Thursday, June 23, 2022

Hidden history

Photo by Stephen Foskett (CC BY-SA 3.0)
What is commonly called "the historic North End" and "Boston's oldest neighborhood" has been branded as such by virtue of its 17th-century origins, winding and narrow street patterns from those days, and tidbits of colonial antiquity sporadically spotted along the familiar Freedom Trail: the Paul Revere House (1680), the Pierce-Hichborn House (1711), St. Stephen's Church (1802-04, Charles Bulfinch), the Ebenezer Clough House (1715), Old North Church (1723, left), and Copp's Hill Burying Ground (1659-1850s). Those are but fractions of what would have earned the North End true "historic" distinction had more of its Colonial, Federal and Victorian buildings survived as depicted in these 19th-century images before its turn-of-the-20th-century renewal changed its face forever.
Archival photos courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

Hanover Street, North End. Photo by Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Largely rebuilt in brick to house extended Italian immigrant families as per updated building, fire and occupancy codes, the North End cannot be called "historic" in the Beacon Hill, South End or Back Bay sense. Yet a few more vestiges of its vintage than meet the sightseer's eye can be seen if you eye acutely as you blaze the Trail.

First Universalist Church / Samaritan Hall

As the coronavirus pandemic has swollen the new patients intake at the North End Waterfront Health clinic at 332 Hanover St., no doubt most of them have overlooked the rich history that the clinic's brick façade, Greek Revival form and vestigial cupola are very telling about. Built in 1838 for the congregation that originated when John Murray brought Universalism over to these shores from England and established a church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1772, 

350-352 Hanover Street

For starters: Behind these protruding storefronts—tacked on at an angle to their building to parallel Hanover Street—is an overlooked exemplar of early 18th-century brick construction in Boston, dating from about the time of the restored Clough House (below), and built according to an archaic street pattern predating Hanover Street's 19th-century widening. These close-up shots reveal construction techniques of that era: Flemish bond brickwork the peeling paint is exposing, and an S-tie securing an iron floor-joist rod to a side wall. (Speculation that Paul Revere was born here is unsubstantiated.)
 

















Cockerel Hall 

Across Hanover Street is Cockerel Hall, an 1870s Victorian Gothic building with a high mansard roof and a peaked corner tower honoring its historic site of the Cockerel Church, or New Brick Church (left). Built in 1721 by parishioners who had seceded from Rev. Peter Thacher's New North Meeting House, the Cockerel Church received its cognomen from its brass rooster weathervane (right) alluding to Peter's betrayal of Jesus as the cock crowed.

Cast by Shem Drowne, who created the banner vane for Old North Church and the grasshopper vane for Faneuil Hall, the cockerel vane now tops the First Church in Cambridge in Harvard Square. 
The Cockerel Church was made most famous in Esther Forbes' novel Johnny Tremain as the parish where Johnny's silversmith master Ephraim Lapham was a deacon:
He took his time blessing the meal. He was a deacon at the Cockerel Church and very pious... Of course, on Sunday the shop would be locked up all day, the furnace cold. Mr. Lapham would as always escort his household, dressed in Sunday best, to the Cockerel Church and after that back for a cold dinner. Whether they went again or not to afternoon meeting, the master left for each to decide. He himself always went... Johnny, Dove, and Dusty were apt to steal off for a swim, although Mr. Lapham had no idea of it. He thought they sat quietly at home and that Johnny read the Bible out loud to them. (pp. 8, 28)
5 Tileston Place

One narrow alleyway where Johnny Tremain and his fellow apprentices could have made a narrow escape to the harbor for a swim unseen by their master might have been Tileston Street. Originally Love Lane, it was renamed after John Tileston, director of the public North Writing School on the lane. Off the street through a fancily scrolled cast-iron gate is another of the North End's best-kept secrets from John and Johnny's era...
 
...5 Tileston Place, a rare remnant of the North End's pre-code wood clapboard building phase, dating from the late 18th century. And its obscurity from the public eye was its saving grace: it narrowly escaped the mass demolition of several blocks to pave the way for the Paul Revere Mall (aka "the Prado") in the 1930s.

The house typifies the high gambrel and erratic ell extension of some 18th-century North End houses, including the long-gone Copp's Hill home of Edmund Hartt, builder of the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides").

Mariners House

Mariner's House (1847), North Square. Photo by Beyond My Ken (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Paul Revere and Pierce-Hichborn houses are such a draw in North Square that few notice Mariners House a few doors down. It was built by the Boston Port Society in 1847 in the Greek Revival simplicity of a flat brick facade with granite post-and-lintel first floor and crowned with an octagonal lookout cupola to watch for incoming sailors, whom the Boston Seaman's Aid Society and Port Society chaplain Father Edward Thompson Taylor would lodge there, room availability pending. 

