Wednesday, September 20, 2017

One-Stop Barnstorming Tour

From Dave Brigham:

I've never smoked, other than a few times experimenting with cigarettes and stogies as a teenager, but tobacco is a minor theme in my life. I grew up in a Connecticut River Valley town that was once known worldwide for growing shade tobacco for the cigar industry. When I was a kid in the 1970's, local teens would rise early during the summer to pick tobacco alongside migrant workers. There were tobacco barns at the edge of my neighborhood and scattered throughout the town and others in the area. Some of those barns are still standing, although I don't think any of them are in use.

On a recent trip to visit with family in Windsor, Connecticut, I stayed in a hotel right off the highway. I'd stayed there before, and had a vague feeling that there was something worth exploring in the immediate area. As often happens when I sleep in a hotel, I awoke early. I left my wife and kids sleeping in their cozy beds and struck out on foot along the busy road heading west. There were no sidewalks, and although there wasn't much traffic on this Saturday morning, I felt ill at ease. After just a few minutes, however, I veered onto a side road.

My hotel was on Day Hill Road, a busy thoroughfare with other hotels, business parks and office buildings, so when I saw the side road sign said "Old Day Hill Road," I knew I'd find something good.

This is one of three old tobacco barns on this farm. There were crops all around, but I couldn't tell you what the farmers are growing. Seemed to be mostly vegetables. I would've explored more, but there was an SUV a short distance away that I'm guessing belonged to someone charged with keeping folks like me away.

The sun was already hot at 8:00, and I didn't have a hat or sunscreen, so I didn't walk too far on Old Day Hill Road. After returning home I discovered that there are some old potato barns just up the road a piece from where I stopped. Bummer....

Upon my return to the hotel, once my family was awake, I opened the curtains in the room. And got this wonderful view.

I wrote about another tobacco barn and the former church that served the little community of agricultural workers in East Granby, CT, last year (see July 19, 2016, "Tobacco Road").

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hub Holdout

From Dave Brigham:

I think about the backside of America a lot. This doesn't surprise you. I try to snap photos of shuttered buildings as soon as I notice them, because in this strong Greater Boston economy those places get bulldozed and turned into gleaming glass monoliths faster than you can say "gleaming glass monoliths."

Thankfully, some places have been able to not only defy the wrecking ball, but also thrive by ignoring the ways of The New. On a recent subway trip into the Hub of the Universe with my two kids, I had plans to walk by the Mother Church of Christian Science, and perhaps dip our toes in the reflecting pool outside. Construction along Huntington Avenue, however, left us unable to easily access the church, and we found the pool empty.

But then I looked across the street, and pulled out my ulterior ulterior motive.

Looks like the setting for an episode of "Spenser: For Hire" doesn't it? The MidTown Hotel is certainly an anomaly amidst all the high-rise condos and skyscraper hotels in Boston. This place would fit in along Route 1 north of the city, although much of the midcentury charm of that roadway is gone (see this article about the old Hilltop Steak House, and this one about the famous Route 1 orange dinosaur).

Built in 1962, the hotel looks much better on the inside than the outside would leave one to believe. Located near Symphony Hall, the Prudential and Copley malls, Northeastern University, Copley Square and much more, the place shows no signs of fading away. For a nice ode to the MidTown, read Thomas Farragher's column in the Boston Globe from two years ago.

As if all the amenities, attractions and restaurants close at hand weren't enough, you can also get your hair styled.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Duck Duck House

From Dave Brigham:

The first time I saw this cute little place, I thought it was a dog house that somebody tossed overboard into Boston Harbor. "Fido! You've chewed your last slipper!" And you thought Mitt Romney had canine issues.

That was a few years ago, before the folks at the oddly named Waterboat Marina affixed a sign indicating this is a duck house.

Huey, Dewey and Louie have a pretty sweet set-up: gigantic pool; easy access to the ice machine; an abundance of mollusks, algae and beer spilled by those who overdo it at the nearby Tia's Restaurant; the cachet of owning a trendy tiny house....

For a write-up about a different kind of duck house, see January 14, 2017, "Beautiful Duckling."

Friday, September 1, 2017

For What the Bell Tolls

From Dave Brigham:

It's human nature, I suppose, to ignore the history in your backyard that folks travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see. I've lived in the Boston area 27 years and have yet to set foot in the Bunker Hill Monument, for instance. Or Paul Revere's house. Or Old South Church. Or the liquor store where Whitey Bulger conducted his heinous affairs.

As regular readers know, I seek out the hidden history, the decrepit buildings, the rusting heaps in the woods. But recently my family spent just a small amount of time in nearby Lexington, Mass. ("The Birthplace of American Liberty") and checked out the American Revolution-related plaques and memorials around the famous Battle Green.

I won't lie to you: this was an outing taken as a result of the need to get out of the house, rather than an insatiable thirst for historical knowledge. My kids rejected a walk in the woods, said they wanted to do a "city walk." Well, we've spent a lot of time in Boston and Cambridge over the years, so I thought of Lexington, with its quaint shops and restaurants (most importantly, an ice cream parlor). I figured strolling through a few sights from the American Revolution would be gravy.

The historical markers around the Green -- related to meeting houses, the first casualties of the Revolution, and the iconic Minute Man -- were of some interest, as was the massive flagpole in the center of it all. But when I saw a sign for "The Belfry," I knew I had found my true destination.

