Photographs with a View of Her Own

For those of us with an interest in Boston’s Gilded Age, the Women’s Suffrage Movement or 19th century female photographers, the name Clover Adams rings a bell. Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams—Gilded Age socialite and portrait photographer, is currently the subject of a small but delightful exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885—traces the privileged life of “a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin.” Clover began experimenting with photography in the summer of 1883 while her husband Henry Adams—prominent historian, Harvard professor and novelist—was writing Esther, a novel loosely based on the making of Trinity Church in the City of Boston. Adams modeled the heroine of the novel after his wife Clover, whom he characterized in it as a “second rate amateur” painter.

“I’ve gone in for photography and find it very absorbing” wrote Clover on September 7 1883. “My wife does nothing except take photographs…” wrote Henry to Elizabeth Sherman Cameron on July 26 1883. Artistically dismissed by Henry, Clover continued to make compelling photographs that allowed for an intimate look at America’s Gilded Age. 

Clover’s photographs are marked by quotes or any information she recorded of the individual or place she photographed—often providing a glimpse into the personalities of highly respected figures. When photographed, Senator and future Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi refused to have his photo taken until “he had rumpled [his hair] all up,” wrote Clover alongside his photograph on February 23 1884.

(Left) Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883 (Right)Umbrella tree at Smith's Point, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams. Both Photographs courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Clover’s ability to communicate the personality of her sitters is evident in the arrangement of her albums.  She paired a photograph of Henry Adams in his study room alongside a photograph of a lonely tree perched on a mountain top. One can arrive at numerous conclusions, but we can all assume that this arrangement speaks to the lonely life that Henry led.

Organized by the seasons of the year, the exhibition highlights Clover’s three albums and displays them in the context of letters, loose photographs and ephemera—including her personal sketchbook with a watercolor by John La Farge.

Having lived in the immediate surroundings of Trinity Church before moving to Washington, DC, Henry Adams became close friends with Phillips Brooks, Trinity’s then charismatic preacher; America’s premier architect Henry Hobson Richardson and artist John La Farge. Clover photographed Trinity Church and the people behind one of America’s greatest architectural treasures. These photographs, many of them iconic—also form part of this exhibition.

The photographs of Clover Adams are as heartbreaking as the life she led. On the morning of Sunday December 6, 1885 she wrote “if I had a single point of character, I would stand on that and grow back to life.” That same Sunday morning, Clover committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, the chemical she used to develop her own photographs. She was 42.

Henry Adams never spoke of her or mentions her in his masterpiece “The Education of Henry Adams,” but he honored Clover’s memory with the bronze seated statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens–placed over her grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.  

 A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885 is accompanied by a biography of the same title by exhibition curator Natalie Dystra. The exhibition is on view until June 02, 2012.

Where is the Love? The Building Bostonians Love to Hate

Boston City Hall, Rear facing Faneuil Hall, Photo Credit: Historic American Building Survey

Yelp has become quite the platform for not only reviewing restaurants, hotels, stores and everything in between, but also architecture and public spaces. Who knew? 

 Curious to see what people had to say about some of Boston’s most beautiful “ugly” buildings, I conducted a search on Yelp.

It turns out, people love the Christian Science Monitor Complex in Boston, a complex with an excellent collection of concrete buildings from around the 1970’s, but hate Boston City Hall. Who knew?  Bostonians love to hate it, while those reviewers from other states like it.

Did you know that in 1976, on a national survey conducted by the American Institute of Architects and taken by architects, critics and historians in the United States, Boston City Hall was voted as one of the ten greatest works in American architectural history? I have been saying that for years, but read it from our very own architecture critic Robert Campbell

I think Boston City Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in the City of Boston. Let’s agree to disagree.

Yelp Reviews of City Hall:

Jeremy G. from Humble, TX – writes “THIS is the building Le Corbusier **WISHED** he had designed.”

Beans B. from Brighton, MA:  “From the wind-swept brick wasteland outside to the ridiculously narrow and uncomfortable spectator seats in the city council chamber to the lack of sufficient restrooms this building is a disaster.”

Alexandra S. from Hingham, MA: “There’s no avoiding the area for me since I walk through Boston City Hall plaza twice a day during the week. Ultimately, the sad reality is that no matter how much I’ve looked for something to appreciate, I don’t like this building.  

I’ll even go a step further and say that there is in fact nothing redeeming at all about Boston CIty Hall and the red brick environs. I finally just have to admit to myself that this is just one ugly and off-putting building and plaza.”

Sebastian Y. from Boston, MA: “A monstrosity apparently designed by angry communists, which would look more at home on the outskirts of Moscow or Minsk.” 

Hans W. from Brooklyn, NY writes:  “City Hall is a badass spaceship space palace, and it’s sitting downtown because in 1962 someone had an original idea and someone else took a chance on it.  And that’s what life’s all about.”-

K G. from Boston, MA: “I don’t despise the building itself as much as many people seem to.  I have not seen another building like it, so you can call it unique at least.”

Jack M. from Boston, MA: “As a friend of mine once said, “Boston City Hall is the ugliest piece of architecture on the planet”.

Dan B. from Newton, MA: “The Boston City Hall looks like a good design for a maximum security prison in the Soviet Union.  Except even the Soviets would never have come up with the giant concrete stilts, which causes the building’s underside to loom over congress street and the unfortunate security guards who work there.”

Courtney P. from Boston, MA: “This building is just ugly.  With architecture being one of my favorite parts of Boston, it’s so disappointing that this building is City Hall.  Please consider building something else!”

