Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Anniversary Post #1: My Favorites from 2010

From Dave Brigham:

The photo above is the first one ever posted to this blog, back on March 1, 2010. I took that picture around the corner from my house, along a walking path on the Charles River. In the seven years since that introduction, this blog has published 422 posts from numerous authors/photographers, covering topics ranging from downed military planes (see Kristen Smith's "Lost Bomber" from March 14, 2011) to abandoned towns (see Mick Melvin's "Dearly Departed Dearfield," from July 9, 2010), hidden roads (see my "End of the Road" from January 24, 2011) to the long-vacant Naval Air Station South Weymouth (see Derek Watt's "Hangar Stake" from January 20, 2016), and so many things in between. Just search through the keywords running down the right side of the blog to get an idea of the breadth of this project.

By my count, we have posted at least one item about 36 individual states in the good ole US of A. I have tried over the life of the blog to enlist contributors from different regions of the country, in order to live up to the expansive title I gave this site. The bulk of the hundreds of posts here, however, cover five of the six New England states (we haven't shouted out to Rhode Island...yet), and, more specifically, the portion of eastern Massachusetts near where I live.

This is the first in a series looking back at some of my favorite posts we've run on the blog. This installment covers March - December 2010. Additional installments will look back at highlights of each of the years from 2011 - 2016. There will be other non-series posts in between these installments. Somewhere in this series I will get serious and discuss some of the challenges of running this site, as well as exciting changes coming to The Backside of America.

Before I get to my best-loved posts from 2010, I need to mention a very important omission. Joe Viger has contributed some amazing photos and fantastic write-ups over the years, but I'll be linking to very few of them in this series. Why? Because Joe -- an amazing photographer who has served as a mentor of sorts to me in that regard, and a great friend I've known for nearly 30 years -- has changed the security settings on his Flickr account so that many of his photos that have run on this blog show up as broken links now. I will instead direct you to his wonderful online portfolio.

From May 6, 2010, "Of Bradless and Muhammad Ali," in which Mick Melvin explores a symbol of how the Internet has had a negative impact on the brick-and-mortar retail world: an abandoned shopping center in Manchester, Connecticut. The shopping center was torn down a few years ago.

Also, some cool graphic art.

On June 8, 2010, David Burke wrote about the long-abandoned train station in Torrington, Connecticut, in "Meet Me At the Station (We'll Find a Way In)." I rarely explore inside abandoned buildings, and found myself jealous of David's ability to do so with this old building. He got some cool photos of the odd assortment of artifacts within. The station was torn down in 2011.

This is why we document the things we do. So many old buildings go into neglect and get torn down. People forget them.

"Bank Shots," posted by David Burke on June 14, 2010, features wonderful photos of the Terryville Bank & Trust building in Terryville, Connecticut, as well as a nice personal essay.

A local auto dealer acquired the neglected and dilapidated building in late 2015 and indicated that despite its initial hope to save the structure, the building was beyond help. I've been unable to find out whether the building has been torn down.

On July 25, 2010, I wrote about a spooky old place in Watertown, Massachusetts, that I'd dubbed the Scooby-Doo House, in "This Old, Decrepit House." I love the photo I took showing the layers of the old place peeled away. The house was torn down a month after I posted; condos were put up in its place.

Also in July 2010 I posted about and took photos of the Tin Man Diner in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, in "Two Hearts Beat as One." This is one of those rare times when I spoke with someone directly about the history of a place I profiled, instead of just doing research online. Unfortunately, the Tin Man Diner is no longer in business.

David Hill took his sailboat over to Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor one day, and wrote about it and shared some terrific photos on August 27, 2010, in "Shuttered Island." The island was used as a setting in Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" movie. The island is still open to the public.

The King is dead....I wish I could say "Long live the King," but the wall in Newton, Massachusetts, that once featured Elvis Presley's face was torn down. On October 16, 2010, in "Faded Glory," I posted some photos of that beautiful mural and others located in and around a playground in Nonantum section of Newton, known locally as The Lake.

The blog has featured very few human faces over the years. I hoped there would be some folks bowling the day I stopped by the Guido Salvucci Bocce Court in Boston's Brighton neighborhood.

Still, my November 18, 2010, post, "Guido's Court," gives the reader an appreciation of the old-world charm of the place. I believe the court is still active.