Today, Mariners House serves as an affordable hotel ($65-$110 per night, including full breakfast) for mariners on active duty or retired after 20 years of full service.

Dearborn's Reminiscences of Boston (1851) described Mariners House as follows:
This is a noble edifice of 4 stories, erected by the Boston Port Society, and leased to the Seamans' Aid Society : it contains 40 rooms over the basement story : the building is 40 feet square, with a wing extending 70 feet of three stories; in the basement is a storage room for seamens' luggage, kitchen; laundry and bathing room: in the wing, is a spacious dining hall for seating an hundred persons : it has a chapel for morning and evening services arid where social, religious meetings are held every Wednesday evening under the care of Rev. E. T. Taylor : a reading and news room, with a good library to which accessions are daily making; and a store for the sale of sailors' clothing: the building and land cost about $38,000, and it has been furnished at a cost of about $21,000, by the generous contributions of the Unitarian Churches of Boston and vicinity; a good supply of water is on the estate, and two force pumps supply each of the stories with hot or cold water, as required.
Seamen's Bethel / Sacred Heart Italian Church
 
Across North Square is Sacred Heart Italian Church, built as Seamen's Bethel in 1833 by the Boston Port Society in this location so sailors would spot it as they docked at the wharves, as a lure to come and worship. "I set my bethel in North Square because I learned to set my net where the fish ran," said Father Taylor, its Methodist preacher. His guests included Charles Dickens, Jenny Lind, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, for whom Father Taylor inspired the character of Rev. Mapple in Moby DickFollowing his death in 1871, Seamen's Bethel was acquired by the St. Mark Society, a Catholic Italian immigrant group, in 1884, rechristened Sacred Heart Italian Church in 1888, and reclad in the spirit of the Southern Italian basilicas of their home country in the mid-1920s. Below is Seamen's Bethel c.1860:




















Skinny House / Spite House
 
Photo by Rhododendrites (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Occupying the approximate site of Edmund Hartt's house (see above) on Hull Street by Copp's Hill Burying Ground is the Skinny House, aka the Spite House, which earned the distinction from both The Boston Globe and the Boston Landmarks Commission as "the narrowest house in Boston." And no wonder: it was built in the 1870s with a 10.4-foot-wide streetfront, tapering to 9.25 feet wide at the back. This yields lateral interior wall distances of 6.2 feet to 8.2 feet, only five inside doors, mostly floor-through spaces on the four levels (a rare instance of being simultaneously open-concept and closed-in), entrance through a side alley surpassing colonial standards in wiggle-room deficiency, and a decidedly "vertical life," as its 2005 owners told The Boston Globe. 


The Skinny House has been the stuff of lore regarding the rationale for its diminution. One legend has it that two brothers inherited land, and while one was in the service, the other built a house so big it left his brother with little land to build on. Miffed at this, the returning brother built the Skinny House to block his brother's light and views. 

According to another story reported by the Globe in 1997, an unidentified builder erected this sliver of a shanty to obstruct light and air from the house of an ornery neighbor he was fighting with. Regardless of which story you buy, the Skinny House has been proven over time to be a good buy, by virtue of its open-concept spaces, its sale prices under $1 million so far (until the next sale, of course), its access to the best of Boston, and, above all, its place in history—Boston's and its own.

St. Mary's Church

St. Mary's Church (1877, Patrick C. Keely) in 1897.
Photo by Rocco Marciello.
This piece of North End history is hidden from view in a different way than any of the above buildings. Read on and you'll see why.

The Church of St. Mary of the Sacred Heart was built in 1877 in a subdued Romanesque design by Patrick Charles Keely, architect of many notable Catholic and Protestant churches in New England and beyond, including the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. Keely designed most of his churches to reflect the architectural character of their neighborhoods and the heritage of their parishioners. 

He fashioned St. Mary's in brick to blend with the predominantly brick residences in the neighborhood, and with just enough Romanesque trim and ornamentation to recall the Irish and Italian basilicas the residents remembered from their homelands. Thus the churches signified their sacredness, but in an inviting, not overbearing, way.


