AHF is excited to provide an update on the Speedway project at the Allston Civic Association's upcoming monthly meeting next Wednesday, September 18 at 6 PM. Similar to when we visited the Brighton Allston improvement Association, we will discuss progress made over the past several months and the beginning of construction. We invite the public to attend, ask questions, and provide feedback. The meeting will take place at the Honan-Allston Branch of the Boston Public Library, 300 North Harvard Street., Allston, MA 02134. We hope to see you there!
AHF is scheduled to present on the Speedway project at the BAIA’s next monthly meeting this Thursday, September 5. We will provide an update on the project, discuss the City's efforts to obtain a location specific liquor license using a home rule petition, and hold a Q&A session for audience members. The public is encouraged to attend, ask questions, and provide feedback. The meeting will take place at the Elks Lodge, 326 Washington Street., Brighton, MA 02135. We look forward to sharing the latest project information with you!
At the height of the public park movement in the late nineteenth century, one of the great challenges for government agencies was balancing conservation and recreation. Then as today, regional planners often had to choose between preserving or enhancing a reservation's natural resources and meeting the recreational needs of a growing metropolitan population. The Charles River Reservation was no exception. The Commonwealth's ambitious plans for the park entailed reclaiming hundreds of wetland acres for riverside "pleasure grounds" with walkways, playgrounds, and a mile-long racetrack. Incorporating the Speedway into limited public open space without diminishing the reservation's beauty required careful planning and more than a decade of work.
In 1898, a year before the Speedway opened to the public, Harper's Weekly published a glowing article about the proposed racetrack's unobtrusive inclusion within the Charles River Reservation. The magazine commended the Metropolitan Parks Commission (MPC) - DCR's predecessor organization - on the "wise action" of integrating the racing facilities into landscape improvements. Whereas New York constructed a racetrack along the Harlem River without regard for landscaping, damaging the shoreline "beyond remedy," Boston drew up plans for the Speedway that took the surrounding scenery into account. According to Harper's Weekly, renowned landscape architects Frederick Law and John Charles Olmsted proposed two racecourses for horses and bicycles respectively, bordered on one side by a drive (present-day Soldiers Field Road, at the time shared by horses returning from the finish line) and on the other by the Charles River. The speedways were to be separated from the road and from each other by rows of trees, and from the river by parkland and a promenade. Underpasses beneath the racecourses would provide access between a North Brighton playground and a riverside ball field, as well as to the turf within the bicycle track. A dike would protect the low-lying area from tidal flooding, while a dam would keep saltwater out of the Charles, transforming a historic salt marsh into a sparkling freshwater river. Brighton could have its racecourse without sacrificing its waterfront.
Construction of the Speedway deviated slightly from these plans, though the essential aspects remained in place. Only one track for both horses and bicycles was built, with horses returning from the finish line along the adjacent drive in accordance with the initial proposal. Moreover, maps from 1899 and 1909 do not indicate that pedestrian underpasses were ever built beneath the Speedway, though one may have been constructed below the drive. In 1900 the MPC added an exit near the center of the track to allow for its use as a half-mile course, but decided ten years later that an additional oval track was necessary. However, reclaimed parkland remained essential to the development. The MPC initially struggled against the site's natural topography. After the Speedway opened in August 1899, the entire embankment settled between three and seven feet, with the drive just two to six feet above the original level of the marsh. This was despite "128,600 cubic yards of excavation, 400,500 cubic yards of gravel and peat used for filling, 584,000 feet B. M. [board measure] of timber, 14 miles of drains, 17,900 lineal feet of fencing, 17,200 tons of broken stone and 20,500 cubic yards of loam" that went into construction even before shoring (1900 MPC Board Report). Preventing the Speedway from reverting to wetland demanded several years of patient effort.
When completed, the Charles River Reservation and Speedway were an instant success. The serene river scenery and Olmsted plantings, combined with promenades, outdoor gymnasia, and boat houses, drew thousands to what had formerly been a polluted swamp. The park's recreational centerpiece was the Speedway. Set back from the river, it curved gracefully for a mile without overshadowing the area's natural beauty. Today, the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path traces the same route through Herter Park. Brighton's urban oasis continues to delight cyclists who now follow the Speedway's ghost past playgrounds and gardens, glimpsing the river between the trees.
