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.)