So that wraps up my nine favorite posts (out of 78) from the first 10 months of the blog. Stay tuned for more regular posts, as well as more installments about the future of The Backside of America and reviews of the years 2011-2016. And, as always, if you or someone you know would like to contribute, send me an email ( or a message on our Facebook page.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Backside Hunting in Boston

From Dave Brigham:

As longtime readers of this blog are aware, my son, Owen, and I take a lot of trips on Boston's Green Line trolleys (see August 30, 2010, "Going Underground," July 18, 2013, "Cool Stones" and June 27, 2016, "Bridge Project Afoot?").

Any time we're above ground, I look out the windows of the trolleys for cool features of the city. I spied a few along Huntington Avenue in the Mission Hill and Fenway neighborhoods, and recently returned on foot to shoot a few pictures.

The Sparr's sign catches my eye every time we ride by on the Green Line's E branch. Situated in the Longwood medical area, the store appeared to me to be open, but after some online research I think it's closed. Owned by the nearby Harvard School of Public Health, the building hosts community art exhibits, but for decades Sparr's was the go-to place for medical and surgical supplies, as well as daily necessities and a meal at the lunch counter. Read more about the store at this link.

To see a photo of what the store looked like in earlier days, check this out.

In addition to hospitals and medical labs, Huntington Avenue is home to numerous colleges and universities. Mixed in with the numerous newer dorms are older buildings that look humble now but perhaps once had grand ambitions.

I love named buildings like these. Unlike apartment buildings and corporate offices of today, with boring typefaces and focus group-approved company names, these old places had their monikers chiseled right into their often ornate facades. For more named building-related posts, see Parts I, II, III and IV of my Named Building Series.

I couldn't find any information about the origin of the names of the Ormonde and Elsie buildings.

Finally, a small milestone marker hiding in plain sight.

This is one of many such markers between Springfield, Mass., and Boston, according to this Boston Globe article about a Massachusetts Department of Transportation effort to restore the milestones.

The markers indicate the distance from certain points, to the city of Boston. This one reads "Boston 4 Miles 1729 PD." In addition to Boston, markers are located in towns and cities including Brookline, Cambridge, Leicester, Shrewsbury and Warren.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Stone Cold Surprise

From Dave Brigham:

Folks unfamiliar with New England's history and geography might wonder, as they walk through conservation areas like Stony Brook (depicted in the photo above) on the Weston/Lincoln border in Massachusetts, "Why are there so many stone walls in the middle of the woods?"

Because farming. You can't swing a walking stick in New England, it seems, without hitting a stone wall. Testaments to the Herculean effort that Colonial farmers put into mastering the earth in order to farm it, the walls were once used as property boundaries and for animal control. Now they are beautiful reminders of the history -- the sweat, toil and misery of digging up the stones and first tossing them into a pile and then stacking them in an orderly fashion -- of our rocky region. For more on these monuments to hard work, check out this Earth Magazine blog post.

I've taken plenty of photos of stone walls in the course of exploring for this blog. I don't ignore them and don't get bored by them. That would be like walking through an art gallery and refusing to look at the walls. Still, I always hope for something more when I go on excursions into the woods around Massachusetts.

Stony Brook is a place I've passed countless times in the past year and a half, as it is located about halfway between my home and the school in Sudbury where I drive my son Monday through Friday. I had been out Route 117 before my son started going to this school, and have a vague memory that there was a small building in the parking lot for the conservation area.

This suspicion was confirmed by, what else, a Google search. From the Bay Circuit Alliance web site: "Parking at riding ring at north end of Browning Field North on Weston Rd, along shoulder of Weston Rd (but not on gravel rd off Weston), and at the ice cream stand on Rte 117 at Weston/Lincoln line."

I sent an email to a member of the Weston Historical Commission, who in turn forwarded my question about the old building to "Weston’s best source for the town’s history parcel by parcel." From this woman, Pam Fox, I learned that there was a building roughly in this spot. She said a longtime resident who owned farmland along Route 117 told her that the building was known as Johnny's Fudge Stand. She sent a photo that she'd taken several years ago of the building, which looks a bit different from what I recall, but I have to imagine it's the same place.

Anyway....I recently ventured in after ignoring this little slice of woods for too long.