The Mayor’s Office and AHF will be hosting an Abutters Meeting on May 23 to discuss the zoning application for the proposed parking area at the Speedway. Since the lot is owned privately by AHF and not by DCR, a conditional use permit is required. Neighbors and interested parties are welcome to join! The meeting will be held at 501-507 Western Avenue (on the sidewalk) and will begin at 6 pm.
Over the past week, the Architectural Heritage Foundation has been overseeing the demolition of 501-507 Western Avenue, a mixed-use property adjacent to the Speedway. Formerly a dog kennel and cat hospital, the building was most recently the construction headquarters for the Charles River Community Health Center. Otherwise, it has been vacant for approximately fifteen years. AHF plans to use the site as a parking area for Speedway users. We look forward to the completion soon of this stage of the work.
We are excited to announce that the Boston Landmarks Commission has approved the rehabilitation plans for the Speedway. Following a March 26 presentation by AHF, Bruner/Cott, and Klopfer Martin Design Group, BLC voted in favor of the project moving forward, pending final review of signage. AHF is grateful for the the Commission’s support and thoughtfulness through the design review process and we look forward to continued collaboration as we move forward. We are also excited to be advancing the building permit process for the project, a portion of which will be permitted though the Commonwealth and a portion of which will be permitted through the City of Boston. We hope to begin rehabilitation work in the coming months. A big thank you to our design team and to our project partners at the state and city for helping get us closer to our goal!
For regular updates, follow the Speedway project on social media:
Facebook - www.facebook.com/charlesriverspeedwayhq
Twitter - www.twitter.com/SpeedwayHQ
Instagram - www.instagram.com/charlesriverspeedway
Boston is a city of architectural contrasts. At four centuries, the built environment is a mesmerizing tangle of old and new. The seventeenth-century Paul Revere House is nestled in a nineteenth-century tenement enclave; the Old State House, constructed in 1713, is dwarfed by 1970s office towers; while elegantly preserved Beacon Hill overlooks the modernist folly that was once the West End. In fact, the demolition of this historic neighborhood galvanized the preservation movement in Boston, leading to the rehabilitation of well-known structures, such as Old City Hall and the Old Corner Bookstore. If the West End’s demise has a silver lining, it is that the city today exhibits much more respect for its architectural heritage than it did a few decades ago.
Yet despite an increasingly embedded culture of historic landmark designations and demolition delays, the tension between addressing Boston’s changing needs and protecting its cultural fabric is as salient as ever. From housing pressures to a hot market for developers, a slew of challenges push against the city’s preservation priorities. The trend toward greater density presents numerous opportunities for adaptive reuse – a flexible form of preservation permitting the redevelopment of historic structures for modern usages. Always creative and often controversial, these projects raise questions about historical integrity: Is authenticity lost when a building is preserved, but its neighborhood is not? To what extent should an architect put her own stamp on an adaptive reuse project? And how much of an historic structure can be altered before it turns into something else entirely?
This last question is central to a preservation trend known as façadism. The somewhat disparaging term refers to the practice of demolishing most of a building while preserving its public-facing exterior. Often extra stories are constructed atop the original material in a completely different style, producing an effect that is striking or jarring, depending on whom you ask. Indeed, a January 2018 essay in The Architectural Review decries façadism as “simply sticking a new shed behind an old façade” and “not worthy of the term architecture.” Also up for debate is the meaning that historic buildings hold vis-à-vis their surrounding environment and the public. In 2017, Canadian architect Chris Borgal defended façadsim on CBC Radio, arguing that “in some cases, the most important piece of a building may well be the front, the piece that is part of the public realm.” His colleague, Catherine Nasmith, disagreed: “Even though along the street [the buildings] might look the same…their function, and their cultural purpose, the way they operate and the way a whole series of small buildings work together in a neighborhood…that’s lost.” Whether façadism constitutes a legitimate compromise between protecting heritage and adapting to new urban realities, or an unjustifiable act of “urban taxidermy,” the practice is quickly becoming a bricks-and-mortar element of urban architecture worldwide.
