10. Airborne Revelations

H. H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted to Louis Sullivan and Charles Eliot and Frank Lloyd Wright:   from the new metropolitan civic center of Copley Square to Chicago,   and from the Richardsonian Boston suburbs to Taliesin via the Chicago suburb of  Oak Park;  a route   (my version of which, unconventionally, includes   landscape design) that  is  the Via Sacra of late 19th and early 20th century American architecture  thanks to such  scholars as Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Lewis Mumford.

It is a route whose various strands were woven out of a complex exchange across two oceans, but where for the first time the creative edge is to be found chiefly at the American end,  and in that much noticed in its own time globally.  True as we’ve seen here of Olmsted’s and Eliot’s Boston park systems, both so so influential in Europe,  it was true as well of the buildings of Richardson,  who (like Eliot)  absorbed a great deal during his  study in Europe, and whose own work then went on to inspire  architects as far west as in Finland and as far east as in India.  By now canonical,  this route begins in the High Victorian era and climaxes in  the modernist metropolis.   We are almost there.

B O S T O N   A R C A D I A

Richardsonian Boston suburbs?  Long before his or Olmsted’s time in Boston,  Andrew Jackson Downing  claimed for Boston’s premiere residential suburb  (alter ego as it turned out to the  “city as a work of art”  in  the Back Bay)  an  “Arcadian air”,  insisting that  “Brookline is a kind of landscape garden,  and there is nothing in America of the sort,  so inexpressibly charming,  as the lanes which lead from one cottage,  or villa,  to another.”  What Emerson called  “the suburbs and outskirts of things”  became,  in fact,  the  “garden city”  suburban side of the Boston Metropolis,  sister to the urban  “city beautiful”  side of Copley Square and the Back Bay and the Fenway.

According to how you define suburbia in its various stages of evolution,  Brooklyn Heights,  Lleleynan Park,  New Jersey,  iconic Westchester in New York,  even Shaker Heights in Cleveland,  all assert their claims.  Not least,  of course,  does Brookline,  whose oldest country club in the  nation is the way a Bostonian settles the matter.  Another might be to apply,  as I do in all matters I hope will be endlessly disputed,  to that oracle of our time,  infallible guide to what registers and does not in pop culture — and I must report that Wikipedia has indeed pronounced on the matter:  “although Brookline may not have been America’s first suburb,  it was the first town to epitomize the idea of the American suburb. ” And they all say Amen.

What this historian will pronounce on here is that the modern American commuting suburb,  at its elite level,  was in a very real sense another of Boston’s gifts — or gift it once  seemed —  to the 20th century;  if,  that is,  one looks behind and past the mass produced Levittowns of the post World War II era.  To see Boston’s stamp,  consider political form,  literary expression and visual image.

In respect to political form,  it is perhaps sufficient to recall Kenneth Jackson’s conclusion in his history of the American suburb that at least  along the Eastern sideboard and throughout the Middle West,  it was Boston’s  “Brookline model”,  not New York’s  “Brooklyn model”,  which was invariably chosen.  Similarly with respect to literary expression;  afterall,  the two great figures are John Updike and,  surely his only rival,  John Cheever,  called by New York Times critic John Leonard  “the Chekhov of the American Suburb.” Admittedly,  there is a certain New York- and Boston-centric aspect of the work of both men —  Cheever was born on Boston’s South Shore and ended up in New York’s Westchester; while Updike,  who hailed from Pennsylvania,  after his New York years ended up living on Boston’s North Shore — which makes the work of both somewhat provincial.  But their national readership suggests the point of view was,  indeed,  definitive.