What do you think of Boston City Hall? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Documenting Boston’s Murals: What They Say and How They Say It

Documenting Boston’s Murals: What They Say and How They Say It, a short essay written for the Boston Society of Architects on my attempts at documenting every extant mural in the City of Boston.

Anonymous Boston

Photo Courtesy of Joanna Marinova Jones

The last time I saw an exhibition that literally made me tremble was at the Institute of Contemporary Art during the Mark Bradford show (November 19, 2010 – March 13, 2011). This time around, it wasn’t Bradford that almost moved me to tears, but rather an exhibition at Fourth Wall Project on social justice and gun violence in Boston. Words could not even begin to describe the emotions I felt as I read every wall text, looked at every photograph and listened to the desperate pleas of families (a haunting audio piece was part of the show) in Anonymous Boston a multimedia exhibit that focused on life, rather than the devastating effects of gun violence.

Organized by media producer and human rights activist Joanna Marinova Jones, Anonymous Boston directly and indirectly brought to light many issues that have long been ignored by public officials, and people not directly affected by gun violence. Anonymous Boston aimed at empowering those families who have experienced devastating losses—by giving them a voice with which to tear down the derogatory comments left behind by anonymous bloggers on online news articles.

Newspaper clippings with stories on the victims made this exhibition not only interesting, but relevant on so many levels. The headlines are nothing short of sensational, they nurture the anonymous monsters that leave tactless comments that hurt victim’s families.

Fueled by the insensitive, inaccurate and superficial media coverage of violence in Boston, these anonymous bloggers further exacerbate the situation by relentlessly attacking not only grieving families, but an entire race. Their comments, some of which I have quoted above, are difficult to stomach.

It’s much easier to ignore the issue or point fingers and blame the victim’s family, rather than to take a stand to stop gun violence. It is also much easier to say “if it is not happening to me, then it’s not my problem— why should I care about all the violence that is destroying your community?”

Photo Courtesy of Joanna Marinova Jones

What happens in Boston is everyone’s responsibility. I could not help but feel mentally drained and spiritually devastated, but always remaining hopeful—as I was confronted with blatantly racist and ignorant comments left by these bloggers next to a victim’s photograph. It’s easy to hide behind a veil rather than to discuss the real underlying issues as to why these things are happening in our city.

To say that what happens in Roxbury, Dorchester or Mattapan isn’t my problem— is to be part of the problem, as a family member of one of the victims in Anonymous Boston was quoted saying.

Anonymous Boston communicated a powerful message and I sincerely hope that those who experienced it listened. Gun violence is the product of complex cultural issues. We as a culture are obsessed with guns and yet we wonder why there is so much senseless violence in this country. My only regret was not being able to experience this exhibition more than once, as I went on the second to last day before closing. 

All other uncredited images are by Anulfo Baez.

PHOTO ESSAY—Ashmont Hill: Exploring the Architecture and Beauty of a Boston Streetcar Suburb

Sam Bass Warner’s Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston (1870-1900) documents in great detail the process of growth in Boston, from the 2-mile radius city that it was once to the metropolis that it is today. Last
summer I explored the gardens of Highland Park, a small segment of the once streetcar suburb of Roxbury and felt this summer should be dedicated to Dorchester, one of the first streetcar suburbs of Boston.

The three (Roxbury, West Roxbury and Dorchester) streetcar suburbs discussed in Warner’s classic study were enormous in size compared to the old pedestrian city of 1850.

By 1900, the population of these suburbs (now neighborhoods of Boston) boomed to about 227,000 compared to about 60,000 in 1870. That’s an alarming growth rate! According to the building records Warner studied, between 1870 and 1900—22,500 houses went up: 12,000 single family houses, 6,000 two
family houses, 4,000 three-family houses, and about 500 larger structures (35).

Walking around these streetcar suburbs can be disorienting because “the shape of the land is buried under endless streets so filled with houses and so patched together that the observer cannot orient himself in a
landscape larger than a block or two (35).” The 22,500 houses built in these streetcar suburbs “were the product of separate decisions made by 9,000 individual builders” (37).

The houses we see today serve as examples of social class building patterns. Their style and size are testament of Boston’s rich immigration history. Some great examples of the Stick Style, Shingle Style,
Arts and Crafts Movement, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival among other types and styles can be found around Ashmont Hill in Dorchester.

For in depth information on Boston’s streetcar suburbs consult Sam Bass Warner’s book mentioned above. Douglass Shand-Tucci’s Ashmont: An Historical Guide to Peabody Square, Carruth’s Hill and Ashmont Hill and the Architecture of Edwin J. Lewis, Jr. and John A Fox complements Warner’s book very well.

Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” at the Museum of Fine Arts

If you haven’t heard the news, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is opening on September 17, a new wing devoted to contemporary art. To celebrate this opening, the museum will show Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” a work acquired with the help of the National Gallery of Canada. Marclay’s “The Clock” has been one of the year’s most talked about works of art and recently won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.

The “news” that is circulating on twitter and on blogs isn’t about the MFA’s role in Boston’s contemporary art scene. It also isn’t about this new wing, which is over 21,000 square feet and triples the museum’s contemporary art exhibition space. Instead it’s about a $200 ticket people have to pay to view the first 12 hours of Marclay’s work.

How is the $200 ticket all of a sudden news when it has been published on the MFA’s website for some time now? I prayed every day that it was an error, but it wasn’t.

There goes the power of prayer people.

The price tag is a bit outrageous and it obviously caters to those who can afford to pay $200 for some drinks and 12 hours of the film. Yes, people attending the premiere of “The Clock” are also paying for a party organized by Chelsea Clinton’s wedding planner. If you can’t afford to see the first twelve hours, you can enjoy the other twelve hours for free on a Free Community Day on Sunday September 18th.

