In the second half of the 20th century, parts of Boston saw disinvestment by private property owners as well as local and state government. With people leaving Boston for the suburbs, the hemorrhaging of tax revenue led urban planners to go big and institute ‘Urban Renewal‘ policies and planning to demolish what they believed to be substandard housing and invest in Modern apartments and car-oriented developments. The triangular shaped new community was as comprehensive as any urban renewal district in the region; indeed of the ten General Neighborhood Renewal Plans created by the BRA in 1961, Washington Park was the most self contained Urban Renewal District in the city. It included new police and fire stations, a courthouse, two public libraries, a shopping mall, a health center, elementary school and five garden style housing developments totaling almost 2000 apartments or townhouses. At its completion in 1975, $70.4 million had been invested to build the new community of which $31. 3 million came from the federal government. Part of this massive undertaking was the construction of elderly housing, which resulted in this 20-story cylindrical tower at the southernmost edge of the Urban Renewal area. The tower was constructed between 1967 and 1970 and was designed by Boston-based architectural firm Richmond & Goldberg, led by Isidor Richmond and Carney Goldberg. Apartments were “integrated” with with 70% Black and 30% White residents, all with private balconies and an emergency pull-chain system in kitchens and bedrooms for the elderly residents. As far as mid-century apartment towers go, this one is pretty interesting and unique. The building was renovated a few years ago and renamed the Doris Bunte Apartments. In 1969, Buntè was nominated to the Boston Housing Authority board, making her the first female public housing tenant to serve. In 1972, she was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, becoming the first woman of color to serve in the Massachusetts legislature, and the first female to serve in the House leadership in 68 years. While there, Buntè helped found the Black Legislative Caucus and the Caucus of Women Legislators.
Urban Renewal Boston
Howard Athenaeum // 1846-1962
One of the more iconic theater buildings to ever stand in Boston was the Howard Athenaeum, later the Old Howard, which stood on the former Howard Street in Downtown Boston. The origins of the building begin in 1843, when a flimsy, tent was built to serve as a church for the small Millerite sect. The small but loyal congregation eventually abandoned the site following disappointment with the minister’s promise that the world would end in 1844. After Armageddon failed to materialize, the founder of the sect, William Miller, an ex-Deputy Sheriff from Poultney, Vermont, was discredited and the Millerites moved on. After running their former minister out of town, several church members (who had given up all their worldly possessions in preparation for their trip to heaven,) decided to recoup some of their losses by selling the property to Messers Boyd and Beard, who opened a theater here in 1845. A fire destroyed the structure, and it was replaced by a larger, fireproof building that same year. The new building was constructed in 1845 and was designed by architect Isaiah Rogers in the Gothic Revival style with massive granite blocks from Quincy.
The Howard Athenaeum saw many iconic performers and historical events in its 100 years. A young John Wilkes Booth, played Hamlet at the Howard before becoming famous for a more nefarious deed in Washington in 1865. Also, Sarah Parker Remond, a Black anti-slavery activist and lecturer with the American Anti-Slavery Society (and later a medical doctor), had bought a ticket through the mail for the Donizetti opera, Don Pasquale, but, upon arriving, refused to sit in a segregated section for the show. She was forcibly removed and pushed down a flight of stairs. She eventually won a desegregation lawsuit against the managers of the Howard Athenaeum and received $500 in a settlement.
The theater was quickly deemed obsolete and second-tier compared to more modern theatres built nearby. By the mid-20th century, the Old Howard was largely featuring burlesque shows. To keep bringing in audiences, the burlesque performances got more risqué with each year. As a result, the Boston vice squad made the Old Howard the object of their attention. The Boston Vice squad made a 16 mm film during one of their raids in 1953 and captured on film the performance by “Irma the Body”. This film footage resulted in an indecency hearing which eventually led to the closing of the Old Howard in 1953. A fire a few years later along with Urban Renewal led to the demolition of the Old Howard by 1962. Like the former Suffolk Savings Bank (featured previously), the present Center Plaza Building is on the site.
Suffolk Savings Bank // 1906-1967
The Suffolk Savings Bank for Seamen and Others was incorporated in 1833 as a banking institution catered to seamen and merchants who received their earnings after a trip in cash, and wanted a secure place to store their funds. At the time, these men were among the richest in the city, and the bank did very well. It later became a national bank in 1865 and membership boomed. The bank grew and grew until the early 20th century, and it needed a new banking house that showcased their stability, but also provide a visual embodiment of the security their institution provides. The bank’s board hired world-renowned architect Cass Gilbert to design a new building, which would be located on one of the busiest corners in Downtown Boston at the corner of Tremont Street and Pemberton Square. The Classical Revival building was constructed of Hallowell Granite and featured four monumental columns recessed into the Tremont Street facade. Minimal windows allowed for security, while a domed skylight covered in a cap provided light into the rounded banking room below. Inside, the walls and floors were of marble with a tile coffered ceiling. The building lasted until 1965 when Urban Renewal brought the wrecking ball. The bank was demolished by 1967 for the present Center Plaza building in Government Center.
Old Forest Hills Station // 1909-1987
When elevated train service from Boston extended to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain in 1909, the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and points south were ecstatic to realize the chance to enjoy quicker transit to the city. The station, which opened in 1909, was an architectural landmark and engineering feat, as the new terminal was the largest structure of its kind and the most costly in the country at the time. The large station was made of steel and reinforced concrete, finished in copper at the elevated section, and took nearly two years of construction. City architect Edmund M. Wheelwright designed the station, and upon its opening, it was called “the chef-d’œuvre of rapid transit development in Boston”. Like with many cities all over the country, shifting transportation planning and priorities and shrinking investment necessitated the once grand station to suffer the fate of the wreckingball. As part of the Southwest Corridor project, this station was to be demolished, with a modern station constructed to service the MBTA trains on the Orange Line. Also, plans were developed for a 12-lane highway along the railroad right-of-way between Boston through Cambridge. The residents of the affected areas, including Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, South End, Back Bay, and Cambridge, protested against the destruction of their neighborhoods by the planned highway, and won! The old Forest Hills Station was a casualty of the proposal, but a lasting reminder for neighborhood planning and advocacy, preserving character and people over cars.