Sunday, March 3, 2013

Revisiting Boston Garden (or the memories thereof)

Photo by John Lord, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Talking about a building that's no longer standing has its challenges — both for me, as a Super Duck Tours first mate, in terms of inculcating images of the history it made and the space it created in my passengers' minds, and for them, in terms of imagining such high- energy happenings when the real image-maker has gone to meet its Maker.

Photo by Autistic Psycho2, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It's especially challenging when I’d rather talk about the goner than the thing that replaced it. Whenever my duckboat passes by the bare-walled parking lot where Boston Garden used to stand and which TD Garden now blandly abuts, I naturally talk about what’s there — I'm supposed to — but if we’re stopped at a traffic light, I sometimes find time to elaborate on my memories of what was there from 1928 to 1998. With limited time and nothing right before the passengers’ very eyes (at least nothing very interesting), I am often loath to find the right words to describe the architectural and social impact Boston Garden had on generations of Americans — even on American history itself — that made it worthy of preservation and reuse, not just memories.

Photo courtesy of
But now that I have the images to manifest the memories, I can speak volumes about this sacred shrine of sports, politics, circuses, concerts and train travel that brought hero and herd together under one intimate roof. Though it was the second in a succession of replacements of public palaces with inferior complexes, Boston Garden was far superior to its successor, because of how history defined and shaped it, and vice versa.

Grand Union

Arguably, Boston Garden was architecturally a cut below its predecessor, North Union Station, the 1893 national train terminal for the Boston & Maine Railroad, designed by Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge in the neoclassical style of the City Beautiful movement inspired by the grand Greco-Roman pavilions at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. An expansion of the High Victorian mansard-roofed Lowell Station (1878, left), North Union was distinguished by a monumental coffered center-entrance arch flanked by colossal Ionic column pairs and Roman arcades connecting it to Lowell Station on one side and its office tower on the other. A "grand central" station, to be sure, though it predated New York's real thing by 20 years, as well as the Big Apple's Pennsylvania Station (another goner) by 17. As architecture critic Vincent Scully put it about Penn Station, "you entered the city like a god" at North Union.

Yet, unlike its New York and Boston successors, North Union Station was no union architecturally. Awkwardly massed, its entrance's classical symmetry was knocked lopsided by its office tower, which stuck up like a smokestack to give all four sides direct views of the trains and the pedestrian/auto traffic
to and from them.

Yes, the practical compromised the beautiful in that regard. However, North Union's diversified tripartite composition did make a vibrant visual variety along Causeway Street — albeit in the form of a Hollywood stage set that emphasized the facades but gave little sense of the volume and space of the great public waiting hall the way Penn Station, Grand Central and Boston Garden did.


Boston Madison Square Garden (its original name) was a more unified composition, both in itself and in tandem with the concurrently built Hotel Manger (later Hotel Madison) and office/ warehouse structure when dedicated November 17, 1928, albeit a plainer design. 

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
And it unified multiple purposes —  train station, sports arena, hotel — as one homogeneous block uniformly clad in tan-yellow brick, a city center of afternoon arrival, evening entertainment, night nesting and dawn departure, convenient for visiting boxers, sports teams and entertainers to nighty-night next door to their arena.

Though train station and sports arena were under one tent, diverse architectural elements expressed each separate function. The covered walkway arcade (taking a cue from North Union's arches, but putting them to more practical use) signified the shelter of the station. The tall blue-glass windows articulated the vertical volume and sheer space of the interior like stained-glass windows in a Gothic cathedral, while their opaqueness presented the arena as an escape from the stress and strain of the outside world into fun, relaxing entertainment inside. Art Deco flagpole towers bookended the center of attraction, bringing banners of patriotism, pomp and pride to the big events and their neighborhood.

North Station's waiting room in the 1930s.
Yes, Boston Garden, North Station and the Hotel Manger brought Art Deco into the city
just three years after
the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris introduced the style, a fusion of streamlined classicism, flat geometric ornament, and Egyptian and Aztec influences.

The result: a sleek look that reflected both the machine age and a continued taste for visual refinement. Sublime yet simple, Art Deco appealed to tastes across the economic spectrum, thus perfectly suited a station/arena combo meant for the masses.

