Thursday, June 25, 2009

Let there be light

And there was light at the end of the tunnel on last Saturday's Common Boston Weekend tour of the three new MBTA stations at the end of Dorchester's Red Line branch, which mark the end of an era of descent into darkness to alight from or crowd into a train.

From left, the new Fields Corner, the renovated Shawmut and the new Ashmont stations give Grand Central glory to your southbound commute and serve as dignified gateways to their respective neighborhoods.

Yep, Cambridge Seven Associates have done it again.

These architectural masterhands behind such luminary landmarks as the Forest Hills and Porter Square T stations have mastered the art of making light out of shadow and lightness out of heft. Just as they had demonstrated with the spiraling aquatic tank ramp they had carved out of the concrete cavern of their New England Aquarium and the soaring atrium space they had scooped out of the granite-block cell-block confinement of the old Charles Street Jail when reforming it as the Liberty Hotel.

By similarly lightening up the Fields Corner, Shawmut and Ashmont T stations, C7A have liberated commuters from the dank, stuffy sheds they used to arrive at or depart from for decades. They are now treated to a bright, warm welcome into, or bon voyage from, their neighborhoods.

FIELDS CORNER

In the shelter of thy wings
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Since its opening on November 5, 1927, the Fields Corner station had been a creepy climb to a dungeon-like depot of a waiting platform, and this concrete bunker-box had stood cheek-to-jowl with an abutting three-decker, imposing daily train-roar on its occupant.

Now the platform is lightly shaded by feathery wingspan awnings of translucent polymer plastic that shed longed-for light on one's train wait, and end the three-decker's 80-year wait for elbow-room and breathing space. There's more of that in the station's new gray-granite entrance floor, which is cool without being cavernous, owing to the glass walls and halogen lighting.

Not only does Fields Corner II broaden commuters' tunnel vision, but — in true modernist spirit — it externally expresses its lightness of being, as well as its meteorological functions. The louver curtains foretell the feathery fineness that awaits you on the platform before you take off to work, while mitigating polar winds and letting the sun shine in, in stark contrast to the old station's somber solidity. The glass curtain walls also let the neighbors in, giving you a clear view of where you're getting off as you roll into the station.

Also connecting the station to its neighborhood are the new accessible walkways and clearly identified entrance points from both main cross streets. The walkways include Charles Park, a linear field of grass and plantings that makes your approach along Charles Street to the station a true "fields corner" more pleasant than the graffiti-prone concrete corridor of yore. The busway, too, has been lowered for the direct bus-to-station access our worklife demands.

Vive la différence!
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Shawmut Station was named for the old Shawmut Branch Railroad that originally ran through here. Incorporated in 1870, the railroad was taken over by the Old Colony Railroad in 1872. The Old Colony and then the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad operated on the Shawmut Branch until September 4, 1926, when the Metropolitan Transit Authority (precursor to the MBTA) took over the branch as the first leg of its Dorchester Extension from Andrew Square in South Boston to Columbia (now JFK/UMass), Savin Hill and Fields Corner, extending to Shawmut in 1927 and Ashmont in 1928. The extension was run along the Old Colony Railroad mainline in a depressed right-of-way that put the Shawmut station underground.

Why underground? For the simple reason that area residents were NIMBY-nervy about the new subway rumble-roaring and clickety-clacking through their neighborhood (as the Old Colony had done), keeping them awake and depreciating their property values. The result: a cut-and-cover concrete right-of-way that lay dormant and waiting for a linear park or pedestrian path for decades — until recently.

Yes, the Shawmut Station renovation included an approach — an allée, shall we say — toward it on an axis aligned with the station's symmetrical composition. This grants the old station a French Renaissance ambiance, heightened by its original festoon relief panels and curlicue sign bookends, its architecturally compatible new handicapped-access elevators, and especially the new curtain-wall windows interspersed between the polished granite columns — some of them taken from the old Savin Hill station (left) when it was removed. This "French windows" effect brightens your entry with the lofty, delicate dignity of the Sun King's (Louis XIV) Versailles palace. Vive la différence from the bricked-up cavern the station used to be!


