Boston - The Back Bay And Students' Quarter
( Originally Published 1916 )
Not to one Bostonian does the Back Bay mean water! The Charles, backed up by a dam to the dimensions of a bay, remains merely the Charles, and the Back Bay is the erst while swamp land beyond Beacon Hill and the Common. Even the Public Garden was, long ago, merely a marsh at the Common's end, and the great space beyond, now covered by endless streets and houses, is all made land. It is the Back Bay.
The main artery of the Back Bay is Commonwealth Avenue, and it is so proudly boulevarded, in noble sweep and breadth, that one is almost ready to forget the brown-stone monotony of its houses. The avenue is two hundred and twenty feet in width, from house-front to house-front, and is free of street cars. Down its center is a great, generous, tree-lined, well-shaded parkway, with a path down the middle for pedestrians; there are pleasantly placed benches by which the park-like character is increased; and this long central greenery has a series of admirably placed statues, with the equestrian Washington, excellently done by Ball, at the beginning of the line; although Bostonians a themselves long ago pointed out that he has turned his back on the State House and is riding away!
This avenue is so successful, so notable, as to have served as a model for other boulevards throughout the United States, and it has also given inspiration to Boston for her recent development of home-bordered park-ways running out toward outlying suburbs.
One of the statues is of John Glover of Marblehead, who commanded a thousand men of his town, whom he formed into a redoubtable Marine Regiment, "soldiers and sailors too"; and this monument perpetuates his skill and bravery in getting Washington's army across to New York after the defeat at Long Island, and his even more remarkable success in boating the army across the Delaware on a certain bitter winter's night at a place still called Washington's Crossing. He died in his beloved Marblehead; but Boston has placed his statue here, feeling that in this city such a valiant son of New England should be forever remembered. His hand firmly grasps his sword hilt—but the sword itself has gone!
Was it the act of some vandal, one wonders, some one with a degenerate idea of relic hunting? But at least nobody ever took his sword away from John Glover living.
Another of the line of statues is that of Alexander Hamilton, and it looks odd because it is minus the familiar queue. On the lower part of this monument is a medallion, of three profiles, apparently of Hamilton; not quite understandable this, and one can think only of the two skulls of Saint Peter shown by the Roman guide, one of the saint in early manhood and the other in later life. This triple representation, if of Hamilton, does not have the reason for being of the wonderful triple portrait, by Gilbert Stuart, of Madame Bonaparte.
The great expanse of water that is really the Back Bay, and which borders the section of land that Boston perversely calls the Back Bay, is one of the glories of Boston. Although broadened by a dam, it is not water that is lifeless and dull, but water that is cheerful, wimpling, sparkling, very much alive. And when a winter storm comes the water dashes over its broadening embankment with all the appearance of a real sea. Along the waterside, and for a broad space back from the water, a parkway has been made that at any season of the year offers most admirable waterside walking. Surely, no other modern city is so thoughtful of its pedestrians, in these days of motor-cars, as is Boston. You may walk on Charles Bank for a long distance, on a broad concrete walk, with grass and shrubs on one side and the dancing water on the other. The long line of houses built on the Back Bay extension of Bea-con Street looks out over the water, and the people who live in these houses prize the view, with its sun-set glories; but all along the water-front one sees only the backs of the houses—the back windows! To the Bostonian, the proper fronting of a house is on a conventional two-sided street, and the architectural temptation of a fine front toward a fine water-view does not alter propriety. "We have the view from our rear windows," they tell you; not even willing to adopt double-fronted houses, which would give architectural finish toward the water as well as toward the street.
Between Charles Bank and Beacon Hill, the city had become unattractive in development, whereupon, a few years ago, the property-owners banded together cooperatively and did a fine thing which would have been quite impossible to them acting as individual owners. They united in a comprehensive plan for improvement, and there has already been the most delightful success, for houses have been built that are mutually protected and protecting, notably on the cleverly arranged Charles Street Square, with its broad opening out toward the water, and its houses all balanced architecturally in the Colonial style. So successful has this been that there will shortly be an adjoining group of houses, which is to bear the name of Charles Street Circle.
