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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Brigham in Waltham, Part II

From Dave Brigham:

Sometimes I think I should change the name of this blog to The Backside of Waltham.

This is the second in a three-part series about Waltham, Mass., a one-time mill city that in recent decades has become known for restaurants, colleges, biotech companies and high-tech industries (see November 9, 2016, "Brigham in Waltham, Part I"). I live in Newton, which borders Waltham. I've done a lot of posts about Newton, but find Waltham more interesting, architecturally and historically.

Before I get to the photos and attendant write-ups, I want to address the Fernald School. Known initially as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded, and then as the Walter E. Fernald State School (and later Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center), the facility is perhaps Waltham's best-known urbex exploration spot. I've had a number of fans of the blog who say, "You need to check out Fernald!"

Believe me, I would love to. But when I drive by the long-shuttered facility, I see gates and signs and security. I'm 51 years old; if I were in my 20's I'd do it no problem, confident that I could outrun any security guard. But I have two kids; I can't risk getting caught somewhere I shouldn't be and either fined or tossed in jail.

"Dad, you were supposed to pick me up from school at 3:00!"

"Yeah, sorry kiddo. I'm in the hoosegow!"

I've certainly done some minor trespassing over the years of writing this blog, including one time when I had my toddler daughter with me (see August 23, 2010, "You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Live Here, But It Helps," about the former Gaebler Children's Center in Waltham. I received so many gut-wrenching comments on that post, which is about a facility very near Fernald. I cringe every time I see the headline I wrote.)

To see some fantastic photos of Fernald, check out this woman's Flickr album.

Alright, let's get to the good stuff.

(Former Waltham Water Works building.)

I took this photo a few years ago. The building is the former Waltham Water Works shop, located on Felton Street, a hardscrabble place with small industrial buildings, antique shops, auto body shops, markets and multi-family houses. Built in 1894, this building was used as a dog pound in more recent years, according to Wikipedia and the Waltham News Tribune. For a while now the place has been vacant, although I'm guessing the city uses it for storage.

(Random house I know nothing about.)

Not too far away, on the corner of Charles and Prospect streets, sits another abandoned building. This type of house -- with a storefront protruding from the front or tacked onto the side like a motorcycle side-car -- intrigues me. Every once in a while I see an active business in this type of house. But most often the space has been converted to an apartment or, as in this case, gone vacant along with the rest of the house. I like to imagine that at some point there was a busy little market here, or a barber shop or some other small business. This place was under renovation when I snapped this picture a few months ago, but not much is going on with it lately.

(Wilson's Diner.)

Wilson's Diner has been in this Main Street spot since 1949, according to Wikipedia. Built by the famous Worcester Lunch Car Company, the diner is on the National Register of Historic Places. I ate there once with my son, many years ago, and found the food to be just OK. But I love that this place has been in the same location for nearly 70 years and is still going strong.

The rest of this post is going to focus on railroad stuff.

(Waltham Interlocking Tower.)

Located steps away from busy Moody Street, the Waltham Interlocking Tower at one time controlled the junction with the Watertown Branch Railroad, which operated passenger service until 1938, per Wikipedia. The tower was put into action in 1928 and operated until 2013, according to this very thorough blog posting. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) operates commuter trains on this line, between Fitchburg and Boston.

Back in the early days of this blog, I posted about a long-abandoned trestle in Waltham that was part of the long-defunct Watertown Branch Railroad (see May 12, 2010, "Dead-End Tracks, Part I"). Below is the trestle.

(Watertown Branch trestle over the Charles River.)

I learned just recently that the trestle had been torn down. I do my grocery shopping just a stone's throw from the bridge, but hadn't noticed. Sure enough, I checked it out, and while the view is better, I miss the old trestle.

(No more trestle.)

The bridge was at least 140 years old, and was unsafe although when I checked it out a few years ago there was evidence of homeless people sleeping on and under it. Sad that yet another reminder of our industrial past has been taken down.

The remaining photos are of remnants of the Central Massachusetts Railroad (aka the Massachusetts Central Railroad), which ran from North Cammbridge to Northampton, Mass., by way of Watertown, Waltham, Weston, Wayland and other towns starting with letters other than "W." Seemingly ill-fated from the get-go, the railway ran for nearly a century, until about 1980.

A guy named John Rezuke has been working on a documentary about the Central Mass Railroad, with plans to include historical photos and remembrances, as well as footage of himself walking the 104-mile length of the railway. Here's a trailer of his work-in-progress:

I'd only walked a small portion of the old railway before working on this post (see August 1, 2016, "I Rail Against Trails (Not Really, But I Don't Want Every Set of Train Tracks Converted for Cyclists and Roller Bladers"). Only in the last few months did I become aware of just how much of the old Central Mass Railway tracks were accessible in Waltham.