As much as I love art and the Museum of Fine Arts, I think this move is a bit elitist. Why not throw the opening party in the middle of the week and show “The Clock” for free that same weekend?

I’ll be honest, I was disappointed in the price tag because I had been waiting for a while to see “The Clock.” I think I’ll wait until later in the Fall when it will be shown for another 24 hours for FREE (with regular museum admission I assume. I hope not).

The MFA has already set the bar very high for contemporary art in Boston with the acquisition of “The Clock.” The message I’m getting is that they’re ready to take contemporary art seriously. If “The Clock” is any indication of where Boston’s contemporary art scene is heading, then we have a great leader in the MFA to take us there.

I’m very much looking forward to the opening of the new wing and excited to see Lynda Benglis’ Wing among many other works. I can only expect to be blown away and I think I will be judging from the “sound” of things.

Boston’s contemporary art scene seems to be pushing in a positive direction. Let’s keep it that way.

Image of Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” taken from the Museum of Fine Arts’ Press page.

Review: Close Distance

Raul Gonzalez, Wake up Call (On My Last Nerve), 2011 | Ink and Bic pen, 45 by 65 inches acrylic. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

I may be too young to remember when was the last time Boston experienced an exhibition that featured the work of Latino artists living in this city or its surrounding towns. I may also be too young to remember Grupo Ñ, an experimental but now dissolved Latino art collective from the 1980’s that became an instrumental force in Boston’s underground art scene.

“Close Distance,” at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery is the first exhibition in nearly thirty years featuring the works of six emerging Boston area Latino artists “practicing across diverse media and national borders.” Curated by Liz Munsell, a local curator with DiscordiaFilms and a Curatorial Research Associate at the Museum of Fine Arts, “Close Distance” is engaging, provoking and riveting.

The exhibition is as culturally diverse and distinct as are the artistic vocabularies presented. From the site specific work of Daniela Rivera, a 2010 Foster Prize finalist to Raul Gonzalez III and others; religion, identity, pop culture, politics, and institutional oppression are all explored, commented upon and richly juxtaposed throughout the gallery and within individual works.

Vela Phelan, Witch Doctor Wrestlers, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Vela Phelan’s site specific performance-installation Deviant Idols in the Black Divine, a work  modeled after a temple and composed of “spiritual idols for a modern world” struck a chord with me. A performance artist, Mr. Phelan’s installation opened up a world of memories growing up in the Dominican Republic. Having experienced the mysticism and the commodization of Santeria and Voodoo practices on a personal level, this installation moved me in ways only the pulsating beats of African drums at a palo ceremony have.

Because of the spiritual relationship that evolves between the viewer and the artist, Mr. Phelan has decided to carry out a 5-part performance that will take place almost every Thursday at Mills Gallery. “What will happen is a bit unknown to me (and to him),” says curator Liz Munsell “but it will be a journey that takes us outside the gallery walls – physically and metaphysically.”

Referencing minimalism and the literal collapse of institutional spaces, Daniela Rivera’s Fatiga material allows for an exhilirating experience as juxtaposed with the dexterous, signature “self-taught” style drawings of Raul Gonzalez.

Anabel Vazquez Rodriguez, Visión Doble, Super 8. 2011. Film. Courtesy of the artist.

In the film Visión Doble (Double Vision), multimedia artist Anabel Vazquez Rodriguez juxtaposes paradise-like images of Puerto Rico with political demonstrations held in and around Boston’s Copley Square. The film is an autobiographical journey that transcends borders and cultural boundaries.

While Boston may not have a tightly knit Latino arts collective like New York, Los Angeles and Miami do, “Close Distance” gathers together local Boston artists who for the most part had known each other prior to this exhibition at Mills Gallery. “Because these artists are all floating in the same “alternative” spaces or artist institutions as other Bostonians,” says Ms. Munsell, “I would say that they have much common, including language and culture, that brings them together.”

With “Close Distance, I hoped to bring them together a bit more” says Ms. Munsell, whose approach to curating is not solely interesting on a formal or aesthetic level – but has social context or a theoretical framework as its backdrop. “I can already see that has happened in a major way, but the show has just begun!” she added. “Close Distance” is rich in talent and abundant in excellent work.


Artist and Curator Talk Wednesday, August 3 | 6 – 9pm
Performance with Artists Yassy Goldie and Bru Jø Wednesday, August 17 | 6 – 8pm
These artists’ work touches on the construction of cultural identity. Their guerrilla tactics have been known to simultaneously intrigue and disorient audiences.

Vela Phelan explores the duality “ego/spirituality” through objects and actions found in his performance-installation Deviant Idols of The Black Devine. In his words “a Quest to expand the Shadow my EGO CASTS,” this five-part performance will take place at Mills Gallery Thursdays July 21 & 28, August 11 & 25 at 7pm, and as part of the Artist/Curator talk on Wednesday, Aug 3rd.

Review: River Street

Saturday May 1st, Daniel Phillips preparing for the installation of River Street (center)

A site specific installation in Hyde Park by Daniel Phillips, River Street fosters an enriching cross-cultural and multi-generational dialogue between people whose memories are encapsulated in the built environment and “outsiders” like me who might be interested in learning about the architectural, industrial, social and natural history of the site in its present state.

According to Dolores Hayden in The Power of Place, historic places help citizens define their public pasts and trigger social memory through the urban landscape. Hayden investigates the concept of “place memory” through philosopher Edward S. Casey’s formulation, in that place memory “encapsulates the human ability to connect with both the built and natural environments that are entwined in the cultural landscape.”

