Boston has two Athenaeums
Both on Beacon Hill,
One is for scholars with books by the score
The other for lads who seek life in the roar.
The Boston Athenaeum’s lights are bright
But the Howard Athenaeum’s locked up tight
Some Purist got himself a Jurist
And slapped a padlock on the door
— "Some Coward Closed the Old Howard" — song by Frank W. Hatch
The Howard Athenaeum caught fire around lunchtime, drawing crowds from around Scollay Square. It was an impromptu (or suspiciously coincidental) farewell performance for an audience kept out for nearly 10 years, ever since Boston Vice showed a clandestine film of burlesque divas Rose la Rose, Princess Domain and Irma the Body to acting Mayor Francis X Ahern. Outraged at the overly "mobile abdomens" and suggestive "sinuosity" of the dancers, the mayor ordered it closed on grounds of obscenity, declaring, "I positively will not tolerate any filthy or indecent shows in our city." For the crowd watching the roof give way to the flames, the old Howard meant much more. Its sturdy fa§ade of Quincy granite had served as a load-bearing wall for the community since before their grandfathers’ time. In an area known for its seediness and decay, the Old Howard spoke of better days, when Scollay blinged with diamonds, wore fur coats and literally shook (and shimmied) its moneymaker.
If some in the street shed tears that June afternoon in 1961, others in City Hall clinked glasses. The fortuitous destruction of the theater removed the last bulwark against B.R.A’s (Boston Redevelopment Authority) next ambitious plan, a shining new Government Center to wrest Boston from its urban decay and shed the drab, brick Dickensian image it was known for. As Scollay Square had acted as the rivet that held old Boston together, linking Beacon Hill, the port and the North and West Ends, it was also the ideal location for a new center, of a new Boston. By â€˜59, the West End has been razed; the North severed and banished behind Boston’s other "Green Monster," the central artery. Now it was Scollay’s turn. A drive to restore and reopen the Howard was the last bastion of spirited defense against the gathering wrecking balls, which upon its destruction, moved in with speed and ferocity, pulverizing every other building, save one, on those 22 streets within three years. Thousands were robbed of their homes and livelihoods and the city robbed of its history.
"The story of Scollay Square is important," insists David Kruh author of Always Something Doing: Boston’s infamous Scollay Square. "Within the square is our whole history, from the puritans setting up the first settlements, to the rise of the mercantile society, the influx of the immigrants and how they changed the character of the city. It’s about urban decay and urban development. It’s how our approach to history has changed, which we used to discard it like so much garbage."
Scollay’s first permanent resident, Reverend Joseph Cotton, arrived just a few years after the city’s founding in 1630. Fleeing religious prosecution, he began gathering a new flock of followers and friends at his new estate at the base of Beacon Hill. By the end of the Revolution, most of the other Boston Brahmins had moved in as well making the neighborhood the center of genteel society. Postwar prosperity fueled business and an increasing demand for labor that brought new waves of immigrants to the city. It didn’t take long for the overflow of the North and West Ends to besot the stately Scollay’s, whose respectable classes, in an early version of white flight, either scampered up Beacon Hill or skedaddled to the newly filled Back Bay. Scollay’s new class of residents generated new kinds of business and demanded less morally conscious entertainment for their ungodly working conditions. Opera Houses like the Howard Athenaeum, raised hems, lowered necklines and told bawdy jokes.
Wanting in on the fun, the rest of Boston rode the expanding stage lines into the square, disembarking finally in front of William Scollay’s building. Scollay, a former member of the Sons of Liberty, colonel in the Boston regiment, and fire marshal had acquired the building in 1795 as part of his side job as a real estate speculator. By the end of the Civil War, the name was official and a new post war party had kicked off that soon shaped a new less than savory reputation of tassel dancers, candy butchers, baggy pants comics, artists, circus freaks, political agitators, and drunken sailors. The bash lasted well into the new century, roaring through the 20s before finally crashing with the stock market at the end. The Depression didn’t kill Scollay but certainly stripped away its glitz and precipitated the rate of decay. Likewise, the impact of the automobile began to be felt as buildings gave way to new parking lots. World War II offered a short reprieve as the square reaped the rewards of sailors on leave, but the war’s end put a quick stop to that and decay returned. The subsequent destruction of the West End and neighborhoods around the new elevated highway robbed Scollay further of its chief customers. By the time the Howard caught fire in 61, the area had indeed grown squalid and in serious need of rejuvenation, but it got an apocalypse instead.