(Just west of the Linden Street bridge sits this trestle over Beaver Brook.)

(Steps away from the trestle is this section, which begins the railway's run through the massive Gardencrest Apartments complex.)

(Just south of the Lyman Estate I found two cool reminders of railroading's past. My son took the bottom photo.)

(A little further west, at the intersection of Hammond Street and Elson Road, sits the nicely restored Waltham Highlands station. There is also a short length of track here. The building and landscape were done over by Regan Insurance, which has occupied the old station since 1965.)

(The tracks run for just a little longer west of Prentice Street, behind some super-ugly office buildings on Main Street. This section is very cool, if a little creepy.)

The tracks have been torn up from just before Border Road, which is the entrance to a new shopping area, and Route 128. There is a train bridge across the highway and then the tracks continue on into Weston and beyond. As with countless other former railway right-of-ways across the country, the old Central Mass rail bed has been turned, in part, to a rail trail. The folks behind the Mass Central Rail Trail would love to connect all 104 miles of the former railway for walkers, cyclists and roller bladers. To date, there are approximately 25 miles open.

Four years a go I explored another former railway right-of-way in Concord, Mass., that may one day be a rail trail (see December 11, 2012, "Concord, Part III: New Haven rail bed").

In the future, I plan to check out other sections of the old Central Mass Railway west of Waltham.

Make sure to check back soon for the third and final installment of my Waltham series, which will focus on ghost signs, cool old buildings and a few odds and ends.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

What's Auers is Yours

From Dave Brigham:

I grew up just a few miles from the Auerfarm property in Bloomfield, Connecticut, but hadn't visited this historic site until this past Thanksgiving, at age 51.

Better late than early, to coin a phrase. Auerfarm was a working farm for 40 years, owned by Beatrice Fox Auerbach after her husband died in 1927, two years after buying the property, according to the web site for the 4-H Education Center at Auerfarm. Mrs. Auerbach was part of the Fox family that owned G. Fox & Co., a Hartford department store. In the 1930's she was the first female president of a large department store.

The farm was deeded to the 4-H in 1976. Over the past 40 years the farming organization has renovated and repaired buildings, torn down old buildings (although not all of them, as you'll see), raised livestock and crops and taught children and adults alike about agriculture.

My longtime friend, Gary, suggested a hike around Auerfarm the day after Thanksgiving. Our families have a tradition of getting together on that day to reconnect, as I live 90 minutes away outside Boston but always visit family in Connecticut for Turkey Day. I knew the property would have some cool photo ops, but had no idea just how many.

(The apple barn.)

There is an active orchard on the property, but this small barn hasn't seen a fresh apple in some time.

(Apple barn details.)

I take so many photos for this blog, but only a few of them really touch me, as they represent in so simple a fashion how easy it is for history to fade away. The photo below is one of them.

After hiking a bit, seeing the apple barn and doing a mannequin challenge with our families (a fun idea of Gary's), I figured that was about it. But we'd only been out a short time. Gary led us up an old road toward some buildings that he thought were probably summer homes of the Auerbach family years ago.

(From the front, this building looks like an average-sized house, but the four-bay garage turns it into something different altogether.)

With Christmas lights strung along the roof line, the old places didn't seem too far disconnected from the past. But obviously vandals have had their way with these places a bit.

(I found this sight funny, but also sad.)

The old log cabin was everybody's favorite haunt.

Peering inside, I found an odd mix of old furniture and newer toys.

The last house was the largest. With a scythe, a sturdy broom and some moxie it could be turned back into a decent getaway site.

After checking out the creepy buildings, we ventured over to the 4-H property and the kids had fun hanging out with the chickens, goats, donkey and rabbits.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

An Intimate Look at a Landmark

From Derek Watt:

(Recently Derek Watt had a chance to explore and take photos of the Dr. Oliver Bronson House in Hudson, New York. Managed by Historic Hudson, the house was built in 1812, and remodeled in 1839 and 1849. To read more about this house, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003 and has been under renovation for many years, read the Historic Hudson web site and Wikipedia page. -- DB)

Bronson 2016 02 Bronson 2016 04 Bronson 2016 05 Bronson 2016 09 Bronson 2016 10

Monday, December 12, 2016

Behind Bars

From Dave Brigham:

This foreboding building -- the prison at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, -- has been closed for 42 years. Wouldn't you just love to get in there? Poke around the cells and look for dungeons and rats and skeletons and ghosts? Scare yourself silly in the middle of the night?

Few people not wearing black-and-white striped jumpsuits or naval uniforms have seen the inside of this place since it was completed in 1908. The prison looms over the Piscataqua River just across from the bustling hipster-town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

My family and I recently went on a harbor cruise, which took us past beautiful old homes and sentry-like lighthouses and run-down forts. But the prison is the most impressive feature of the cruise, in my mind.

In addition to Navy and Marine offenders, the prison played host over the years to German U-boat crews near the end of World War II, according to this article.

There has been talk of redeveloping the massive prison -- at the time of its opening it was the largest poured concrete building in the world -- into apartments or condos, to no avail.

For a closer look at the outside of the prison, check out these two videos:

Monday, December 5, 2016

I Seek Newton, Part VI: Chestnut Hill

From Dave Brigham:

(Bench in Houghton Garden, Chestnut Hill.)

Chestnut Hill is arguably the chicest of Newton's villages. Waban has loads of beautiful homes on large, wooded lots. In West Newton Hill, gorgeous Victorians abound. But Chestnut Hill -- which is comprised of parts of Brookline and Boston as well as Newton -- has enormous estates and old-money history, as well as a fairly good-sized backside.

When I think of Chestnut Hill, I think of captains of industry (New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft), old-money WASPs (at least one Saltonstall), professional athletes (Tom Brady) and other highfalutin types living behind high walls or gates. In my mind, they drive from their well-appointed homes in brand new BMW's or Teslas, directly into Boston for sumptuous meals at private clubs, or to a well-guarded helipad for a weekend on Nantucket. Their kids go to private school, and are named Teddy and Hampton and Tessa and Stella. They are mostly white, these people in my mind, as you can tell.

While I'm sure that Chestnut Hill is more diverse than I realize -- watching "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," shopping at Star Market and worrying about bullying and teen drug addiction and Donald Trump, like the rest of us -- there is definitely still an element of the "Essex Colony" that moved into the area back in the 1850's.

"In 1822, Joseph Lee came from Beverly and bought one hundred and sixty acres of the old Hammond Farm," according to Newton's 19th Century Architecture: Newton Centre, Oak Hill, Chestnut Hill, Commonwealth Avenue, issued by the Newton Historical Commission and the City Department of Planning and Development in 1985. When he died in the mid-1840's the land passed to his six nieces and nephews, who initially did little with the property. In the 1850's, however, "when Beacon Street and the railroad improved communication between Boston and Newton, several family members decided to settle there."

The family laid out roads and built houses, dubbing the new neighborhood Chestnut Hill. Among the families to settle in the newly constructed enclave were the Lees, the Saltonstalls, the Cabots and the Lowells, blue bloods through-and-through from Boston's North Shore (the name Essex Colony comes from Essex County in Massachusetts), according to the NHC/DPD booklet.

"The original Lee properties shown on the 1856 plan of 'Chestnut Hill' lay roughly between Beacon Street, Reservoir Avenue, Hammond Street and the railroad tracks," according to the booklet. "Some of the acreage lapped over into Brookline, accounting for that area of Brookline also called Chestnut Hill. As succeeding generations married, they were provided with house lots in Chestnut Hill and many of these houses remain, still lived in by descendants of the original families."

This document is 30 years old, but I'm sure there are still descendants of those families, and other original Chestnut Hillers, living there.

Despite a collective effort to maintain manicured lawns, employ a constant stream of renovation contractors and obtain privacy, Chestnut Hill has hidden elements that aren't really that hard to find.

Welcome to the sixth part of my series on the villages of my adopted hometown of Newton, Mass. For links to the previous five installments, and a tease about the next in the series, see the bottom of this post.

Chestnut Hill could just as easily have been named Hammondville. The family of Thomas Hammond Jr. were among the first white settlers in the area, in 1655. The village features Hammond Pond, Hammond Woods, Hammond Street and Hammond Pond Parkway. As stated above, the old Hammond Farm was carved up to become the heart of the early residential area of Chestnut Hill.

(Hammond House, the oldest in Newton.)

Known as the Hammond House, the property at 9 Old Orchard Road was built in 1714 by Thomas Hammond Jr., according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination, and is considered the oldest house in Newton. The house is currently on the market for just under $3 million; Coldwell Banker lists the house as being built "c.1645." I'm not sure what the correct date is, but I recommend clicking on the listing link to check out photos of this cool residence.

Just around the corner from the Hammond House is the Mary Baker Eddy Home.

(The backside of the Mary Baker Eddy Home.)

Founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, Eddy lived in this house from 1907 until hear death at age 89 in 1910. She extensively remodeled the home, which was built in 1880, according to the Longyear Museum, which owns the home.

South of the Eddy home is the Webster Conservation Area, part of which was opened to the public in 1916 when the owner, Edwin Webster, gave 38 acres to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, according to the Newton Conservators web site. In the ensuing decades Webster gave additional acreage, and the State took other portions of the land, as well as some Hammond land, by eminent domain for conservation, according to the Conservators.

This building was in the section of the conservation area known as the Deer Park. According to the Conservators web site, "Mrs. Webster brought a couple of dozen deer into the area many years ago." Many times over the last 15 years or so I spied deer on this property as I sped by on the busy Hammond Pond Parkway. I found it very cool to see wildlife frolicking in such a busy area. Alas, there are no more deer on the property, according to the Conservators. This building, which may have been part of a chicken farm at one point, was torn down recently.

Just steps away from where the shed/coop/barn once stood is Houghton Garden.

"From 1906 through 1940 Mr. and Mrs. Clement Houghton created a garden adjacent to their home at 152 Suffolk Road in Chestnut Hill," according to the web site for the Chestnut Hill Garden Club. "Mrs. Houghton served as the president of the American Rock Garden Society and her love of rock gardens resulted in one of the first of its kind. Their alpine rock garden is situated on a ledge overlooking Houghton Pond. It contains many dwarf conifers originally imported from the Orient by the Houghtons." The garden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

I've walked through this garden several times over the years. It's very peaceful despite the fact that it sits mere feet from the busy trolley tracks. Because of this proximity to the trains, my son loves going to this area.

I made my guess about the chicken farm because along the trolley tracks that separate the Deer Park from Hammond Pond conservation area, there is an official sign that says "Chicken Farm Truck Pad," where vehicles from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) can drive up to the tracks. There is also a pedestrian crossing here from the gardens to the pond.

(A rusty old rail cart sits next to the pedestrian crossing.)

The Hammond Pond area has some cool paths and rock walls where I've seen climbers testing their skills. On the other side of the Hammond Pond Parkway stands another section of the Webster Conservation area.

Signs urging the city to "Save Webster Woods" have sprung up since Boston College announced its purchase of Congregation Mishkan Tefila earlier this year. The college plans to use the former synagogue site for "parking and administrative uses," according to this Newton Tab article. But it is the 20+ acres of undeveloped land (i.e., Webster Woods) and B.C.'s potential use for that property that has many folks, including me, concerned.

(Half-submerged rock in small pond in Webster Woods.)

Worth saving, don't you think? Stay tuned...

Just a short distance away is a shopping area known as The Street.

(The Street outdoor shopping mall.)

The site along very busy Route 9 has been a retail destination since 1950, according to the official timeline on The Street's web site.

Above is the faded facade of the former AMC Theater, which opened in 1975 as a General Cinema. In the last few years, a new theater, Showcase Superlux, opened at the site.

Long before the retail development of this area, very different types of activities took place here. On an old map at the City of Newton web site, I spied something that said "Posse-Nissen School." It didn't take long to find out a bit more information online. The Posse-Nissen School of Physical Education specialized in Swedish Gymnastics, a system of calisthenics and exercises developed by Hartvig Nissen, a Swede who was director of the massage department at Boston City Hospital, and Nils Posse, a Swedish royal who moved to Boston in the late 19th century, according to Wikipedia and The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

At the eastern edge of the retail complex, just past the Star Market grocery store, sits an abandoned property hidden behind fences.

(A staircase that was once part of a home near the Star Market.)

Owned by the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center LLC, the land was sold to the developer by Eleanor Baldwin, according to documents I found online. In a cursory search online I found evidence that Ms. Baldwin was a Chestnut Hill resident for many years. I'd love to know what her old house on this property looked like.

Then there's the house that stands just a short distance away from The Street that has confused me for quite some time.

Listed on the Newton Assessors Database (one of my favorite online tools for research) as "developable land" owned by a trust, the property consists of this old shingled house and a small shed on just under 6.5 acres. I found nothing online for quite some time, but a few months ago I stumbled across information about architect William Ralph Emerson and houses he built in Chestnut Hill.

