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Tracing the Changing Face of Kenmore Square

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

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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, BU Today takes a look back at how this iconic public space came to be what it is today.

Stygian morass

Samuel Sewall, Salem witch trials judge, Sewall's Point, Boston Massachusetts history

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, Kenmore Square Boston history, historical photograhs prints

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 1954, Shelton Hall, Kilachand Hall, Bay State Road, Boston University Charles River Campus

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.

Rathskeller punk rock club boston, The Rat

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

500 block of Commonwealth Ave, Kenmore Square 1983, Boston history

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 construction 2004, Kenmore Square Boston

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.

Patrick L. Kennedy (COM’04) is an alum, a former longtime BU staffer, and the author of Boston Then and Now. He was a regular at the Rat in the 1990s.

61 Comments

61 Comments on Tracing the Changing Face of Kenmore Square

  • Ben on 01.24.2013 at 8:53 am

    The destruction of Kenmore Square by Boston University is one of the great tragedies in Boston’s recent urban development. What was once a diverse cultural mecca has become whitewashed, gentrified, and boring. The independent book and record stores, nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and shops have been replaced by cookie-cutter corporate chains and overpriced restaurants for Brookliners and BU parents. The Rat is the most celebrated club in the city’s music history (which this article does a good job of demonstrating). Many still mourn the loss of late-night eatery Deli-Haus by holding annual, private Deli-Haus dinners.

    One thing missing from this article is the suspicious fire in the building that housed the Army Navy Store and Galaxy(?) Records. Unsubstantiated rumors pin the blame on BU. While the university may not have been involved, the fire helped them achieve their goal of pushing out the small businesses and riff-raff in order to appeal to the parents of BU students.

    I would argue that Kenmore Square lost both its color AND its vitality. Few people go to Kenmore Square as a destination anymore. Instead it is a waypoint as one travels to Landsdowne Street or Fenway Park.

    • AP on 01.24.2013 at 9:56 am

      I think it’s important to look at the way Boston as a whole has changed in that time. The Combat Zone melted into a revitalized Theatre District, the South End turned from ghetto to upscale and quickly filled with well-off families, Brigham Circle is now home to a few trendy, upscale restaurants, and a set of luxury apartments just went up in Allston by the Griggs T stop.

      Obviously, the universities are partially responsible for attracting an educated demographic, and are partially responsible for working to keep crime away from their campuses. But the whole city has changed to match this kind of revitalization over the past 10 years or so. It’s wrong to pin the blame on just BU.

    • G on 01.24.2013 at 11:01 am

      I won’t deny how great The Rat and Deli-Haus were; I certainly miss them. But I also think that you’re confused by your nostalgia and prejudice (Brookliners and BU parents? Are you kidding?), and that you’re wearing blinders in regards to the current state of Kenmore. You lost all credibility when you claimed that it’s no longer a destination; the “overpriced” restaurants you decry are outstanding and draw people from throughout the city. If anything, there are *more* people there on an average night than there were in the gritty days.

    • tony on 01.24.2013 at 11:52 am

      Narcisis Night Club,

      • Citgo on 04.18.2015 at 1:43 pm

        Ahhh! Narcissus!!…Flashback freak out!!!

    • DB on 01.24.2013 at 6:30 pm

      I absolutely agree. The ubiquitous chain stores and monolithic facades have made what was once a unique area in the City – one that catered to residents and visitors alike – an Anywhere, USA, spot on a map. The loss of the old brownstones is particularly galling, especially when the University’s initial submissions to the City represented that the facades (and the building set back they represented) would be maintained. That the BRA allowed such a radical departure from this plan represents another example of the symbiotic relationship the University has with this Administration.

      (BTW, the name of the store was Planet Records).

    • Chris on 01.24.2013 at 8:08 pm

      Planet Records :)

      I used to love that place.

    • Joseph Russo, M.D. on 01.25.2013 at 10:07 am

      Every Saturday morning, I would go to the record store and see what was new in music. It gave me some free entertainment during my years at B.U. On a recent visit to Boston, I thought I would show my children the store. Lo and behold, gone and some barnes and nobles/bu bookstore was in it’s place. Didn’t quite feel right, and why was the bookstore so far away from main campus?
      CLA’1973

      • Julia on 01.25.2013 at 6:35 pm

        the campus has expanded towards Kenmore square – there are many university buildings there now

    • Mary on 05.04.2014 at 2:20 pm

      What ever happened to the Kenmore hospital?