Boston is no exception to the façadism frenzy, with an exemplary Victorian-modern fusion in the heart of the Financial District. Exchange Place, or 53 State Street, consists of a eleven-story, pink granite shell wrapped around a 510-foot glass tower. The stone exterior was originally part of the Boston Stock Exchange, a Romanesque Revival – Italianate palazzo-style high-rise built in 1889-1891 and designed by Peabody & Stearns. Inside, the marble lobby led to a marble grand staircase, which swept upward to – you guessed it – a marble and stucco stock exchange trading room, measuring 115 feet long and supported by Corinthian columns. Peabody & Stearns also fitted the building with cutting-edge amenities, such as electric lighting, steam heat, and “fast-running” elevators. The lavish design paid off; during the twentieth century, the Boston Stock Exchange was the most visited building in New England. Nevertheless, in the 1980s it was sold to developers. They planned to replace the Stock Exchange with a million-square-foot office tower. After a lengthy battle with preservationists, the developers agreed to incorporate part of the historic façade into the skyscraper. Today, the view of Exchange Place from State Street is much the same as it was during the late nineteenth century. Congress and Kilby Streets, however, reveal the modern tower tucked like a nesting doll inside the Guilded Age exterior.
Exchange Place’s interior is, if anything, even more surreal. A five-story atrium of marble, pink granite, and glass was built on the site of the original Congress Street lobby, physically and architecturally linking the tower with the historic façade. Moreover, while most of the Stock Exchange was razed (except for the small State Street and Kilby Street lobbies), the architects saved the grand staircase and reconstructed it precisely on its 1891 location. For many years, the staircase was purely ornamental, ascending to a blank wall, but now it leads to the offices of The Boston Globe. The atrium’s juxtaposition of old and new is a thoughtful response to the shortcomings of façadism. While the loss of the Stock Exchange building is a preservation tragedy, the architects’ sensitivity to the site’s history and design is evident upon entrance.
Of course, whether or not façadism offers a suitable compromise between preservation and urban development is a highly subjective question. Exchange Place is a particularly tasteful example; many hybrid buildings are not nearly as lucky. So – plague or pragmatism? Architectural fiasco or creative solution? Decide for yourselves. Keep an eye out for examples of façadism in your neighborhood, and if you happen to be in downtown Boston, Exchange Place is definitely worth a visit.
On March 6, after a five-month review process, Boston City Council authorized $34 million in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds for dozens of projects across the city, including the Speedway Headquarters. The vote aids 56 historic preservation, open space, and affordable housing projects that the Community Preservation Committee recommended for funding approval. The Architectural Heritage Foundation was awarded $200,000 to install ramps and decks throughout the Speedway complex to bring the site up to code and ensure that it is accessible and welcoming to all.
In November 2016, Boston voters passed the Community Preservation Act to finance initiatives that preserve historic structures, create open space, increase affordable housing stock, and promote recreation throughout the city's neighborhoods. The law adds a surcharge to residential and commercial property tax bills to finance a city Community Preservation Fund, which is then matched by the state's Community Preservation Trust Fund. Since a Spring 2018 pilot program, CPA has provided more than $42 million to projects in Boston. Among this year's historic preservation awardees, in addition to the Speedway, are the St. James African Orthodox Church in Roxbury, Memorial Hall in Charlestown, and the Old State House.
AHF is grateful to Boston City Council, the Community Preservation Committee, our City and State partners, and the Allston-Brighton community for their support. We look forward to beginning restoration work on the Speedway in a few months.
When the bloodiest war in American history broke out, Brighton was a rural village. Known as Little Cambridge, it was home to several prominent Cambridge families who had relocated south of the Charles River. Livestock grazed on the meadows and saltmarshes within sight of their owners’ saltbox-style houses. Three roads connected the village to surrounding communities, skirting several areas of high ground – among them Nonantum Hill and a dry region called “the Pines,” situated just west of the Speedway’s present location. Before development eroded the hillsides and drained the wetlands, these areas were fixtures of the Little Cambridge skyline. And both were settings for one of the most tragic events of King Philip’s War.