River Street is installed on the former site of what was until 2004, the oldest operating paper mill in North America. Built on the Hyde Park side of the heavily polluted Neponset River, the history of the Tileston-Hollingsworth Paper Company extends as far back as 1733.

Besides its social and industrial history, the site of the mill complex was architecturally significant until recent years when it succumbed to demolition’s wrecking ball. The firm of W. Cornell Appleton and Frank A. Stearns (Appleton & Stearns), and later members of the illustrious Boston architectural firm of Peabody & Stearns, designed an 1890 “handsome” Georgian Revival office building which is no longer extant. In its present state, the remaining scars resulting from the demolition of the site evoke a sense of loss and nostalgia of an era gone-by.

River Street is a multi channel video projection composed of thousands of photographic stills shot on site by Daniel Phillips. For every one and a half minutes of video, it is estimated that approximately 900 photographs are used to create a time lapse moving image. Each photograph captures the passage of time, the crumbling death of the last remaining buildings on site and the slowly renewing life of the Neponset River Reservation. Projected on the loading bays of a dilapidated water pumping station, River Street triggers our memory by capturing those moments that vanish before our eyes. Moments like ice melting from the branches of trees or the rhythmic flow of the river or the transient life of the graffiti in the area, allow us to visually connect the past with the present.

A collaboration between the artist Daniel Phillips and Finnard Properties; the current owners and developers of the site, this one night installation of River Street was presented in conjunction withthe Boston Cyberarts Festival. The installation on Saturday April 30 attracted many members from the Hyde Park and Dorchester communities. “It was wonderful, breathtaking, unbelievable” says Adrian of Hyde Park, “This is my community, of course I had to be here tonight.”

River Street Tower Still #16, Daniel Phillips, 2010

River Street Tower Still #16, Daniel Phillips, 2010

Get Pumped! Introducing Metropolitan Boston’s Newest Museum

A short walk from the Reservoir Stop on the Riverside Line or Cleveland Circle stop on the MBTA, and located inside a gorgeously restored and rehabilitated Richardsonian Romanesque Pumping Station building, is Metropolitan Boston’s newest museum, the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum which opened on Sunday March 27th, 2011.

Designed by Arthur Vinal “Boston’s last city architect,” and built in 1886-87 and expanded in 1897-98, the High Service Pumping Station was the city’s response to the increased demand for clean water resources, which by 1800’s, like many other cities of its size in America, was rapidly experiencing population growth deeming it unfit to live in. The Great Fire of 1872 pushed city officials to locate other clean water resources outside the city to provide a steady and clean water supply for its citizens. As a result of this “push,” the Metropolitan Waterworks was born, breathing new life to Boston and its citizens.

The museum, primarily located in the Great Engines Hall of the High Service Pumping Station contains three massive pumps that will capture the attention of young and old. Through interactive exhibits and displays of tools and instruments, visitors learn of the social, architectural, and public health history of pumping station and its role in the City of Boston. The engines at the museum, once formed part of the largest reservoir water pumping system in the world!

The Great Engine Hall houses the Leavitt Engine, capable of pumping 20 million gallons of water a day is now considered a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The other two engines are the Worthington Engine, the only horizontal and smallest of all them is capable of pumping 15 million gallons of water a day and the Allis Engine, a massive engine which extends three stories above the operating floor and two stories below it. The engines are in the same location they have been since the High Service Pumping Station began operating.

I spent more than an hour “getting to know” the people behind the extraordinary architectural and engineering marvels of the Metropolitan Waterworks. Paying careful attention to (almost) every breathtaking detail of the three massive engines, I walked away with a deeper appreciation for the engineering works of 19th century Boston. Although steam pumping ended in 1976, the engines at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum allow us to experience an aspect of 19th century life in Boston rarely discussed outside academic circles.

The Metropolitan Waterworks Museum offers guided tours highlighting the history of the landscape and other features of the history of the Chestnut Hill/Reservoir area. Please check the museum’s website or call for more information.

Get Pissed Off!

Contemporary art is hard to swallow. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve seen many works that have managed to piss me off and I’ve loved it. I loved it because the work was successful in stirring some sort of emotion out of me and for making me think out of the box. Roni Horn’s “Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix,” 1994-95, pissed me off so much I didn’t even want to see the exhibition a second time. The more I read about the work, the more I understood what it meant and how powerful it was for Horn and those who experienced it. The next time you walk into a gallery and see gold sheets you can buy in an art store or a sales receipt from Target or H&M labeled as art, think twice before speaking and calling it a joke. I won’t tell you all the reasons why a sales receipt may be considered art, but it is because the artist has declared it so and because it has been re-contextualized and presented to us with a different meaning.

Gabriel Kuri: Nobody needs to know the price of your Saab (February 02 – July 4, 2011) at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston is a pretty good show. I haven’t been thrilled with the shows in the east gallery, but this one gives us more to talk about than tattoos and objectified women (Dr. Lakra). This is the kind of show that will piss someone off or have people asking the gallery guards “do you get this?” at the sight of plastic grocery bags hanging from the ceiling or grass growing on a stack of newspapers. I LOVE IT!

I laughed many times and I stopped to question what I was looking at. I laughed. And laughed again and again, so much that one of the gallery guards said to me “aren’t they fun?” pointing to “Thank You Clouds” hanging from the ceiling. They are fun and I get this stuff (of course, it took me a while to appreciate most contemporary art)!

The show is organized by Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston and is accompanied by a full exhibition catalog. Go see it and if you are one of those contemporary art skeptics, this may just piss you off, which is great because it will get you talking about it and we all LOVE to talk about art. Don’t we?

