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Tracing the Changing Face of Kenmore Square

With the Hotel Commonwealth sale, a look at BU’s famous neighbor

| From BU Today | By Patrick L. Kennedy (COM’04) | Slideshow by David Keefe

In the slideshow above, view photos of Kenmore Square spanning more than a century.

Who in Boston hasn’t passed through Kenmore Square? Hub of road and rail, misfit of the Back Bay, gateway to BU, the square has been home to baseball greats and baseball scandal, prom queens and punk rock, flooding and fine dining. Now that Boston University has sold its Hotel Commonwealth property, whose construction transformed the neighborhood a decade ago, Bostonia takes a look back at how this iconic public space came to be what it is today.

Stygian morass

Samuel Sewall, the judge who presided over the Salem witch trials and owner of Sewall's Point. Image courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Before urban development, all that lay here at the junction of the Charles and Muddy rivers was a spit of land, called Sewall’s Point, surrounded by a saltwater marsh. The point was owned by Samuel Sewall, the judge who presided over the notorious 17th-century Salem witch trials. (Later in life, Sewall publicly apologized for his role in sentencing innocent women to death, became an abolitionist, and wrote a tract promoting equal rights for women.)

This was when the Back Bay was in fact a bay, an area of tidal flats on the northwest side of the Neck, the isthmus connecting peninsular Boston to mainland Roxbury and Brookline. The only residents were clams, seagulls, and other wildlife. British naval ships sailed into these waters on the night of July 31, 1775, and bombarded the revolutionaries at Fort Brookline (about where the BU Bridge is today), but most nights, and days, things were quiet hereabouts.

That began to change with the construction of the Mill Dam in 1814. Following the line of present-day Beacon Street, the 50-foot-wide stone dam extended a mile and a half from the foot of Beacon Hill to Sewall’s Point, narrowing the Charles River and enclosing the waters of the Back Bay. The builders’ intention was to harness the power of the tides via sluices in the dam walls. Investors expected scores of grist, corn, saw, cotton, and wool mills. Instead, just three mills were built. Meanwhile, as an increasing population along the shores used the bay as a dumping ground, the dam effectively prevented sewage and refuse from floating out to sea, creating within a “Stygian morass,” as historian Walter Muir Whitehill put it.

In 1852, a joint city-state-private project began to fill in the 450-acre bay with trainloads of gravel from Needham quarries. Over the next half-century, planners laid out streets in a grid pattern and sold home lots, and buyers built fashionable brownstones and mansions in Italianate, Gothic, and Queen Anne styles. By 1890, the land reached Sewall’s Point, which had been annexed to Boston from Brookline in 1874. The point, renamed Governor’s Square in 1910, became the nexus of the Back Bay’s two major boulevards, Beacon Street and the broad, tree-lined, Paris-influenced Commonwealth Avenue.

Road, rail, and Red Sox

Hotel Kenmore postcard, circa 1930-1945. Image courtesy of the Bostonian Society

While the Back Bay became a well-to-do residential neighborhood, the square itself served more as a commercial crossroads. Trolley lines and nearby railroads brought businessmen from Brighton and Brookline and even from as far west as Albany, and many of them found accommodations in the square’s elegant hotels, such as the Buckminster, the Myles Standish, the Sheraton (later Shelton), the Braemore, the Somerset—and the Kenmore, which eventually conferred its name on the square. The hotels’ banquet rooms hosted wedding receptions, charity balls, high school proms, reunions, and dinner dances. High-end automobile salesrooms and related businesses opened on the north side of the square, most notably the Peerless dealership at 660 Beacon Street.

Just a block away down Brookline Street, Fenway Park opened in 1912. Every baseball season from then on, thousands of Red Sox fans would pour out of the square’s subway stop for each home game. The Sox players and their opponents would find lodgings in the square’s hotels. Babe Ruth stayed at the Myles Standish, Ted Williams at the Sheraton. Baseball’s biggest scandal was hatched in the Hotel Buckminster when first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil of the Chicago White Sox met with gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan to plot the throwing of the 1919 World Series.

Sports fans have also converged on Kenmore Square every Patriots Day since 1897, cheering on runners as they pass the 25-mile mark of the Boston Marathon. Decades later, John J. Kelley (SED’56) remembered the feeling as he approached the square on his way to winning the race in 1957. Well in the lead at Kenmore, the late Kelley felt “a qualified ‘Whew!’ The race was almost done, and yet that crucial mile remained,” he told @SED magazine in 2009. “Those thousands of fans, [including] BU students—many of them my friends from Myles Standish dorm or classes—I couldn’t let them down at this penultimate moment!”

Rockers and Terriers

The Hotel Shelton in August 1954. Photo by BU Photography

Kelley was just one of hundreds of BU students a year who lived in the erstwhile hotels (Myles Standish and Shelton) or Bay State Road brownstones that the University bought and converted into dormitories during the post–World War II enrollment boom. These purchases were enabled by sinking real estate prices as the Back Bay went through a skid.

“As the movement to suburbia accelerated, houses on Bay State Road were subdivided into apartments,” Nancy Salzman writes in Buildings and Builders, an architectural history of BU. “Beginning in the 1950s, the influx of BU students created a new demand for fast-food stores, discos, and small shops.”

As if to signal the square’s fall from fashion, a severe rainstorm in October 1962 flooded the Kenmore subway tunnel (not for the last time), knocking out power and stranding passengers, who had to be rescued by rowboat. Commuters were detoured to shuttle buses for a week. It was a reminder of the neighborhood’s origins as a swamp and the continuing proximity of the Charles River to the north and the Muddy River (through the Fens) to the south.

