#AAG2017 Recap Part II: Boston, 1935-1952

I have a bad habit of over-planning, making grand plans that would be inconceivable to complete in whatever short time span I’m presented. Of course, this results in me spreading myself too thin on occasion when on the road. I mentioned in the first Part that my AAG Boston experience was somewhat truncated, so if I was going to pursue a couple of re-photography sites, I would need to act strategically.

This meant that I needed to sacrifice at least one morning of the conference, which is never an easy decision to make. I also needed to take weather into consideration, since pouring rain and 50-degree weather (which would encapsulate the entire day and night Thursday) would not lend themselves to a hypothermia-free walkabout. Because it appeared that the rain would hold off for most of Wednesday and I had not committed to any sessions until that afternoon, I decided to start off my conference in side-project territory.

After visiting registration early, buying an AAG hoodie on the way for a fantastic deal (I forgot, somehow, to pack something suitably insulated or warm for early April in Boston), I set out eastbound on Boylston Street toward the Common. Though I would normally take a detour through the park, the lagoons were drained and half of the paths were covered in mud. Some would still probably be interested in this “anti-tourist-gaze” dynamic, but because my time was somewhat limited and I needed to make it to Cambridge by lunch time, I kept walking. My first site, conveniently, sat right at the far corner of the Common at the corner of Boylston and Tremont Streets.

The Hotel Touraine / 62 Boylston

My great-grandfather Ben Irving sent this Hotel Touraine postcard home from Boston on December 1, 1943. The information on the back of the card indicates this building was “erected on the site where John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States, lived, and his son Charles Francis Adams, Minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, was born. Opposite Boston Common.” It does not provide any dates, but according to the National Register of Historic Places, it went up in 1897 and operated as a hotel until 1966, when it closed down to become an apartment building. Its early-20th century charms included an impressive little hotel library.

The farthest I got into the building was the security desk, as you’d expect with any private residence. I spoke for a few minutes with the desk clerk Mike, who took my card and told me he would pass it along to anybody in the leasing office with a historical interest in the building (nobody was there at the time). He also told me about one elderly resident named Elaine who he understood had been a resident of 62 Boylston (as it is currently known) since 1967, the building’s first full year zoned residential.

As one should be able to make out from my picture, the street level entrance of the building on the SE corner of Boylston and Tremont is now a Starbucks.

J.W. McCormick Post Office & Courthouse Building

Here was where my day got interesting. This postcard, which has been damaged since I inherited it a few years ago, was mailed home from Boston on September 24, 1935. The caption on the back reads “NEW FEDERAL BUILDING AND POST-OFFICE. Boston Postal district is the fourth largest in the United States. Postal receipts of this district aggregate more than $13,000,000 a year.” According to the US Inflation Calculator, that amount inflates to $231,344,014 in today’s currency (cumulative inflation 1,679.6%), which is impressive either way, given how much more communication was done via the Post back then (and how much more efficient the system was).

At the end of my PechaKucha talk about the Ben Irving postcard collection, I implored my audience to “always, always, always” ask (I think I used “always” three times for Marge Simpson-style/’part of us all’ repetition/emphasis). After snapping that surprisingly challenging photo of the building from the far corner of the intersection, I wandered into the main entrance, which is probably impossible to discern with the construction scaffolding wrapped around the first level of the building, but it’s there in the center. The security guards were hardly warm and cuddly, but the first couple of whom I spoke to near the metal checkpoints offered suggestions for who to seek out upstairs.

Immediately after the checkpoint, a set of steps leads you up to the second floor, where I took that photo of the sign that they never bothered to junk when the news stand shut down (date unknown). Today, the EPA’s Boston offices sit in that space, and a couple EPA employees with connections throughout the (somewhat vacant) building were happy to show me around.

One EPA employee (whose name I forgot to write down) brought me up to the third floor and introduced me to Jim Sheehan of the GSA. We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me that, contrary to what I had assumed, the McCormick building actually pre-dated the WPA era. I had only assumed it was a WPA building since a 1935 postcard was showing the building off, but he told me it was an easy mistake to make. I would later find the GSA’s broadsheet about the building, which had more information that I should have probably looked up before going there.

The EPA employee brought me by the old post office window bay, which had long fallen out of use, but were virtually untouched for decades. He also brought me upstairs to a beautiful old courtroom that had also fallen out of use since the era of the Anderson vs. Cryovac, Inc. battle in 1986 (which would inspire the Jonathan Harr book A Civil Action, which inspired the 1998 John Travolta movie of the same name, which was filmed on site in said courtroom). Most of the legal texts had been removed from the shelves, but enough remained to lend the room a slightly creepy semi-used aura. The Depression-era brass/steel doors that led to the original judges’ chambers were also among the coolest I had ever seen; nobody really knew the last time half of them had been opened. In retrospect, it’s probably better that I forgot the EPA employee’s name since me saying any of this may get him into trouble.

