Tag Archives: Boston

Wooden Houses on Beacon Hill

I had two appointments in Boston yesterday, but I parked my car in a spot that was rather inconvenient to both just so I could go over the hill: Beacon Hill, one of the few neighborhoods in which all the variant architectural styles of the nineteenth century coalesce into a completely harmonious quarter. Victorian exuberance was definitely restrained–to rooflines for the most part–for the greater good, and the Federal and Greek Revival aesthetic appears to have lingered and evolved rather seamlessly into the Colonial Revival. Brick is it on Beacon Hill, so it’s the wooden houses that really stand out: I snapped a few on my way over the hill to one appointment and back to another, but I was a bit pressed for time so I certainly didn’t capture them all. I always stop at one of my favorite Beacon Hill houses, which is also the oldest house in the neighborhood: the George Middleton House at 5 Pinckney Street, built in 1786-87. Distinguished by his service in the American Revolution as well as his roles as founder of the African Benevolent Society and Grand Master of the Prince Hall African Lodge of Freemasons, George Middleton is an important figure in Boston’s African-American history, just as Beacon Hill is an important locale: the Black Heritage Trail links his house to other important historical sites such as the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School. The Middleton house and One Pinckney Street, just two doors down, form a perfect little corner of Beacon Hill’s earliest built history on its North Slope.

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Even though wooden houses are few and far in between on Beacon Hill, there are quite a few houses in which one or more part is clapboarded: a front facade or a side wall, or some “dependent” part. My favorite example of this is the amazing John Callender House on the corner of Walnut and Mount Vernon Streets, built in 1802 as a “small house for little money” according to Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill: its Ancient Pastures and Early Mansions (1925—a really great book) and the long-term home of Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick a century later: every source refers to its conspicuous “boarding” along Mount Vernon Street as unusual for Beacon Hill. And then there are those bay windows made of wood, some very conspicuous and not quite so-understated: Beacon Hill was home to a vibrant artistic community in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and some homeowners obviously wanted to bust out a bit.

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beacon hill collage 14 Walnut Street historic photographs from Historic New England, Allen Chamberlain’s Beacon Hill, MACRIS, the City of Boston’s Archives, and the Boston Public Library.


A River of Molasses

Today marks a big disaster anniversary in our region: the centennial anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919, which killed 21 people, injured 150, and laid waste to several blocks of the North End of Boston. I don’t really have much to add to the narrative of events of that day, but I feel like weighing in anyway, primarily because this tragedy is the perfect example of unmoored history, lacking context and consequently inhibiting understanding for many. There’s a great book about this event (Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: the Great Molasses Flood of 1919) but whenever you bring it up in general company, people generally smile or laugh because molasses is trivial in our society; it’s akin to people being drowned—-or smothered?—in jello. But molasses was a major industrial product in 1919, recognized simultaneously as both beneficial and potentially dangerous but above all, vital. And when you look at what happened on January 15, 1919 with a historical perspective, it’s possible to see both major precedents and consequences.

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molasses page 2Headlines and pictures from the day after in the Boston Daily Globe and the Boston Herald: “Red Cross Ambulance and Nurses making their way through the River of Molasses”, Boston Public Library.

Molasses was not only much more integrated into our cuisine a hundred years ago, but its importance in alcohol production had intensified with the increasing demand for industrial alcohol, which entered a golden age of production following the passage of the 1906 Denatured Alcohol Act, permitting the production and sale of tax-free alcohol for industrial purposes. The author of The Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products, including the processes of malting : mashing and macerating : fermenting and distilling alcohol from grain, beets, potatoes, molasses, etc., with chapters of alcoholometry and the denaturing of alcohol…., issued the year before the Great Molasses Flood, cannot contain it his enthusiasm for this development, which “opened the door of a new market for the farmer and the manufacturer”, as Alcohol leaped at once into fame—not merely as the humble servant of the pocket lamp, nor as the Demon Rum, but as a substitute for all the cheap hydrocarbon fuels,  and as a new farm product, a new means for turning the farmer’s grain, fruit, potatoes, etc…into that greatest of all Powers, Money. Molasses had long been lauded as feed for cattle, horses, and poultry, but now its uses seemed limitless, in everything from road construction to the manufacture of varnishes, paints, and munitions. The 1907 act provoked a wave of hastily-built distilleries, such as the Boston tank owned and “maintained” by the Purity Distilling Company, which began leaking almost immediately after its construction in 1915 and finally burst open four years later. But the North End flood was not the first molasses disaster: it wasn’t difficult to find stories of exploding tanks and bursting hogsheads in the first few decades of the twentieth century—and just in the Boston papers. There are far more stories about the “adulteration” of molasses, however (generally with tin): and thus it is easy to understand how regulation, of industrial construction, production, and labor, would emerge as a major consequence of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.

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molasses june 12 1886 boston heraldMolasses accidents in March of 1908 and December, 1911 reported in the Boston Journal; report of adulterated molasses (one of many!), Boston Herald, June, 1886. 

 

The Great Molasses Flood & Fluid Dynamics: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/science/boston-molasses-flood-science.html.

The Great Molasses Flood &  “Misunderstood History”: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2762


Back Bay Easter

We were a small party for Easter this year so we went to the St. Botolph Club in Boston for a buffet of oysters, salmon, eggs benedict, coq au vin, and lamb (no ham). This is the artsy old Boston club, and I always enjoy going there because the walls are lined with the work of its members past and present. In the crimson library, there is a portrait of an artist who I became acquainted with through his connections to several Salem artists at the end of the nineteenth century: John Leslie Breck. I’ve come to admire his work over the past few years, and I always “check in” with him whenever I go to St. Botolph’s. Though known as one of the young artists who brought Impressionism to the United States (in successive exhibitions at St. Botolph’s), Breck’s portrait is one of earnest realism: he looks handsome and troubled, or maybe I am just imposing that state on him as I know he ended his own life at the age of 39 in 1899.

