Return of a Gilded Life

This post was written and contributed by Conor MacDonald

Liz Glynn’s cast concrete rococo furniture sits on the brick walk of Commonwealth Ave West, in harmony with the with the stately mansions and hotels of Kenmore Square. The set-up of Open House has something uncanny about it, comfortable in this historic place like an ancient great aunt’s furniture, perhaps, but also not quite the usual park amenity. Does it belong here? Do you belong on it?

Photo by Ryan McMahon

Photo by Ryan McMahon

In the intervening 130 years since completion of the mall, the industrial era that built the fortunes and mansions of many original residents exceeded expectations. So much, in fact, that their prized furnishings became templates for mass production. A century later, rough facsimiles are ubiquitous and near-worthless, available at discount furniture retailers, second-hand shops and Craigslist, abandoned curbside for too much wear on a cushion or a chip on a leg.

The mansions and hotels too suffered from the success of industry, as factories found opportunities for bigger and better production in the South, West, and abroad. Boston found itself described as a backwater, and prosperity flowed elsewhere.

Boston was once a city bold enough to command the sea and earth to conform to its vision — the very land beneath Kenmore Square was reclaimed from the sea, and the Emerald Necklace which kept it dry and clean largely a feat of engineering, By mid-century, however, it was at the mercy of a shifting economy and the automotive age. Even the trees, which would normally have lived 150 years or more, fell to disease. By the late 1960’s, nearly 300 of the elms on the mall were dead or dying.

Boston’s diversified economy was not enough to fend off suburbanization and decline, but it did plant the seeds of knowledge and healing — popularly referred to as ”meds and eds.”

Here in Kenmore Square, the “eds” arrived first. As the receding economy left the square’s large hotels vacant and stately mansions abandoned, building owners partitioned them for student residences. The area flooded with Boston University students and creative subcultures— but also vacant storefronts, fast food joints, liquor stores, nightclubs and homeless populations. The iconic neon Citgo sign arrived in 1965.

Photo by Ryan McMahon

Photo by Ryan McMahon

By the early 80’s, clubs like the Rathskellar, Boston’s punk epicenter, and social services (methadone clinics were notable) were not enough to fill the buildings and pay for infrastructure, or even to keep the T from flooding, as it did in 1962.

In 2012, Boston University Vice President for Operations Gary Nicksa said “We had, unfortunately, seen decades of decline in this area, and the University had to make a choice, did it look inside itself and let somebody else worry about it? Or did it get involved?”

Through partnerships and community group collaborations, the university acted as developer to key buildings in the square, opening a large Barnes & Noble which was soon outdone by the construction of Hotel Commonwealth, with 149 luxury rooms and a streetscape of high-end bars and restaurants where venues like the Rathskellar once stood.

The hotel proved to be a harbinger of increasing property values. The city had, with the help of the “meds and eds,” created a complex of technological and scientific innovation in a backdrop of arts and humanities which expanded through the early millennium and continues today, exceeding the Gilded Age wealth referenced by the installation.

Photo by Ryan McMahon

Photo by Ryan McMahon

Residents and visitors both deride Boston’s fine-grained network of streets as “cow paths,” and when you wander without directions or drive anywhere on it’s meandering, irregular streets, you surely see why. A flip through any compendium of local maps — take Alex Krieger and David Cobb’s beautiful Mapping Boston, for example — shows that this has actually been a place of tidy planning from the earliest European incursions — and before that as well, in ways that register less clearly in the city today. Archaeological findings like the Boylston Street Fishweir hint at a symphony of planned human use stretching more than a thousand years. Our best-laid plans are overwhelmed by progress, first in the physical growth of the city through infill projects, as well as the long-unfolding shift away from walking as the dominant way of getting around.

Commonwealth Avenue Mall West stands a bit apart from this reputation for disorder, a momentary refuge of carriage-scale right-angled streets along an elegant stretch of green, and survived into a slightly more congested era of personal vehicles without losing much. When it was finished in 1888, the mall was envisioned to supply “a reservoir of pure air ... from the ample sources of health and freshness outside the city limits,” which is presumably where Allston is now, providing fresh air of a different kind — remnants of the music scene of the 80’s and 90’s survive there, and students still call it “Rock City.” Today in Kenmore Square, in a park framed by brick mansions and luxury hotels, that frenetic creative culture seems unlikely, let alone a punk epicenter.

Sitting on a cool concrete bench at the end of a hot summer, here on this land reclaimed from a sewage dump to become one of the city’s most prized places, surrounded by furnishings whose details recall the French influences which inspired the mall’s form and function, leaves one with another uncanny feeling: in a city beset with changing temperatures and sea levels, rising inequality and political discord, this visitor can’t help feeling hopeful that a city committed to contemplative self-inquiry, dialogue, and bold earth-moving action can come through it all to a brighter, more equitable and civic future. Given the current pressures for development, it’s uncertain who that future includes.


Conor MacDonald is currently a Masters Degree candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a writer and photographer and previously worked for a decade supporting the Greater Boston architecture community at the Boston Society of Architects, where he saw first-hand the potential for our cities and public places to help shape a better world. He tweets at @conorjmacdonald.

Banner photo credit: Conor MacDonald