Bereft of its baroque belfries following hurricane damage and tarnished in its trim from decades of dirt, St. Mary's looked like this when I came here with my boys' choir at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston in 1976 to record some music for a record we were going to make, but never finished. Our choirmaster, renowned organist Thomas Murray, chose this as our venue because he had recorded organ music by César Franck for the Nonesuch label on the church's famed Johnson & Son organ and thought highly of its acoustics. I vividly remember the words he spoke to us as we were about to enter, imparted with the solemnity of Ephraim Lapham and Father Taylor:
This church is almost one hundred years old. But by the time you get back from camp, it won't be here. A lot has been done to it already. The pews have been removed. But the organ has been saved. It will be reinstalled in a church in Minnesota. Now I think you'll find the acoustics splendid in here. But I must tell you that every noise you make and every word you utter carries a long echo in this big space. So please go in quietly, and please show respect. This is a very sacred place.
Sacred, indeed! The relative simplicity (and sordidness) of the exterior hardly prepared me for the heavenly baroque extravaganza of Corinthian columns, springing arches, stained-glass windows, marble statues, intricate frescoes, polychrome trim, and innumerable other artistic articulations of God's creation that permeated the barrel-vaulted hall, culminating at the most richly adorned chancel I had ever seen. It seemed sacrilegious to reduce this masterful artistry to the dust from which man had crafted it as God had sculpted Adam and Eve out of the clay He had created. But, sure enough, the pews had been ripped out of the marble floor and piled at the sides, awaiting the Dumpster. And rubble and debris were scattered about—prompting some choirboys to capitalize on the acoustics by jettisoning pieces from our choirloft down into the sanctuary to hear gunshot booms report and reverb throughout the space as they struck the stone.

Uninclined to such shenanigans, I enjoyed the acoustics sensibly. I was stunned as we concluded our renditions of Gustav Holst's "Lullay my Liking" and Henry Purcell's "Rejoice in the Lord Alway," heard our harmonies fade to a whisper in that hallowed hollow of a hall, then paused in silence for six seconds before Mr. Murray said, "Cut"—which was also a cue for the kids to cut up with fake flatulence and other infantile tomfoolery. Despite all that, there was something that forged perfect visual harmony with the sonority of our seraphic singing: the altar (right), an ornate display of angels, columns, arches, scrolls, and the Virgin Mary and Jesus, all painstakingly wrought by richly carved old-school craftsmanship.  

Nobody seems to know what became of the altar when the church finally met its Maker in 1977, but one of my fellow choirboys reported that it had been "chopped up into ashtray-sized pieces," as this newspaper image of the church's demolition suggests. Which was shocking but not totally surprising, given the clergy's rush to tear it down ASAP before it could be landmarked. 

That cause, of course, was furthered when the newly formed Boston Landmarks Commission rejected the church's landmark designation by an 8-1 vote (the sole dissenter being noted preservationist and historian Pauline Chase-Harrell). 
The reasons for the decision were mainly economic, as expressed by a local blogger – "Maintenance costs were prohibitive" – despite the very good condition the church was in at the time they started degrading its condition.

This bland piece of housing sits on the site now, superficially blending with its neighborhood with the use of brick, forever erasing all memories of the magnificence of St. Mary's, which itself was but a tiny chapel "tucked into the corner of the ground floor of Casa Maria Apartments on Endicott Street," in Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen's words, until it closed in 2010, thoroughly obliterating all ghosts of the grandeur of its predecessor.

More to come...

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty (and fifty) years after

Attack of the World Trade Center, New York City, September 11, 2001. Photo by Evan Giniger.
Remains of 67, and 1 WTC on September 17, 2001. 
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. Tilford.
On this 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 devastation of New York's World Trade Center by terrorist-hijacked airplanes, I'm sure the minds of all who were around back then and not too young to remember that cataclysm that claimed 2,606 lives (plus 125 in the Pentagon attack and 44 in the diverted plane crash in Shanksville, Pa.) still explode with stories so diverse and numerous they'd fill all the gigabytes in all the digital archives in the world.
September 11, 2001. Photo by WalkingGeek (CC BY 2.0).
September 11, 2001, taken from a rooftop in Brooklyn and from the Brooklyn waterfront.
Photo by Andrew Lynch (CC BY 2.0).
Many (myself included)  remember just where they were and what they were doing when the news hit them by TV, car radio, phone, Internet, word of mouth, etc. Which is not surprising; due to the advanced communication and information technology we were fortunate to have by then (and without which the passengers of Flight 93 wouldn't have been able to prevent their hijackers from doing more damage), the impact of this "shot heard [or seen or felt] 'round the world" was far more far-reaching, time-halting and panic-inducing than the others throughout history, including John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, the 1883 volcanic eruption on Krakatoa heard 3,000 miles away, and, of course, the initial musket-fire of the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord that gave rise to that locution in "Concord Hymn," Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1837 tribute to that historic start of the Revolutionary War.
My history with the World Trade Center goes back a good 50 years when I lived in New York and was first learning, to my chagrin, that a new skyscraper project was going to cop the "World's Tallest" title from a building that made me proud to be a New Yorker as I gazed in awe at my bronze souvenir model of it. My treasure was emblazoned in bold block lettering on each side of its base as follows: on one side, "1,472 FEET"; on another, "WORLD'S TALLEST"; and on another, "EMPIRE STATE BUILDING." In fact, 
that year (1971) my father decided to take my family to visit this prized icon of Superman single-bounding and King Kong colossus and gawk at its cityscape views before it lost its Royal Highness crown to the new World Trade Center the city was all abuzz about.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Victorian foresight

