Kenmore Square, Boston

Facing east in Kenmore Square, with Beacon Street to the left and Commonwealth Avenue to the right, on November 14, 1911.  Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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Kenmore Square in 2015:

The area that makes up Kenmore Square today was originally Sewall’s Point, on the edge of a large tidal marsh along the Charles River.  These photos were taken right about where the shoreline once was when European settlers first arrived in 1630, and there was no dry land from here until Boston Common, around a mile and a half away. This “back bay” of Boston remained relatively unchanged for nearly 200 years, and the site of Kenmore Square, which technically wasn’t even part of Boston at the time, remained undeveloped.

Things started to change in 1821, when the Mill Dam was built across the Back Bay from here to Boston Common.  The idea was to use the tide to power factories in the area, and although that aspect of it was a failure, the dam was also used as a toll road.  Later in the 19th century, when the Back Bay was filled in, the road on the old dam became Beacon Street.  The original dam was never actually dismantled, so the wooden structure is still buried under the road today.

Once the landfill projects were completed around 1900, this area became the intersection of three major roads: Beacon Street, Commonwealth Avenue, and Brookline Avenue.  The houses along Commonwealth Avenue were primarily built in the 1890s, and within the next few decades larger commercial buildings opened here. The first was the 1897 Hotel Buckminster, which is located just behind where these photos were taken.

In the past century, Kenmore Square has not undergone drastic changes.  Many of the houses along Commonwealth Avenue are still standing, as are some of the commercial buildings to the left. Today, the square is probably best known for its association with the Boston Red Sox.  Fenway Park, which was under construction when the first photo was taken, is less than 300 yards to the right along Brookline Avenue, and the large Citgo sign that is prominently visible from the park is just out of view to the left, on top of Barnes & Noble building on the far left.

Kenmore Subway Incline, Boston

The subway incline at Kenmore Square on October 2, 1914. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The scene in 2015:

When Boston’s first subway tunnel opened in 1897, it extended as far west as the Boston Public Garden, where trolleys came to the surface and traveled west along Boylston Street.  However, because of the traffic congestion, the tunnel was extended a little over a mile to Kenmore Square, with cars surfacing just east of the square in the median of Commonwealth Avenue.  From here, the trolley lines split and either continued on Commonwealth Avenue (today’s B branch), or turned onto Beacon Street (today’s C branch).  The first photo was taken a day before the line officially opened in 1914, and the trolley car has a “Special Car” sign on top of it.  Less visible on the side of the car is a poster that reads “The Boylston Street Subway will open Saturday,” which was October 3.  The first photo was taken just to the left of the one in the previous post, probably only a few years later.

This subway incline ended up being used for just 18 years.  In 1932, the tunnel was extended under Kenmore Square, where it split into today’s B and C branches of the Green Line before surfacing just west of the square.  The original incline was closed off, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall reverted back to its pre-1914 appearance.  Today, the only remaining trace of it is the arch in the distance, which once formed the top of the tunnel.

Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

Looking east on Commonwealth Avenue from near Kenmore Square, around 1910-1914. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Commonwealth Avenue in 2015:

When the first photo was taken, the Kenmore section of Boston was still being developed. The apartment building on the right, which is missing in the first photo, was built in 1916, and the other houses in the photo aren’t much older.  These late Victorian-era homes were built in the late 1890s, around the same time as the Hotel Somerset, which can be seen in the distance in the lower center of the photos.  To the left is the median of Commonwealth Avenue, which was part of the original design of the Back Bay to have a wide avenue with a large, landscaped central median.  Although today Commonwealth Avenue has one way traffic on each side of the median, this apparently wasn’t the case in the early 1900s; the first photo shows traffic traveling in both directions on what is now the eastbound side of the road.

Around 100 years later, most of the buildings from the first photo are still standing today.  The houses to the right now have stores on the ground floors, but despite this there haven’t been any drastic alterations.  As mentioned in the previous post, the Hotel Somerset is still standing on the other side of the elevated Charlesgate, but it was converted into condominiums in the 1980s.  To the left in the median, part of the old subway portal is visible in the 2015 photo.  This section of the subway opened in 1914, probably not long after the first photo was taken, with the trolleys coming to the surface at this spot in the median before crossing Kenmore Square.  This portal has since been closed off, but the arch at the top is still above ground.

Hotel Somerset, Boston

The Hotel Somerset at the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Charlesgate East in Boston, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

When this historic building was completed in 1897, it was at the very edge of the city.  There were parts of Boston further west of here, such as today’s Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood, but at that point there was very little development going on.  Even the 1898 city atlas didn’t cover further west of here, and it shows that many of the building lots around the hotel were still vacant.

Although the Hotel Somerset was initially surrounded by vacant lots, the city soon grew up around it, as the first photo shows. It was a prominent city hotel, with notable guests such as The Beatles, who stayed here during their visit to Boston in 1966, as well as visiting baseball teams, since Fenway Park is just a quarter mile away.  Ted Williams also stayed here during the baseball season, renting Room 231 for many years.

In the century since the first photo was taken, many of the surroundings have changed.  The Massachusetts Turnpike passes within 50 feet of the building on the other side, and on this side an elevated roadway crosses Commonwealth Avenue, with an off-ramp on the right side of the photo in front of the building.  The hotel itself was converted to condominiums in the 1980s, but from the outside it still doesn’t look much different from the first photo.

Back Street, Boston (2)

Looking east on Back Street in Boston from Hereford Street, probably in 1907. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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Back Street in 2015:

These photos show the scene only a block further down Back Street from the ones in this post, and the old photo here was probably taken on the same day as the other one.  As mentioned in the other post, Back Street is a narrow alley that is used to access the rear of the houses along the north side of Beacon Street.  When the first photo was taken, Back Street was the very northern end of the Back Bay, with only a flimsy-looking wooden guardrail separating the street from the Charles River.

Over time, this has changed, with the first change coming soon after the photo was taken.  In 1910, the Charles River Esplanade was completed along the Charles River, creating a long, narrow strip of public parkland between Back Street and the Charles River.  However, later in the 20th century much of the original park was taken to build Storrow Drive, a parkway connecting downtown Boston to the western parts of the city.  It isn’t visible because of the dumpster in the foreground, but Storrow Drive runs right next to the street, with only a low chain link fence separating the two.  On the other side of Storrow Drive, the Esplanade has been expanded, and can be accessed from Back Street via several pedestrian bridges.

Charles River Esplanade, Boston

Looking east along the Charles River Esplanade from the Harvard Bridge on Massachusetts Avenue, on October 5, 1910. Image courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

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The view in 2015:

These photos were taken just a short distance along the bridge from the ones in the previous post, and the first photo here shows the Charles River Esplanade as it appeared soon after its completion.  This parkland was built on reclaimed land just north of Back Street, which was once located right along the Charles River, as seen in the 1907 photo of the previous post.  The Esplanade underwent a major change in the early 1950s, though, when Storrow Drive was built through here.  This parkway allows relatively easy access to downtown Boston from points west, but in the process it largely cut off the Esplanade from the rest of the Back Bay.

Today, the park is still there, and although it is noticeably smaller from its appearance the first photo, it was expanded in other areas to compensate for the land taken to build Storrow Drive.  Part of the expanded parkland can be seen in the distance, just to the left of the center.  The only significant landmark that is clearly visible in both photos is the Longfellow Bridge, which can be seen in the distance to the left.  It was completed in 1906, and still carries vehicles and Red Line subway cars over the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge.