Saturday, January 31, 2015

Get Thee to a Nunnery

From Dave Brigham:

I find it hard to square the popular, albeit outdated image of nuns as ruler-wielding autocrats, buttoned up from head to toe in black and white, with the smiling, geriatric faces of women in soft, cotton blouses in many pleasant colors on the web site for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston. Still, the nuns have power.

The sisters have been contemplating for many years the sale of their former convent in Newton, Mass.

Part of a large private educational complex, the nunnery sits on property that holds significance in many ways for the history of Newton. Built in 1965, the convent sits at a 90-degree angle to the building that houses the former Aquinas College. Most recently, that building housed the Rashi School, a private Reform Jewish K-8 independent school. The property also includes a private Catholic elementary school and the Walnut Park Montessori School preschool, which are not for sale.

I believe the Sisters initially used the Montessori School mansion as a convent, before moving into the current site in the '60s.

Deeded to the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1921 by Joseph Flanagan, the property was once part of a much larger estate with important historical ties. The first permanent settler in Newton, John Jackson, once owned a large parcel of land that includes the site where the convent sits, according to the Newton Historical Commission. The Jackson family operated a candle factory here in the 19th century.

From 1862-1893 the property was owned by John C. Potter and his family, and was known as the Potter Estate.

The convent and school building combined total roughly 95,000 square feet, with the convent comprising 20,720 square feet. The convent includes 34 dormitory-style rooms, a chapel and covered parking, according to a real estate listing I dug up online. I don't believe there are any nuns living there.

The property has been on the market for several years, with the Sisters turning down dozens upon dozens of commercial and institutional developers because the owners want to keep the site as a community resource of some sort (for a great report on this process, see this Boston Globe article written by my neighbor back in March 2008).

I'll keep an eye on this property and post any updates.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Maryland Mansion

From Dave Brigham:

It's always nice to add a new name to the roster of contributors here at the Backside of America. My brother, Steve, recently sent along a few pictures and a quick story of a hike he took with his kids near their home in Bowie, Maryland.

"When school got canceled last Monday, we hiked out our back yard, through a long open, overgrown field (on an old horse farm) to find a good sledding hill. We came across an old abandoned farm and mansion that didn't look like it had been lived in for many years. Not much good sleddding (only 2 inches), but quite an adventure!"

Because I'm a research geek, I had to find out more about this place. And, as often happens, I spent way more time than I thought I would, and found some information that I don't trust. Still, I love how often persistence pays off when doing research online.

One real estate web site lists the house as being built in 1956, but as you can see, it looks more modern than that. I'm guessing the place was totally overhauled, or that some part of the place was built that long ago. I also found conflicting reports about the size of the place, with one site indicating 4,470 square feet, and another 7,200. Either way, it's a big place.

The place sold for $1.45 million in 1999, and has an estimated value of $1.57 million, because the estate comprises more than 83 acres, and backs up to a small nature preserve. There is an in-ground pool and a few other buildings on the property, including an old barn.

My brother indicates that the land had been rezoned for an active adult community before the 2008 recession. At some point a church bought the land and rented the land for horse owners, but that church evidently filed for bankruptcy. So now the property is listed for sale under the name The Enclave at Beechfield, with a special permit allowing 400 units (250 condo, 150 townhouses) for a retirement community." I'm assuming The Enclave at Beechfield is the name of the entity formed to originally develop the land. I'll check in with my brother for any updates.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Old Canyons and Tunnels of Washington State

From Dave Brigham:

My good friend Andy moved from our hometown of Simsbury, CT, to Seattle more than 20 years ago. We see each other once every year or two, and keep in touch somewhat regularly on the phone and via text and email. Like many people over the years, he often tells me he wants to contribute to this blog. He hasn't snapped any photos for the Backside yet, but he did forward links to some cool places in Washington State.

Here's a link to a bunch of photos of Monte Cristo, an isolated former mining town in the Cascade Range.

Here's a link to a bunch of links (sorry) of photos of Robe Canyon Historic Park, which comprises an abandoned rail system once used for the mining and logging industries, a lime kiln and of course miles of great hiking.

Here's a link to some more Robe Canyon photos.

Here's a link to a photo and some information about the Iron Horse Trail tunnel.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Closed Circle

From Dave Brigham:

The Circle Cinema, which straddles Brookline and the city of Boston's Brighton neighborhood, was born the same year I was. Unfortunately, the theater where I've seen many movies during my 20+ years in the Boston area died at age 43. The cause of death was chronic under-attendance brought on by the Internet and fancy-shmancy competitors offering full-body, in-seat massage service, free booze IV's and robotic auto detailing.

Or something like that.

Although I saw plenty of movies at the Circle, the film that sticks out the most is the one I saw for only about five minutes. Harken back with me to the fall of 1990. My girlfriend (now wife), Beth, and I had recently moved from York, Maine, to an apartment on 69 Chiswick Road in Brighton. She had recently enrolled at the New England School of Law, and I was temping in downtown Boston. We went out a lot on weekends with our friends, to bars, pool halls, restaurants, bowling alleys and, of course, movies.

One Friday or Saturday night we walked the short distance to the theater (in Cleveland Circle) and bought tickets for Martin Scorsese's gangster epic, "Goodfellas." We waited in line for a few minutes buying popcorn (for her) and peanut M&M's (for me) before walking upstairs to the theater.

We found two seats in the crowded theater and settled in. After the previews, I ripped open my snack. Just around the time that Joe Pesci stabs the life out of a guy stuffed in the trunk of Ray Liotta's car, Beth turned to me and said, "I don't feel too good."

I thought maybe the violence was too much for her. Being the sensitive guy that I am, I said something like, "Oh, you'll be fine. Drink some water. Take a deep breath."

But the longer she sat there, the worse she felt. So we had to walk out of the movie and walk slowly back to our apartment. I don't believe Beth threw up, but she didn't feel any better once we got home. It wasn't the movie, it was a bug of some sort, or nerves related to something in law school.

I can't believe the place closed six years ago. I took the picture above a few years back and had forgotten about it. But I read recently that after a few years of back-and-forth between developers, the cities of Brookline and Boston, and abutting residents of both communities, a plan has been approved to tear down the theater and replace it with a hotel, apartments, restaurants and retail space.

Click here to read about the plan.