Walter Muir Whitehill, Lawrence W. Kennedy. Boston: A Topographical History. Third edition, enlarged. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000. xlix + 380 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-00268-5.
Reviewed by Michael J. Mezzano (Department of History, Boston College)
Published on H-Urban (September, 2000)
The third edition to Boston: A Topographical History appears forty after Walter Muir Whitehill's original text, brought up-to-date by Lawrence Kennedy. The underlying theme of the book remains remarkably important. Whitehill documents physical alterations of topography since the Reverend William Blaxton settled on Shawmut peninsula in 1625, and this new edition adds Lawrence Kennedy's chapters on the contemporary Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, the plans for a new ballpark for the Boston Red Sox, and the South Boston Waterfront Project.
Lawrence Kennedy was an excellent choice to update Whitehill's classic. In his preface, Kennedy notes that he and Whitehill share "an abiding love of the city, an enchantment with the story of how it grew," (p. x) but Kennedy's own work makes him extremely well qualified for the task of updating a classic text. Author of Planning the City Upon A Hill: Boston Since 1630 , Kennedy's experience as a scholar (he is Professor of History at the University of Scranton), a former employee of the Policy Development and Research Department of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and a product of Boston College give him a wealth of personal information to draw upon.
Although the authors write solely to Boston, the process of changing the environment to suit human needs is common to all urban areas (e.g. William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. As a study of human's adaptations of and to the topography of the region, several unifying themes emerge that provide coherence and organization. They persist from Whitehill's first eight chapters, to the ninth, which he added in 1968, through Kennedy's additional two chapters. They help situate the book within the larger framework of urban history. They include standard problems of urban areas such as sanitation and transportation, growth and stagnation, private versus public improvements to land, and social geography. These assume prominence in Whitehill's first edition, but in the added chapters of the second and third editions tend to give way to architectural and planning critiques.
Whitehill's chapters demonstrate the rich tradition of topographical change in Boston. Human agents over the course of almost four hundred years have drastically altered the physical layout, which was originally marked by three large hills on a narrow peninusla. Cutting down hills to fill in marshy areas and coves gave residents more space to build. Private construction of wharves began what Whitehill calls the "inexorable encroachment of land upon water that has marked the history of Boston." (p. 11) Wealth from the maritime trades in the post-Revolutionary city led to the diffusion of the population from the crowded peninsula into South Boston, and to the west of the wharves. Bridges across the Charles River into Cambridge, and along the Dorchester Neck facilitated travel and settlement. Whitehill's research found that property owners whose homes were affected disputed many of these changes. For instance, he finds a lawsuit instigated by William Thurston, whose home on Bowdoin Street was undermined by the Hancock family's excavation of Beacon Hill. This would continue to be a theme in Boston, particularly when highway construction in the 1950s and 1960s threatened entire neighborhoods.
Throughout the first eight chapters, Whitehill also examines the architectural legacy of Boston. He looks at Charles Bulfinch's work in Beacon Hill and the old South End. The filling in of the Back Bay and the South Cove gave architects and builders a large amount of space to work in, and Whitehill finds both good and bad examples of planning and architecture within these areas.
The flight of "established families" from the Irish in 1860s and 1870s was typical of many American cities, but in Boston had particularly dramatic consequences. The argument could be made (Whitehill does not do it, noting that the Panic of 1873 was largely responsible) that Irish immigration was responsible for the upper class migration to magnificent new homes in the Back Bay, and the construction of lodging and row houses in the South End. Both areas were filled in roughly simultaneously, but the presence of the Irish (or as John Marquand might have us believe, "men in shirt sleeves" caused many affluent families to seek out the Back Bay for permanent residence. The Protestant families' diaspora would continue into politically separate suburbs, giving Irish bosses, like James Michael Curley and Martin "The Mahatma" Lomasney control over the city in the early twentieth century.
In the last of the original chapters, there is a sense that in Whitehill's mind Boston is changing for the worse. In the preface to the 1958 version, there were four mentions of the elevated Central Artery, which would not be fully opened until mid-1959. On page 189, he complains that Storrow Drive (a roadway along the banks of the Charles River) has wrecked the "singular charm" that the waterfront Esplanade gave to the city. In the chapter he added in 1968, his criticism was even more strident. He condemns the "horrendous use of the private automobile" (217) that has led to the disintegration of urban cores. As the long-time director of the Boston Athenaeum, and the author of several books on Boston, Whitehill obviously had a strong affection to the city, and his dismay at the omnipresent automobile is understandable. But even here, his commentary is balanced.