Boxer's big top

Boxing promoter Tex Rickard built Boston Garden as a boxing arena. It pandered to the sport's mass appeal by opening it up to bigger crowds with a larger volume of stadium seating all around. Yet Rickard placed every seat close enough for fans to see the "sweat on the boxers' brows."

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Which they certainly could see, as shown in this image of Jim Maloney beating Con O'Kelley in a ten-round bout in 1929. Of course, the vast contrast between the tiny boxing ring and the big arena made one think Rickard had other uses in mind for the Garden — which was confirmed when the Boston Bruins faced off against the Montreal Canadiens there three days after its opening.
Photo by Troy Parla, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Indeed, Rickard's seating plan made for more intimate interaction between the Bruins and their fans, as well as a resounding acoustical effect when the chants and screams of sold-out crowds rebounded with the hockey puck throughout the space — especially after Bobby Orr's overtime goal winning his team the Stanley Cup in 1970.
Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Rickard's layout also put Boston Celtics fans closer to the action, as seen in this shot of Bob Cousy taking a shot over two of the Atlanta Hawks in 1957. The legendary parquet floor was not installed until 1952, when it was moved from Boston Arena (now Northeastern University's Matthews Arena), the Celtics' old stomping grounds. Legend has it that the Celtics knew the direction the basketball would bounce off any particular part of the parquet floor—perhaps a factor in their world record number of world championships.

Tennis, anyone?

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
The space proved ideal for indoor tennis matches, too, allowing anyone to follow the bouncing ball from serve to backhand to volley to fault (except those poor souls who were stuck behind the obstructed views that were a factor in the Garden's ultimate return to dust). Here, Lew Hoad of Australia returns 1958 king Pancho Gonzalez' shot in the forecourt in 1959 (Hoad was the winner).

Political arena

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
The Garden's in-the- round oval configuration made it ideal for political speeches and rallies. It enabled Sir Winston Churchill to vigorously address MIT's Mid- Century Convocation at the Garden in 1949, and John F. Kennedy to reach thousands of supporters intimately when he made his speech there on the eve of his presidential election on November 7, 1960:

"I run against a candidate who reminds me of the symbol of his party, the circus elephant, with his head full of ivory, a long memory and no vision, and you have seen elephants being led around the circus ring. They grab the tail of the elephant in front of them." [Applause.] "That was all right in 1952 and 1956, but there is no tail to grab this year."

The circus comes to town

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Elephants were led around the Garden's circus rings (the oval was a perfect fit for a three- ring circus) in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (right, 1960) and in Frank Buck's "Bring 'Em Back Alive" animal fest in 1936 — where monkeys got loose, and one was still perched on a roof truss after the show. (Monkey bones were discovered during demolition of the Garden.)

The Beatles come to Beantown

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Here, Beatles buffs bunch up at the box office for their tickets to ride to the Fab Four's sole appearance at the Garden on Sept. 12, 1964, as part of their first U.S./ Canada tour. Given the reverberations of Bruins and Celtics fans in that echoic enclave, I can imagine the Beatles having a hard time hearing themselves, or being heard, with throngs of screamers getting their yeah-yeahs out all around them.

(Actually, Paul McCartney got a second chance to be heard at Boston Garden when he landed there on his 1976 “Wings Over the World” tour. This time the audience hushed up to Listen to What the Man Said, to hear his Band on the Run’s Rock Show of Silly Love Songs. Maybe he was Amazed at this! He was certainly grateful: “Good evening, Bostonians. Nice to be here.”)
Get your motor runnin'

Photo by Spencer Grant. Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
Concurrently with the blitz of bikerama the 1969 countercultural film Easy Rider and the Hell's Angels' presence at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival kickstarted the '70s with, Boston Garden's parquet floor was retooled as a top-gun raceway so bikers could gun their motors around the arena in a 1970 race. What an eardrumbeat that must have been!
Purple mountain majesty

Minus the Budweiser billboards and cigarette smoke signals, Boston Garden commanded a majestic presence in the North End and West End, unifying the two as a city center for people of all nations, niches and neighborhoods to "come one, come all" and enjoy all kinds of events for all kinds of tastes.

