Beacon Hill: Disney Through the Ages

Arlington

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I'm open to contradiction, but here's my paper for peer review: Beacon Hill is essentially "Old Disney" -- a series of fakes and novelties accumulated over the course of 220 years.

I'd like you to return to this thread when someone criticizes new developments as "too Disney" The reality is that all new things--and many old things--are built on repeated themes every bit as predictable as Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, EPCOT, or the Contemporary Resort.

Federal Style was, of course, a very modern style in 1800, and developers built a monoculture. Moving from the wooden North End to brick on Beacon Hill was a radical upgrade in residential building tech (it'd been popular in commercial structures and churches since the fire of 1711 and the "new" statehouse in 1713).

And the whole flat top of Beacon Hill was a marvel of terraforming: cutting down the old Beacon peak and throwing it into the Charles to create The Flat of the Hill. But I'm pretty sure that though the city had wanted to build residences in brick since the fire of 1760, that fire and two wars made the city too poor to build anything.

It was only post-revolutionary prosperity that meant that homes could be built of brick. It was fully "of its time" And cast iron for balconies was also a then-new tech (or, really, fairly "late Federal"). Enclosing Louisburg Sq in iron would have also been an extremely a la mode thing to do. Modern and theatrical (And an imitation of a trend in London)
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Dark Painted Doors: An attempt from 1860 to seem relevant again.
It is 1860. The tall brownstones of Back Bay, with their large windows and new colors are redefining city living. The Bessemer Process (c. 1850) has made iron a cheap building material. Lathes mean woodwork can be turned, not hewn.

In 1860, Beacon Hill was looking tired. When built, it had to rely on the "Williamsburg" palette of pale blues, greens and yellows. But here come dark paint pigments as a new technology for extreme makeovers. Industrial waste (coal tar) was being transformed by chemists into the now-mandatory dark paint colors on doors.

Virtually every painted door on Beacon Hill is painted a color that wasn't practical until about 1860. Not quite lipstick on a pig, but paint on a door was a cheap way to give modern curb appeal in 1860, not authentic Federal.

Gas lamps from Dickens' day, which were all open-flame jets (pointing up) were all torn out at the dawn of electricity, the City made Beacon Hill the first Boston neighborhood to get electric street lights. The gas lights only came back when Natural Gas reached Boston from Texas & Louisiana by pipeline in the 1960s (replacing the Gassified Coal that had been in use for 140 years before that). The gas mantles were a tech from 1890--a last gasp from the Gas Light industry to triple light output for the same gas (versus open flames).

So when Texas gas made it possible to reinstall gas lighting, gas mantles were already "fake old" in the sense that Beacon Hill had only probably briefly (if at all) ever had fixtures with mantles. Another Disneyesque “Fake the past with modern technology” fitting Beacon Hills role as nostalgic theme park

I'd like help proving this next hypothesis:
Granite was a luxury good --for cathedrals, hospitals, and public markets--when it was introduced c.1800~1820. I can see that cobblestones would be marketed from the leftovers of all the granite work being done by Charlestown prisoners, but I have serious doubts about granite curbstones before 1840. (or even when the occasional grooved-granite sidewalk would date from— Probably 1850.

When were granite curbs introduced? And some old photographs of Pinkney seem to suggest they had concrete sidewalks for at time (hard to tell).
 
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Charlie_mta

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The buildings on Beacon Hill, even when elements of them were aping older styles, were done with high quality materials, attention to detail, and intensive labor (easily affordable back then). In contrast, many of the new building now that attempt to replicate old styles are done with prefab pieces, not enough detail to do the old style justice, and use of materials that look plain and cheap. That's my objection to the Disney-type new buildings (such as around Harvard Square in the last few years). They actually look fake, trying to capture an old style while using inferior detail and materials. Beacon Hill was not done that way.
 

Arlington

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Will you grant that there's a survivorship bias? The "built to last" buildings are ones still there. And some of what appears original may actually be from later and/or restored several times.