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I don’t mean to be so maudlin, but that portrait always makes an impression on me. But it was a lovely Easter afternoon with great food and company and a walk down Commonwealth Avenue searching for signs of spring. We found some, mostly man- made, but there were a few flowering buds—we are on the brink! Walking back to the car from the Public Garden, I looked for my favorite version of the three Lutheran solas: I was just lecturing on them in my Reformation class last week, and I took a photograph for some extra validation for/from my students.

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An Antiquarian Artist

I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.

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This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?

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Boston Massacre Page

Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.

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Antiquarian Artist HancockWalter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).


A Brief Christmas Break

A brief Christmas break and then it’s right back to Save-the-Phillips-Library-for-Salem business! But I had a very visual Christmas so I wanted to post some pictures. We were a party of only 6 adults this year, and so we decided to divide our holiday into Christmas Eve in Boston and Christmas Day in Salem, spending the eve between at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, just to top off my year of heritage hotels. Lots of eating and drinking and walking in town, after which we went to the 11 pm services at Trinity Church and then fell into our king-size beds across the street. We woke up to a very snowy morning, and managed to navigate our way to Salem without mishap. Presents, (much) more food and drink and then it was over. So much preparation, so little time, every year, but let’s hope the Christmas spirit prevails for a while longer.

Christmas Eve in Boston:

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Christmas Day in Salem:

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Sail Boston 2017

It was probably not the best day for it—the city was hot, humid, and teeming with people—but yesterday we took the Salem Ferry into Boston to look at the tall ships in town for Sail Boston 2017. Apparently there were more than 100 in the harbor, the largest number in many years due to Boston’s status as an official port of the trans-Atlantic Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta. We didn’t see them all, but we saw many, before I dived into a breezy hotel bar in pursuit of water, which I quickly followed with a gin and tonic (or two). The stars of the show were undoubtedly the Chilean barquentine Esmerelda and the German barque Alexander von Humboldt II–I wish I had seen them in Saturday’s Parade of Sail. For striking photographs, I think they docked the most dramatic, pirate-ship-looking vessels at Rowes Wharf : the bright red Atyla from Spain and the beautiful Dutch barque Europa. I certainly took my share of shots of the latter (including the first photographs below), but the crowds were so thick around the former it was hard to get a good angle (plus a Sail Boston staffer kept yelling at us to KEEP MOVING). I’m really glad we took the ferry in, not just because driving and parking would have been a nightmare, but also because we got to see the smaller schooners under sail, darting around each other and the islands in Boston Harbor. The ships are here until Thursday: if you have some precious weekday time off they are well worth seeing, especially as the crowds will be a bit sparser.

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Around and in Boston Harbor for Sail Boston 2017 on Sunday—and look at this beautiful NEW Catholic Church in the Seaport District: Our Lady of Good Voyage Shrine.


It began with a Fan

The story of my great-grandparents’ courtship could be more accurately titled “it began in East Boston”, but my point of entry into their relationship is a fan given by Joseph W. McIntyre to Katherine G. Wall in 1896. Their daughter, my grandmother, died a few months ago at age 104 and I came into possession of some of her personal effects, including a box labeled “A. Stowell, 24 Winter Street, Boston” containing a silk and ivory fan with gold accents. Written in the very recognizable script of her sister, my great aunt Margaret (the family historian), is a note indicating that the enclosed was a courtship gift from their father to their mother. I’m sure it was packed away years before Margaret wrote this note, and years afterward. And now here it is in the light of day.

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There’s just one tear in the middle–no telling how that happened–otherwise the fan is in perfect, clean condition. I put it right back in its box after I took these photographs. The cursive script on the box is almost abstract, so at first I thought it read A. Powell, but a little digging revealed that the name of the business was in fact A. Stowell, a prominent jeweler in downtown Boston, which issued a series of trade cards in the shape of a fan advertising its stock of an “elegant variety of fans, constantly on hand and arriving by every steamer from Europe”. every steamer: apparently this was the place to buy a fan in Boston in the 1890s.

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It is not noted by Margaret on which exact day my great-grandfather gave my great-grandmother her fan (Valentine’s Day?) but on October 26, 1896 (the date my grandmother chose for her own wedding) they were married at East Boston’s stately Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. At the time of Joseph’s and Katherine’s marriage, the streets on which they grew up (both named for European ports : Liverpool for her, Bremen for him) were home not only to the predominantly Irish families with whom they were raised but also to more recently-arrived Canadians, Italians and Eastern Europeans. Joseph and Katherine were both born in the United States, but their parents, John McIntyre and Anne Harkins, and John Wall and Margaret Murphy, had all emigrated from Ireland individually and married in East Boston in the 1850s. I like to think of them all hobnobbing with the Eastie great-grandparents of John F. Kennedy, Patrick and Bridget, but I’m sure they were all too busy working (and I’m not sure this image would have pleased my Republican grandmother).

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East Boston in 1838, after it was assimilated into Boston, and before its explosive growth in the later nineteenth century.

While his father John was a “laborer”, Joseph McIntyre was a bookkeeper for a wholesale grocery in Boston at the time of his marriage to Katherine in 1896: within the next decade he would own his own wholesale business. Katherine and he made the move out of the old neighborhood slightly north to the coastal town of Winthrop, where they would raise four children: Margaret (at left), Joseph Jr., Katherine Jr., and my grandmother Anne (the baby): all pictured below in 1914.

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The McIntyre Family of Winthrop, Massachusetts, 1914.


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