En esprit de Versailles et des Tuileries, the right-of-way segment from Centre Street to Melville Avenue is botanically bordered by the Shawmut Garden, a community-maintained oasis of 36 medicinal plant species, selected for their herbal healing value to calm your walk to and from the T before or after a stressful workday, and to make you feel safer in the neighborhood.
The plants appear on a seasonal rotational basis: in winter, we see witch hazel and yew; in spring, hawthorn, St. John's wort and yarrow; in summer, angelica, black cohosh and blueberry bushes; in the fall, fringe tree, lavender and juniper. Funded by the City of Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development in conjunction with the MBTA, this lovely garden is the fruit of a long-term collaboration among architects, artisans, community advocates designers, elected officials, scientists and teachers.

Learn more about the Shawmut Garden from the free brochure available in a box beside the garden's notice kiosk or the informational signs posted by each plant, or by joining the maintenance crew from 10 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of each month.

ASHMONT

Light at the end of the tunnel


Before-and-after, indeed! The left-hand photo is the way I remember Ashmont station in the 1970s, when I was a ninth-grader traveling by T to Milton Academy for an interview there. Though at ground-level, the station felt like an extension of the tunnel. Adding to that effect was the train's gradual upward incline from Shawmut to Ashmont, which was so incremental it didn't feel like up-and-out, but more like a Swiss train's level exit from a mountain — without the alpine air and ambiance, of course.

However, the other two images show real light at the end. When completed (this year, they say), the new Ashmont station will boast a wingspan roof soaring on the diagonal like the feather-flight of Fields Corner, upheld by a tensile truss skeleton of steel tubes and a regiment of thin columns between translucent screen walls. This will create a light-filled cathedral terminal with escalators and elevators. Lobby entrances will anchor each end, one approached from Peabody Square by an open plaza walkway similar to Shawmut's. The new elevated busway is level with the lobbies. This bounty of breathing room will ease commuters' transition between down-under and up-and-out, as a welcome-to-Dorchester gesture.


I could feel the difference already as the train transitioned me from tunnel to terminal. The tunnel now bursts open into a lofty atrium where sun streams down from the translucent mesh screens in-between the columns, giving me a panoramic preview of the neighborhood above. Gone is the black box of the concrete cavern the station had been on the day of my Milton interview.

What goes around, comes around
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But gone is a convenience, too — the ease of darting straight across the platform from the Red Line to the Ashmont-Mattapan High-Speed Line (left photo), which has now been rerouted to an upper-level platformed loop off to one end of the station (center and right photos). An understandable (and perhaps inevitable) move, but one that increases the risk of missing either train because you now have to take the escalator, elevator or stair from one to the other. (This would frustrate Milton students, for it is the trolley they depend on to get to school.)

Nonetheless, it's still the Ashmont-Mattapan High-Speed Line, remarkably unchanged since it opened on August 26, 1929, along the remainder of the Old Colony's Shawmut Branch right-of-way and part of its Dorchester-Milton Branch. Never giving way to the Light Rail Vehicle (LRV), it retains its old 1940s-50s PCC cars, restored and repainted in their original orange, as a living museum of the era when Charlie couldn't get off the train because he didn't have the exit fare. (Actually, he could get off this one, as it was free at the time of my Milton visit.)

But no more are they what Pogo's gang made of them:


No, these archaic barrels have been retrofit with state-of-the-art heating and air-conditioning — so they no longer feel like saunas in the summer and walk-in refrigerators in the winter — as well as the new electronic fareboxes. (Sorry, Charlie.) But their barrel-vaulted ceilings, demi-saucer lighting, fibrous plastic seating and chromium hardware deck us all with Boston Charlie as they had done when he froze on his because he didn't have that one more nickel. (Maybe his wife should have handed him chicken soup, rather than a sandwich, as his train came a-rumblin' through Scollay Square. Or maybe that extra nickel.) Now we could enjoy our journey through the hinterlands of Dorchester, Milton and Mattapan in solid comfort as well as living history.

"High-Speed" indeed — so called not because it's faster than the Red Line, but because it runs on its own track, free from auto-traffic gridlock and traffic-light stops — just like the Green Line's Riverside 'D' train on the old Boston & Albany Railroad's Highland Branch — save for two street-crossings at Central Avenue and Capen Street. Also, its comparatively infrequent use means fewer rush-hour slowdowns in service — and those old PCC cars, of course, have always been less prone to breakdowns than their hi-tech successors, especially their first-born...


Who remembers the fits and starts those 1977 LRV techno-trolleys had that gave their passengers fits when their sliding doors stuck, their air-brakes jammed, their motors went kaput, their air-conditioners leaked, their PA systems sounded off like bullhorns or fuzzed up like BearCats, or they jumped the rail? Not to mention the chips and rips — pieces broken off the polymer plastic seats, slits slashed through their polyvinyl cushies, whole ones ripped out so you got foam on your fanny. (Boeing-Vertol should have stuck to airplanes.)