Exploring the Museum of Fine Arts with Context Travel

On Wednesday February 26th, I had the opportunity of attending a walking tour organized by Context Travel at the Museum of Fine Arts. For Context Travel, the walking tours are no larger than five or six people and are led by local experts in urban planning, architecture, art history or other related fields. My experience at the Museum of Fine Arts was led by Tricia, a long time docent there.

Exploring a building, a work of art, or the city, in context to its surroundings or the time it was created is central to the mission of Context Travel. Context Travel doesn’t organize tours, instead it creates narrative participatory experiences in twelve cities around the world, including Athens, Florence, Naples, Paris, New York, Philadelphia and most recently, Boston.

Part of that mission, is to “connect curious travelers with that priceless local knowledge.” Context’s walking tours are usually three hours long and are offered on a variety of topics and themes. In Boston, explorations include Beacon Hill, North End, and the artist John Singer Sargent and many more. Context Travel crafts tours “designed to help the erudite traveler appreciate and defend the city without overrunning it,” the tours are engaging, informative, interesting and fun.

Being a docent at Trinity Church, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, I can certainly relate to crafting an experience that will engage the visitor with the art work and architecture. I am very particular in making connections between art and architecture of Trinity Church in context to its surroundings and American history. This is an important detail that Context Travel emphasizes in all of its walks and seminars.

For the first two hours of the Museum of Fine Arts tour, the docent and attendees explored the new wing dedicated to American art. The last hour was dedicated to the European, Asian and Egyptian art galleries. Throughout the three hours, we stopped to discussed particular artworks and place them in context to other works in the museum, connected them to notable people as well as the city of Boston.

Exploring the museum for three hours with Context Travel proved to be a great experience primarily because I was exposed to works of arts that I either possessed very little knowledge of or have unintentionally overlooked because I was too engaged looking at other objects. I found the tour engaging and the docent was very approachable and welcoming.

Art of the Ancient Near East in Boston

Winged protective deity, two alabaster reliefs from the northwest palace at Calakh, 883-859 BCE, Assyrian, Reign of Assurnasipal II.Nimrud (Calah, Kalhu), Iraq. Height x width x depth: 230x 132 x 9.4 cm (90 9/16 x51 15/16 x 3 11/16 in.) Accession Number 81.56 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 A series of posts inspired by the recently opened American art wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. It highlights some pieces in Boston area museums.

Winged protective deity, two alabaster reliefs from the northwest palace at Calakh, 883-859 BCE, Assyrian, Reign of Assurnasipal II

Throughout history art has been used to legitimize and even achieve political power, it has been used as a vehicle for the dissemination of propagandistic messages in hopes of persuading people to change their attitude towards ideas or beliefs. The two alabaster architectural reliefs from the northwest Palace of Assurnasipal II are examples of such works of art, one of their primary functions was to legitimize the king’s rule and protect his power under enemy attacks.

Produced around 883-859 BCE in Assyria, the alabaster architectural reliefs of the winged protective deities emphasize the king’s power and importance through their monumentality and scale. The reliefs portray different winged deities with larger than life bodies. One deity is depicted pollinating a sacred tree and  another holding a small scepter. These figures were not only meant to protect the king from intruders or enemies, but to simultaneously intimidate and astonish those who stood in front of them.  The wings, depicted larger than the body themselves convey a message of power and authority.

The lines in the alabaster and the shallowness of the reliefs in particular the highly detailed wings and the garment worn by the figures add a rich texture further emphasized by the light falling upon the surfaces of the stone. The subtle play of light and shadow on the relief delineates the highly muscular arms and legs, heightening the drama that was to unfold as one would approach the palace of the king. The art of the Ancient Near East would have been painted in bright colors, so the play of light and shadow falling upon the surface of the alabaster would have been different than what we see today.

Light and shadow also create a rich contrast between the soft curves of the muscles in the legs and arms with the stark linear patterns in the beards and wings. The two alabaster architectural reliefs legitimized and protected the power of the king through their monumentality, highly abstract linearity and geometry which is further heightened by the play of light and shadow falling upon the surface of the alabaster.

Have you seen this piece at the Museum of Fine Arts? They are two of the most dramatic pieces in the Art of the Ancient Near East galleries.

Guest Contributor – Light Dancing on Water: The Charles River Esplanade

It was a visit to the Charles River Esplanade over fifteen years ago that convinced me to stay in Boston. Back then and even now, I write friends and family of that moment, describing how the sunlight danced on the surface of the silky blue waters. Over time, strolling the park’s various walkways and paths, I was motivated to pick up a camera so that I could show people the beauty before me and not just tell them about it.

I walk the Esplanade’s course at different times of the same day, as well as at different times of the year. Each instance always provides unexpected visual pleasures for me, from leaves on the ground to fish in the water. Only recently have I learned of the park’s origins: how the three mile stretch was created from landfill, and how the different pieces of the park, from the walkways and bridges to the playgrounds and boathouses, have evolved over the decades. It continues to evolve as caretakers balance environmental stewardship and cultural preservation with meeting the recreational needs of Boston’s residents.

I did not grow up in a big city. With its concrete and asphalt, albeit beautifully designed and executed concrete and asphalt, Boston can sometimes become overwhelming. In those moments, when I do feel the need for a respite, I make my way to the river and to the Esplanade. I have not left the city behind but I certainly feel closer to nature. And, I think that is the unique beauty of the Esplanade, enabling people to be both connected to their city life and to nature in a meaningful way.