Sealing Kenmore’s status as a colorful if seedy spot akin to New York’s Times Square, a riot of billboards and neon signs marked its skyline, dominated by the famous Citgo sign. Built in 1965 atop the old five-story Peerless building at 660 Beacon, the 60-foot-by-60-foot sign is still a Boston landmark, one visible on television every time a game ball is hit over Fenway Park’s left-field wall.

The Rathskeller (affectionately known as “The Rat”) was the cornerstone of Boston's punk rock scene. Photo courtesy of the Rathskeller

With college kids came rock ’n’ roll. Clubs sprang up to serve a youthful audience who wanted to hear loud, danceable music played by their peers, such as the four BU students who made up Barry and the Remains. (The band went on to play The Ed Sullivan Show and tour with the Beatles.)

As the Remains’ Barry Tashian (CGS’65) told Brett Milano (COM’82) in the latter’s book The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll, “We started playing together in our dorm and thought we’d make some extra money by carrying our gear across the street to the Rathskeller. They had just opened up the huge space downstairs—or at least it seemed huge to us. There was a jukebox, a few picnic tables, a few beer signs, a stage made of boards on crates.”

The Rathskeller (aka the Rat) was joined by clubs such as Where It’s At, Storyville and Psychedelic Supermarket. In the 1970s and ’80s, discos moved in (e.g., Lucifer’s), while the Rat became the locus of Boston’s punk rock scene. Over the decades, the Cars, the Real Kids, Aimee Mann, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and the Dropkick Murphys were among those who cut their teeth in the dive’s basement. The Rat even booked touring acts the Beastie Boys and the Police before they were huge.

Other than nightclubs, the square had pizza shops, a karate school, small record shops, an IHOP, a bong store, a packie, Supersocks (a rummage-bin discount sock and T-shirt store), and Deli Haus, a late-night greasy spoon whose specialty was the Guinness float—a pint of Guinness with a scoop of chocolate ice cream. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.)

A little urban planning

The block now occupied by Hotel Commonwealth as it looked in 1983. Photo by BU Photography

Although the young found it fun, the square looked like a dangerous eyesore to the BU administration. Much of the retail space lay vacant. The neighborhood’s methadone clinic and halfway house attracted a convergence of homeless men. Fights spilled out of the nightclubs, and there were sometimes stabbings and even shootings.

“We had, unfortunately, seen decades of decline in this area, and the University had to make a choice,” Gary Nicksa, BU’s vice president for operations, said to an alumni audience in June 2012. “Did it look inside itself and let somebody else worry about it? Or did it get involved?”

BU chose to get involved. First, in 1983, the University bought the old Peerless building at 660 Beacon and partnered with Barnes & Noble to create one of the largest university bookstores in the country. Next, with the city and business and neighborhood groups, it worked out a master plan whose primary objective was revitalizing the area. “BU’s interest here was not teaching or research,” said Nicksa. “It was urban renewal.”

The University partnered with developer Terence Guiney and two others to buy the buildings on the south side of the square, the block between the Rat and IHOP. Guiney told the Boston Globe that “the Rat was for sale the first time we approached the owner.” The club closed in November 1997 (after a year of smelling especially rank, following another subway flood in October 1996).

Demolition of the block began in November 2001, and construction began on the Hotel Commonwealth in 2002. The luxury hotel opened in January 2003, with 149 rooms in its upper four stories and retail at street level, including two high-end restaurants, Eastern Standard and Great Bay (now Island Creek Oyster Bar).

The entrance to the square’s MBTA stop was moved into the facade of the hotel itself, and by 2008, the shabby bus terminal was updated with a soaring glass-and-steel canopy as part of streetscape improvements.

Hotel Commonwealth under construction in 2004. Photo by Michael Hamilton

Kenmore Square lost some of its color, but none of its vitality. Remaining a constant, the Red Sox draw a sea of red-white-and-blue-clad fans to the area at least 81 days a year, from April to October. Thousands now also come for special events at Fenway Park, such as soccer and hockey games and rock concerts. And music fans still pass through the square en route to the House of Blues and Bill’s Bar on Lansdowne Street.

Less obvious, owner-occupancy is up in the neighborhood, where many of the former hotels have been converted to condos. Resident Pam Cooley (COM’83) relished her view into the office of Theo Epstein when he was the Sox general manager. “I saw him talking animatedly on his cell phone,” she says.

But perhaps the most apparent, and welcome, impact of the joint revitalization effort has been in pedestrian safety. Sidewalks were widened, trees planted, and stoplights and wide, bright crosswalks and islands installed, making a stroll across the square significantly less stressful than it used to be.

Change has been a constant in Boston, no less so when it comes to our vices and entertainment. The Rat has passed, but other clubs, such as O’Brien’s and Great Scott’s in Allston, have taken up the slack. (For a while, the Abbey Lounge in Somerville was “the new Rat,” but then it closed, and now Radio is “the new Abbey” there.) Meanwhile, Eastern Standard, with its sumptuous fare and artful cocktails, has become a destination and an institution in its own right.

Fittingly, the executive chef at Eastern Standard and co-owner and head chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar, is Jeremy Sewall. He’s a descendant of an old Puritan: Judge Samuel Sewall, the original owner of marshy Sewall’s Point.

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