Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Somerville Electric Light Company, Somerville

Triggered by the previous post, I'm on a crusade to fill the pieces of industrial facilities along the Minuteman trail and its extensions, imagining the landscape of the area sometimes between the late 19th and mid 20th century. The Grove-Ceder section of the bikepath (a part of the Minuteman Trail Extensions that goes eastward from Davis Sq.) used to be a railroad track for the Lexington and Arlington Railroad established in 1870.

The path is filled with bikes, babies, grown-ups, and dogs on a sunny weekend

This main power station for the Somerville Electric Light Company (SELCO) was opened in 1889 and is still operating. By the time of the establishment, the adjacent railroad was owned by the Boston and Maine Railroad. Boston Edison Company took over the SELCO in 1903, and the Edison merged into NSTAR in 1999, so I guess this place is now owned by NSTAR.

Somebody please tell me the truth!

Speaking of the power station, do you know about Battersea Power Station in London? Doesn't ring a bell? How about Pink Floyd's album Animals? It's the most ginormous and awesome power station in the world, I swear. I felt as if I was struck by a lightning when I saw the disused power station from a train approaching to Victoria Station, thinking why a mock Greek temple in the middle of the industrial area around the Thames.

What a gray day it was, only in London...
The disused power station is nearby Victoria Station

On the contrary, the SELCO Generating Station reminds me a small electric substation for a tramway in Hiroshima; Hatsukaichi Electric Substation was built in 1922 and demolished in 2009. Because the city of Hatsukaichi is next to Hiroshima city, it temporary supplied the electricity for the tramways serviced in the area destroyed by the Atomic Bomb of 1945. The proximity to the residential area (whether the residents like it or not), train tracks...Why did they demolished it? 

Hatsukaichi Electric Substation: from Wikipedia
SELCO Generating Station
Look at the star-shaped iron wall supporters

Like Hatsukaichi Electric Substation was owned by a tramway company, I first thought the SELCO Generating Station has something to do with the railway right next to. But I realized an electric locomotion (not for a trolley or tram) was introduced to the US in 1895, while the station was built some six years before. Anyway, as the name Somerville Electric Light Co. suggests, it was built for supplying electricity for light, not for the railway.

Locate SELCO Generating Station @ Google Map

Click picture to enlarge

Somerville's first high-tech startup (PDF file)
http://mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=SMV.679: MACRIS database

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Emerson's Iron Lung and Quonset Hut, Cambridge

I have a slight touch of claustrophobia. I hate being trapped in a windowless space. I hate working at a department store, I hate a long haul economy class airplane trip. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. How much do I hate? I'll prove you, I didn't get Vertigo. I mean I felt sorry for the detective suffering from acrophobia, but I was more worried about the effect of excessive peroxide on Kim Novak's scalp.

Being stuck in an Iron Lung is one of the recent entries. The fear has germinated since I saw an Iron Lung at display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Looking at the picture of an airplane hanger like space filled with hundreds of Iron Lungs at the height of Polio outbreak, I had a strange sensation that the lives of children in the equipments were detached from human warmth; they weren't  human or even machine, something else that I cannot grasp...

Iron Lungs saved many lives, but the sensation of strong fear and rejection the children must have experienced is something I would never want to experience. I couldn't laugh when Lebowski  and Walter entered a room with an Iron Lung, while them plotting to beat the crap out of a kid who stole the Dude's car (and money.) However, I enjoyed the subsequent scene where the golf club flinging Walter destroys a red sports car with 'Nam related (?) moral talk.

Forgive my jerkiness, I'm feelin' nervous. Let me knit for a while...

I'm back. As you have already realized, my fear of Iron Lung is somewhat different from the detest of a department store and crappy airplane trip. A strange fascination with Iron Lung grew like a HeLa cell, and it had some meaning, I think. One day I stumbled upon the main office of the leading Iron Lung manufacturer, J. H. Emerson Co. during a walk in my neighborhood, just a pure chance.

the empty hut was making eerie creaking noise as a wind blows

The company's office and Quonset hut -- originally a military-use prefabricated steel structure developed in 1941 -- are located along the Minuteman Trail Extension, the former railway track for the Boston & Maine. A few creaky cylindrical equipments in the hut used to be visible from the sidewalk. I first thought they were just rusty boilers.