But I digress — especially since the LRV never made it to Mattapan. (If it had, its line would no longer be High-Speed.) Anyway, here is stop number one at...
So called because of its procession through Cedar Grove Cemetery, the only Boston train to cut through a graveyard. But this cryptal crossing is soon redeemed by the life-affirming landscape of the Neponset River and its lush green wetlands as we approach...

BUTLER

The Butler Street station serves its area well with immediate access to its serene, tree-resplendent neighborhood and a community notice kiosk that introduces the neighborhood and broadcasts its news and notes. Just like a butler, the kiosk cordially greets guests at the approach from the station and ushers them into the main social realm by way of a tree-shaded triangular park and a pedestrian path.

Enter the Milton Lofts of the Lower Mills. Here the Neponset meanders like a millstream amid the industrial grandeur of the Dorchester Lower Mills Historic District and Baker's Chocolate Factory. This, believe it or not, was America's first chocolate mill and factory, co-founded by the Irishman who first introduced chocolate to the United States, John Hannon, who imported beans from the West Indies and refined them in Dorchester in collaboration with physician/ investor Dr. James Baker. The Walter Baker Chocolate Factory operated until 1965, then was converted to condos, for which the Romanesque arches, quoined brick façades and neo-Georgian WALTER BAKER counting house are suited to the new loft luxury. The local houses, too, get richer-looking, confirming our departure from Dorchester and migration into...


MILTON


On the big day of my Milton interview, I disembarked here to wait for the academy's free student shuttle, where we pushed and shoved to claim a seat before it filled up and the losers risked being late for school. (By the way, I wasn't accepted. Probably just as well.) Snubbed by million-dollar Milton, we chug alongside the graffiti-ridden Milton Bike Trail, and land smack in the middle of...

CENTRAL AVENUE

Here the trolley bisects the avenue perpendicularly — the quintessential RAIL ROAD CROSSING of small-town America. And backward in time this neighborhood is: Central Cleaners still emblazons its starched-white '70s sign... a relic from the time my sixth-grade class waited here for a train to head back to school from a field trip. Or, rather, I kept them waiting, because a grocery clerk kept me waiting to pay for a couple of Slim Jims... until one of our teachers stormed into the store, snatched the Slim Jims from my hand, slammed them on the counter and scooted me out the door and back to my classmates — but too late. The train clacked by, the class got peeved, and Josh grumped that there wouldn't be another one for half an hour... though it probably wasn't that long a wait. After all, this was a "high-speed line," which now high-speeds into the lowlands of...
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VALLEY ROAD

"Down in the valley, the valley so low..." This station really feels like it's down in a valley in contrast to its street-level predecessor and successor. Its high flight of cement steps (resembling those that gave Laurel and Hardy a hard time trying to lug a piano all the way up to a mountaintop mansion in The Music Box, pictured right), its concrete retaining walls, and its steep hillsides of trees obscure all signs of civilization until we level off again at...

CAPEN STREET

This street bisects the track at an angle, which brings the neighborhood closer to the stop than at Central, making the trolley as neighborly (and noisy) as the streetcar of yore — now what are a green car and a green sign doing on the Red Line??? At left is an older image of Capen Street before the trolleys were refurbished and repainted in historically correct orange, and when they were still running on the Green Line before the LRVs condemned them to the carbarn, the scrapheap, the Boylston Station mini- museum, and, of course, Mattapan's rattle-rail. The green sign — likely a manufacturer's goof (but an understandable one: the High-Speed and Riverside lines are indistinguishable for a stretch) — has since been rectified in red, reaffirming our rightness of route as we red-line into...


MATTAPAN


Quite the changeover, eh? Again, an old, dark, gritty, crumbling, paint-challenged station, not so different from the carbarn that's still there (complete with cannibalized PCC parts on hand for when a car gives out, since they don't make 'em the way they used to), gives way to the airy brightness of an open platform. We're butlered into it by the crystal-cleanliness of a contemporary aluminum archway, while the gritty old stone station (now a Domino's Pizza) still stands off to the side as a memento of the rail's Old Colony heritage. Open, red-accented canopies resembling Chinese spare ribs end our journey with a gesture of oriental delicacy and diplomacy.

In the shadow of Old Mattapan Station
In the sunshine of New Mattapan Station












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