Underground Boston: The Hub’s Best-Kept Secrets
By Stephen Hartshorne
Millions of people visit Boston and Cambridge every year to see its many historic and cultural attractions. It’s really a splendid city, and I’m not just saying that because I’m from there.
It’s a very walkable city with friendly neighborhoods, great architecture, fabulous food and lots of history. That’s why it’s known as the hub of the universe.
Now that the old Madison Square Garden has been demolished, Fenway Park is the oldest ballpark in the country.
Faneuil Hall, the birthplace of American liberty, the Freedom Trail, the Boston Public Gardens and the iconic swan boats, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Aquarium, the Museum of Science, the Children’s Museum, the Union Oyster House — these are all world-renown attractions that shouldn’t be missed.
But there are a lot of attractions that aren’t so well known, and they’re definitely worth a visit. I had a chance to tour some of these attractions on the “Secrets of Underground Boston Tour” hosted by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.
I toured Boston’s historic North End, took afternoon tea at the Boston Public Library, and stayed at an ultra-hip music-themed hotel. I also met a sphinx and visited the world’s second most famous monster.
The Green Monster
Fenway Park is known as the home of the Boston Red Sox, who play there from May to September (and once in a while, they even play in October), but they offer tours all year round, even when the snow flies.
It has been remodeled over the years, with the addition of more seats and luxury boxes and other amenities, but it still retains the character of the original field, built in 1912.
That year the Red Sox won the World Series, beating the New York Highlanders, later renamed the Yankees, beginning one of the most famous rivalries in sports.
This old ballpark has a million stories and our guide, Brian Hart, knows most of them.
The two yellow foul poles are known as the Pesky Pole in right field and the Fisk Pole in left, named for Johnny Pesky, a slap hitter who homered down the right-field line in 1948, and Carlton Fisk, who smacked a famous home run to left in the 1975 World Series.
Red Sox fans of a certain age still recall Fisk waving his arms to keep the ball in fair territory.
There’s a seat in the 33d row of the bleachers where “The Splendid Splinter,” Ted Williams, bounced a 450-foot home run off the unsuspecting noggin of Joseph Boucher of Albany, N.Y.
“How far away must one sit to be safe in this park?” Boucher asked newsmen, displaying a straw hat with a hole right smack in the middle.
But the most famous feature of the park is the left-field wall, known to fans as the “Green Monster.”
Balls used to fly out of the park, Hart says, and they sometimes struck the windshields of cars at the dealership across the street.
Sox owner John Taylor would pay for the windshields, but when he went over to verify the damage, he saw people watching the games from the rooftops across the street, so he built the famous wall.
Seats were added to the wall in 2003, and you can actually go up there and look down on the park. It looks smaller with no people in the stands.
Fenway tours start at the gift shop on Yawkey Way and cost $15, with group rates available.
America’s First Public Park
The next stop on our tour was the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the nation’s first landscaped cemetery, founded in 1831 by Dr. Jacob Bigelow and designed by Henry Dearborn.
Besides the natural beauty of the landscape, Mt. Auburn is also the nation’s first arboretum with more than 5,000 trees, of 800 different varieties, all labeled, and it’s a refuge for more than 220 species of birds.
You can get a panoramic view of Boston from the 62-foot Washington Tower, view the magnificent stained glass windows in the Bigelow Chapel, and see the sphinx that Bigelow commissioned to honor those who died in the Civil War.
The cemetery reflects a sea change in people’s attitude toward nature. In the 17th and 18th centuries, New England settlers had to battle nature to survive, so they didn’t think much about preserving or enjoying it. Mortality was high for young and old, and the dead were crowded into close-packed churchyards.
In fact, the term ‘cemetery’ — resting place — was unknown before the founding of Mt. Auburn. The dedication address given by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story is regarded as a model for Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg.
With an increasing number of burials in the city, Mt. Auburn offered a tranquil landscape where the bereaved could remember their loved ones amid the beauty of the reflecting ponds, woodland gardens, and scenic overlooks. It was also the country’s first public green space. Boston Common is older, of course, but it was more of a place to pasture livestock.
Among the notables interred at Mt. Auburn are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Winslow Homer, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Baker Eddy, Bernard Malamud, Buckminster Fuller, Curt Gowdy, and Arthur Schlessinger.
Unlike the churchyards of early Boston Mt. Auburn has always been open to people of all religions.
It’s a great place for strolling and birdwatching — guided tours and audio tours are available — but please, no biking, picnicking, jogging or rollerblading.
The North End
Next, we had a tour of Boston’s historic North End, the city’s oldest neighborhood, with Alex Goldfield, president and founder of the North End Historical Society.
Early in its history, Boston looked quite different than it does now, Goldfield explained. What is now the Back Bay was all water, the Fenway was a swamp, and the North End was a narrow peninsula that jutted out into the harbor.
Increase and Cotton Mather, the ministers of the early Boston settlement, had their homes here, as did Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who was driven from his home during the Stamp Act riots of 1765.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
The neighborhood is probably most famous as the home of Paul Revere and the Old North Church made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”
Over the years, the North End has been home to English, Irish, African-American and Jewish communities.