Cynthia Staples is a writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in several online and print publications including African Voices, Creativity Portal, Flashquake, F-Stop, the Seattle Times and more. Follow her musings at and view more of her photography at

31 in 31 of your Favorite Buildings in Boston: #28

Old South Meeting House, Washington Street at Milk Street, Boston, MA 02108

Joshua Blanchard, builder, 1729

I was inspired to highlight 31 buildings in Boston in 31 days after the architecture blog A Daily Dose of Architecture . Not only was I going to highlight 31 buildings, but 31 of Bostonian’s favorite buildings. This is the series.

About the Old South Meeting Church:

The Old South Meeting House in Downtown Crossing is Boston’s second oldest church after Old North Church in the North End. The Old South Meeting House is said to be one of the first buildings in the city to be saved from the wrecking ball, prior to being saved by ardent preservationists, the Meeting House narrowly escaped the Boston fire of 1872 which burned to the ground many of Downtown Boston’s commercial buildings. It is one of the most historically significant buildings in Boston based on Christopher Wren’s designs.

Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey

31 in 31 of Your Favorite Buildings in Boston: #22

Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 21 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA

Le Corbusier with Sert, Jackson, and Gourley, 1961-1963

I was inspired to highlight 31 buildings in Boston in 31 days after the architecture blog A Daily Dose of Architecture . Not only was I going to highlight 31 buildings, but 31 of Bostonian’s favorite buildings. This is the series.

About the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts:

I love that the only building by master architect Le Corbusier in North America made this Favorite Buildings in Boston Series.  The building is dramatic and celebrates the dynamism of concrete and the rounded forms typical of Le Corbusian architecture. One great building to see, admire and learn from.

Photo: Scott Norsworthy on Flickr

31 in 31 of Your Favorite Buildings in Boston: #21

New Old South Church, 645 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116 (Copley Square)

Cummings and Sears, 1874-1875, Tower Rebult 1941, Restoration:  Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott

I was inspired to highlight 31 buildings in Boston in 31 days after the architecture blog A Daily Dose of Architecture . Not only was I going to highlight 31 buildings, but 31 of Bostonian’s favorite buildings. This is the series.

About the New Old South Church:

The “Ruskinian Gothic” New Old South Church is another architectural masterpiece claiming a corner of Boston’s Copley Square. Heavily influenced by the English critic John Ruskin, the architectural ornamentation at New Old South Church is as exquisite as the building itself. Its interiors are well executed with stained glass windows designed by the English firm of Clayton and Bell, which were considered to be one of the most prolific and successful stained glass firms in the 19th century.

Photo: Garden Club of Back Bay

31 in 31 of Your Favorite Buildings in Boston: #20 with Guest Blog Entry

John Hancock Building

Henry Cobb & I.M Pei of Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners, 1976

I was inspired to highlight 31 buildings in Boston in 31 days after the architecture blog A Daily Dose of Architecture . Not only was I going to highlight 31 buildings, but 31 of Bostonian’s favorite buildings. This is the series.

It so happens that I was going to schedule a guest blog post by Todd Larson on the John Hancock Bulding in November, but instead of writing this entry on the building, as I have done with the last 19 entries, I’ve decided to include his post on the John Hancock as part of the 31 in 31 series . This is Todd’s entry:

Hancock on the Block and Off Again…

Hancock by wallyg Flickr

…but far from a chip off the old one, being one of the few glass skyscrapers to defy the norm of its contemporary peers as well as its historical forefathers, both financially and architecturally.

Yes, Boston’s beloved (at first bedeviled) John Hancock Tower is up for sale again, following a 2009 foreclosure that forced Broadway Partners to auction it off for $660 million ($640 million going to their defaulted loan) to Normandy Real Estate Partners and Five Mile Capital Partners. Now they’re getting bids from Boston Properties, owners of the Hancock’s architectural/actuarial rival, the Prudential Tower (below, left) down the block; Beacon Capital Partners, who had unloaded the Hancock in Broadway’s lap in late ’06 for a whopping $1.3 billion; and Vornado Realty Trust, owner-uppers to the $700 million Filene’s rehab debacle (below, right) in Downtown Crossing, The Boston Globe reported on Aug. 26, 2010.

Guess who won out? None other than the Pru’s owners, for a record-breaking $930 million, which includes $289.5 million in cash,  $640.5 million in assumed debt, and about $2 million in acquisition costs, Craig M. Douglas of the Boston Business Journal reported on October 4, 2010.

Hard to believe those rivals are now siblings!

Filene's by jonmike12 on photobucket

As the Filene’s fiasco goes to show, the recession has cooled new construction in Boston, so its existing buildings from recessions and recoveries past are the hot property now. The cool blue glass giant’s front-and-centeredness in this market isn’t surprising, given its Miesian masterwork, its photogenic familiarity, and its stalwart status as New England’s tallest building (thanks to the recession), yet is, given its shaky foundations.

Hancock’s harrowing history

The 1968-1972 excavation of 500 million pounds of earth for the building’s steel-pile down-to-bedrock foundations certainly shook those of its Copley Square neighborhood. The foundation dig’s temporary steel retaining walls warped, the Back Bay’s soft mud and blue clay landfill gushed in, streets and sidewalks cracked, utility lines ruptured, and the wood-and-granite transept foundations of next-door neighbor Trinity Church nearly collapsed, resulting in Trinity’s victorious multi-million-dollar lawsuit of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Photo by Ernst Halberstadt, courtesy of US National Archive

An eye-popping sight the tower hardly was at first. Upon its topping off in August 1972 (beating its rival Pru — then Boston’s biggest, boxiest and boringest — by 41 feet and 8 stories), its 500-pound, 4-by-11-foot glass panes began popping out, causing a maelstrom of glass showers and Boston Police street closures (but, deo gratias, no injuries). The plywood infill of the window voids earned the building the sobriquets “Plywood Palace” and “Plywood Ranch” (the moniker of a suburban lumber-yard chain at the time) and the visual distinction of a grain elevator. Lab research concluded that oscillating expansions and contractions of the air between each window’s inner and outer panels caused the pop-outs of the windows, hence their total replacement with half-inch-thick heat-treated single panes by manufacturer Libbey-Owens-Ford, who bore the redo’s entire $7 million price tag.