To people outside of Boston, the words "Back Bay" represent social domination, but Boston itself knows that social supremacy has remained with Beacon Hill. Although "the sunny street that holds the sifted few" stretches into the Back Bay, and although the author of that line, Holmes, moved off into the levels, on that extended street—his last home was the ordinary-looking house at 296 Beacon Street—and although Silas Lapham and many another have built or bought in the Back Bay, most of the "sifted few" remain on Beacon Hill. Even the wealth that went to the Back Bay found that it "cannot buy with gold the old associations"; and the Back Bay is, after all, just street after street filled with houses, representative of comfortable living, which are too ordinary to praise and yet not bad enough to criticise. It is not altogether clear why one feels resentment toward the houses and streets of the Back Bay, for they seem innocent enough : but when Henry James impatiently wrote of their "perspectives of security," he expressed, by this curious phrase, that the Back Bay somehow gets on the nerves.
But this region does at least spread out with a luxury of space, as if the city, released from the cramping of its original bounds—hemmed in as it originally was by bay and river and swamp, and there-fore built with repression, with tightness, with narrowness of streets-rejoices in its new-found freedom.
And here there is something; typically and pleasantly Bostonian. Beginning with the cross-streets of the Back Bay, the street names are in alphabetical sequence, with two-syllabled names alternating with three; or, I should say, being in Boston, dissyllables alternating with trisyllables; and the Bostonians take a nice pride in it. There are. Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester—and it would seem that Boston, differing from the rest of America and from England, deems Gloucester a trisyllable and will have none of the elided "Gloster."
That the present home of Margaret Deland is in the Back Bay is one of its pleasantest features, and the house, 35 Newbury Street, shows a great frontage of mullion-windowed glass, being even more marked in respect to glass than her former home on Mt. Vernon Street. And this window frontage is for the sake of the jonquils and spring flowers that she loves and which she personally plants and watches. The creator of Doctor Lavendar, the author who has filled Old Chester with fascinating life, is almost as notable a flower-grower as she is a novelist, and once a year, in this comfortable, sunny home, she holds a winter sale of these jonquils that she has grown and gives the proceeds to a vacation home for girls, a project dear to her heart.
A fine daylight view of the sky-line of the Back Bay may be had from the center of the Cambridge Bridge; I do not remember any similar view in any other city; and it possesses the additional peculiarity of being a view of levels: the level of the water, the level of the parkway, then the generally level line of house roofs. But the finest view that the Back Bay offers is of the water itself and not the land, and at night instead of in the daytime. For this view, stand far out on Harvard Bridge, and the effect is beautiful in the extreme. You are hemmed in by the rows of city lights that surround the water on all sides; a mile away the view is finely ended, in one direction, by the arching curve of lights that mark the Cambridge Bridge; about as far in the other direction, the bordering lights converge as the water narrows; down the long sides are the unbroken lines of lights; you see nothing whatever but these lights, and the dark water dimly illumined by their gleam, and the restless reflections of the myriad lights struck waveringly down into the water, and the bands of light that royally make a diadem of the great dome on the height of Beacon Bill.
The social rivalry of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay may be left to the Bostonians, just as the social rivalry of south and north of Market Street may be left to Philadelphians and Beacon Hill and the Back Bay are quite at one on the most Bostonian of all subjects, that of "family." For in Boston, every one of the worth while is a descendant; no one who is only an ascendant is for a moment worthy of comparison with a descendant l One of the cleverest Bostonians once remarked that although politically there should be equality, socially there should be "the" quality. As the verse of exclusiveness has it.
"The good old city of Boston.
The city of culture and cod,
Where the Cabots speak only to Lowells And the Lowells—speak only to God."