But the every clue was telling me what they are: the Quonset hut was a  popular structure during the Polio outbreaks of the 40's and 50's. The nearby  railway  provided the mode of transportation to the hospitals. The name Emerson rings a bell. And Boston as the center for the Polio treatment...The demand for the equipment was so high that the company possibly needed to install a prefabricated hut across the street to store more Iron Lungs.

How many children or adults spend a time in this Iron Lung? Are they all right now? Somehow a series of  thoughts came up to me during the dinner time and led to lose my appetite.

The company was sold in 2007, ten years after J. H. Emerson's death. The office and Quonset hut seem to be lying vacant, and a notice for the hearings regarding zoning changes implies that the Quonset hut is going away soon. The loft looks like an ideal candidate for a new condo project.

The Iron Lung is becoming the relic of the past. But the site is historically significant and needs more attention. Next time you are on the Cambridge section of the bike path (or a virtual tour via Google), look closely for the hut. They are in a quiet residential area and I beg you, don't trespass; I'm afraid there is nothing left in those buildings.

Locate Emerson's Quonset hut @ Google map

Cambridge Historical Commission (PDF file)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Round House, Somerville

This is a strange, ahem, unique house. Surrounded by typical three-story houses in Spring Hill, Somerville, this cylindrical oddity (oy!) has been under renovation since a local man purchased this abandoned house in 2007.

Originally, the Round House was owned by Enoch Robinson, who operated a prominent hardware manufacturing company. Built in 1856, this three story single family home contained an oval library and living room among with more conventional-shape kitchen and dining room on the 1st floor. 2nd and 3rd floor were consisted with bedroom and bathroom shaped like a divided piece of sliced pineapples in a tin. By the way, the diameter of the house -- how many times do I have an opportunity to say so -- is 40ft (13m).

A construction project is going on behind the Round House. I don't know it's the same operation as the renovation project, but they aren't going to raze the house, right? But look closely, the exterior of the 3rd floor, modillions, window heads, the order, etc.  have been refurbished.

Tinplates? It looks like air ducts jutting out with no apparent reason, no, I think they are battlements.

The current state of the interior is a big mystery to many. Originally, the interior was equipped with nice hardware due to the nature of Robinson's business. The roof was topped with a glass skylight, and the walls were decorated with "the French scenic wallpaper." (from Centers and Squares) It sounds like a house with full of fun.

Now (on the right is ex-Carr elementary school)
Vintage View of the Carr School in Spring Hill
Then: vintage post card from Centers & Squares

This month, I've been covering 1850's octagon-themed buildings. The Round House is a derivation of them, and I'll take it further next time: I'll cover possibly the first octagon cage ring built in the mid 19th century which hosted a match between Chuck Norris and the dude with star-spangled bad boy pants. I've heard about it few years ago and just found it's in my neighborhood. (Oy, can't you wait for 4 1/2 months?) Ah, I love Massachusetts!

Locate Round House @ Google Map
For the original floor plans, etc.: Centers & Squares

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Charles Street Jail, Boston

The Charles Street Jail once incarcerated Malcolm X and Sacco & Vanzetti is now available as a swanky hotel named "the Liberty Hotel." "Jail" and "Liberty" sound like oxymoron or some kind of slang that I don't know, but I guess that's how the marketing strategies work.

This 1851 Quincy granite clad jail is located on the edge of the working class West End*, just separated by Cambridge Street from posh Beacon Hill. Even so, the proximity of the jail and the wealthy neighborhood is something unheard of in modern day America.

*West End is traditionally an immigrant, African American, and port-industry neighborhood being razed during the urban renewal.

Enough of spontaneous advertisement. I am generally cautious about converting a historic institution into a for-profit establishment, but I have to agree they've done a good job. The octagonal rotunda with 90ft (27m) tall atrium is indeed quite a view. Two nice Canadian guys (clue: sweatshirts with red maple leaves) cheerfully told me that a fashion show would be there on 10pm, using mezzanines as catwalks. 

Rotunda's dome is supported by metal truss

An octagonal central tower, the granite stone cladding, a mid-19th century institution... They are concurrent themes of this blog as well as the buildings Gridley J. F. Bryant designed. As the Cambridge Poor Farm I covered in the previous post, the jail was completed in 1851. I don't know which building he designed first, the hotel claims the jail was "the first large public building designed by Gridley John Fox Bryant."

Two aerial pictures below are screen shots cropped by the same scale. The Charles St Jail is bigger than the Cambridge Poor House, but wow, it's a dead ringer.