  • Mark on 01.24.2013 at 9:51 am

    Agree with Ben. I’ve known Kenmore Square since 1975 and it was not a dangerous place nor were the many of the retail store boarded up. First BU destroys a place then it whitewashes its history. This is “urban cleansing” at its worst.

  • WHB on 01.24.2013 at 10:21 am

    A fine piece of journalism with lots of movement and well-researched history! I passed it off to my father (CAS’90 and GSM’97) so that he can reminisce about Kenmore’s colorful days gone by.

  • tony on 01.24.2013 at 11:54 am

    Narcisis, Wow!!!

  • tony on 01.24.2013 at 11:56 am

    Name of a famous night club just to be clear. great memories

  • hohum on 01.24.2013 at 12:05 pm

    Another prime example of BU seeing that something was fun and enjoyed by students and ensuring that it was thwarted and destroyed.

  • John on 01.24.2013 at 1:03 pm

    Kenmore Square- bums, traffic lights that take forever, traffic, red sox fans who don’t know how to walk a public street, city and property owners who don’t shovel, and “Tickets”, “Tickets”, Tickets”, Tickets”,”Tickets”,…

  • Judy Norton on 01.24.2013 at 3:00 pm

    Very well written article and great slideshow. Thanks. As a local community activist I must, however, comment on how the text conveniently leaves out the story
    of how the original facade of the Hotel Commonwealth (which looked like a yellow plastic wedding cake and is pictured in the slideshow)was so hideous and so publicly derided that the BRA insisted that the developers, including BU, renovate it to the current condition. It cost them over $3 million to upgrade the facade. This was in 2004 – 2005. Since City Hall, and the BRA, almost never complain about any BU related project, this costly renovation was highly unusual.
    On another Kenmore Sq. topic, I recall the White Oil sign above the Buckminster when it had an oil derrick spewing out oil as lights. Quite a sight! I agree, mostly, with Ben, above that Kenmore Square has lost a lot of its funky charm and is quite antiseptic now. I don’t miss the rowdy nightclub crowds, but wish the developers of the Hotel Commonwealth had kept their original plan to incorporate all the existing buildings on that block which has wonderful turrets and other charming features.

  • Kim Nichols on 01.24.2013 at 4:22 pm

    This article blatantly skipped over the long standing Graghm Jr.College that was housed in the hotel and other buildings i.e.Myles Standish Hall. BU then purchased those properties once the college became defunct. WHat happened to the infamous corner dance and drink hangout KKK Katy’s? SHame on the writer for neglecting so many other iconic memories to those who attended college or lived in the area during the 1960’s and 1970’s….How about the dance club “Flicks?” This was the real Kenmore Square. Give me more time and I can tell you more stories.Mine are authentic.

    • Debra (Phoenix) Kellogg on 01.25.2013 at 2:53 pm

      I was a student at Grahm in the early ’70s. I remember all kinds of places in addition to the ones already mention, i.e., Brighams (great ice cream with jimmies), Homer’s Fried Chicken (great pizza burgers) which then became Churchill’s Fish & Chips (both of which places served good food a poor student could afford), Sizzlebord (sp?). Grahm and Kenmore Square were both great places for kids just out of high school and quite possible out of their home towns for the first time. I never considered it dangerous of shabby, just funky and interesting – think Harikrishnas, Scientologists, panhandlers, students (and yes, a few bums), all in one place. It was great!

  • Kim Nichols on 01.24.2013 at 4:23 pm

    Grahm Junior College

    • Linda on 01.25.2013 at 1:42 pm

      I don’t think this “writer blatantly skipped over” mentioning Grahm Jr. College. I am glad you brought it up, as I was a student there in the mid 70’s. He just wasn’t aware of the college…maybe. But the article is fabulous!