Rose Kennedy, the daughter of Boston Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and the mother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was born here in an unassuming brick structure which is currently unoccupied.
But it is best known as an Italian-American neighborhood with more than 120 full-service Italian restaurants.
We visited one of these, La Summa, operated by Barbara Summa. The restaurant is named for her grandmother, Crocefissa Summa, who taught her the secrets of Sicilian and other types of Italian cuisine.
The most prominent landmark in the North End is the Paul Revere Mall, with an iconic statue of the famous silversmith/horseman by Cyrus Edwin Dallin, who also created the “Appeal to the Great Spirit” monument in front of the Museum of Fine Arts.
A Palace for the People
One of the highlights of the Underground Boston tour was high tea at the Map Room Cafe in the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. The architecture and sculpture of the library is an attraction in itself, but sitting in high-backed chairs nibbling on crustless sandwiches from a heavily laden tea tray is an experience that is not to be missed.
The library, which opened in 1895, was designed by Charles Follen McKim in the Renaissance Revival style and was intended to be “a palace for the people,” and so it is. The statues outside, the murals, the coffered ceilings, the corridors, the stairways, everything here is really magnificent.
Possibly the most splendid feature is the central courtyard with a fountain and the sculpture “Bacchante and Infant Faun” by Frederick William MacMonnies.
When the statue was originally presented to the library, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union raised a public outcry, citing its “drunken indecency,” and the statue was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Today the original is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a replica graces the library’s courtyard.
The Fairmont Copley
Speaking of coffered ceilings, another architectural masterpiece is located just down the street from the library, the Fairmont Copley Hotel. The hotel recently marked its 100th anniversary with a $20-million renovation.
Known as the “Grande Dame of Boston” the hotel was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, and over the last century, it has hosted many celebrated guests including Amelia Earhart, Frank Sinatra, and Luciano Pavarotti. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spent their second honeymoon there.
We lunched at the elegant Oak Long Bar, where Sydney Pollack filmed scenes in “The Firm” starring Tom Cruise. It’s certainly a well-appointed room with leather club seats, carved wood ceilings, hardwood floors, and the eponymous copper-topped oak bar.
From 1934 to 1978, it was known as the Merry-Go-Round Bar and they have left the curved metal inlay in the floor to commemorate its former incarnation.
I have to say we all deeply appreciated the charcuterie plate, the craft cocktails, the sliders, and, most especially, the Georgia pink shrimp, and sent our compliments to Chef David Daniels, whom you might recognize from New England Cable News.
The Vibe of the Verb
Our next stop was a former Howard Johnson’s motor lodge behind Fenway Park that has been transformed into a trendy new hotel called The Verb commemorating the Kenmore Square club scene of the last 40-odd years.
Built in 1959 as the Fenway Motor Lodge, the hotel was nearly demolished to make way for a high-rise apartment building like the ones springing up all around it, but developer Steve Samuels decided to renovate it instead, and he turned to David Bieber, a long-time Boston radio disc jockey and reporter for the former alternative newsweekly, the Boston Phoenix.
Bieber has an immense collection of artifacts from the heyday of the Kenmore music scene when a club called The Boston Tea Party hosted bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, J. Geils Band, and The Who when they were sort of famous and on their way to being really famous.
Another club called the Rathskeller and known as “The Rat” was popular in later years and was an early venue for the Police and the Cars.
From the hundreds of thousands of records, posters, magazines, and other memorabilia, Bieber has selected the best to decorate the lobby and the 94 rooms of the Verb.
There’s a hi-fi (record player) in the lobby where guests can play albums from Bieber’s collection, posters all around, and in the rooms are reviews of important concerts by some of the world’s greatest bands.
One poster in the lobby shows a schedule for the Boston Tea Party for a single month, and listed are dates by The Who, Poco, Joe Cocker, Led Zeppelin, the Bonzo Dog Band, Delany and Bonnie, and the Velvet Underground. And opening for the Velvet Underground is a new group called the Allman Brothers.
With room rates in the low $200s, the Verb is more economical than many downtown hotels, and it’s truly a unique experience.
Some other highlights of our Underground Boston Tour were:
*Bogie’s Place — Go into J.M. Curley’s at 21 Temple Place, right near the Boston Common, walk through the bar, where they serve standard pub fare, and into a back room, which has been designed as a gourmet steak house known as Bogie’s Place. You’ll get super service from Domingo and Matt, and don’t miss the sugar-dusted churros. Reservations are required.
*The Sinclair — a gastropub and music venue in Harvard Square, where you can dine on New American fare and catch hot new bands from around the world. We visited when Eluveitie, Tyr and Metsatoll, three death metal bands from Scandinavia, were setting up.
*Area Four — Tucked into a courtyard in the middle of MIT in Cambridge is a restaurant serving all-natural wood-fired pizzas, salads, garlic knots and another delicious fare, including the Hot Mess, a skillet of bacon, eggs, potatoes, and cheese. They also serve a secret pizza but don’t ask me what’s on it. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.
*Jacob Wirth’s — This historic German restaurant looks almost exactly as it did when it was founded in 1868. A great place to relax and travel back to another era. Don’t miss Jake Wirth’s Special Dark.
Stephen Hartshorne is the retired associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.