And there are endless developments. A famous Bostonian, commenting on the great fire of 1872, clearly indicated that the important feature was, not that he had suffered by this fire, but that his grand-father had lost 40 buildings in the big fire of 1760! Boston conversation is apt to be sprinkled thick with Bible-like genealogy; I have heard, as typical dinner-table conversation, such things as: "James was the son of John, you know, who was the son of Thomas, the cousin of William." Most Bostonians are not much interested in any conversation unless they can naturally put in an ancestor or so, and always, in speaking of any happening of the past, Bostonians are bound to remember that some ancestor or connection was concerned. The traveler need not journey to China to find ancestor worship.
One would no more have Boston without its naive flavor of family talk than have Maarken without its typical costumes: family belongs to Boston, as costumes belong to Maarken : and it is not in the least a boastful pride in ancestors who have done great deeds: the important thing is to be descended from certain stocks and lines, arbitrarily decided upon in the course of generations, with no reference whatever to merit or achievement; it is, indeed, no disadvantage for an ancestor to have done distinguished deeds for the nation or to have written distinguished books, but on the other hand it is no disadvantage for the ancestor to be without distinction. And there is at the same time a fine breadth and liberality about it all; when one of the oldest and finest families goes into the making of sausages, and makes them for many, many years and makes millions of dollars out of them, it does not hurt its social standing in the least, as it might in some more narrow city.
The intense feeling for family also works out rather oddly in the frequent tying up of family property to be held undivided by quite a number of heirs; and the fact that such cases often work hardship through the inability of the heirs either to dispose of the property or to receive incomes from it, does not at all tend to discourage the custom. A friend mentioned in casual conversation the other day that she was born on Mount Vernon Street and had only recently sold her one-ninth part of her old family home, and that she had done it with a keen wrench of feeling. You will not infrequently see in the newspapers advertisements offering to lend money to heirs on their undivided estate or their future inheritance.
Family is the common possession and talk of youth and age, of men and women and boys and girls. Ancestors are mulled over in all ordinary conversations. Only this evening, as I walked on Beacon Street beside the Common—literally this evening, and I quote liter-ally what I chanced to overhear; indeed, even if I wished to I could not invent anything that would so well illustrate what I am setting down—only this evening, as two men passed me, one was saying: "His great-grandfather—" ! That was all. It was but a few words caught in passing. But in no other city could such altogether delightful words have been heard.
I was led one day by a Boston friend to a lecture; it was a lecture on spiders; and the very first words of the lecturer were: "The Lycosidae is the most prominent family we have in Boston." And there came to mind a verse I had somewhere heard, a verse excellent because so really illustrative:
Little Miss Beacon Street Sat on her window-seat, Eating her beans and brown hread; There came a small spider And sat down beside her You're an Argyroneta,' she said.
Lectures are themselves the very essence of Boston, and this comes from the time when lecturers, mostly Bostonians, went forth throughout the country, up-lifting and instructing eager audiences. In those days, lecturers were held to be representative of the highest wisdom and lecturing was still deemed the most admirable way of delivering wisdom—and these two beliefs are still devoutly held in Boston. Where two or three are gathered together there is sure to be a lecturer in the midst of them; every Bostonian is a lecturer or a listener; the excellent habit is unescapable. Nothing else interests Bostonians as lectures do. The summer course, the fall course, the winter course, the spring course, the lectures of this, that and the other prophet, are always occupying their time. As a Bostonian said to me : "If you just sit down anywhere in Boston a lecture will be poured into your ears." There are lectures on astronomy and atavism and art; there are lectures on batrachians and Buddhism and butter-making; there are cooking lectures, cosmos lectures, curtain lectures, culture lectures; there are lectures on duty and digestion, on philosophy and Plato, on how to eat and sleep and think and dream; there are lectures on everything practical and impractical. In fact, the lectures and the lecturers are innumerable, and the Bostonians have many local authorities to whom they listen as oracles. As winter comes on the true Bostonian gathers together his lecture cards and sorts them, and hoards them, and gloats over them, just as a squirrel gathers and hoards his winter nuts. Lectures are nuts to Bostonians.
