I spent most of yesterday in the BPL, dodging sleepy homeless people and researching a BoMag piece on Boylston Street‘s weird place in the city’s architectural bureaucracy. Half of it is part of the Back Bay Architectural District, and subject to a litany of design and zoning structures; half isn’t. Unsightly newspaper boxes are banned from half the street, but allowed to pollute the other. The question is, logically enough, what the F?
The answer goes back to urban renewal, when Mayor Collins and the BRA were tearing down and encasing in concrete as much of the city as they could. Collins even proposed saving Old Boston from itself by placing up to eight high-rise condo towers along the A, B, C and D blocks of the Comm. Ave. Mall.
The Back Bay historic district was formed, in part, as a way to keep Collins from doing to the neighborhood what he was doing to Scollay Square.
The historical preservation push didn’t come without a good deal of controversy, though. I came across this utterly hilarious – not to mention wicked prescient – 1964 letter from noted local architect Isidor Richmond to the City Council, begging them to slap a few towers in Frederick Law Olmsted’s park before it was too late.
The consequences of not doing so were dire indeed. Without condo towers, Richmond warned, Comm. Ave. would become “A region of rooming houses and eventually a slum, with all the attendant evils of a bad slum. It is now necessary to tear down and reconstruct the South End by Urban Renewal… The days of Commonwealth Avenue are numbered unless something extraordinary is done.”