And, yes, finally, the visual form is as much Richardsonian as Olmstedian,  the architect being  “an Emersonian follower of Olmsted”  who  “shared the philosopher’s desire for an American cultural independence”,  according to John Coolidge.  Not for nothing did Coolidge call the film he narrated about Richardson,  “Architect of the New American Suburb”.  As critic Joseph Giovanni  has pointed out,  Richardson it was who played a key role in that he  “gave shape to the new suburban house and to the new train depot between suburb and city” that crucially rose to the occasion when  “the country required different types of buildings.”  And what buildings they were !  James O’Gorman,  the great Richardson scholar,  has called the architect’s suburban libraries  “small gems in the crown of American architecture”,  worthy companion pieces in the suburbs to the great urban palatial library of Copley Square.

A C A D E M I C   Q U E S T I O N S

The gun in the flowers,  so to speak,  of those Victorian achievements of town and country was,  however,  the way,  for good or ill according to one’s point of view,  perspectives began to change.  Boston,  famously best seen for centuries from the sea,  past the towering ships masts of the harbor,  the great symbol of global Boston,  struck John Coolidge in his experience,  as we saw,  most arrestingly in the view, not from the sea, but — of a much greater Boston in extent — from the air.  So too with Seavey Joyce.

A Jesuit,  in the 1950s dean of the College of Business Administration and later university president of Boston College,  “Father Joyce”,  university historian Thomas H.  O’Connor remembered years later,  “almost never flew,”  and his experience of the airborne view of metropolis  was thus all the more striking when upon landing  Joyce found himself focusing on it.  And wheras Coolidge,  a Boston-proud Brahmin as ever there was,  thrilled to see that the northernmost metropolis of the Boston-Washington corridor was recognizable from the air,  the effect on Joyce was somewhat unsettling.    A jet landing has a closer view,  of course,  than a satelite,  and the Jesuit dean grew puzzled, asking  “where’s Boston?”  Somewhat I was puzzled  the same way at first when I was welcomed to Boston at the  “Manchester / Regional Boston Airport” — in Manchester,  N. H.

I suspect Joyce’s question led to some reading,  as it did in my case  after my experience in New Hampshire.  Certainly two scholars whose work is critical to sorting out these sorts of issues having to do with Boston’s transition from city to metropolis and megalopolis are urbanologist Kevin Lynch andhistorian Sam Bass Warner, Jr.

For Lynch seeing Boston from the air was transformative.  Because his influential book of 1955-60,  The Image of the City,  is a study of he city’s  (and Los Angeles’s and Jersey City’s)  “central areas”,  in his words,  the most venerable tesserae of each city,  as Coolidge would have put it,  people forget that Lynch writes in that work that his is a study   “dedicated toward a future synthesis of city form considered as a whole pattern.  A clear and comprehensive image of the entire metropolitan region is a requirement for the future.  If it can be developed,  it will raise the experience of the city to a new level”,  one very few  are perhaps ready for even now.

The best way  “to see a metropolitan area almost at a glance”,  Lynch insisted,  “was via  “air travel . . . (in perceptual terms a static rather than a dynamic experience.”  That said though,  Lynch admits that  “while there may be no more than twenty or thrity cities in the world”, as Lynch writes,  ” which present essentialy strong images,  and while Boston is certainly one of them,  not in Boston,  or,  indeed,  anywhere . . . in the world is there a metropolitan area with any strong visual character.”  Yet,  Lynch adds,  “the  metropolitan region is now the functional unit of our environment,  and it is desireable that this functional unit should be identified and structured by its inhabitants.”

Lynch never to my  knowledge followed up;  there was no  Image of the Metropolis.  But there was  an indelible  image  in the work of historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr., particularly in his book of 2001,  Greater Boston..  And Warner’s own image   begins with the admonition  to  “look down from an airplane”.  Yet  Warner,  true to his lifelong  “on-the-ground”  scholarship —  his first major work was called  Streetcar Suburbs — expands and details the airborne view   (as Coolidge and Joyce and Lynch do not)  from the ground,  the commuter’s ground,  via the automobile,  not the airplane. 