In June 1675, decades of simmering tensions and violence between white settlers and Native tribes erupted into a full-scale indigenous uprising against the colonies’ encroachment, led by the Wampanoag grand sachem Metacomet (known to the English as King Philip). Over the next fifteen months, brutal conflict raged throughout New England, pitting the Wampanoag, Massachusett, Nipmuc, and Naragansett against the English and their Mahican, Pequot, and Praying Indian allies. The war wrought untold devastation on English and Native communities. By the time Metacomet was felled in August 1676, sixty-seven European settlements had been destroyed or damaged, and the frontier nearly abandoned; five percent of New England’s colonial population had been slain; and as much as forty percent of the region’s Native people – already weakened by disease and previous wars – had been killed, starved to death, or sold into slavery. The bitter colonial victory crippled local tribes’ power. Never again would they launch a major war against the settlers who poured into the New England frontier.
Praying Indians were particularly hard-hit by King Philip’s War. They were viewed with suspicion and vulnerable to attacks from both sides of the conflict. Many chose to serve alongside colonial militias against Metacomet, but their loyalty brought them little reward. Fearing treachery, in the summer of 1675 the Massachusetts General Court disbanded the Praying Indian companies and confined all Christianized Natives to their villages. They were forbidden from traveling more than one mile from the town centers, engaging in commerce with the colonists, and entering Boston without an escort. Ironically, many Praying Indians defected to Metacomet’s allies and the French to escape the harsh treatment.
Then in late October, the Court ordered all Christian Natives to be interned on Deer and Long Islands in Boston Harbor. Soon after, Captain Thomas Prentice of Newton and his troops entered Natick, the largest praying town, and announced to its residents that they had two hours to prepare for departure. The militia marched five hundred men, women, and children thirteen miles from Natick to a launching point on the Charles River. According to a nineteenth-century tract, the site was at “the Pines” of Little Cambridge; the Natick Nipmuc, however, recall that it was in Watertown. There they met an elderly John Eliot – the man who had originally established Natick and its predecessor praying town Nonantum. Having argued unsuccessfully against the Natives’ internment, he prayed with them before they boarded a fleet of boats to the Harbor Islands. They journeyed down the Charles River past the Dana and Sparhawk estates, the rutted road that later became Market Street, and the saltmarshes where the Speedway and Charles River Reservation are today. They floated beneath the wooden Great Bridge (now the Anderson Memorial Bridge) and around the Shawmut Peninsula, its few trees an autumnal blaze. Before them stretched the harbor, spiked with ship masts; in the distance, the islands where they would endure a hard winter alongside Christianized Indians from other towns. Forbidden from cutting down trees or killing the sheep that grazed on the islands, and with only shellfish for sustenance, hundreds of Natives died.
Little Cambridge had not seen the last of the Natick Praying Indians, however. Following an especially bloody winter, the colonies decided to reconstitute the Christianized Indian militia companies. They forced men from Deer and Long Island to fight, leaving behind approximately four hundred women, children, and elders. These survivors soon left the islands as well. Several sympathetic colonists, including Eliot’s partner Daniel Gookin, persuaded the Massachusetts General Court to resettle small groups of Praying Indians in towns across the colony. Seventy-five were brought to Nonantum Hill in Little Cambridge. Several families lived near the Sparhawk and Champney homes, where the men were employed to chop wood and build stone walls, and the women as spinners. Only a few of the original Praying Town communities recovered.
Today, little remains in Brighton of King Philip’s War. The Pines was paved over and served as the site of the Brighton abattoir in the nineteenth century. Nonantum Street coils around the base of Nonantum Hill, now crowded with modern houses, and connects to Faneuil Street – tracing the ghost of Old Indian Lane. Sparhawk and Champney Streets commemorate the families who employed a few survivors of Deer and Long Islands, but give no indication of where the Praying Indians lived. But what the physical landscape hides, people strive to reveal. Since 2010, the Natick Nipmuc have held a Sacred Run and Sacred Paddle between South Natick and Deer Island to commemorate their ancestors’ forced removal. They board traditional canoes called mishoons and paddle past the Speedway down the Charles River. In so doing they help to tell the full history of Brighton’s early years.
The Architectural Heritage Foundation took another step forward in its effort to revitalize the Speedway by hosting a bidders walk-through of the complex. On February 26, representatives from three local construction contractors took a closer look at the site in order to determine the best possible construction costs for the upcoming rehabilitation work. They visited a day after a local Student Conservation Association crew performed a winter clean-up at the Speedway - just in time! We hope to have more news on the outcome of the bidding process soon.