  • Michael Walsh on 01.24.2013 at 5:34 pm

    I remember many late nights going through Kenmore Square in the late Eighties looking over my shoulder for potential muggers. It was outright unsafe. So yeah its lost some of its gritty culture but I think it’s a lot safer and cleaner for the current BU students. So kudos to those that helped make it better…

    • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:14 am

      Sorry, Michael, but gotta call b.s. on this one. Ok, maybe you felt that way, but I was there in the late 80s and never felt worried about getting mugged in Kenmore Sq. Yeah, there was plenty of violence — mostly the kids going to Narcissus, which housed 3 nightclubs, and attracted kids of different races from outer neighborhoods who often all got into fights with each other. But you could always just step across the street when the sh_ hit the fan. It was the heart of Boston’s music scene, and a great spectacle of local color even when the city (and BU) was busy trying to gentrify all that away. The icon in T station used to show a black and white photo of a dude shredding an electric guitar. Bet that’s long gone. So, not to pick on you, Michael, but the grungy, fascinating street life of Kenmore was not actually a danger zone, unless you were a parochial club kid looking to beat up a kid from another neighborhood. But I do remember kids like you, who were terrified of anything that didn’t resemble suburban life. Ah, and here’s to Mr. Butch.

      • Citgo on 04.18.2015 at 2:22 pm

        Yeah, seriously, Michael…think you need to grow a pair! I was there in the 80’s too and completely agree with ‘Here Comes A Regular”…and I’m a girl!

        • Citgo on 04.18.2015 at 3:11 pm

          …a girl, mind you, who used to walk around kenmore square (even by myself sometimes) at 1, 2, 3:00 am! Loved a late night/early morning jog there and around the Charles;)

  • Andy Hurvitz on 01.25.2013 at 10:45 am

    I went to BU in the early 1980s. I lived in Myles Standish Hall for two years.

    Kenmore Square was gross. But it was vital and unique in a way that it is not today. It had, as Times Square in NY did, a sense of adventure, danger and decadence.

    When I returned to Boston in 2011, I went to Kenmore Square and thought the new “contextual” architecture completely insipid and fake looking. The Hotel Commonwealth looks like something Disney would put up in Orlando, FL.

    My further observation about BU is that the opulence of the campus, the ornate lampposts, new buildings, new dorms, new benches and new parks, were nice, but that they all came out of the pockets of overburdened students and parents paying exorbitant tuition and fees.

    Suburbanism is what Kenmore Square is now.

  • C on 01.25.2013 at 11:17 am

    No mention of the Pizza Pad?! That place was awesome. Cornwalls used to be across the street but seems like it should have been mentioned. Kenmore used to feel a little dangerous but in a good way. Great article.

    • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:19 am

      Pizza Pad was a fixture. Where everyone went after all the fight had gone out of them, and all they wanted was alcohol-soaking pizza (and pretty lousy pizza at that.) For a quieter scene, you went to Captain Nemo’s next door. (Two pizza places, both next to The Rat.) Nemo’s had little seating, but much better pizza, and pinball!

      • Citgo on 04.18.2015 at 2:27 pm

        Nemo’s Pizza! Yum!! The owners were way cool people too… Big hearts!

  • F.B.King on 01.25.2013 at 1:12 pm

    I went to BU for graduate school a while ago, before today’s big changes, and I thought Kenmore Sq. then was the place I wanted to get out of the fastest. The article did a fine job of tracing the development — much admired by many! and inevitable, BTW — of this place that once held little attraction for most of the city, despite the good music and book stores and night clubs. Progress always brings changes that don’t go down well with everyone, but in terms of the spread of BU — oh, and the rest of Boston! — Kenmore took leaps forward.

    • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:20 am

      You must be one of the developers.

      • Citgo on 04.18.2015 at 2:30 pm

        Lol!

  • Linda on 01.25.2013 at 1:39 pm

    I lived in Kenmore Square while I was a student at Grahm Jr. College. I had the best time of my life, I don’t ever remember The Square being seedy. I was there 1973 – 1975. We recently had a reunion in Boston, returned to the Square, and I love the way it is now !!!! I lived, at the time, in the HOTEL KENMORE, called then Kenmore Hall. The Citgo sign was right out my window….Loved it!

