The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Around the Neighborhood

Charlesgate Park, the Bowker Overpass, and Our Changing Urban Landscape

As a transplant to Boston, one of my goals of the past few years has been to develop a better grasp of the topographical history of this tangled, layered city. As the daughter of a cartographer, I was raised to pay attention to the built and wild landscape around me, and also to appreciate how landscapes are ever-evolving. One of the things that fascinates me about Boston as a city is the way in which its landscape is constantly in flux, and yet how every inch of the land and the structures on it contain traces of previous contours, uses, and lives.

Charlesgate“Intersection of Boylston Street and Charlesgate from the West. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has recently completed a study of the ramps on and off I-90 turnpike in central Boston. One focus of the study is the renovation or removal of the Bowker Overpass, constructed in 1967 over the much-beloved section of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace park system known as Charlesgate Park. Charlesgate Park, completed in the 1880s, connected the Fens and the Commonwealth to the Charles River Esplanade. Boston University student Allan Lasser offers an excellent overview of the history of Charlesgate and the overpass in a 2013 article, “Charlesgate: A Palimpsest of Urban Planning” (New Errands, vol. 1 no. 1).

What, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Massachusetts Historical Society? Well, we are part of this narrative of landscape too. The current home of the MHS, constructed in the 1890s, stands at the top of Charlesgate East. Our reading room overlooks what once would have been the southern entrance to the Charlesgate Park. In this aerial photograph digitized by MIT libraries, one can see the top of Charlesgate Park and the Fens stretching southwest towards Jamaica Pond; the MHS is just visible in the lower left-hand corner.

In the mid 1890s, Boston artist Sarah Gooll Putnam pasted this photograph of Charlesgate Park into her diary:

Putnam diary“Charlesgate Park. Photograph by unknown photographer, circa 1893-1896. Sarah Gooll Putnam Diaries, vol 20, MHS.”

Last week, on my walk to work, I paused with a camera at the top of Charlesgate East and captured some images This is what the southeast corner of Charlesgate Park looks like today. The building that features so prominently in Putnam’s photograph can be seen in the distance beyond the passing school bus.

Charlesgate 2“Charlesgate Park from the corner of Boylston Street and Charlesgate East. Photograph by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, January 2014.”

While some urban planners would argue the Bowker Overpass is an essential pressure valve, easing traffic congestion in and out of central Boston, it is easy to see why city residents and nature-lovers abhor the auto-friendly changes to the neighborhood. In The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston (Beacon Press, 2008), natural historian John Hanson Mitchell scathingly refers to the Charlesgate as a “perfect example” of “all that went wrong in Boston in the 1950s, and in some ways all that has gone wrong in the environment since the invention of the internal combustion engine” (120). Agreeing with him, citizen groups Friends of the Charlesgate and The Esplanade Association are lobbying for MassDOT to remove the Overpass and restore the Charlesgate Park as a pedestrian-friendly link from the Fens down to the Esplanade. Whatever happens, the MHS will stand at the corner of Boylston and The Fenway, bearing witness to the changing landscape around us.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 8:00 AM

Fenway Garden Society: From Victory Gardens to Historic Landmark

 

When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the nation’s food resources were already stretched thin. Once operating at a surplus, U.S. farmers were sending a large portion of their crops overseas to aid the Allies and alleviate the growing food shortage in Europe. With U.S. troops heading to war, there was an ever greater demand for food as only well-fed soldiers could serve at full strength.

In response to the increasing need for food, the U.S. government implemented the Food Rationing Program in 1942, which called on U.S. citizens to conserve their food consumption and avoid waste. In conjunction with rationing, the government also asked civilians to plant “Victory Gardens” and consume the produce they grew. The slogan “Food For Freedom,” originally coined during World War I, was repurposed to great effect.

There is evidence of this very garden movement in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood today. Among the 49 areas obtained for gardens by the Boston Victory Garden Committee, one large plot was established in what is now known as the Back Bay Fens. Area community members could apply for their own plots to aid the war effort, and receive instruction if they were novice gardeners. In order to encourage better gardening and crop yield, Victory Gardeners also held contests and exhibitions.