Located just a musket-shot away from the Green, the belfry was built in 1762 in its current spot, and moved to the Green in 1768, per the Lexington Historical Society web site. The bell was used to summon folks to worship, and tolled upon the deaths of townspeople. But on April 19, 1775, the belfry realized its greatest glory: sounding the alarm calling the local militia men to the Common in advance of the approach of the British Redcoats.

Eventually the belfry was moved back to its original location. The original was destroyed in 1909 either by fire or by a strong gale, depending on which historical account you believe, and the town had a reproduction made in 1910. The bell tolls each year to signal the start of the Patriots' Day reenactment on the Green, according to the historical society.

As for that ice cream parlor, we ended up there after our less-than-stressful adventure. Rancatore's is pretty good, and is located in a nice old circa-1903 building known as the Hunt Block.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Love of Tunnels

From Dave Brigham:

What is it about a tunnel? A little bit mysterious, perhaps dangerous. A route under the hustle and bustle, a cool escape. A graffiti canvas. A place to chug a beer on the way to work.

(Yerxa Road Underpass, Cambridge, Mass.)

Reconstructed in 2006, the Yerxa Road Underpass connects neighborhoods in North Cambridge, ducking under the MBTA's Fitchburg commuter rail line. The tunnel is adorned with sculptures and tiles created by Randal Thurston. I don't know when the underpass was built, but the fact that it needed to be rebuilt 11 years ago leads me to believe it had become neglected -- probably dark, smelling of piss, covered in grammatically incorrect graffiti.

About a mile east the Fitchburg line crosses over the Sacramento Street Underpass in Somerville. This tunnel has obviously not been renovated recently as has its opposite number in Cambridge.

Still, there are some nice murals done by local school kids.

People who live in these neighborhoods likely don't think twice about walking through these tunnels to get from their apartments to the grocery store, or from work to a lunch place. But for a guy who lives in your standard suburban neighborhood with exactly zero underpasses, I find it exciting to drag my son along to check out these types of spots.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Roster Change In the Fenway

From Dave Brigham:

New and old Boston, captured in one off-center photo.*

Fenway Gulf is located a few short blocks from the home of the Red Sox, in a neighborhood that has changed drastically in the last decade. Pierce Boston rises behind the "Gulf" sign, one of several high rises recently completed or under construction. For a look at what the future apartment/condo site once looked like, read this article from the Boston Globe and check out the picture at the top of the page. A D'Angelo's sub shop once stood here, as did other businesses, including one that rented studio spaces for bands.

So, what's to become of the erstwhile gas station property? And why do I care?

I have a personal connection with this place. You see, I actually bought drinks and snacks there with my son -- one time! We were on a Pokemon Go walk in the area and got, you guessed it, thirsty and hungry. So this spot means a lot to me. Or rather it did. On one occasion.

Anyway...for the cool price of $16.9 million, the corporate parent of Star Market bought the site earlier this year. A Boston Globe article at the time indicated the company planned to bulldoze the gas station to expand a parking lot for the adjacent grocery store. But with so many high-priced condos rising all around the area, I have to believe something more than a parking lot will end up here. The Star parking lot has been too small for decades, it's true, but with car-averse/sharing millennials moving in and working in the area I doubt there's enough need for increased parking.

As always, stay tuned.

*I hoisted my phone over a fence, so cut me some slack.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

This Old House of Blues

From Dave Brigham:

The crazy guy sitting behind the drums and bashing the cymbals with his acoustic guitar could have spit on me. I was that close. My friend Jeff and I were transfixed as Hasil Adkins belted out insane songs like "The Hunch," "She Said" (more famously covered by The Cramps) and "We Got a Date," in which he yowls about cutting his girl's head off.

This was the one time I saw a show at the original House of Blues in world-famous Harvard Square. Opened in 1992, the Cambridge, Mass., club was intimate and got pretty sweaty the night that Adkins, a rockabilly cult favorite, played. The place served good food, and in addition to great blues music, was known for a gospel brunch on Sundays.

Anybody who's seen a band at any one of the 11 current House of Blues locations might be surprised that the building in the above photo was the original club. I went to the L.A. one nearly 20 years ago, and it was nothing like the cozy space in Hahvahd Squayah. The original spot was shuttered in 2003. The company opened a new franchise in Boston, near Fenway Park, several years ago.

A steakhouse named Brother Jimmy's moved into the spot, but closed in 2008. An outlet of the Tommy Doyle's restaurant chain moved there afterwards. In late 2013, the Hasty Pudding Club, a Harvard-affiliated theatrical society best-known for its Man & Woman of the Year parades and ceremonies, moved its clubhouse into what is officially known as the Hyde-Taylor House.

From, about the house:

"In 1846, the current house was built by Isaac Hyde in the Greek revival style. In 1900, George Mendell Taylor purchased the house where he both lived and gave piano lessons, beginning the performing arts tradition that has continued to this day. The building took on a new persona in 1950 when Geneviève MacMillan opened the first French restaurant in the Square. The restaurant, Club Henry IV, was frequented by the likes of William Faulkner, Thornton, Wilder, and Joan Miró. Geneviève had interests that lay far beyond her restaurant. She dedicated her life to collecting African art, promoting diversity and learning about one another's cultures, and establishing fellowships and grants to further these goals. She began a legacy of philanthropy and education that, like Taylor's, has been passed down through the building's history. In 1965, the area's first discotheque, La Discotheque Nicole, opened in the basement of Club Henry IV."

Pretty cool.