I remember an acquaintance saying one afternoon, and I mention it because it is simply typical: "Aren't you going to So-and-so's lecture at four o'clock?" and when I replied that I was not, he said promptly: "Then, of course, you are going to Thus-and-so's lecture this evening?" It would take the last sting from death if a Bostonian could be assured of courses of lectures through futurity.
Holmes loved to sit down and write a poem after any lecture that especially interested him. Turn the leaves of his volumes of verse and you will see quite a number of lengthy poems with titles declaring them to have been written on his return from lectures.
The entire idea was amazingly helped on its way by the foundation of the Lowell lectures, three quarters of a century ago. A great sum was left by one of the Lowell family for the sole purpose of paying lecturers to talk to Bostonians, with the typically Bostonian re-quest that the manager should always, if possible, be a Lowell. Scores of free lectures are delivered, annually, to Bostonians under the direction of the Lowell Institute, and the pace thus set is followed so enthusiastically by all sorts of enthusiasts and associations that there are hundreds of lectures every year.
Second only to lectures in popularity are concerts. Nothing, indeed, is so held to represent real culture, in Boston, as a devoted knowledge of music. There is an interest which amounts almost to a gentle pathos in a Boston musical night—any one of the many nights at which elect music is worshiped by the elect. The hall itself (there are many halls in Boston where music may be heard, but there is only one that is "the" hall), the hall itself is angular and rectangular, with an effect of the gaunt and the gray, and there is a gentle general effect of age, of gray-haired women and of men with domes as bare as that of their own State House, and an interspersing of eye-glassed students holding big black books in which they devotedly follow the score.
If, as to the music itself, there is satisfaction with a high degree of technical correctness, without the co-incident loveliness of which the composers dreamed, it would simply indicate that this is the way in which Boston prefers music to be given; if the music is a shade or so more percussive than is deemed desirable elsewhere, and if the drum, played passionately, is permitted to stand most markedly for music, it is all as it should be, and the young students beam with critical joy, and there is a gentle nodding of elderly heads. And, after all, Boston comes naturally by a love of the percussive, for at her Peace Jubilee, at the close of the Civil War, a mighty orchestra and a choir of ten thousand enthralled audiences of fifty thousand, while twelve cannon thundered in unison and fifty anvils clanged as one. I should never think of criticising Boston music any more than I should think of criticising Boston brown bread: each is something interestingly typical and loyally honored. I remember a French lady, a visitor, who, not quite getting the Boston viewpoint, asked wonderingly, "Why do they go to so much trouble to make it?" She was referring to the bread, but I notice, as I set it down, that the words seem equally to apply to the music. If Boston should ever lose her charming idiosyncrasies, her brown bread, her baked beans, her fish balls, her music, her lectures, she would cease to be Boston.
Lectures and music are naturally included in the subject of the Back Bay because it is at the edge of the Back Bay that most of the halls for music and lectures are located, and especially along Huntington Avenue.
At Copley Square, where Huntington Avenue be-gins, there begins also the most interesting development of modern Boston, present-day Boston, for, ranging and spreading out, through and beyond the Back Bay and into the adjoining Fenlands, is building after building, educational or institutional; hospital buildings, philanthropic buildings, and, most notable of all, a wide range of school and college buildings; and the average of architectural beauty is admirably high.
Facing into Copley Square is the Boston Public Library, and, "Built by the people and dedicated to the advancement of learning" is the noble motto over the main entrance of this truly beautiful building. And it is a thoroughly good American library, ready to give due honor to the literature, the science, the art of America as well as of Europe. Set into the sides of the building are panels giving famous names in groups of similar kinds, and American names are honored with a quiet matter-of-factness. With Titian and Velasquez and Hogarth, one sees the name of West. With Boyle is joined the name of Rumford. With Sterne and St. Pierre and Chateaubriand stands the name of Irving. Macaulay is between Prescott and Bancroft. Calvin and Wesley keep company with the New England Mather. And with Palladio and Wren the name of the Bostonian architect Bulfinch is conjoined.