John Hancock Center by Jovianeye

Citigroup Center

To top it all off, the tower began to sway in the high winds it caused, and Swiss Engineer Bruno Thurlimann determined these winds could topple it eventually. Thus it was reinformed with 1,500 tons of diagonal steel bracing like that of its 1970 predecessor, Chicago’s John Hancock Center (left), and Le Messurier Consultants retrofit its 58th floor with a $3 million “tuned mass damper” like the one they installed in New York’s 1978 Citicorp (now Citigroup) Tower (right). The tuned mass damper was best described by architecture critic Robert Campbell in The Boston Globe (“Builders faced bigger crisis than falling windows,” March 3, 1995):

Two 300-ton weights sit at opposite ends of the 58th floor of the Hancock. Each weight is a box of steel, filled with lead, 17 feet (5.2 m) square by 3 feet (0.9 m) high. Each weight rests on a steel plate. The plate is covered with lubricant so the weight is free to slide. But the weight is attached to the steel frame of the building by means of springs and shock absorbers. When the Hancock sways, the weight tends to remain still… allowing the floor to slide underneath it. Then, as the springs and shocks take hold, they begin to tug the building back. The effect is like that of a gyroscope, stabilizing the tower. The reason there are two weights, instead of one, is so they can tug in opposite directions when the building twists. The cost of the damper was $3 million. The dampers are free to move a few feet relative to the floor.

Naturally, all those repairs, reparations, replacements and retrofits soared the Hancock’s construction costs from $75 million to $175 million.

But by the time the dust, glass and oil had settled upon its five-years-in-arrears dedication on September 29, 1976, its liquid-blue glass facade, its geometric angularity, and its sheer skyscraper stature over a historically low-scale, tradition-bound city was already attracting the iconic awe it continues to capture today. The following year, the American Institute of Architects gave it a National Honor Award.

In 1983, it received the Boston Society of Architects’ annual Harleston Parker Medal (the third Hancock building to do so) — a far cry from the BSA crying foul in 1967 over its alleged “relationship, or lack of it, to Trinity Church and Copley Square, [so] one has to assume that it will be the bellwether of all contemporary urban design problems” (which it was, for a few years and many million$). A mid-1990s Boston Globe poll of architects rated it Boston’s third best work of architecture. Even New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, according to a Sept. 23, 2010 Globe editorial, called the Hancock Tower “one of the most beautiful skyscrapers ever built.”

Here’s why.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Hancock by RhythmicQuietude

Hancock by Tomtheman5

The fairest weather of all is magically mirrored on the Hancock’s 10,344-pane glass curtain wall by a pure-blue hue. When the clouds roll by, their reflection rolls with them. When skies are gray, so is the Hancock. At night, its interior light pierces through its panes in a majestic moonlighting of midnight oil. 

But most of all, architect Henry Cobb of I.M. Pei & Partners (now Pei Cobb Fried & Partners) designed the tower to reflect its neighbors as opposed to crowding or overbearing them — that is, to defer to Copley Square history as well as to make it.

And here’s where “complexity and contradiction in architecture,” in Robert Venturi’s phraseology, comes into play in the Hancock. Its glass skin, its 60-story height and its amalgam of trapezoidal, parallelogram and triangular shapes are decidedly a radical departure from Boston’s boxy, low-scale, historically derivative masonry building tradition. But at the same time it appears to “disappear” from our consciousness as its one-way mirror-glass walls mirror-image their historical environs, depending on where we’re standing or walking or which way the sun is shining. In this way it showcases a panoply of architectural styles while being ever-so-humble about its own.

In the crystal glass we see…

...H.H. Richardson's Richardsonian Romanesque Trinity Church (1877)...

...Cummings & Sears' Northern Italian Gothic New Old South Church (1874), McKim, Mead & White's Renaissance Revival Boston Public Library (1895)...

...Hardenbergh & Blackall's Italian Renaissance Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel (1912) (note how the glass refracts sunlight onto the old facade, bringing it to our attention even more)...

...the 1920s Georgian Revival Hotel 140 (a former YMCA)...

John Hancock Building, backed up by Cram & Ferguson's Art Deco 1947 expansion (themselves Harleston Parker laureates: the former in 1924, the latter in 1950), visually charting the course of the insurer's growth from tiny acorn to tall oak to towering redwood, but lately overgrown by a competitor, New England Life's Anglo-Italianate Postmodern 500 Boylston Street (1988, Johnson & Burgee).

Just like a good neighbor
In further observation of John Hancock Life’s “good neighbor” policy, the tower also defers to its surroundings by setting itself back enough from them on all sides to bring them into clear view as we round the corners of the tower. In this way the tower serves as a visual orientation point for tourists and sightseers by directing their attention toward landmarks that signify where they are in the city: Copley Square.

Around the corner we see… 

...Trinity (and Old South, reflected in the glass as we pass)...

...the Boston Public Library (and, again, Old South)...

...the 1930s Art Deco New England Power Building, where a trompe-l'oeil is created with its reflection, giving the illusion of a full building extending beyond the Hancock's wall...

