Ever so often, I stumble across a historic photo and I end up spending way too much time falling down rabbit-holes uncovering a cool history. This is one of those times.
Frank Howard Packer (1857-1925) was born in Providence, Rhode Island and worked at his father’s jewelry store there, later moving to Chicago. Out west, Frank was first tattooed by a friend, and he was hooked. Frank started using his body as a canvas, and when he ran out of space, his wife Annie was covered with tattoos. The couple were discovered by Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth and were hired to tour the country alongside other acts. Frank was the “Original Tattooed Man” and Annie was the first tattooed woman to tour with Barnum & Bailey. At these shows, Frank and Annie would show off their tattoos and then tattoo spectators for money. Eventually, they had enough money to open a tattoo parlor in a Civil War-era building on Court Street in Boston. The space was originally shared with a barbershop, but it later expanded to the entire floor of the building. Annie died in 1911 and Frank remarried a few years later and seemingly began to wind down his tattooing career. He died in 1925. The old shop building was demolished in the 1960s as part of Boston’s Urban Renewal period.
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.
John Hart (1733-1790) a ropemaker in pre-Revolutionary Portsmouth, New Hampshire, built a house in the city’s North End where he and his family resided. He died in 1790, and apparently willed the home to his housekeeper as he must not have had children. Early in the 19th century, the home underwent a huge overhaul, with a third floor added to the two-story Georgian home and the facade altered in the Federal style, all to resemble a traditional merchant “mansion house”. In the 1830s, the Greek Revival portico (porch) was added to the entry, to really make this house a blending of styles! In the 20th century, the Hart House was converted to a nursing home. In the 1960s, urban renewal plans were unveiled which would raze this home and hundreds of others. Luckily, this and just over a dozen more, were moved and saved from the wrecking ball.
The Whidden-Ward House in The Hill section of downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is an excellent example of a wood-frame Georgian-style residence in the coastal city. The house was built in the early 1720s by joiner, Michael Whidden Jr. As a third generation joiner, Whidden built several houses in the Portsmouth area, this one for his own residence. The house was purchased in the 1770s by Nathum Ward, who “modernized” the house with the triangular pediments over the windows. The house was moved over a block to its present site in the early 1970s as much of the surrounding neighborhood was demolished during Urban Renewal.
In 1964, federal funds were allocated to the North End project area in Portsmouth, for urban renewal. Prior to redevelopment, the North End was a mix of residential and commercial buildings, with many older houses converted into storefronts with apartments above. In the mid-1960s, the area was considered overcrowded, run down, and a fire hazard. As a result, the Portsmouth Housing Authority proposed the destruction of approximately 200 buildings, a school, and a church and redevelopment for commercial, industrial, and public use, rather than for residences. The project would displace approximately 300 families as a result. In 1968, Portsmouth Preservation Inc., a preservation organization was formed to attempt to save some of the historic building stock in the area slated for redevelopment. After bitter fighting and preservation advocacy, just fourteen houses were saved and mostly moved to an area known today as “The Hill”. This building is one of them. It was constructed around 1725 for Rev. Jabez Fitch, the new minister of the North Church in town. Fitch graduated from Harvard College in 1694 first settling in Ipswich, MA, before becoming minister of the North Church in 1724, a position he held until his death in 1746. The house was one of the few in the urban renewal area to not have been moved.
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.
Smack-dab in the middle of Newport, Rhode Island’s dense network of downtown streets, you’ll find Queen Anne Square, a rare bit of open space in a web of alleys and ways. Did you know that this park is only 50 years old? It’s true! In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Newport (and many cities all over New England) were grappling with suburbanization and dwindling tax revenue with people and businesses moving out. Their solution was “urban renewal”, which entailed the razing of buildings and sometimes, neighborhoods which were deemed “blight”. Historic buildings and communities were destroyed with modern planning (high capacity roads and high-rises connected by open space) to take its place. In Newport, this saw the form of America’s Cup Avenue and Memorial Boulevard, which cut through the city to allow for more cars and less-congested side-streets. Years later, planners realized that Newport was without a traditional town common like many New England towns, so they cleared buildings in front of Trinity Church to provide that traditional feeling. At the time, preservationists were trying to save significant buildings, with the Langley House being one of them. This house was set for the wrecking-ball, from Memorial Boulevard’s construction but moved and restored by Newport Restoration in the last hour to the south side of Church Street. Seven years later when Queen Anne Square was built, this house was moved to the north side, saving it once again. This house is a survivor!
One building in Boston that has always perplexed me is this round church building. It echoes Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel in Cambridge, but is much heavier and plain. After over an hour of researching, I finally found out some history behind it! The church was constructed in the South Cove Redevelopment area, an urban renewal program run by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (now BPDA) as a sort of “slum” clearance near Chinatown. The Church of All Nations was founded in the South End in 1917, housed in a Gothic Revival chapel that was seized by eminent domain for the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension and demolished in 1963. The congregation met in temporary quarters on Arlington Street until the new church was constructed in 1975. Records show that the congregation hired famed Modernist architect Bertram Goldberg as early as 1967 to design a new chapel, set in a new public park. The original plans called for a square building with a massive “steeple” incorporated as the entire roof. For some reason (possibly funding and changing demands for the church), the final design was a little more mundane. The cylindrical church is clad in dark glazed brick with a cross raised in the brickwork. The church suffered from a dwindling congregation in its location, and now appear to rent out the building. One of my favorite local architecture firms Touloukian Touloukian, Inc., re-imagined the site as a new residential tower. It would be one of the few beautiful new buildings in Boston in the past decade or two. Can we please make this happen?!
The story behind Brookline’s Town Hall building is the story of many cities and towns all over the country in the 1960s-70s, that of Urban Renewal. Brookline Village was (and mostly still is) a vibrant commercial district of varied architectural styles and massing which together, create a patchwork that details the history of the city through design. Early wood-frame commercial buildings sit side-by-side to ornate Victorian-era buildings, with Modern infill scattered throughout. Brookline Village has long been the governmental core of the suburban town due to the location of the train station and its central location to the other neighborhoods. A grand Victorian Gothic Town Hall (the town’s third) was built in 1871 at the corner of Washington and Prospect Streets. Designed by S. J. Thayer, the building would easily rival any other building in town today. After WWII, Brookline and many other cities, through Urban Renewal, sought to restore the economic vitality of the governmental hub of town, by demolishing the “outdated” buildings and replace them with tall, sleek, modern structures with ample landscaping and parking surrounding. The town hired Anderson, Beckwith and Haible, a very prominent firm in Boston to design the International/Brutalist building. In the 1960s, a majority of the civic, commercial, and residential buildings around the former town hall were demolished and replaced with Modernist buildings, all but erasing the relative scale and history of that section of the Village.