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Cityscapes Of Boston

March 2023
1min read

An American City Through Time

by Patrick McGrew and Robert Julian, Abrams, 288 pages.

by Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker, Houghton Mifflin, 220 pages.

To judge from these two picture histories, Los Angeles has saved almost as much of its noteworthy old architecture over the years as Boston has thrown away. Leafing through the descriptions of some 570 registered structures in the Landmarks of Los Angeles , you can’t help being impressed by how much still stands in a city whose reputation is so unsentimentally up-to-the-minute. The architect Patrick McGrew and writer Robert Julian begin with vestiges of Spanish settlement and move chronologically through nineteenth-century cottages to the discovery of oil near Los Angeles in the 189Os and the fanciful estate houses that grew out of that. The Bradbury Building—recently a twenty-first-century setting for the film Blade Runner —was built in 1893 by George Herbert Wyman, who himself had been inspired by a passage from Edward Bellamy’s futuristic novel Looking Backward ; it houses its open elevators and five floors of iron stairways in a spacious atrium beneath the city’s first skylight. The Hollywood sign, originally a realtor’s lure for “Hollywoodland,” went up in 1923 and was designated a landmark more than fifty years later.

Cityscapes of Boston examines its subject block by block, with a before-and-after scrutiny both informative and sometimes depressing. The architect Robert Campbell’s text is full of strong native opinion: this is a story of change both for better and for worse. One of the best ideas Bostonians had over the centuries was to build level rows of splendid town houses on landfill; two of the worst were Government Center and Harbor Towers. The car, which made modern Los Angeles possible, undermined many of the old walkable Boston neighborhoods, writes Campbell, perhaps too gloomily. The bright spots in this history include Boston’s vibrant North End and Centre Street, where “change occurs in the way one wants it to, bringing not rupture but rejuvenation.”

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