...and likewise with The Clarendon, Robert A.M. Stern's new high-rise hulk, liberating it from its boxy boredom with a whimsical wingspread like that of the Hancock itself.

Mr. Sleight-of-Hancock also plays tricks with Trinity, doubling it up to give it more of the preacherly preeminence Richardson intended it to have in Copley Square, as a gracious way to preserve Richardson's favorite view of the church.

Mr. Hancock is just as buddy-buddy with Mr. Fairmont, condescending to match the height of the older building's roofline with a lower-level Trinity Place face. This reinforces the horizontality of its neighbor's stringcourse rustication as a lowly counterpoint to the tower's predominant verticality, which itself accentuates the upwardness of the church spires and high-rises it reflects.

To accomplish both of these accommodations to its elders, the tower’s main frame had to be skewed into a parallelogram, which put it perpendicular with Copley’s original bisecting vector, Huntington Avenue:

Hancock by Bobak Ha'Eri

And this twist of fate does the Hancock’s occupants a neighborly favor: it yields a spacious entrance plaza with a protective canopy and a prominent view of the tower’s ancestors. However, wind tunnels come with the territory, but picturesque plantings mitigate this misstep.

In all of these ways, the John Hancock Tower confirms an architect’s observation of it from 1975: “It really is an excellent [neighbor], because it looks like it isn’t there” — at least, from this angle:

Where’s Johnny?

Hancock Aerial Wikimedia Commons

For a clue, observe the shadow slashing diagonally across the Back Bay landscape, meeting head-on with the Massachusetts Avenue bridge to MIT so as to form a near-right angle with the bridge (all 364.4 Smoots + 1 Ear of it) from this perspective. Then take a ruler and connect the bridge’s MIT end with the shadow’s foot, and the ruler’s edge will scribe Johnny’s vertical notch, yielding a near-right triangle. Another mathemagical marvel from Mr. Hancock!

In reality, virtual or otherwise, Johnny’s not going anywhere. With a bidding war heating up over him, he’s still Johnny-on-the-spot, whether he’s in the spotlight or not. And that’s something to get Hancocky about.

Mr. Hancock is just as buddy-buddy with Mr. Fairmont, condescending  to match the height of the older building’s roofline with a lower-level  Trinity Place face. This reinforces the horizontality of its neighbor’s stringcourse rustication as a lowly counterpoint to the tower’s predominant verticality, which itself accentuates the upwardness of the church spires and high-rises it reflects.


Todd Larson has been professional writer for 20 years, and has demonstrated a flair for words when it comes to architectural, real estate and financial topics. Mr. Larson has published in the Boston Business Journal, Victorian Homes, The Improper Bostonian, the Boston Herald, Banker & Tradesman, Boston Homes and the Cambridge Chronicle. His word-wonder has also helped real estate brokers sell their homes and helped TAB Newspapers’ Service Directory advertisers present their services and products with class. The design/build firm of Dakota Partners, Inc. of Waltham (formerly Architectural Partners, Inc., of Watertown) benefited from his professional newsletters, project descriptions and press releases, one of which was published on a section front of the New England Real Estate journal. You can check out Todd’s blog by clicking here.

31 in 31 of Your Favorite Buildings in Boston: #16

Old City Hall, 45 School Street, Boston, MA 02108

Gridley J. Fox Bryant and Arthur Gilman, 1862-1865, Renovations: Anderson, Notter and Associates, 1969-1970

I was inspired to highlight 31 buildings in Boston in 31 days after the architecture blog A Daily Dose of Architecture . Not only was I going to highlight 31 buildings, but 31 of Bostonian’s favorite buildings. This is the series.

About Old City Hall:

If you’ve ever been on the Freedom Trail, you probably have a photograph of this building. Old City Hall is Boston’s finest French Second Empire structure and everyone who walks by stops to admire its beauty. Although the façade looks very much the same as it did when it first opened in the late 1860’s, its interiors have been dramatically altered. Most of the Boston area preservation non for profit organizations are located in this building which is very fitting, considered that this building was saved from demolition and re-used as modern office spaces. While looking at images of Old City Hall in the Historic American Buildings Survey catalog, I was astonished to see how opulent and decadent its interiors were. These images made me want to “turn back time” and experience the grandeur interiors that was once part of this building.

photo: Historic American Buildings Survey

31 in 31 of Your Favorite Buildings in Boston: #8

The Custom House Tower, 3 McKinley Square-State Street at India Street (Financial District), Boston, MA 02109

Ammi Burnham Young, 1837 – 1847, Tower Addition: Peabody and Stearns, 1913-1915

I was inspired to highlight 31 buildings in Boston in 31 days after the architecture blog A Daily Dose of Architecture . Not only was I going to highlight 31 buildings, but 31 of Bostonian’s favorite buildings. This is the series.

About the Custom House Tower:

It never ceases to amaze me whenever I look at old photographs of Boston pre-urban renewal that the Custom House tower was once the tallest building in Boston.  As tiny as it may seem now, the Custom House is still very much part of the Boston skyline (check out the Custom House on my blog header, a photograph I had taken two summers ago while visiting the Boston Harbor Islands).

The Sacred Places of Beacon Hill

This past Sunday, the New England Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians organized a walking tour of the sacred places of Beacon Hill.  The tour was well attended and the weather was fantastic, a better Sunday afternoon could not have been possible.

The tour was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the many sacred places in Boston’s Beacon Hill  neighborhood, especially since I had only seen the interior of one of them (the Vilna Shul synagogue) before this tour. Below are some images I snapped of some sites.