A recent open-house tour with an architecture buff friend of mine who sought a Brookline, Massachusetts home for his relocating cousin, while getting his fill of Victorian grandeur for the week, was an eye-opener for me regarding how adaptable these 19th- and early-20th-century homes are to the demands of today's homebuyer—as if the Victorians sensed what future generations wanted all along. They certainly prefigured the form-follows-function modernism to come, as the exterior of this 1902 Queen Anne / Shingle Style hybrid shows. Its deep stoop-raised porch, large windows, bulging bay window, cantilevered second floor, and gabled roof truly reveal the vast generosity and quirky geometry of space and light inside.

This is what greets us the moment we step inside. The bay window seems to grow bigger and broader, expanding the space and light into an open-concept feel, supplemented by the oversized side window, both close to the floor-to-ceiling windows virtually every new skyscraper condo boasts. Wall-height bookcases flank the entrance, true to a Victorian wise-space-use tradition still widely practiced today. (This is despite ebooks and phone-reads being the new normal—but, hey, they're of no use for impressive housewarming or home-staging, because your household has to appear well-read, even if you've never touched those Dickens and Thackeray tomes on your shelf.)

The Victorians certainly conceived the beginnings of the taste for open concept that's prevalent in today's new construction. A wide doorway grants passage from the living room to the dining room, never letting dinner-party guests lose sight of the bay window that beckons them back when the feast is finished.

Because of this open concept, the dining room offers ample elbow-room, as well as a fluid connection to the kitchen, once again showing Victorian foresight for the open floor plan today's homebuyers love. The first floor is actually on a traditional foursquare plan, with the foyer, living room, dining room and kitchen each constituting one "square," but all are interconnected and lead us back to square one (the foyer), for the easy navigation we crave today.

The cantilevering of the second floor provides for bedrooms that have not only the size but also the versatility we seek, allowing them to double as home offices for remote working.

Similarly, the breadth of the gable debunks the myth of the attic as a cramped, dark storage nook, providing instead two garrets for very sizable side-to-side bedrooms. This one reinvents the 19th-century tradition of built-in shelving or storage units below the gable-slant, as an entertainment center for a flat-screen TV, once again demonstrating how the Victorians thought of everything.

The more cramped spaces in the dormer gables offer their benefits, too, in the form of a cathedral touch in the primary bathroom. A soaking tub was made to fit gingerly in-between the dormer's side walls, and the soar of the gable provides breathing room during a bath, offering it the effect of coziness and cathedral-space simultaneously. The basketweave pattern of the marble-tile floor brings back some of the space's Victorian luster.

The raised first floor and its stooped porch denote a substantial basement below, roomy and ready for renovation into the versatile home gym you see here...

...with room to spare for a game room, complete with shelves that can accommodate a microwave, satisfying today's demand to make space in every space.

This second house on our tour was pre-Victorian, built in 1823, but later updated with a Victorian verandah and compatible interior details. It is known as the Joseph Sewall House, the 20th house built in Brookline and the second in what would become the town's Pill Hill historic district (so named because it was a doctors' mecca). A partner in the Boston-based Sewall & Tappan shipping company, Joseph was a progeny of Salem Witch Trial judge Capt. Samuel Sewall. After its 1970s condo conversion, its residents included novelist Gary K. Wolf, author of Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, the basis for the 1980s hit film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Like its Victorian successors, this house was forward-looking in its use of oversized windows and large spaces, suitable for today's light-filled, flexible floor plans.

Yet its condo chop-up ran its space into some roadblocks. Here the stair to the upper-level units is awkwardly placed, which causes its turned-baluster rail to run up against the wall and be denied its logical continuity (and safety provision) up the stair. But at least the sinuous double columns and the rosette-studded beam of this Victorian lobby decoration agreeably offset that flaw.