Boston of the 1950s and 1960s was undergoing a desperately needed infusion of money and ideas. Reading the first eight chapters, one senses that the attention given to the city over 320 years--especially by the gentle hands of Bulfinch and Mayor Josiah Quincy--was suddenly abandoned. More than most other American cities, the Depression and World War II left Boston in need of infrastructure improvements, as well as economic aid. Whitehill seems to accept this, and in "A Decade of Renewal" presents a well-balanced account of the efforts to resuscitate Boston, under Mayor John Collins and Boston Redevelopment Authority Director Ed Logue. Whitehill seems so relieved to see anything positive happening in Boston, that he was even liked the city's plans for Government Center. Of the new, and-anything-but-controversial City Hall, he notes that "In my view, it is as fine a building for its time and place as Boston has ever produced." (209) Perhaps, though, this is because as he states on the next page, that these new buildings screen the Central Artery from Government Center. (211)
Rather than try to improve Whitehill's work, Kennedy wisely leaves it virtually untouched. (He updates two photographs which in the original version were only drawn-up plans). To Whitehill's last chapter, he merely adds a few parenthetical directives to "(See Chap. X)". In Chapter Ten, "A Beacon Once More," Kennedy strives to establish his own voice within the context of Whitehill's narrative, a creative attempt at which he succeeds wonderfully. He does this by disputing a few of Whitehill's architectural opinions, quoting them within his own work. Where Whitehill saw the positive values of the new City Hall, Kennedy--one might add with the advantage of the passing of time--merely notes that it is emblematic of what was "good and bad about city building in Boston during the 1960s." He calls City Hall Plaza an "unnatural wasteland," that lacks proper scale, focus and context. (243) Still, Kennedy notes that Government Center, and the Quincy Market restoration helped move Boston forward, and reinvigorated the city. The private investments of the 1970s led to a terrific increase in office space. Eventually, architects even learned how to build contextually, incorporating many of Boston's venerable historic sites in building plans.
Unfortunately, Chapters Nine and Ten ultimately read like rote architectural criticism. Indeed, the sources shift to articles in Architectural Record, the AIA Guide to Boston, and Boston Architecture. This was perhaps one of the most fascinating parts (certainly the strongest) of Whitehill's original work; as Director of the Athenaeum he invariably had time to sift through the best sources, and mine all possible avenues. Kennedy's chapters, however, focus almost specifically on aesthetics and design. He recounts $150 million dollar "dinosaur of a retail mall" at Lafayette Place. (252), the Copley Square wind tunnel (257) and the disaster that nearly befell the new Hancock Tower in January 1973. Words like "transitional" or "functional" to describe buildings disrupt the flow from the earlier sections. This is also certainly not to place any blame on Kennedy either, for Whitehill started down that slippery slope in Chapter Nine.
The transition seems somewhat jarring--the unifying theme of topographical adaptation seems lost. In a way, though, this is understandable. For by the mid-twentieth century with the completion of the Logan Airport landfill, the topography of Boston is set. Short of filling in the harbor (perhaps a cheaper alternative to the multi-billion dollar federal clean-up project) or the Charles, there was no longer anything to be done, topographically speaking, to the city. The end of annexation in the late 1800s, furthermore, fixed the geographical and political boundaries. Happily, by Chapter Eleven, "Toward the New Millennium," the theme reemerges.
It seems in Chapter Eleven that Kennedy is also back on his surest ground. He opens the chapter noting that "Along with the felicitous shift in architectural opinion, political changes affected the city's evolving shape and appearance." (274-5) While there is still a fair amount of architectural criticism (and all of the critiques are well-deserved and quite accurate--International Place does mar the skyline), Kennedy's focus on the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project (known locally as the "Big Dig"), and plans for the South Boston Waterfront resonate with the early portions of Whitehill. The Big Dig does not seem quite so novel when Whitehill describes the Church Street alterations in the 1960s, when the city raised 200 flood-prone brick buildings to higher foundations, as well as the 55 acres of land, and three miles of new streets that resulted from the filling in of South Cove.
There is a truly impressive feat here. Kennedy and Whitehill have documented incredible physical changes over nearly four hundred years. The book is wonderfully illustrated (173 illustrations, 31 of them added in the new addition), well-researched and accessible. It not only provides an overarching narrative of the history of the city of Boston, it shows how cities in general adapt, alter, and preserve their surroundings.
. Lawrence W. Kennedy. Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992).
. William Cronon. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).
. John P. Marquand, The Late George Apley: a Novel in the Form of a Memoir (New York: Collier, 1937). At a key point in the novel the protagonist moves to the high status Back Bay because he sees a neighbor in shirtsleeves, a sign that the lower classes are moving in.
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Michael J. Mezzano. Review of Whitehill, Walter Muir; Kennedy, Lawrence W., Boston: A Topographical History.
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