The not built to last buildings may be exactly the slots where we see the odd later brown stone (38, 42, and 72 Mt Vernon) or apartment towers at 5 and 27 Chestnut, or 39 and 61 Mount Vernon, or 9 Willow (some of the numbers are guesses from GMaps, but if you browse up and down the streets you will see buildings slotted in, and I'm going to assert that some of these were built when "original" buildings were pulled down for some reason--maybe that they didn't last.
 

nm88

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A reference to Disney in the design community is usually unflattering. Is that your intention?
 

Arlington

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My point is both that (1) Beacon Hill was built by a Disneyesque mix of contemporary technology, unvaried design, wholesale terraforming, and nostalgic re-creation (2) Given this similarity, “Disney” loses some of its potency as a critique and “Beacon Hill” loses some of its potency as an idealization
 

nm88

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Hmmm. Interesting. Let me think a little...
 

Bananarama

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I'm not understanding the "fakeness" you suggest in the intro. As Charlie points out well, the materials and craftsmanship in Beacon Hill is of a much higher quality than just skin deep. The houses were built of the style contemporary they were conceived in.

What do you mean by this? :
built by a Disneyesque mix of contemporary technology
Do you mean this style is one that Disney often emulates?
 

Arlington

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Disney was all about using new materials and technologies, which were often dismissed as fake (Because only truly old things could be real)

So too were Beacon Hills developersin using cheap new (or newly-cheap) tech.

We err in praising them for there choice of quality materials. They only seem quality to us because has other cheaper things have replaced brick brick now seems like a premium material. But at the time they were building with what were in fact newly cheap materials to them
Brick had been rare and expensive (in Boston) Essentially nonexistent before 1711 and between then and 1800 reserved for public buildings in Boston and Cambridge

But somewhere around 1800 it was suddenly was cheap enough to make an entire residential neighborhood out of. Brick had become cheap and they made liberal use of it. In fact they made sole use of it.

Similarly iron had been an expensive, hand wrought material, until it was cheap enough to cast and make whole fences and balconies out of. Cast-iron had become cheap and cookie cutter and they ornamented a whole neighborhood with it. To us it seems chosen for its high quality, but it was also newly cheap

Carbon black had been rare and used B2B in inks, When it and other dark pigments became cheap and plentiful, They went
inkwell to paint can and suddenly a mania for painting doors

I am sure the purists who venerated These materials in their rare and expensive form were dismissive of the new popular form as vulgar, cookie cutter, and mass produced.

We are just as wrong when we think of these materials as chosen because they were “better” when it is truer to say they were chosen because they were newly available and cheap enough to use.
 
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Bananarama

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Disney was all about using new materials and technologies, which were often dismissed as fake (Because only truly old things could be real)

So too were Beacon Hills developersin using cheap new (or newly-cheap) tech.

We err in praising them for there choice of quality materials. They only seem quality to us because has other cheaper things have replaced brick brick now seems like a premium material. But at the time they were building with what were in fact newly cheap materials to them
Brick had been rare and expensive (in Boston) Essentially nonexistent before 1711 and between then and 1800 reserved for public buildings in Boston and Cambridge

But somewhere around 1800 it was suddenly was cheap enough to make an entire residential neighborhood out of. Brick had become cheap and they made liberal use of it. In fact they made sole use of it.

Similarly iron had been an expensive, hand wrought material, until it was cheap enough to cast and make whole fences and balconies out of. Cast-iron had become cheap and cookie cutter and they ornamented a whole neighborhood with it. To us it seems chosen for its high quality, but it was also newly cheap

Carbon black had been rare and used B2B in inks, When it and other dark pigments became cheap and plentiful, They went
inkwell to paint can and suddenly a mania for painting doors

I am sure the purists who venerated These materials in their rare and expensive form were dismissive of the new popular form as vulgar, cookie cutter, and mass produced.