One of the building's original floor-to-ceiling windows—a prototype for what today's skyscraper condos call for—affords the living room generous light and an expanded sense of space, supplemented on a more intimate level by the original pocket-shuttered side windows that mark the home's Greek Revival period. The black marble fireplace mantel in-between the windows does the same, touting the era's emphasis on ornamental simplicity with its unadorned, unfluted Tuscan columns and simple central panel. Contrasting this is the bas-relief complexity of the cast-iron surround, apparently a Victorian addition, boasting side images of the Roman god Mercury with his snake-twined caduceus, a central bust of the Roman goddess Minerva, and geometric designs typical of Victorian leaded glass flanking her. But the Roman origins of the god images and the Tuscan columns are compatible across the styles and eras.

The eat-in kitchen gets plenty of light from two original pocket-shuttered windows, but it certainly shows its '80s age with square terra cotta tile floor and backsplash, hump-paneled wood cabinetry and black-colored range, though the granite counters would still hold up today, in a fresher design context. (How curious that we call those styles "dated" but not the much older Victorian ones. Perhaps it's because of the artistry that was put into the latter, that we can still appreciate today, as opposed to the streamlined and fabricated way '80s décor like this was manufactured, which gives it a chintzy, commonplace look that's easy to tire of and replace with a contemporary style, hence call "dated.")

The house's generous expanse of space allows this unit two sizable bedrooms, one strong on wall area (left), the other on light, courtesy of its two windows (right). Yet one wonders if the first bedroom's long wall space and singular window are out of proportion with each other, since they yield uncomfortable dark corners in the room. Still, the window is reasonably well placed to shed light on one corner for a workstation there.

The primary bathroom (left) makes the most of its constraining L shape, but its vertical-windowed alcove leaves little room for a tub substantial enough to soak in, except for bathing a child. A shower stall would have been best. Also, the bathroom's limited space forces the vanity to nearly bump up against the tub, making it vulnerable to water damage and leaving less egress for the bather. The second bathroom (right) does better, fitting a sizable shower in its galley space and a just-big-enough all-porcelain pedestal sink that isn't susceptible to shower-spray damage.

The Joseph Sewall House's broad front and side expanses and spacious ell addition certainly gave it space for multiple condo units, but its immense footprint hardly hints at the unevenness of the spaces inside, due to haphazard floor planning for the condo conversion. So, unlike the Queen Anne / Shingle Style house we saw, this one scores on historical preservation and significance but falls short on exterior veracity about its interior offerings, as well as consistency of interior comfort, because the condo planner didn't heed the original architect's foresight about what the house could offer future generations if left alone or given a more sensitive renovation. Quite a contrast there.

The final open house on our tour presented a contrast to both of the others. Like the Sewall House, the façade of this much-rebuilt 1900 two-family home belies its interior, but in a different, and more satisfying way:

Whoa! What a gargantuan open floor plan you walk into, which offers even more flexibility in living-dining arrangement than either of the other homes, owing to a removal of the wall between the living and dining spaces to create a multipurpose great room.

As you can see, the great room keeps itself open to the kitchen, turning all common areas into one humongous entertaining arena, in a way that emphasizes the oneness of the dining and living rooms with the kitchen for faster food service and a larger dinner-party/cocktail space. The dining and living realms are demarcated by a ceiling beam and a wall post, and the living room is further defined with a bay window that expands its space and light, harnessing Victorian and contemporary spacemaking traditions simultaneously.

This studio-style openness extends to the stair...

...to the bedroom level, where another sweep of space awaits, able to accommodate a king-size sleeping area, a home office, and a myriad of other amenities—including a baby grand piano! (Yes, that's a good measure of the adequacy and efficiency of a living space: how well it could accommodate a grand piano, physically and acoustically, plus a concert/recital audience. An upright piano or spinet would be less good a measure, for those were invented as space-savers and fitters into tighter spaces.)

Here the quirky angles of the roof gables do their stuff again to add drama to the space without making it feel atticky...

...leaving ample room for a good-sized primary bathroom that lines up its tub and shower laterally along one wall for the sake of spatial economy and inclusion of bathroom luxuries as well as necessities.

Even though my friend's cousin said nay to all three homes, that open-house tour presented a good variety of examples of how Victorian-era homes can serve contemporary households, depending on how punctilious the planning of the interiors were. The first one demonstrated how well existing spaces could fit the bill, the second one cautioned us about the consequences of sometimes-haphazard floor-planning, and the third one showed how adaptable a turn-of-the-20th-century house was to today's open-concept living by careful renovation.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!