Charles St Jail

The jail was designed to allow good air flow and sunlight by installing ventilation shafts thorough the rotunda's cupola and large cathedral like windows. The idea of allowing air flow and sunlight into the interior was proposed by a Bryant's co-worker, Rev. Louis Dwight who also helped designing the Cambridge Poor House. I tell you, even modern day American prisons, Tuberculosis is a big health hazard among prisoners, officers, and even volunteers; doctors would tell you it's a high risk area!

Rev. Dwight was a strong advocate for the Auburn System of penitential management, allowing inmates to be together (silently, though) and giving them individual cells during the night. On the other hand, the Pennsylvania System demanded prisoners to be completely alone. The purpose of the isolation was to reflect their own thoughts through the silence, but many inmates ended up suffering from mental illness.

Some of the prison cells are preserved, and you can drink cocktails in or by the cell in a trendy setting. I was expecting something like eating prison meals and drinking prison-inspired booze in the cell, though. I guess I'm asking too much. If you visit Beacon Hill and want something different, I recommend checking out the hotel. There is a small museum space open to public.

Locate Charles St. Prison @ Google Map

Click picture to enlarge
Click picture to enlarge
Click picture to enlarge
Click picture to enlarge

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cambridge Poor Farm, Cambridge

"Poverty Plain", people used to call the area. Located on "the most remote corner of Cambridge" where the city of Cambridge, Somerville and Arlington adjoin, the former Cambridge Poor Farm is now utilized as the International School of Boston.

I regard the location now as desirable because I'm a proud North Cambridge resident, but the city threw everything deemed undesirable, including a tannery, to this area. The almshouse for "orphans, paupers, the elderly, and the insane" was built in 1851. The mix of the population astonishes me but it was the norm of the time.

The farm was indeed a self-supporting community where they acquired the food from their farms and fishing rights from a nearby Alewife Brook. I must confess that considering from the current state of the stream, it is little hard to imagine this used to be a source of the Alewife herring.

Alewife Brook
Alewife Brook, too

The building is constructed by the stone blocks from a ledge in the property -- I guess it's a current site of a high school athletic field. The architectural style heavy on stone reminded me and Brian about the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, the oldest hospital in Montreal. Is it a coincidence that the building now houses a bilingual school for French and English?

Rev. Louis Dwight and Gridley J. F. Bryant, both avid prison reformers, designed the building. Bryant also designed Washington Tower and Bigelow Chapel at Mt. Auburn cemetery. The octagonal rotunda functioned as a space for supervision, also separating the wards for men and women apart. This reminds me a panopticon, a type of prison building invented by Jeremy Bentham in 1785. He aimed for the efficient surveillance system with little effort -- the inmate begins to control himself, being aware of the unseen eyes from the central tower -- through the architectural design.

 Aerial view of the building: it resembles a cross

It was lunch time. Students were hanging around on the roundabout with brown bags, chatting, eating lunch with friends. It was a gorgeous Autumn day, their hair was reflecting the bright light, oh, youth!
Recently, I met a woman who spent three two years in Gaebler Children's Center (a psychiatric institution for children) during the 80's. I asked about the ongoing demolition. She openly discussed about her experience, telling me that she is basically happy to see the building is on the process of demolition; it was a hellish three two years, it was virtually a prison or worse for her and other kids.

For example, she needed to go through a lengthy procedure to take a shower, even though her room was right next to the shower room. Once she is in the shower room, alone, they locked her in from outside. A simple act of taking a shower (and the vital act for a teenager girl!) becomes an enduring task...Friends she met at Gaebler were the only good things she can think about. But the negative memories exceed the good ones with friends.

Aerial view of Gaebler

On the other hand, she is afraid that the demolition also means people are forgetting, or actively trying to erase the memory about the children of Gaebler. Demolishing a building is dead easy, but irreversible. She wanted the building converted to something rather than destroying it. I asked:

"What kind of conversion did you wish, like condos like the Metropolitan State, or a museum about the school?"

"No, I wanted the building converted to something like a school...a school for kids..."

Do you mean a school like this? Looking at the smiling students on the lawn, I was questioning her and myself in my mind.

*For more story about this courageous woman, please read: Gaebler Chiledren's Center, Waltham

Would you like to know more about the Poor Farm? Visit my follow-up article: Examining the Cambridge Poor Farm 1-2.

Locate Cambridge Poor Farm @ Google Map
A life in Gaebler in the mid 70's: Gaebler, Hell and Back

Click picture to enlarge 
Click picture to enlarge