"This was a city that was dying on the vine," Kruh reminds. "Back then, to revitalize a city, you tore down and removed that which was old."
Boston was by no means alone in its pursuit of the newly available federal money as communities around the country, flush with ’50s prosperity, and faith in scientific progress, followed a recipe of historical cleansing followed by mathematical design. It was also the philosophy of the B.R.A., led by Edward Logue, an urban planner, who claimed design skills learnt during his service as a bombardier in World War II. Word got out to the street, sending firefighters and insurance agents into overtime as landlords sought to cut their losses. Relocation officers followed, offering just $200 for moving expenses as the buildings were seized by eminent domain.
One man, George Gloss, refused to give in so easily. Owner of the Brattle Book Shop, he waged a one man media campaign that organized historians and academics in an effort to save the city’s historical book center on Cornhill, a street which ran in a parallel curve opposite the Sears Crescent building. Claiming ties to Washington, Edison, Franklin, Hawthorne, Lloyd Garrison, Beecher Stowe, among others, Gloss argued for the preservation of the neighborhood, especially the Sears Crescent. "Tearing down this building," Gloss prophesized, "will mean the end of the old type of bookstore." In the end, the building survived but Gloss did not, getting evicted with the rest.
Through some brilliant accounting, the 180-million-dollar Government Center project only cost Boston $72,500 in cash. Architect I.M Pei was hired to design it and it was built in just five years. Architects and artists acclaimed it and new money began flowing into the city. Almost 40 years later, however, the accolades are few and far between. Most folks passing through Government Center today have no memory of its predecessor. But they do have a sense that all is not as it should be. Leave it to the professionals at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit urban planning and design organization to put the gnawing into words, labeling City Hall "bleak, expansive and shapeless," and further declaring the surrounding brick "the worst single public plaza worldwide." Apologists still defend the renewal as a necessary sacrifice for Boston’s late 20th Century revival and they are not without the numbers to prove it. But that depends on whether you define a city by its tax producing properties or the people who inhabit them. Certainly Scollay’s demise was the city’s financial gain, but at the cost of the Crawford House, Joe and Nemo’s, Jack’s Joke Shop, Sal’s Barber shop, Marty’s Tavern, Patten’s restaurant, Tanya’s Tattoos, Epstein’s Drug store, Young’s, Huberman’s, Walkers, Cobb’s and the Old Howard.
That there were any survivors at all was a minor miracle considering the B.R.A’s scorched earth policy. Often mere fragments, Scollay’s relics can still interest those with a sensitivity and nostalgia for the past.
- Scollay Under: Part of America’s oldest subway system, the old mosaics of Scollay Under can still be deciphered if you inspect the edges of the platforms of the Blue Line at Government Center. Almost Pompeian, the grimy, chipped mosaics are perhaps the most honest face you’ll find. Apparently more of the old tunnels exist, one section supposedly even serving as a storage facility somewhere in the basement of City Hall. Trying to find it, however, will only earn bemusement from the pencil pushers and suspicion from the security.
- The Tea Kettle: After departing the station, look up to your right and you’ll find a big, dented, brass teakettle steaming away above the Starbucks. Originally hung by the Oriental Tea company in 1875 somewhere over today’s City Plaza, the kettle was once the talk of the town spawning much debate over its volume. (It was before TV!). Measuring day, January 2nd, 1875, was apparently quite the affair that opened with the crowd pleasing spectacle of eight boys and one man popping out of the kettle. Its volume can still be read on the Court Street side as 227 gallons, 2 quarts, 1 pint and 3 gills. But the tea pot is a replacement, the original having disappeared into history.
- Governor Winthrop: For some time, had you exited the station you would have passed the statue of John Winthrop, Massachusetts’s first governor, high on a pedestal overlooking the square. Dedicated on the 250th birthday of Boston, September 17th, 1888, the statue was forced out by of Scollay by subway construction, eventually finding a home outside the governor’s religious alma mater, the First Church on Marlborough Street. During a fire in 1968, falling debris decapitated the statue which might have stayed headless if not for the quick arrest of the pilferer fleeing the scene. Once gazing into Boston’s commercial and cultural heart, the governor now stands in the shadows on a protruding concrete slab, the hollow underside of which apparently serves as a toilet for the city’s transient population.