"The prominent architect William Ralph Emerson is known to have designed at least two houses in Chestnut Hill. Reusing an old barn, Emerson developed a striking Shingle style house for John Lowell which still stands at 517 Hammond Street." -- from a document published in 1985 by the Newton Historical Commission and the city's Department of Planning and Development.

But then I realized that 517 Hammond Street is next door to this property. Perhaps he also designed the long-abandoned house in the above photo. I need to visit Newton City Hall to find out more information.

The neighborhood just to the north of this neglected house, over the MBTA trolley tracks, is filled with stately mansions and beautiful churches. The lawns are green and constantly filled with contractors and landscapers running to and fro. Along Suffolk Road sits this reminder of times gone by.

(An old gate post, perhaps original to the neighborhood, stands on Suffolk Road.)

Back on Route 9, just a short distance west, once stood the Atrium Mall. Opened in 1989, the mall catered to the well-to-do of Chestnut Hill and surrounding areas. I used to like to take my kids there when they were young, because the mall had a playroom. But the high-end Atrium couldn't compete with downtown Boston shopping and the larger Natick Mall, located less than 10 miles away.

The parking garage under the mall was a cool place to spot sports cars and vintage vehicles under wraps.

Perhaps the cars' owners lived in some of the nearby high-rise apartment buildings that didn't have a lot of parking.

I took that photo a number of years ago. The mall closed four years ago and has been converted to an athletic center and medical offices

Just a short hop away from the old Atrium Mall, and across the street from the Mall at Chestnut Hill (and not far from The Street -- yes, Chestnut Hillers love to shop!) once stood an ugly strip mall/office complex/grocery store.

(The backside of the former Omni Foods grocery store, which was torn down a few years back to make room for the Chestnut Hill Square shopping area.)

A short jog down Route 9 and you're at Kennard Park on Dudley Road, the western edge of Chestnut Hill.

The City of Newton acquired the land in 1978 from Dr. Harrison Kennard, according to the Newton Conservators web site. This is a very pleasant, nicely wooded park, with old stone walls, lean-tos, remnants of an orchard, the old Kennard house, which serves as headquarters for the town parks and recreation department, and well-kept paths that eventually lead to a small pond over the town line in Brookline.

At the far eastern end of Chestnut Hill stands Boston College, which spills over into Boston's Brighton neighborhood. Across Beacon Street from the college's dorms, in a small patch of woods next to a dirt parking lot, stands this lovely statue.

The street abutting the statue is a dead end now, but used to go through.

Amidst the beautiful homes dotting the south side of Beacon Street as you wind eastward toward Boston sits this impressive pile.

The old gate house for the Chestnut Hill Reservoir across Beacon Street, this Romanesque building was erected in the late 1870's and controlled the flow of water from both the Cochituate and Sudbury aqueducts, according to Wikipedia.

Not far from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir sits the Waban Hill Reservoir.

(Waban Hill Reservoir and gate house.)

The City of Newton began construction on this reservoir in 1875, as part of its effort to supply all of its 13 villages with water. The water was drawn from the Charles River, near the Needham line, and pumped by coal-fired steam engines through the mains and across the city, according to Historic Newton's "Waban Hill Reservoir History."

I've explored the area near the location of the former pumping station on Needham Street (see November 20, 2011, "History Flows On, Part II," and December 6, 2011, "History Flows On, Part III").

Newton sold the reservoir to the Boston Metropolitan Water Board in 1900, according to the Newton Conservators web site. In 1891, the City of Newton completed construction of the reservoir's replacement, a covered, 10-million gallon structure just up the hill.

Across Commonwealth Avenue from the old reservoir sits this funky building with a cool roof.

Currently home to a fitness studio and a custom fabric and design shop, this place was built in 1920 and was used from 1925-1972 as a pharmacy and grocery store, according to property documents on file with the City of Newton. In ensuing years the building served as a real estate office and an insurance agency.

And thus completes my survey of Newton's Chestnut Hill village. As with all of the installments in this series, I could have dug more into Chestnut Hill. I plan to do so in the future, in the hopes of writing a book covering all of Newton's 13 villages.

Here are links to the previous five installments, ordered from most recent:

September 26, 2016, "I Seek Newton, Part V: Oak Hill"

June 3, 2016, "I Seek Newton, Part IV: Waban"

March 23, 2016, "I Seek Newton, Part III: Highlands"

September 20, 2015, "I Seek Newton, Part II: Auburndale"

May 21, 2015, "I Seek Newton, Part I: Lower Falls"

I'm not sure which village will be next. There are seven more, some more involved than others. Most likely I'll report on Thompsonville, the smallest and least commercialized village.