We are just as wrong when we think of these materials as chosen because they were “better” when it is truer to say they were chosen because they were newly available and cheap enough to use.
Hm, I'm not so sure about that. Disney was all about showcasing those materials and technologies. Almost exclusively in piecemeal diorama settings. And I certainly don't think that's the common view of Disney today - or really what people mean when they draw comparisons to it. They're dismissed as fake because they practice facadism, which in many ways is fake.

Regardless how cheap brick was back then, it was used structurally and I'd argue exactly how it visually suggests it should be used. Disney-fication of that today is seen where brick is merely a veneer or worse a precast panel. So adding to the critiques about the value of quality, it's also vital for a degree of authenticity to be present.

The use of iron is an interesting one and I agree the transition from hand worked to mass-manufactured is a good point to make. I'm not sure the essence of the material object really changes though when it's installed - it's still a fully iron railing. There's also a whole other topic here on the value of cast vs carved ornament (can easily segway into contemporary digital/automated methods of creating ornament too).

This is a fun topic and I'm glad you posted about it. Beacon Hill surely has some nostalgic Disney-like aspects, but I don't quite think it can be broken down and equated to contemporary trends quite so easily.
 

Arlington

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Disney used new tech EVERYWHERE he could and that includes the built environment, eg, monorails, manufactured smells, Utilidors, and prefab room units, shipped by flatbed, and slid into hotel frame to build a premium hotel.





There's every evidence that Developers of every age use this stuff (critics would say, over consume it) once it becomes affordable

Prefab hotels happened not to become practical. But I'm saying that both Beacon Hill and any Disney are very much products of the same commercial-tech interaction of what what, "at that moment" possible, and neither should be idealized nor fully dismissed.

And that Beacon Hill is basically a terraformed neighborhood entirely covered with what were the tech-clad 5-over-1s of their day.
 
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Arlington

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Bare Brick was also "cheap" and "a la mode" because the style had previously been to cover it with stone (below) or stucco or plaster (as Romans would) or make it look like stone.

The first people looking at bare-brick structures in the 1670s* would have asked "are you going to finish that?"

But after the fire of 1666, London was in a hurry to rebuild and bare brick became "a thing" a new style from a cheap(er) tech (than paying for a finish material)



We look at things like the bulding below and celebrate the craftsmanship. They've have been alarmed/outraged that there wasn't stucco covering everything except the stone quoins (or at least whitewash).

Before 1670, bare brick on a Classical building would have been like parading around in your skivvies, but after the Fire of London, Christopher Wren and others made bare brick look normal. (and you get all of Colonial Williamsburg built in this new style starting in 1699)

NO Stucco.jpg
 
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Arlington

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Item for research: Inigo Jones, whose work was in The century before the London fire, mostly worked in stone or stucco (Part of the larger classical revival of that time which stressed Roman style white exteriors)

My question is: How many of his brick with quoins buildings would have originally been white washed or plastered of stuccoed
 
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Arenacale

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Disney, to my mind, implies a pre-fab representation of a specific period in time to evoke a certain nostalgia or atmosphere that is inherently inauthentic but pleasant regardless. One step above a movie set. Places like Derby Street Shops for example. I don't think that's a fair comparison to Beacon Hill, which quite obviously was originally built with the materials and design that were state-of-the-art and in style in it's day. That context grants it the authenticity that Disney would lack.

There's a different argument to be made about the "preservation" of the current Beacon Hill being Disney-like, at least based on your history of the iron work, paving, etc., in the sense that the neighborhood is trying to maintain a look and atmosphere that is not accurately historic, at least not to any one time period. In a way, that's turning it into an effective movie set for both residents and tourists, in that you can visit it now and it's exactly the same as visiting it 20 years ago or 20 years in the future. But even then, there was an evolution to get there, and it's not like the area was built deliberately to be anything other than a nice place to live. That's still not quite full Disney to me. Maybe a half-measure Colonial Williamsburg, maybe, but not Disney.
 

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