The gardens remained in this form until the war was drawing to a close and the need for food rationing in the U.S. lessened. In 1944, a group of plot-holding gardeners who feared losing usage of the land assembled with the goal of continuing their urban gardening beyond the war. They established the Fenway Garden Society, and the MHS has their papers in its collections.

The Fenway Garden Society held its first meeting on 15 October 1944, with 23 members in attendance. According to the meeting notes, the society’s object was to “promote the planting and growing of vegetables for home usage.” The society continued to be part of the war effort into 1945, when Chester Bowes of the War Food Administration in Washington, D.C., “wrote stating more food would be necessary.” However, by 1946 the National Victory Garden Commission had dissolved and the society shifted its focus to the general benefits of gardening.

They continued to hold contests to encourage good gardening, giving out small cash prizes and the coveted gold star to winners. They also wrote open letters to gardeners to encourage them to become involved in the society’s work and promote knowledge of gardening.

The Fenway Garden Society often faced an uphill battle in maintaining the piece of land used for the garden plots in what continues to be a highly desirable part of Boston. In one of their first open letters in 1946 they referenced “a petition asking for the gardens for this year, and expressing appreciation for them in the past” and encouraged prospective and current gardeners to sign. There would be many more occasions when the society’s members would have to advocate to maintain their land. Throughout the years, attempts have been made to build hospitals, schools, and parking lots on that land, and it has only been through the Fenway Garden Society’s efforts, and media and legislative support, that the community gardens have remained.

Today the Fenway Victory Gardens are a Boston Historic Landmark. The Fenway Garden Society still exists today and tends the same land in the Fens, which now consists of 500 individual plots cultivated by a diverse group of gardeners.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 April, 2013, 1:00 AM

Fenway Studios

Continuing a theme that started many months ago, it is time to take a new look Around the Neighborhood for another glimpse of the history that is part of, and surrounding, the MHS. In this installment, let us look just around the corner onto Ipswich Street, where we find the Fenway Studios.

In 1904, a fire at the Harcourt Studios on Irvington St, near present-day Copley Plaza, deprived many Boston artists of their studios and life’s work, some lucky to emerge alive. Almost immediately, members of the Copley Society and St. Botolph Club started collaborating to get a new space designed and built. It took only three months for the group to raise $90,000, through subscriptions, to fund a building and to get land donated.

Built the same year, the Fenway Studios is the oldest continuously functioning building in the United States that was designed and built for use by artists. The building is now on the list of National Historic Landmarks

The studios were built in the Arts and Crafts design, a style that took its cues from the Aesthetic Movement that was in vogue in England at the time. Englishman William Morris summed up his vision for the movement when he said “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” The simplicity of this idea and the implied ambiguity – what constitutes Useful or Beautiful? – have granted the Arts and Crafts movement impressive longevity.

Drafting of the building was done quickly but not without heavy input from the artists that would occupy its space. Many of these original artists had studied in Paris in the late 19th century and, with that as inspiration, came up with four elements that were key to their vision of a new workspace: abundant north light, spacious rooms, convenient location, and affordable rents. The building was thus constructed with each of the 46 studios possessing 12-feet high, north-facing windows and 14-feet high ceilings.

Externally, the building was constructed using clinker brick – bricks that are partially vitrified. When created, the bricks are burned at extremely high temperature which yields denser, heavier, and darker bricks. The resulting pieces are very water resistant but with higher thermal conductivity and therefore lending less insulation.

Though the building is still standing and in use today, according to the National Park Service, as of 1998 it has severe structural problems on the north elevation and, due to possible encroachment by the development of the Turnpike in front of it, the north light that is so vital to artists is under threat.

While the MHS does not hold any records relating specifically to the Fenway Studios, the Society does hold some secondary works relating to the Arts and Crafts movement as well as some pieces created some of the notable artists of the day that would have used the studios, including Charles Hopkinson, Lilian Westcott Hale, and Philip Hale.

Contact the MHS Library to find out more!

Sources

- Brandt, Beverly K., The Craftsman and the critic, Amherst, Mass: Univ. of Mass. Press (2009).

- "Fenway Studios History," Friends of Fenway Studios, accessed 21 March 2013, http://www.friendsoffenwaystudios.org/about_fenway.php.