    • John on 05.19.2015 at 11:28 am

      Hi Linda, I’m a homicide detective with the Boston Police Cold Case Squad. I’m investigating a 1970 homicide of an art student at the Art Institute of Boston. As you can amgine the case file is very old and the information in it is out date (no computers). I am trying to fine an individual by the name of Gerry Blumenthal who worked in Sebastians Clothing in the square. If anyone can remember this person it would be greatly appreciated. It is very hard to locate people after so many years. I can be reached at john.cronin@pd.boston.gov or 617-343-5837 Thanks

  • SigChi on 01.25.2013 at 2:04 pm

    dude you don’t know what its like, its rough in kenmore still. my brothers and i went to get buff chix at uburger and my boy was mugged. who cares that stuff is gone,its all good. west campus is where its at anyways. party party party

  • karen sullivan on 01.25.2013 at 2:18 pm

    Grahm Jr. College, Al Capones, the Rat, Deli Haus, Libby’s..Pizza Pad, Agean Faire, Jocomos,Celebration, Lucifers, 1 Landsdowne St.. Fenway Park ..Brighams,.. those of us who attended Grahm Jr.College, these are a few of our memories.. we lived our memories in this neighborhood called Kenmore Square that in now big biz rather than neighborhood. those were the days…

    • Debra (Phoenix) Kellogg on 01.25.2013 at 3:05 pm

      They say you can’t go back again, but you can and we did (my husband and I – we met at Grahm 42 years ago), but it’s just not the same. At least we Grahmites have our memories to hang on to.

      • Linda on 01.25.2013 at 4:07 pm

        Way to go Debra! I knew that was true about someone from Grahm, but I didn’t know it was you!!! 42 years….I wish you MANY more!!!

  • Diane on 01.25.2013 at 4:08 pm

    This is a great article and not surprisingly biased towards BU position on the area’s development, as we are on their web page. Development and change happens everywhere, everyday and can ruin an individual’s notion of a sense of place. It is just extra disappointing when the building is, architecturally, F*ing ugly. It was extremely unfortunate that the architectural team/BU did not salvage any of the existing buildings or character of the square ala The Charles hotel(former jail). If they had managed to take the time and effort to do so, it would have remained a truly special place.

    • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:24 am

      Thank you for this comment. Everything you said is exactly right. The re-development of Kenmore turned into a forgettable place with absolutely no respect for the important role it had once played in Boston culture. “No sense of place.” But BU has always been like that, very much like NYU in NYC. Make no mistake, at heart, it’s a corporation with no sense of any of the fine things that might be taught in its classrooms. (signed, Former Alumni.)

  • Fenway Dave on 01.25.2013 at 6:40 pm

    Lucifer’s. I went there when I turned 18 and saw Herman and the Hermits. I’ve lived in the West Fens since 1978 and watched all these changes first hand. The city itself is ever-hanging, but what has been done to the Kenmore Square is a crime. KS is now nothing more than a sanitized crossroads.
    Personally, I miss the IHop Mississippi’s and the Kenmore Army Navy. At least Jerry from the Kenmore A+N has reopened in DTX after all these years, and I DO shop there often.

  • EM Unfred on 01.25.2013 at 7:05 pm

    Thanks for reminding me why I have never donated to BU

  • Bill on 01.25.2013 at 7:50 pm

    I went to BU and lived in Myles from 1968-71. Kenmore Square was great then, with diverse restaurants, live music, independent shops and, most notably, New England Music City. It was constantly ahead of the wave, with all the latest releases, domestic and British. I stopped there each afternoon on my way back from class, often parting with my meal money for the latest.
    The new Kenmore Square is nothing special. The old was unique.

  • JJJ on 01.26.2013 at 12:26 am

    No mention of the beautiful building on the corner that BU owns and has always had empty, except for the convenience store. The entire rest of the building isnt being used.

    • KR on 03.26.2013 at 5:57 am

      I defintely agree with you. This building would make excellent dorms for graduate students or faculty wanting to living near campus. Often I walk passed hoping there will be some type of construction occuring inside.

  • J. Thompson on 01.29.2013 at 3:06 am

    I understand that many of you alumni have gone back to BU for a visit and have not been impressed with the changes in Kenmore Square. But as a fellow alum, these are changes that needed to take place folks! BU is at the end of the day a big business, right? The school needs to market itself as a downtown university, but at the same time a safe university. If you look at the typical target market for admissions, it’s not the punk rocker from the 70’s type kid. It’s the eclectic art student that is multi-talented, it’s the kid who finished top-10 in their public school from xyz city in america with an amazing SAT score, and it’s also the rich Northeast, West Coast, and Chicago suburb students who have parents that are able to donate annually to the endowment fund. BU is trying to move up the rankings of Universities so our degrees have more worth- and having an on campus square with crime and dingy night clubs doesn’t help the case. I’m sorry, but in 2013 you wouldn’t see a guy with a surf board and no shirt walking into a bar in any major city- this isn’t the 70’s! You have to be realistic! Also, BU owns many of the buildings in Kenmore, therefore, they are INVESTMENTS! If the school can increase it’s endowments or drive the public image of their tenants then they owe that to the school. I’m all for diversity, but not grime infested, crime stricken corners

  • Christian O'Brien on 01.29.2013 at 9:44 am

    A fine writeup, but no mention of Mr. Butch? A pity.

