Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A Sunday Afternoon Photo Walk - Boston Architecture and thoughts...

I am only posting a few photos in this entry, all of the photos I took are in a flickr gallery that I encourage you to go check out.

On Sunday afternoon, Jess had to work so we drove her down to Newton and parked in town to take a walk around Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill is the crown jewel of pretty architecture in Boston. But first, Doug wanted to show me what he considers the "Ugliest Building in Boston," even uglier than City Hall Plaza. If you can believe that.

It is the Government Service Center, which houses several Boston and Massachusetts state public health oriented departments like the Department of Mental Health, Unemployment Assistance, and others. The building is really two buildings, kind of like a complex with a court yard.

Now, admittedly, I don't know anything about architecture. Modern, ancient or in between. I know buildings are sometimes designed in unique and bizarre ways. Quirky is cool. There are styles, there are tastes, and personally I tend to like houses that are colonial or farm style, churches that have flying buttresses or gorgeous airy light interiors, museums that lead you to the next room of beauty in pathways and halls and corridors as beautiful as the art held within. I'm going to make a series of judgements on this complex and some of you are going to agree, some are going to disagree. I never in my life thought that buildings could be "controversial." But even the style this building is made in, the "Brutalist Style"  by its name alone, speaks volumes to the lack of beauty and comfort on the exterior.

Ironically, for years I worked at One Bowdoin Square in the lobby when I ran the Au Bon Pain there... which isn't there anymore. And I never once even NOTICED this building. Doug points out I was usually arriving at 4am in the pitch dark and was probably anxious to get into the building quickly so I could lock it behind me and be safe until the baker Said arrived and I wasn't alone, and I was usually leaving at 2pm, exhausted, bleary eyed, and focused on turning left to get to the subway and get home.

He's right.

To the tour. We parked in front of the Erich Lindemann section of the building on Staniford Street. I was immediately struck by the fun house ramps of stairs going up, the strange narrow ramps going between sections of the building, the "raked" exterior which looked to me like a horrible giant bear had dug its claws into the concrete while it was still wet, the bizarre light fixtures and wacky tubes that extended up from the ground or from the top of a blocky things, and the bizarre kidney-shaped "stairs" that went up and then down, for no apparent reason.

The next thing that caught my eye was the fencing around the entire building. There are these nice bench alcoves, which I liked and thought gave the building a touch of welcome, but they're fenced in. You can't sit on them. Ever. We figured it was to prevent the homeless from sleeping on them for one, and for another the backs of the benches were very low, and dropped down into a pit or to another level. We theorized that if people were having a fight or were incredibly drunk gravity may have its way and people could plummet to their deaths.

Then we walked into the court yard area between the two buildings and noticed that the fencing continued all the way around every possible area where anyone could stand, sit, lay down, sleep, or plant flowers.

Some of this fencing seemed excessive, especially the second photo above here. No one is going to plummet to their death sitting along the bushes. And because all this fencing is here, no one is maintaining the landscaping. No one is cleaning behind the fences. No one is maintaining any asethetic in an already dismal looking area.

Now, mind you, the purpose of one of this building is primarily  to help the mentally ill or people who feel they need help with ... life, the universe and everything. Alzheimers, Dementia, substance abuse.

Sadly, I cannot find an actual webpage that outlines any services that are provided at the Lindemann offices. All the webpages point to documentation on pdf or Word documents with their address and letterhead, for information technology policies and evacuation plans in case of emergency.

But unlike most hospitals or doctors offices, there is no actual dot com or dot edu or dot gov that outlines doctor information or services are rendered here.

If I'm in need of assistance for my mental state, I do not know if this is a place I want to show up to and get help. The most interesting piece I did find was an article from Singapore Architect, April 2010, pretty much agreeing with my initial assessment that this wacky a building is not a healthy place if your mental health needs help. Go read the article... see if you agree with how I feel about it.

I took 20 pictures of a building I honestly hope I never have to set foot into. There but for the grace of God go I.

We were standing on Cambridge Street facing the building and looking at Bowdoin Square (where my Au Bon Pain once was...) and I turned around and saw this:

And my faith in art and buildings and everything was instantly renewed. Crossing the street, we headed up to Beacon Hill to walk about and cleanse our palate from what we just looked at.

Beacon Hill was in full bloom, gorgeous gardens, window boxes full of pansies and hydrangeas, flowering trees of every color and shape.

A few yards needed a little help, but for the most part everything was perfectly maintained and just plain gorgeous.

Historic markers on fences and doors let us know what builder or colonial leader lived there. We walked around Louisburg Square where our former Senator once had a fire hydrant removed because it was in the way of where he wanted to park (true story). There were tourists a plenty, folks walking their dogs, people walking back from the market texting and smiling.

It was a gorgeous day to walk around a gorgeous neighborhood. Before we knew it, we had walked about 4 miles. Just in this one neighborhood. Up and down hills, up and down same roads to get over to another road where Doug remembered there was this  "pocket park" that he wanted me to see.

He had wanted to show me a little synagogue tucked into the neighborhood, very unassuming and unexpected. The door to the Vilna Shul was open, so we asked if we could take a look around. The girl brought us upstairs where a man was giving a tour to some Hebrew School students getting ready to do their bat/bar mitzvahs. A lot of people don't realize that in this neighborhood where now there is some of the most exclusive and expensive real estate there were once some of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods, and the Shul is evidence of the Jewish community that once lived there.

The gentleman, named Steve, welcomed us into the tour. We learned about the painting restoration project and the four layers of paint that were being very carefully exposed by the experts. The students went downstairs and the man continued to show us around. He told us he is the executive director of the Shul, and he loves this place, and is retiring at the end of June.

Through his tour, I could feel his joy about the history and the building. We talked about Judaism and Christianity, about our church (also an historic building going through restoration right now) and I invited him up for a tour any time he wanted. We talked about all the symbolism in the woodwork of the Ark, including the "live long and prosper" sign and the American Eagle at the top.

The pews in the women's section of the synagogue were once part of an African American church, and when the building was sold, the pews came here. Steve told us the "Glory" regiment sat in these pews, and the synagogue is so happy to have retained this piece of Boston, Black and American history. 

How lucky were we to meet him on this particular day, close to his retirement, and get a wonderful personal tour of his beautiful synagogue. Such a wonderful time, and we felt so blessed after we left.
Thank you Steve. Enjoy your retirement. 

We continued onward, stopping for a snack at Emmet's Pub. We walked down to Tremont Street, looked at the City Hall building, pondered the Big Apple Circus which seems to have taken up permanent residency on the plaza... walked on down to look at the bridge from the overpass, from the top of the greenway, from the top of the tunnel.

TD Garden is decked out for the Bruins who will hopefully quickly dispatch each opponent and once again win the Stanley Cup (a girl can dream...). Light was fading fast, and so was my camera battery. I caught one last nice shot down an alley way of the Custom House in the magic hour light.

We stood watching the traffic running down the bridge. I thought of what buildings were the West End before they tore everything down in the 1960s and put up that monstrosity of a building.

I thought of pubs and houses and people living there, dying there, worshiping there. I thought of how Beacon Hill was once upon a time full of immigrants struggling to make a living and how now you can't buy a townhouse for less than a cool million.

A building I hope never to enter, houses I will never own, and a worship space that isn't mine but made me feel welcome. A pretty good day in Boston, if you ask me.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post. :) Re: your comment about walking four miles without even realizing it -- I was at a City (Claremont) meeting last fall for a new zoning system, and one of the things that came up was how my city has the reputation of having "nowhere to park." In reality, we have a parking lot and a town square absolutely lined with parking spaces and just a 30-second walk to shops, and a four-story parking garage a two-minute walk to the shops. All of this is completely free.

    In response to that complaint, the group the city had hired to help us with the zoning changes made a *very* good point: people are happy to walk in nice spaces. Give them wide, maintained sidewalks, grass, shade trees, flowers, good benches and maybe some interesting architecture or art, and nobody even notices that they're walking.

    Instead, our walking spaces are lined with broken concrete, those sad little trees in cages, trash, and weedy tar. So... the excessive and FREE city parking becomes, "nowhere to park." But it turns out we don't need more parking -- we just need a prettier walk from parking to destination! Isn't that interesting?