The building is not only admirable in proportions, but extremely fine in details, and one need not pay attention to such minor points as the confusion of Strozzi lanterns at the entrance or to the pedestaled marble lady who, as Bostonians like to point out, is offering you a marble grape-fruit.
Even finer than the exterior is the interior, with its welcoming stairway with its splendor of tawny marble, and as you mount the stairs you pass by those dignified memorials to the Civil War Volunteers of Massachusetts, two great marble lions, one of them with a broken marble tail that has been so cleverly mended as in itself to represent positive art!
Mounting to the upper hallway you move past a series of exquisite mural panel paintings by Puvis de Chavannes; decorative figures in soft lavenders and greens, figures walking or floating against back-grounds of soft gray or in an ethereal blue that is only like the perfect blue of the clear sky of a wonderful morning; and all is so soft and easy and sweet and graceful as to make these murals an achievement in repression and beauty. Turning from the upper hall to the right, one comes to glorious pictures by Abbey, high-set, frieze-like, around all the upper part of a great room that is pilastered and paneled with dark oak, and ceilinged with dark oak beams picked out with gold. It is a shadowy room, a room intentionally dark, to give relief and foreground to the pictures, which, representing the Quest of the Holy Grail, are glories of vivid coloring; knights and ladies and churchmen in pomp of purple and gold and bright scarlet. And on the floor above this is Sargent's "Frieze of the Prophets."
Within the quadrangle of the library is an inner court that is so reposeful, so charming, so delightful, with its arcaded space around its central fountain, as to make it an esthetic architectural triumph.
Facing the library, at the opposite end of Copley Square (and like the squares of most cities this is not at all a square in shape), is a building which, some years ago, was looked upon as an architectural wonder. It is a huge church, a massive pile of yellows and browns, and, built in mid-Victorian times, was meant to follow some of the ancient churchly architecture of Europe. Until recent years, Bostonians dwelt with pride on every detail of this great Trinity Church, and would insist on pointing out to visitors every de-tail of design and workmanship. But a change of taste has gone over the entire country, including Boston, and now it is quite realized that the church is not beautiful, in spite of the fact that its great central tower is tantalizingly remindful of that of Tewksbury and that its little outside stairway is tantalizingly re-mindful of a Norman stair of remarkable beauty at Canterbury—tantalizingly, but how different they are!
The Back Bay and the Fenlands, one merging imperceptibly into the other, are really one great flat region recovered from the swamps, the Fenlands possessing the great advantage of having a great part kept as parkways, with water and bridges. The residences of the Fenland are of a more interesting aver-age than those of the Bay—and it is over here, in the Fen country, that Robert Grant the novelist lives, at 211 Bay State Road. How delightfully the words "Fen" and "Fenlands" bring up memories of the Boston of Old England, set as it is in the great flat region of the English Fens !
Also in the Fen country, and not far from Hunting-ton Avenue, is Fenway Court, one of the most remark-able homes in America, built by Mrs. Isabella Gardner, who dreamt of erecting a Venetian palace on this level Brenta-like land, and realized her dream. It was a romantic plan romantically carried out. Mrs. Gardner brought across the ocean actual parts and fragments of old Italian buildings, that the basis should be actually Italian, and here she built her Venetian palace, and filled it with rare and costly examples of old-time European art.
Not far from this are the buildings of the Museum of Fine Arts, impressive of front toward Huntington Avenue, and positively beautiful in the facade that looks out over the water of the Fenway, for this face is stately with a long colonnade of great pillars.
The contents of the museum are of admirable aver-age; much is of high interest, notably the paintings of distinguished Americans of the past by distinguished American painters of their time. Much of antique furniture is here, largely American, and it is displayed as if befitting the title of the museum, as if worthy, as it is, of place among other beautiful products of the fine arts. The rooms where the furniture is displayed are arranged with wise barmony; a table of a certain period is likely to be in the center, with furniture of the same period—sideboard, cupboard, chairs —around the sides; and portraits of the men and women of the period, by painters of the period, are on the walls.