I walked out on this rustic little bridge at Twin Pond and saw a lot of birds. Then I bopped along the main trail, which never wanders far from residential areas in the tony towns of Weston and Lincoln. I often like to go out and back on the same trail, if possible, as I've realized that my eye catches different things from these two angles. And sure enough, somehow I'd missed this amazing cellar hole on my walk out.

This is one of the best-preserved, most solid-looking cellar holes I've seen in my travels. I've been unable to uncover any history online about this area. I plan in the future to venture to another area close by known as Pigeon Hill/Browning Field, as there are ruins of an old stone house. Stay tuned....

In addition to the wonderful cellar hole, this hike presented me with something I've never seen before.

When I posted this photo on Facebook there was a dispute as to whether this is a bat box or a house for wood ducks or screech owls. The evidence I was presented leads me to believe this is a bat box. If you know different, I'd like to hear from you.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Round & Round

From Dave Brigham:

I would love to get inside this place. Built in 1856 by inventor and manufacturer Enoch Robinson, the Round House in Somerville, Mass., is a wonderful oddity shoe-horned into a tight neighborhood in the most densely packed city in New England. It has 14 rooms, is 40 feet in diameter and is on Preservation MASS's list of Endangered Historic Resources, according to this Wikipedia article.

I forget where I first heard or read about this place, but I finally checked it out last week. I was initially somewhat underwhelmed, as I had expected a larger lot, although I doubt any such thing exists in Somerville. I wanted the house to stick out like a beautiful sore thumb, with spotlights shining and signs pointing.

The house sits, somehow, almost unassumingly behind a chain link fence, surrounded on all sides by more typical homes. As I walked around it, trying to get the best angle for a photo, I began to realize how cool the house is. There are numerous great details around the windows and roof lines. I'm not sure what the metal box-like features are on the lower roof.

Located on Spring Hill, not too far from where I lived back in the mid-'90s, the Round House has been under renovation for quite some time. The house evidently had been abandoned for quite some time, according to Wikipedia, before its 2007 purchase by a man who owns a general contracting firm.

Per this 2006 online thread about the house, the owner "intends to restore every significant architectural detail of the house, both inside and outside, over time, and when it is prudent he will move his own family into it, returning the unique structure to its original use as a single-family home." This seems to indicate the house had been broken up into apartments as some point.

For more information about the Round House, including one photo of the interior, and some diagrams and photos showing how rough it looked before the renovation, check out this Centers & Squares realty web site. Also see the photos and research that the late, lamented Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts blog did in 2010.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bon Voyage, Lady

From Dave Brigham:

My first job when I moved to Boston in the fall of 1990 was at the World Trade Center. Through an agency, I worked as a temp for Fidelity Investments, a financial services company that has only gotten bigger in the intervening quarter century. In 1991, the area of South Boston where the WTC was located was a wasteland of parking lots (which were referred to as the mud flats), vacant lots, old wharf buildings and scattered old-time restaurants (Anthony's Pier 4 [R.I.P.], Jimmy's Harborside [R.I.P.]) and odd theme bars (Polly Esta's, R.I.P.).

Now known as the Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, the building where I worked sits in an area absolutely unidentifiable from the urban desert it was as recently as 10 years ago. The building that heralded the massive changes that have taken place was the John Joseph Moakley United States Courhouse, named for the late, long-serving U.S. Representative from South Boston. Built in 1999, the courthouse sits right on Boston Harbor and mixes classic brick with a very cool glass wall that looks out on the harbor.

Since that building was erected, countless other gleaming glass office buildings, hotels, condo developments, restaurants and bars have followed. I shouldn't be surprised at the scale of change in this area of Boston. While on a break one day from my temp job at the WTC in the early '90s, I walked past a glass-walled conference room with a scale model of the district on a table. From end to end the table was filled with skyscrapers. I didn't think too much about it then, but have come to realize in recent years that change of this sort doesn't just happen. People put a lot of time, money and effort into these projects, in order to, of course, make money and put their stamps on Boston, but also to keep the city fresh and economically competitive.

Over the years of driving through this area, to events at the WTC, concerts at the pavilion on the waterfront, to eat at the Barking Crab or go to the nearby Boston Children's Museum, I noticed a small church.

The crane in the background of that shot tells the story. As massive developments have risen, the land the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Voyage sits on became more and more valuable. The chapel was built in 1952 "specifically to meet the needs of longshoremen and their wives who come to pray for the safe voyage and return of their husbands," according to an article at, which also features some photos.

