The glory that was Boston; Lost Boston, by Jane Holtz Kay. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. $24.95
america's cities grew like forests, sprouting skyscrappers, spreading across country acres, overflowing into bays and swamps to plant buildings where there were only notaxable tides before. Like Shakespeare's Birnham Wood, they often seemed to pull up roots and expand overnight, when no one was looking.
And, as in forests, the best buildings were often chopped down. Even historic Boston has lost many of its finest examples of architecture. The bow-front houses of Beacon Hill, the South End, and Back Bay still stand. But the Hancock House, the West End, and almost every scrap of pre-Revolutionary Boston have fallen to fire or to the wrecker's ball.
"Lost Boston" aims to raise these ghost buildings, and, like its previously published companions "Lost New York," "Lost Chicago," and "Lost New Orleans," it clearly makes no bones about its preservationist bent. For thoise who believe cities are something to be looked at instead of just endured, it is a fascinating book.
Jane Holtz Kay, architecture critic for The Nation, has written a sprightly narrative that traces Boston's built environment from its first twisted lanes to the streetcar suburbs of 1930. She is, admittedly, a biased observer: "Bostonians inhabit a landscape of loveliness and livability," she writes in her preface. "We pace our hours amidst an architecture of special worth."
Others have trod this path before her. Kay's text breaks no scholastic ground not covered in such classics as Walter Muir Whitehill's "Boston: A Topographical History," or Bainbridge Bunting's "House of Boston's Back Bay." Bu her prose has a pictorial quality that allows her to convey a building's social context to average readers: Writing of the turn-of-the-century architect H. H. Richardson, she says his "buoyance fit the spirit of the day; his exeberance, his robust designs, like the swelling arches that were his signature across America, matched the temper of expansive times."
The book's strongest feature is its photos. Crowded at the end of each chapter, they show familiar landmarks flanked by unfamiliar neighbors, graphically documenting the gracelessness of much urban growth. A beautiful row of Bulfinch houses has been replaced by five shoe stores and a pizza parlor; the Hancock House on Beacon Hill is now a vacant lot. Captions describing long-gone buildings ring like tolling church bells: "Lasted only a generation," Leveled to widen Province STeet," "Torn down for a high rise."
"Lost Boston's theme is simple: cities may be built of stone and steel, but they grow and change like living things. The growth is powered by the energy of sheer economics. To keep our cities livable, we must learn to channel their change in positive directions.
"Boston evolved through the shared sense of humanity and urbanity of many designers over many years," Kay writes. "Will the lost Boston chronicled here be an epilogue of past losses or a prologue to the vandalism of a future day?"