    • Chumpie on 02.02.2013 at 1:30 pm

      Thanks for remembering him. And don’t forget Mitch, the doorman at The Rat.

    • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:25 am

      I agree. Mr. Butch was the Mayor of Kenmore. May he rest in peace.

  • Chumpie on 02.02.2013 at 1:39 pm

    “Also, BU owns many of the buildings in Kenmore, therefore, they are INVESTMENTS!”

    Exactly the problem. Monoculture of a private corporation seeking maximum growth and value eliminates the charm of individual businesses coalescing to serve customers. It’s all done according to plan and not organic development. Hence… dull dull dull and nearly cookie-cutter. So I just pass through these days.

  • Valerie on 03.10.2013 at 11:07 pm

    I fondly remember taking and teaching dance classes at the Joy of Movement and yes, Deli Haus after a night dancing at Narcissus & Lipstick. Kenmore Square just doesn’t have the same flavor it did back then. Now it’s just like Boylston & upper Newbury. Blahhhh!

  • Bill Tarkulich on 06.27.2013 at 11:44 pm

    I don’t disagree with anything that has been written.

    I just completed the first draft of a history of the Square. I spent three months doing a lot of original research. I lived in the square from 73-75 and had plenty of first hand knowledge and good times as a student (GJC, RIP). As a student however, I was quite oblivious to what was going on more fundamentally. If you look at the data, you find a big decline from the 70’s into the 80’s, including an escalation of crime and serious drug pushing. That just added to the attraction for unwelcome visitors. It gives pause to think that Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi threatened to kill the owner of the Rat and burn it down. Things look so good to us on the surface. Makes you think.

    I agree with the funk – most of that is gone, from everywhere in the city. Jacks Joke Shop, RIP. Passim’s, the diversity was incredible.

    I never got hurt, but a classmate saw a cop get shot and I witnessed a robbery. Of course we were all invincible then.

    BU clearly had an agenda. They viewed (and still do) as KS being a “Gateway” to their campus. They also held no love for Henry Vara, who owned the clubs. Their goal was to take control of what happens in the square. But they don’t want to operate things there. Just keep their neighborhood safe and clean. Judy Norton has it nailed solid.

    Check out the website link included. Download the PDF – that’s where my work is I’ve done a lot to substantiate my work. BTW, I wrote the piece as a personal endeavor. No axe to grind. Just a lot of good memories, but a recognition of reality.

  • Matt McClure on 07.16.2013 at 6:05 pm

    Anyone have a photo of the traffic lights leaving Kenmore Sq. headed west at the Commonwealth/Beacon fork, before the recent construction? When the lights turned green, there were 10 or so green arrows pointing all different directions. Can’t seem to find a photo of it.

  • LEE SNIDER on 11.26.2013 at 1:28 am

    My grandfather and his partners built the Hotel Kenmore and it
    was one of Boston’s most elegant and favoured hotels. All of the
    baseball teams stayed there and as a teenager I met Connie Mack,
    Mickey Mantle, Sherman Lollar, Billy Martin, and so many of baseball’s
    greats back in the day. I even worked in the hotel for several years
    and it remains to this day a vital part of who I am. My parents were
    married in its Crystal Ballroom as were other relatives and there were
    wonderful parties and celebrations there in its function rooms and
    excellent restaurants. In those days Kenmore Square was a fine and
    desired location. It is sad what it has become now in its gentrified,
    bland condition no thanks to Boston University who has engulfed the
    entire area like a giant spreading cancer much s NYC has done in the Greenwich
    Village area of NYC. Too bad one cannot go back to the days of glory as they are gone forever.

  • Sven on 01.29.2014 at 2:03 am

    I lived on Bay State Road as a BU Student (four years in the BU brownstone right behind the Citgo sign) for eight years total from 1983-1991. It was a time with all of the gritty splendor that you are all referring to, with certainty. I saw fights, literally, every weekend in Kenmore Sq, kids getting their heads bashed in, one kid got shot one night outside the Rat (I don;t think he died), and it was unsafe. As our litigious society came to being in the 1990s, having students get mugged or beaten in the “hip” Kenmore Sq. wasn’t exactly a donating parent’s dream. BU stepped in and did the right thing.

    While I have fond memories of hearing that Michael Stipe shopped at the used record store, and I got Aimee Mann’s autograph upstairs at the Rat, I agree wholeheartedly with the comment above that mentions the gentrification of Boston as a whole being the modus in the 1990s. This article by Mr. Kennedy shows that the Rat was done before BU ever entered the square proper with it’s purchases (other than the BU Bookstore by Narcissus, which was, unquestionably, a big improvement over the awful BU Bookstore prior to that, as any BU Alum from the late 70s can attest). Sure, I spent my time in Pizza Pad, and at Spit on Landsdowne, and Who’s On First (when it was cool) and Father’s Too on Beacon…like I said, I lived there.

    The new Kenmore Sq is less kitschy, but it is good. All things shall pass, and anyone remembering the old Kenmore Sq–yes, the commenters above–are over 50 years old now. It sounds like our grandparents when they used to say they liked Harvard Sq when it had a candy shoppe and a buggy hitching post. It’s over and done, just as Kenmore before the late Mr. Butch (RIP) was over and done, also. It’s just that the people who frequented THAT Kenmore, as we will be next, are all dead.

    Great article, Mr. Kennedy. I enjoyed it and am pleased that it came up on my websearch.

    • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:30 am

      We lived there at the same time…. and you really think this is an improvement? You feel no sadness that all the kids passing through there today will have little to remember but this sterile corporate vision that is not significantly different than any suburban mall?

  • Dow on 07.06.2014 at 11:17 pm

    BU asks for money from alumni to do this to the storied history of Kenmore Square? From 1990 to 2001 I witnessed the beginning of the BU corporate takeover of Kenmore and returned over and over from 2001 to 2005 increasingly horrified to discover how BU was systematically blighting a formerly thriving tapestry of a familiar corner of the cradle of American intellect. Great institutions do not paper over inequality, vice, and violence by erecting fiscal facades high enough to keep out the riff raff–a great institution would have embraced Mixed Nuts, Butch, the methodone crowd and all the rest of the chaotic and living messinesses emblematic of Boston’s own history. And a great institution would have taken responsibility for all of them as a good neighbor.

    To whoever said this is good for BU’s endowment–to what end? So BU can insulate its super rich students from the plight of people that share their world? It was wrong to kill Kenmore Square to make BU incrementally more palatable to the Long Island and international rich. Columbia has Harlem. UPenn has the frightening streets of Philadelphia. The rich still send their students there and alumni still give on the quality of the experience and education, not the illusory “public safety” of the experience. Artificially constructed illusions of cornucopian prosperity divorced from economic reality are anathema to the authentic and uniquely American education all Boston students deserve. Kenmore Square was wild and alive; part of BU’s soul died when it suffocated Kenmore Square with a pile of cash it collected from its indebted students.

  • RICH R on 02.14.2015 at 7:07 pm

    Worked in Kenmore SQ for HoJo Boylston and HoJo Comm Ave 1976 to 1980 and enjoyed every minute. There was the Rat and other dives to go to for our liquid lunches and nites and every afternoon Sox game we got in to free watch for a a couple of innings. Credit office looked out onto Fenway Park and the Square was so electric during home games. There was homeless guys Mr. Schmutz who dropped his drawers if no one gave him $$$$ and then the famous “Dog Collar” guy who was attired in tee, jeans and pounds of dog chains. George “Boomer” Scott and Tommy Harper used to park cars for the hotel and John Havilcek and other Celtics used to stay at HoJo Boylston Street. Trafic was horrendous you could sit there for 3 light changes and not move but have such great memories! Also had a great baseball card shop where Stub Hub is now and you could get mint cards from 50’s and 60’s for pennies.

  • Here Comes A Regular on 03.01.2015 at 2:34 am

    My main comments are in reply to others above.

    The loss of Kenmore Square is Boston’s loss… glad I left Boston at the right time.

  • Gerri on 03.17.2015 at 1:20 pm

    Great Information. Was there a “Kenmore Hospital? If so, when did it open and close? Thanks.

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