While there are numerous stories around the U.S. and other countries of building owners holding fast against mega-developments, in this case, the Archdiocese of Boston came to an agreement in which it would sell the property and receive a new chapel just up the street (for our own take on holdout buildings, see January 25, 2014, "Last Building Standing").

(A close-up of the chapel, with a faceless corporate behemoth rising next door. This site will soon be home to a 22-story office building.)

(I hope they'll bring this statue along to the new site. If not, I'm sure they'll find a new home for the Virgin Mary.)

I have a few mantras about blogging for this site: "Get out your car and walk around," is the primary one. The other one is, "I don't have ulterior motives, except when it comes to the Backside of America." So when my son asked a while back about going on one of our semi-regular subway rides in Boston, I said, "Sure, but we're going to take a detour." So we hopped on the Silver line, which is a bus line that goes underground briefly between South Station and the World Trade Center.

Things have changed so much in the Seaport in the years since I worked there that I got turned around for several minutes, walking up and down Seaport Boulevard before I realized I needed to get to Northern Avenue. My son quickly pulled out his phone and directed us to our destination, which turned out to be very close to where we'd come up from the bus tunnel.

I knew I had to at least poke my head inside the chapel, but I didn't want to interrupt a service or disrupt anybody praying there. I'm glad I popped in.

It was a few months before I got back to take pictures of the new chapel under construction. I hoped the building would retain some of the old charm of the one that will soon fall under the wrecking ball.

I don't think it does. Do you? The chapel isn't complete, so perhaps the builders will add some flair or detail to evoke the old place.

(A nicely shaped church window is glassed in and forced to look out at a mega-building next door.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Little Ado About Shakespeare

From Dave Brigham:

So, yeah, that's William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, in high relief on a side street in Boston's Chinatown neighborhood.

I spotted him recently while on one of my win-win walks with my son, Owen: he vacuums up Pokemon on his phone and I snap photos of random buildings, graffiti-scarred walls and oddities like this bust. So what's the story with old Bill peering out from this building on Beach Street?

I found two blog postings (this one and then this extremely long and incredibly detailed one) that indicate the plaque was most likely related to the old Globe Theatre around the corner on Washington Street. Built in 1903 and also known as Loew's Globe Theatre, the place has long been the Empire Garden restaurant.

According to the above-noted blog post from The Progressive Democrat blog, while the Shakespeare bust is located on a building separate from the Globe, the theater's business office was located in that spot on Beach Street. And the shorter blog post from the Uncomely and Broken blog digs up information that the Beach Street building was formerly known as the Shakespearean Inn.

I couldn't find any more information about when the bust was created, or by whom, but I take great pleasure in that. Life is filled with these types of little mysteries, and I for one don't always want to know the answers. Finds like the Shakespeare high-relief bust are what keep my head on a swivel wherever I am....

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Beautiful Duckling

From Dave Brigham:

Like the sad main character in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," the building above has been neglected and abused over the years. Known as the Agassiz Road Duck House, this place has been boarded up since a 1986 fire.

I came across this building, in Boston's Back Bay Fens, while hanging out with my son, Owen. He's pretty into Pokemon Go, so every once in a while we pick a spot in Boston to check out. The Fens is a great area, with three war memorials, Victory Gardens (one of only two remaining in the U.S., according to Wikipedia), a soccer field, a few small ponds and nice walking paths. The area is also a well-known gay cruising spot, but I didn't feel the need to tell Owen about that.

The Duck House was built in 1897, and its exterior has not changed significantly since then, according to the Fenway Civic Association. The association, the City of Boston and other groups have discussed renovating and reopening the Duck House for years, tossing out ideas for reuse such as a ranger station, public bathroom and a cafe. The building was used as a restroom prior to the fire.

Turning a former public bathroom into a cafe might sound disgusting, but the City of Boston has done it before. A little more than four years ago, the city signed a 15-year lease with the Orlando-based restaurant chain Earl of Sandwich to run a shop in a long-abandoned former restroom on Boston Common.

So will the Duck House, like the title character in Andersen's fairy tale, become a beautiful swan? I'm betting that it will, with some money, elbow grease, civic vision and thinking outside the box.