Earl Swift says the original chain with a reputation for unvarying service was launched by Howard Deering Johnson, who bought out a beachfront drugstore in Quincy –

and enticed customers to its soda fountain by offering the richest ice cream in town, which he hand-churned with gobs of extra butterfat. He expanded the ice cream business to a stand on the seashore, adding flavors along the way, and eventually opened a bona fide restaurant in downtown Quincy. His twenty-eight flavors became a signature. His fried clams became a destination.

Johnson intended to open additional locations, but the Depression intervened, so instead a friend agreed in 1935 to share ownership in a second restaurant on Cape Cod, using the Howard Johnson’s name and menu. That was the first roadside HoJo’s, and both the business and the franchise arrangement were hits.

Thirty-nine had launched by year’s end. There were 107 by the end of 1939, and the chain’s “exclusive contract” with an early, ambitious, toll funded highway – The Pennsylvania Turnpike – made it a familiar roadside face.

Jayne M. D’Onofrio, who included the photo above of a franchise in a Wakefield Municipal Gas & Light Department calendar, describes tremendous buzz on opening day. Traffic jams occupied five Wakefield policemen. “When the restaurant closed at 10 p.m. that evening, more than 900 chicken dinners, 1,150 gallons of ice cream, and 4,500 frankfurters (their specialty) were served throughout the 11 hours.”

A last note on Big Roads: Otherwise Swift spends relatively little time in the Boston region and the Northeast. The Central Artery and Big Dig get a passing mention as a late effort by a city to come to term with its freeway through downtown.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko, hero of two continents

Tadeusz Kosciuszko:

Polish national hero – check.

Lithuanian national hero – check.

Belarussian – check.

And American – that too.

Kosciuszko was one of many of the European continent (see: Lafayette) in the Continental Army, serving under Generals Gates and Washington in the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, he was rewarded with: a promotion to Brigadier General, American citizenship, and a plot of land in Ohio.

An abolitionist, he left his property to be administered by Thomas Jefferson when he returned to Europe – to be used to buy the freedom of slaves and pay for their educations (Jefferson abdicated his assignment after Kosciuszko’s death).

But, as noted, before Kosciuszko died, the Revolutionary war hero returned to Europe, signed up with the Polish military, and made his reputation on the Continent.

Though he doesn’t seem to have made much of his own history in Boston, his tenuous connection to the city is this statue on the Boston Commons that was put up by the city’s Polish Community in 1927 (that’s 150 years since he joined the Continental Army). The female artist was Bostonian, Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson (who deserves her own post). He’s also the subject of memorials in Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington DC, St. Petersburg.


An interview with his biographer.

Photo of the Boston Common statue by apparent Boston statue connoisseur, Wally Gobetz. One favorite that he’s documented, frankly too recent for this blog, is the Tortoise vs. Hare race of Copley Square, installed 1994.

Adorable second graders pledge allegiance to the flag

students in classroom recite pledge of allegiance to american flag
Photo: Deborah Parks, via US National Archives.

Happy Flag Day! A classroom of second grade students pledge allegiance to the American flag at the Rockport Elementary School in the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts, adorably. More adorable.

This photo was taken in Feburary of 1973 as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1970s Documerica project. We’ve had a series of posts on photos from the project.

Happy Lafayette Day?

An 1824 advertisement in the aptly named Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot advertising souvenirs of the Marquis de Lafayette.

In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution for his support against the British, sat in seclusion in France. He had been at odds with the French establishment since Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1824,  the American Congress passed a resolution inviting then-President Monroe to invite Lafayette to tour the States. Lafayette first arrived in New York, but traveled throughout the country to great fanfare. In Boston, he was greeted on the Common in “an occasion of special splendor, with a military review followed by a dinner for 1200 people under a marquee erected for the event.”

Festivities on May 20th, Lafayette Day conclude with the annual decoration of the Lafayette Monument (1924, the centennial of his visit) on the Boston Common.

Freedom Riders debuts, Boston edition

Freedom Riders, the American Experience documentary on the 1961 freedom rides into the deep south, debuts tomorrow, Monday, May 16 on PBS. The mostly very young protesters made the original  trip to protest Jim Crow laws.

Here’s just a quick note to point you to a unique web feature of the documentary that’s being released amid much buzz (by public media standards) on this 50th anniversary.

WGBH in Boston – where American Experience is produced – has begun featuring profiles of Boston-area riders. Among them, Ellen Ziskind, a native of Lowell now in her 70s.

I just was kind of seized with… it was sort of like a moral crisis in a way, for a young person. And it was like, Oh my God, if I really believe in this stuff that I’m sort of in the office working on, and that I’ve believed in for kind of my whole life, I have to put my money where my mouth is.

And it was just one of those moments that is seamless. It’s kind of like a kaleidoscope, it just sort of clicks into place and there’s a decision there, and it’s clear. Unambivalent and clear. And so that’s how I came to go.

Another rider, Mike Wolfson was only 17. The Freedom Riders webpage says they’ll be posting extended coverage on the three listed participants — and hopefully some more of them?

Other web extra highlights include an interview with the documentary’s director, Stanley Nelson, and a forum for user-submitted stories and memories.

Will you be submitting a story? Or tuning in?

Photo: Ziskind’s mug shot, at age 20 – via Mississippi Sovereignty Commission online.

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.