It loomed over both areas like a mountain range, its deep purplish- blue windows piquing curiosity about what would happen next inside, its tan-yellow skin spreading the spirit of amber waves of grain throughout the cityscape, its flagpole towers soaring into spacious skies. Thus it conveyed a far-reaching folk patriotism that inspired awe but invited all.

Going, going...
Image courtesy of David Kruh,
The Hotel Madison (where the Beatles held a much-publicized press conference just before their Garden gig) was imploded on May 15, 1986, for the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building. This signaled a similar fate for Boston Garden, which was now outdated for its under- regulation size arena with obstructed views and no air conditioning.
I favored a new facility for those reasons, but this image of TD Garden (then the FleetCenter) built behind Boston Garden shows that preservation of the old Garden was possible and viable, as an alternate arena for smaller-crowd events such as school sports and/or as the New England Sports Museum.

Thanks for the memories...
Photo by Tom Miller
...but no thanks. Memories cannot be truly relived when their maker is mortalized. Simon & Garfunkel put
it better in their song "Bookends": "Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you." So did Joni Mitchell, in "Big Yellow Taxi": "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." (Yes, they did.)

Ramped up

Photo courtesy of the University of Haifa
My memories of Boston Garden include writing a retrospective piece on it for the short-lived Entertainment Northeast Lifestyle Magazine when the arena's demolition was announced. I remember walking up the great ramp that wrapped around its main hall, assuring all, from hardy to handicapped, equal access to the action.

Photo by Steve Nuccia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This was a concept ahead of its time. It predated the innovative spiral ramps in Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye in France (above) by three years and in Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York (right) by 31. And now, of course, it is a standard for universal accessibility.
I remember thinking how appropriate that large, continuous space would be for the Sports Museum of New England, taking visitors through Bruins and Celtics history with Bob Cousy’s jersey here, Bobby Orr’s winning puck there, period souvenirs and ticket stubs, fragments of the old parquet floor, archival photographs of legendary hat tricks on the wood or the ice, etc., etc., just as the Guggenheim's ramp provides a journey through the evolution of an artist's oeuvre. And the Sports Museum's residence in the shell of the old Garden, where it all happened, would have given it more commercial appeal—and certainly more street visibility—than it now has, tucked away in the incredible hulk that replaced the museum's history-generator.

TD = Tyrannical Dinosaur
Photo by Groupe Canam, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Designed by Ellerbe Becket, an AECOM company based in Minneapolis with offices all over the globe, TD Garden looks as anywhere-in-the-worldish as any recent arena, and as corporate as its sponsor (which stands for Toronto-Dominion Bank, for more lack of local Bostonian flavor).

Boston Celtics vs. Minnesota Timberwolves, Feb. 1, 2009.
Photo by Kevin Rutherford, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Stylistically, this big, bland box has dated already, saved from total visual vapidity by colorful accent lighting and a blue-lit lookout tower (a memento of Boston Garden's blue windows?) that shares the spectacle with the periwinkle illumination of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge at night. The mammoth interior faithfully follows the old Garden's oval scheme.
TD Garden prior to an NHL game between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal
Canadiens on Nov. 13, 2008. Photo by AEJ, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
(What sports arena doesn't?) But in that Garden, you were part of a community. In TD land, you're but a blip on the radar screen — no thanks to its state-of- the-art HDTV screens that don't let anyone miss anything. Yet, despite its contemporary comforts (including AC, of course!), for all its flaws I still miss old Boston Garden.
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!


  1. Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning
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  2. The Old Boston Garden should be rebuilt On its Original Site with Larger seats, All the latest amenities and with all the angles that kept everybody close to the action ... A plaque on the front of the building should read : By the people for the People ! ... The Rich have no place supplanting the view of the common man !

  3. Interesting take, still prefer new garden due to modern amenities

  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought they should have preserved the Garden as a living sports museum instead of stuffing "The Sports Museum" in to part of the new building.
    Our experiences there are now memories of a bygone era; no jumbotron, live organ player stationed in an area accessible to the public (in one of the corners of the lower level seating bowl), people openly smoking in the concourses, the dank smell of years old beer spills at your feet, and boisterous fans that didn't require a prompt to "get loud".
    I'm glad I got to experience it, and I miss it dearly.