- The Sears Crescent: The only building to survive the demolition, largely through the efforts of George Gloss. The bow of the brick fa§ade reveals the shape of old Cornhill (NOT Cornhill Street!). Designed as part of an elegant entrance into Faneuil Hall from Beacon Hill, The building went up in 1841 becoming the epicenter of Boston’s book industry. As a repository for Boston’s intelligentsia, the building’s bookshops became the constant target of the city’s moral crusaders like the Watch and Ward Society who were especially successful in the â€˜20s and â€˜30s in book banning.
- The Brattle Book Shop: Thanks to his son, Kenneth, the old type of book shop that George Gloss mourned for can still be found at the Brattle Book Shop on West Street. The old philosophy of "browsing as discovery" continues in the shop, as does the sincere love of antiquarian books. If you’re trustworthy enough and your reason is sound, he may even show you the family scrap books detailing first-hand the story of Scollay’s demise, a collection more valuable perhaps than any other book in the store.
- Watson and Bell’s memorial: Bostonian pride generally stems from either sports or the Revolution but what about the telephone? Alexander Graham Bell’s famous first transmitted words, "Watson come here, I need you," were uttered in Scollay Square. The famous room itself was actually dismantled under Watson’s personal supervision and moved to Post Office Square in today’s Verizon Building where it was displayed for the public until a few months ago. Apparently it’s been packed up and indefinitely stored in some warehouse, perhaps next to the Ark of the Covenant. You’ll find a commemorative plaque just in front of the JFK buildings next to Government Center.
- The Red Hat: Now a staple of low-budget local TV commercials, The Red Hat remains one of only three businesses still operating from Scollay. Although forced out like everyone else, the Red Hat moved only a few blocks north to the corner of Bowdoin and Cambridge streets, taking with it the stained glass over the bar and the original neon sign. While the walls offer a panoramic painting of Scollay Square in its heyday, the bar downstairs may give you the chance to hear tall first hand tales of Scollay from the old townies during happy hour.
- Pemberton Square: Pemberton Square, once the choicest real estate in the city, is now possibly the saddest remnant of Scollay Square. Promised by the B.R.A as a viable public space, the brick no-man’s land sandwiched between City Plaza and the New Court House is utterly devoid of life save groups of huddled, exiled smokers. Nevertheless, it’s in Pemberton that you can find all that’s left of the old Howard, a circular plague mounted on a concrete slab bench on the Cambridge Street side, marking the old stage.
- Perhaps more than any other American city, Boston is a city of squares, whose inhabitants subscribe to them as if they were a sports team. But few, if any, offer even a place to sit much less space to stand in. Instead they act as honorary conduits for the automobiles, trains and public that passes through them on to some other part of the city. George Gloss may have said more than he knew when he predicted the consequences of his bookshop’s destruction. Perhaps Scollay’s demise also signaled the end of the old kind of square, a public space of, by, and for the people.
Happily, the people seem to be coming back into the urban development of equation. Boston’s last major redevelopment project, the Big Dig, provides the strongest evidence that things have changed. Despite all the rancor over budget and mismanagement, no building was seized by eminent domain nor was anyone forced to move. The central artery was torn down, reconnecting the North End back to the rest of the city. Throughout the city, zoning laws have tightened and brownstones grown valuable. The government incentives refurbishment and city architects adorn new buildings with past motifs.
"Look at this structure here," David Kruh points out to a nearby commuter rail station. "Look what it’s made of. It’s made of brick, old fashioned roofing material. It’s got pinnacles on it like an old style building. Why is that? It’s because we’ve recognized that not everything that’s new is good. And that all that glass and steel that we built in the 60’s and the 70s look like crap and doesn’t stand the test of time."
The station also offers evidence of this paradigm shift that gives appreciation and respect to the past, as does the T’s new mascot Charlie, who comes from an old Kingston Brother’s tune, or the bookman fonts used at the green line stops. So why the change of heart? Is it just cheaper? The tourist dollars? Hopefully it was the memory of thousands of displaced families, destroyed communities, and discarded history. If so, than Scollay’s sacrifice may have saved the rest of us from new Government Centers, so long as memory serves.