- Historic Sites
The Hub Of The Solar System
The author walks us through literary Boston at its zenith. But Boston being what it is, we also come across the Revolution, ward politics, and the great fire.
April 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 3
Downtown, across Washington Street, beyond the Old South Meeting House and above the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, were to stand the quarters of the Boston Post and of the paper whose readers T. S. Eliot would evoke in sardonic lines: “When evening quickens faintly in the street,/Wakening the appetites of life in some/and to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript .…” The district also held the offices, within my memory, of most of the other newspapers, though the Globe and the Herald, sole survivors, have now moved to distant parts of the city. The papers betook themselves to South Boston, while the publishing houses grouped themselves around the rim of the Boston Common and Public Garden.
For a while in the 1870s Boston book publishing ventured farther into the thrilling purlieus of the new business district that developed along State and Franklin and Summer streets, displacing the fashionable residential districts that had preceded the development of Beacon Hill. Those beautiful groupings like Franklin Place and the Tontine Crescent soon enough fell to giddy financial planning or builders’ greed while immigrations from Ireland and elsewhere filled the old North End and the new South End, and the Brahmins who could not find places on Beacon Hill began to move to the new Back Bay. The worst disaster of all, fire, struck on November 9, 1872, when an epidemic of equine influenza had felled most of the nation’s horses, and only two of Boston’s ninety-odd fire-horses could answer the call. Eighteen hours after the fire had sprung up at the corner of Summer and Kingston streets, some 700 buildings, 960 businesses, and nobody knows how many residences were gone. The holocaust left downtown Boston, from Washington Street to the harbor, and from Milk to Summer streets, completely devastated. Further crushed only a year later by the panic of 1873, Boston publishing continued its gradual decline, just as the giving over of Boston to business continued the process of destruction for the rows of beautiful houses that Bulfinch had left along Tremont and Park streets, in Bowdoin Square, and in the old South End.
Ticknor & Fields publishing house was “the Rialto of current good things, the hub of the hub.”
By 1875 Boston had grown to nearly 342,000 people, and it was turning its downtown over to clothing and textile businesses while the new population moved into newly filled land. To walk today from the Old Corner leftward on Washington Street is to find the old print district erased to the point of blankness. A faceless tower stands where the Globe and the Advertiser once published newspapers. At ground level the street is given over to New England Telephone and to an abandoned movie theater. At State Street I turn right and approach the Old State House from the uphill side, grateful for its humane proportions, but I remember that in 1876 Boston was ready to tear down both the Old State House and the Old South Meetinghouse, then used as a post office. The city of Chicago actually offered to buy the State House and move it to the shores of Lake Michigan, brick by brick, and both buildings were saved by the first outraged wave of the preservation movement. I look down the long vista of State Street and see a glimmer of the harbor at the end between the skyscrapers that have grown like concrete fungi on both sides. The splendid 1977 restorations of the Quincy Market evoke some memories of early seagoing grandeur, but Boston is no longer a seaport of much consequence. What Boston won from the land it lost again and what New York did not claim, Baltimore and San Francisco picked up.
I turn right on Devonshire Street and walk toward Franklin between even higher, darker walls. At Franklin the street burgeons out into a wide lunar shape, a remnant of Bulfinch, and straight ahead of me I can see a handsome new red-topped twenty-story building, an appropriate size for this city, standing on the place where the 1872 fire was kindled. If I wander back up Franklin or Summer Street to Washington Street, however, it becomes clear that the nature of Boston changed some time ago. The creative center shifted to some other part of the city after the catastrophes of the Gilded Age. This was once the theatrical district, but nearly all the theaters, even the X-rated ones, are closed.
In 1881 William Dean Howells, the most intellectually energetic editor of the Atlantic, was tempted away from Boston to New York by the refusal of Henry O. Houghton to pay his editor more than five thousand dollars a year, “dragging,” as Alfred Kazin writes, “the center of American literary culture with him.” The two last decades of the nineteenth century saw Boston culture transform itself from a creating culture to a preserving one. As the titans of the Golden Day died off, Boston publishers devoted themselves to preserving their works in titanic sets. As the riches earned by commercial Bostonians got turned into chattels, Boston began to preserve the Chinese vases and old masters, tucking them away in larger and larger museums, libraries, and memorials.