So, yeah, if you’re curious about a place, always ask. The next destination was a bit more confusing to find and a bit less security-heavy.

Boston’s Old City Hall

Because I care about my readers, I’m not going to subject you to any images of the brutalist atrocity that the city government moved into post-redevelopment. Nope. None at all. Let’s focus our gaze instead on this 19th century building, tucked away around the corner from the Old South Meeting house. The Meeting House, by the way, was the first building the the U.S. designated for historical preservation, and remains today a key reference point. I actually bumped into my colleague Jordan Brasher across the street from it, as he was headed to meet an old friend for coffee nearby. I wasn’t expecting to run into any geographers that far away from Hynes that early in the conference week, but I clearly wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the window to wander.

Anyway, the postcard there on the left is one of the later items in the Ben Irving collection; he sent it home from Boston on January 21, 1952. The front caption is visible above, and the rear caption reads “Boston City Hall located on School Street dates back to 1865. A Latin School stood here in colonial times, later the County Court House. Statues of Benjamin Franklin and Josiah Quincy stand at the entrance. At the rear is the City Hall Annex.” The statues are still prominent, but I’m not entirely sure what part of the building constituted the Annex.

As I was taking the photograph(s) recreating the postcard shot from the corner of Province Street, the scrums of tourists wandering around the sidewalk in front of the Hall diverted a bike messenger, who crashed into a pillar and flipped over his handlebars onto School Street. I was looking away when I happened, but I heard it as it happened, and walked over to check on him as he slowly got up and got back on his bike.

As one should be able to make out from my picture, the street level entrance of the building next door is now a Starbucks. The restaurant with the red awning that used to occupy that space was called Purcell’s (difficult to make out on the postcard, perhaps intentional, though Thompson’s Spa is prominently labeled in the background). Sean McCullough, who worked in the Old City Hall’s management office downstairs, told me that the Starbucks kept the original Purcell’s tiles at its corner entrance, but I couldn’t find them. Also, there was not much room to wander into the coffee shop and inspect the floor without having to order something out of guilt.

Seriously, I could probably compile an entire photo collection dedicated to Starbucks that currently occupy spaces in historic city scenery, but I’m not doing that without serious kickbacks from the Starbucks Corporation. They already have enough free advertising from the customers on Instagram (and I suppose writers who complain about them).

Hopping on the Red Line and moving into Cambridge…

Harvard Square with Lehman Hall in Background

Ben sent this one home down to Brooklyn late in the afternoon of November 15, 1943 (two weeks before the one of the Hotel Touraine). Due to the historic status of Harvard’s buildings and the clearly demarcated and still existent (unlike some squares in Boston) landmark, the site was very easy to identify. I tried to recreate this angle; I really did. But timing and fate prevented it from happening. The best I could do was that shot from the opposite side of the T station entrance from the Harvard gates. I deduced almost immediately that the postcard image was taken from atop the Abbot building, a flatiron-type structure located at 5 JFK Street. Given my longstanding inability to let sleeping dogs lie, I wandered into the Curious George shop to ask the employee if she knew who had access to the roof. Of course they didn’t. I found the entrance on the side nearby and wandered up the stairs (the lift was broken, which was fine since it did not look like anybody used it anyway). The window with the “Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe” (get it?) decal on the third floor would have been a great spot to recreate the superior angle on the Square, but of course Car Talk staff office had nobody home when I knocked on the door.

I wandered up to the fourth floor, where I found a very intimate Dentist’s office (the office was intimate, not the dentist… I never met them so the jury is out on the latter). I spoke with the two receptionists, including one girl with a thick Boston accent who told me I could, in spite of hand-written signs that said otherwise, could go out on the lower level of the roof. Every moment I spent outside, though, I felt like someone on a different floor or in a neighboring building would see me and call the cops. The level they had access to was a flight below the main roof and on the opposite side of the building from Harvard Square. I walked over to the ledge, leaned around, and snapped this photo (right) around the side aiming toward Lehman Hall. It wasn’t great, but it was the best I could do in the circumstances. The entrance to the top roof was padlocked.

Completely Insane Post-Script

As I mentioned in Part I, my parents came up to meet me, my cousin, and her husband on Saturday. I told my father, who worked for FEMA through the early 1980s, about my visit to the McCormick building. He told me he used to work there. I didn’t believe him, since the GSA and EPA guys told me that FEMA had been located at 99 High Street since the 1980s. ‘No,’ he said, ‘FEMA’s offices were in the McCormick Building when I worked there. They moved to 99 High Street after I left.’ What made this seem crazy was that I have clear memories of going downtown with my mom to visit my dad in his office when I was 2 or 3 years old. This means that I had been in the building before, about thirty years earlier. The only part I can still remember was the cluttered FEMA office (FEMA? Disorganized? Unbelievable, I know), but apparently the building had not changed a whole lot since then. Discovering this all, post-facto, from a short conversation with my father blew my mind.

Hope you have enjoyed reading this! Tune in on Friday for the third part of this AAG/April recap with a bonus re-Photography excursion in the Sunshine State.

My Hometown and McMansion Hell


Not my town, but it could easily have been.

I grew up in a small town that, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, became a “small town.” If you grew up in one of these towns during that era, you probably know exactly what I mean. If not, allow me to explain.

My father grew up in this town when, nestled between the WWII and Vietnam eras, it was the quintessential New England community. People knew you based on your family name, you graduated with maybe 100 other kids, and you entertained yourself by going to the movies, hanging out at the nearest diner, or setting off fireworks inside an old TV in a local meadow (actually, that last part may have been drawn more from my adolescence…). Anyway, it retained a good deal of that character through the Vietnam era when my dad went to college and eventually met my mom. They were living in Boston when I was born, and then when my sister came along, we moved back to said small town where he had grown up and my grandparents still lived.

The year was 1986, and we moved into a house bigger than what we had lived in for the first few years of my life. It was by no means a mansion (it was completely modest compared to other houses in my town), but the street it sat on had not existed when my dad was a kid. The town had certainly grown, but the population (as of the 1990 census) was well under 10,000. Over the following decade, though, the population would balloon from roughly 8,500 to well over 18,000. It was no longer a genuine small town in the Mellencamp sense; it was transforming into a “small town”: a community that capitalized on widespread skepticism of all (or at least, most) things urban and clung to relevance as a bucolic simulacrum of its former self.

Even as a small child, I noticed various indicators of those gradually-forming quotation marks. No indicator shone more brightly than the new developments of these big, ugly, uniform houses that were popping up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I don’t remember when I first learned the term “McMansion;” it may have been from a friend later in high school. Either way, it made me laugh.

None of this is meant to disparage the experience I had growing up where I did; a lot of the reasons it grew so quickly during the Bush I and Clinton eras were what made living there nice for most of us. The public schools were really good, it wasn’t hard to get (or commute) to New York or Boston, and the crime rate was so low that (1) most anything violent that did happen was an isolated incident and (2) the highest-profile petty crime was often committed by the cops.

I never disrespected people for working hard for years to buy those big conforming houses and put roofs over their families’ heads, but even as a teenager, I failed to understand why anyone would consider these clunky and gaudy fake mansions a signpost of success. I suppose that real estate developers at the time had some pretty good PR campaigns, and the baby boomers really devoured what they were selling: Gaze upon my really, really big house! Look at how successful I am! Are you not jealous of my amazing riches!?

Though I’m sure Syracuse had its share of these kind of developments, my exposure to them was somewhat limited as a University student. When I moved to Washington after college, my roommate at the time was playing in a band slated to open for Rusted Root (yep) at the 9:30 Club. He asked if I wanted to help him out as a guitar tech, and I jumped at the chance. The day of the gig, we drove out to one of the planned communities on the city’s periphery for a rehearsal with a drummer the band had hired for that gig. The drummer was an incredibly good dude and, unlike the vast majority of people who lived in these McMansions, actually worked in this town (rather than contributing to the choking of the DC-area roadways). His wife had their first baby on the way, so I understood the need for space, but at least three of the rooms in this house were empty, save for maybe a piece of furniture or two. The ceilings rose a couple stories off the ground, which I can only imagine made the heating bills astronomical six months out of the year.

The other moment that really stuck with me, however, was how long it took us to find the correct house. We had the address. The houses were almost completely indistinguishable from one another, and the addresses were all about 5-digits long for some reason (there weren’t 10,000 houses on the road that circled through there, so it’s still a mystery to me). I remembered the old wives tale of the London drunk who kept wandering into the wrong house during the London fog, since he could not tell his own house apart from all the others the working class had been shuffled into during the age of industry.

This was yet another contradiction of McMansions: why would one still feel special in a giant house if everyone around them has the exact same house or at least something very, very close to it? Thankfully, building codes prevented people from building cheap, inflated houses in neighborhoods nestled together with more modest homes, as seen in Kate Wagner’s TEDx talk, embedded below.

Kate Wagner began McMansion Hell as a blog last year as a way to make fun of these quintessentially American excesses. What she probably did not expect was to generate an articulation of this frustration that so many of us have been feeling for decades. Last year, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media that “if you buy a record solely because you think it will go up in value, you deserve to die cold, alone, and penniless.” Buying houses, at least to me, is a similar venture when you are not wealthy. Buy a house because you look forward to being able to come home to it for decades. Buy a house because you want to leave your mark and imbue it with character, “turning space into place,” as the saying goes. Don’t buy a house just because you want to show it off and then flip it for a marginal profit, especially one that wastes resources and looks stupid. Every day, my deep respect grows for architects, graphic designers, and other people with professional grades of  taken-for-granted knowledge, and this is a quintessential example of why more geographers, sociologists, and economists should listen to them.