And there is here the most notable collection of old American silver in America, admirable examples, including much of the finest work of that admirable silversmith, Paul Revere.
A great area, throughout this general region, is so thick-dotted with educational institutions that it has begun to be called the Students' Quarter, or, as some Bostonians love to call it, our Latin Quarter." And all this has no reference to Cambridge, which is across the river and outside the city limits; all this is actually within Boston, and Boston is very proud of it.
In this great clump of Back Bay and Fenland schools there are already some twelve thousand students in addition to the Boston-born; and the students and the buildings are constantly increasing in numbers. It is fine, too, that most of these educational buildings are as noteworthy, architecturally, as are the numerous buildings that philanthropic and endowed organizations have built in this general quarter.
With the influence of all then; schools, added to the admitted culture of generations, one might expect a complete fastidiousness in general speech : and yet, throughout all Boston there is a general and amusing treatment of "r's". In the first place, Bostonians eliminate this letter altogether from a host of words such as "Bunker," which is always given as if it were spelled "Bunkah." For this they will probably say, and rightly, that there is good authority. And I presume that, after all, they can show excellent authority for their thriftiness with these discarded "r's," for they do not really throw them away or really mislay them, but use them on words that do not show the let-ter. It is fascinating to hear them add an "r" to the end of "area," or say that their dog "nors" a bone; it is fascinating to hear them speak of "standing in awr"; it is fascinating to hear a highly-cultured Bostonian, a Brahmin of Brahmins, call his wife "Bewler" for Beulah or say "Anner" for Anna.
It was a Bostonian, who, having traveled and observed and realized, remarked quaintly, of the succession of Quincys called Josiah—pronounced, of course, "Josiar"—that the line did not go on from sire to son but "from 'Siar to 'Siar"!
Most notable of all the educational buildings of the Fenland are those of the School of Medicine of Harvard University; for Harvard, instead of having all its buildings in Cambridge, came here to build its school for doctors.
The buildings are of marble; a group of five, f ronted and united by terraces and balustrades, and all facing into a central plaza large enough to give stately architectural relief. The pillared administration building is flanked on either side by laboratory buildings and the entire group forms a simple and beautiful whole, with an air of noble permanence.
One Sunday afternoon I was walking near these buildings when I noticed people running; men well garbed and women well gowned were running; a limousine drew up at the curb and two men and a woman leaped from it and ran; a street car stopped and men and women tumbled from it and ran; it was not mere hurrying, but actual running, and all ran around the open end of the Medical School plaza. It was clear that there was either a terrible accident or a fire—most likely one of those noble buildings, apparently fireproof, was aflame!—so I hurried with the others and rounded the corner, and all were rushing for a doorway—beside which was a notice declaring that there was to be a Free Public Lecture, that the doors were open at 3, and that they were absolutely to be closed at 4:05! I looked at my watch—it was 4:031/2 —and I understood the running. But I think I never shall be able to understand what they expected the people to do who should enter at 3, nor why the closing time was so oddly fixed at precisely 4:05!
As I looked and read and turned away, men and women, but in diminishing number, were still running up, darting past me, and plunging through the door. I halted, for it came to me that the notice did not mention either the lecturer's name or his subject—and what a fascinating subject it must be to draw these prosperous men and women literally on the run !
I asked a man of well over sixty, as he flew by. He glanced at me reproachfully, he did not check his speed, but he flung back over his shoulder as he plunged at the door some words that absurdly seemed to end in "fat." Clearly, I must inquire further and must not, again, try to check any one near the door. It was 4:041/2. I saw a youth come bounding on. I hurried toward him and turned beside him and, falling into his stride, asked him what was to be the lecture. We strode together; and he gasped, "The Assimilation of Fats" ! With that he dashed at the door—he was the last one in—instantly it was locked—the next comer, a moment too late, tried the handle in grieved futility—it was five minutes after four.