 

comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Friday, 22 March, 2013, 10:00 AM

Three Centuries of Molasses in Massachusetts

The molasses trade has a long and sticky history in Massachusetts. Though sugar is far more common in the kitchen cupboard today, molasses lingers in the cultural lore of Boston. Looking back over that tradition one sees how far back those roots go. In a letter to Judge William Tudor on 11 August 1818 John Adams credited molasses as helping usher in American independence:

Witts may laugh at our fondness for Molasses & we ought all join in the laugh with as much good humour as General Lincoln did, Genal Washington however always asserted & proved that Virginians loved Molasses as well as New Englandmen did. I know not why we should blush to confess that Molasses was an essential Ingredient in American Independence. Many great Events have proceeded from much smaller causes.

How could the secret ingredient in pot roasts have influenced the course of history in Massachusetts and the nation? In the 18th century, the Sugar Islands experienced an exponential demand for sugar from European colonizers. There was profit not only in sugar but in distilling the by-product of sugar production, molasses, into rum. The abundance of molasses gave rise in part to the ‘Triangle Trade’ exchange: New England rum to West Africa and Europe, West African slaves to the Sugar Islands, and Sugar Islands’ molasses to New England rum distilleries. With the Molasses Act of 1733 Great Britain imposed a tax on molasses imported from foreign colonies, such as the French or Dutch West Indies. Some point to this act as the stirrings of the beginning of the American Revolution, as the tax struck fear in the northern colonies by affecting their rum trade.

Oh, the rum! With incoming shipments of Sugar Islands’ molasses, Massachusetts entertained a booming rum industry. There were over 25 distilleries in Boston alone by the mid-eighteenth century. The surrounding cities, including Watertown, Haverhill, Charlestown, and Medford soon followed the “city upon a hill” into rum distillation.

Then, nearly a century after Adams wrote to Judge Tudor molasses literally engulfed part of Boston. Yesterday marked the 94th anniversary of the great Boston molasses flood, affecting Commercial Street in the North End on 15 January 1919. It was on this unusually warm day that the US Industrial Alcohol/Purity Distilling Company tank filled with 2,300,000 gallons of molasses spilled into the streets and harbor. The flood killed 21 individuals and injured more than 150 others while damaging an estimated $100,000,000 of property. The 1919 tragedy inundated the newpapers with conspiracies and conjecture about how the tank had failed so epically. It is said that even now it is not uncommon to hear that on a hot summer day there is a lingering scent of molasses in the North End.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 10:00 AM

The Westland Gate

Walking just a few minutes south down the Fenway from the MHS, one arrives at the main entrance to the Back Bay Fens. At the intersection of the Fenway and Westland Avenue stands the Johnson Gates, more commonly known as the Westland Gate.

Erected in 1905, the Westland Gate is composed of a pair of large marble piers with columns on each corner and bronze lion head fountain spouts on each face. Beneath two of the spouts are marble basins. Flanking the piers are balustrades and two marble benches. The piers are constructed of white marble, while the balustrades and benches are Tennessee pink marble. While the fountains used to function and served as a water trough for animals, this use discontinued in 1919 due to an epidemic among horses.

The gates were originally dubbed the Johnson Memorial Fountain after a wealthy Boston businessman, Jesse Johnson, whose widow, Ellen Cheney Johnson, donated the money to fund their construction in his memory.

Architect Guy Lowell was commissioned to design the fountain. Lowell is better known as the architect who designed the Museum of Fine Arts just a bit further down the road. In addition, Lowell designed several buildings on the campus of Harvard University, the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord (which also features a sculpture by Daniel Chester French, who designed the John Boyle O’Reilly memorial on the Fenway), and the New York State Supreme Courthouse in New York City.

The fountains underwent their first restoration in 1980, at which time inconsistencies in the stone were addressed and the whole gate received a protective treatment to resist graffiti. A rededication ceremony was held in August of that year. There was a subsequent restoration in 1990. Since then, the fountains have remained untouched, though as of 2008 the Westland Gate and other fountains around the city are on a list of projects to be repaired by the Parks Department.

While the MHS does not have any material relating specifically to the Westland Gate/Johnson Memorial Fountain, there are plenty of items authored by Guy Lowell. Check ABIGAIL to see what there is!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 27 July, 2012, 8:00 AM

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