 “Does it seem strange that an American city — one of  the oldest and densest settled places in the U.S. — might be a forest?”  Warner asks that question only to go on to note  that  “look[ing] down from an airplane:  trees,  ponds,  and the ocean are all that you will see when the leaves are out”,  and suggesting  the observer  “drive the highways”  too !  “Look about”,  Warner directs,  like a professor on a  “walking tour” :  “Boston is a gathering of cities and towns in a forest”.  Writing,  significantly,  of the  “the Massachusetts part of the Boston city region” —  repeat:  “the Massachusetts part of the Boston city region”  (which now includes all or some of other states),  Warner disdains, by the way, to discuss “sprawl”,  which he calls a  “hostile image”; one that  “obscures” much more than it explains.  Furthermore,  he insists,  it  “lacks any suggestions to direct someone’s attention to the processes of change that have been,  or are,  at work.  It certainly does not entertain the idea of unexpected outcomes.”

Finally,  he suggests a timely guide to 20th ( and 21st )  century Boston.  After  “look[ing] about”,  he suggests recourse to  “your highway atlas, [which]  gives another picture,  and it is not incorrect.  It shows today’s Boston to be  a region of 204 cities and towns in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire joined together by a half spiderweb of highways.  The 1990 population of this region was 4,667,7000.”  We are,  so to speak,  back in the airplane.

Yet,  and here is  Warner’s genuis,  he sees the trees as clearly as the forest,  detailing this urban Boston forest as penetratingly as Lynch did the city’s central area,  and in a way that finally explains definitively what has been hinted at here — above all in his phrase so oft quoted in this series,  “all the Boston town’s”,  by Charles Eliot:  “the New England town”,  writes Warner,  “remains a well spring of community in the Boston region”.  He continues:  “towns are the Yankee way”.  Indeed,  he adds,  “settled Yankees live in cities as if they were small towns”.    Shades of David Hackett Fischer’s Brookline.

One begins to understand what John Coolidge n meant when he wrote that that as far back as the 17th century in setting aside what became Cambridge as the home of Harvard Boston has created these colonies or satelites, the way Boston grows and differentiates itself on its periphery.  Moreover,  as Coolidge also points out,  amalgamation has usually not been widelt contemplated.  Indeed,  hostility to same,  as we’ve seen,  is not uncommon; hence what James O’Connell cals  the  “Boston-phobic”  suburbs.  A reflection of this habit of decentralization can be seen elsewhere too.  Somewhat it is the way Harvard has grown,  the various graduate and professional schools of which are strikingly independent of each other and the university as a whole,  sparking similar complaints about ordered governance and such.  Yet what has worked so well and accomplished so much is not readily tinkered with!  

One sees this too in the long and complex history, too involved to explore here,  of secession from one town of other towns.  Indeed,  Massachusetts is the only state in the union to assent to the secession from t of what became another state — Maine.  Thus Warner writes that in Boston  “the town flourishes”.  It is called a neighborhood.

F I N D I N G   B O S T O N

What Lynch and Warner explained so well did not at all answer the sort of issues that arose in the mind of the renowned German constitutional scholar,  Carl Friedrich,  for whom  Anglophile ad hoc anything  held little appeal.  In the spirit of Walter Heggeman all over again,  when Boston University in the 1940s,  at the height of the Curley/O’Connell era,  when in Keith Morgan’s words,  “the political and social climate . . . [had] polarized the population into warring camps [in the core city] “,   sponsored a project (in which Lewis Mumford himself was involved) to rethink Boston,  Friedricj jumped at the at the chance to undertake such a study,  heading a team that ultimately evolved what was called  “the Harvard Plan for Boston”.  )Friedrich was a Harvard professor). 

“Like London”,  opined the German scholar,  “Boston is hemmed in ny the history of its past”,  explaining in a major article of 1945 that the core city  “suffer[ed] from political institutions which are still adapted to the horse and buggy age.”  Although  “the area [is] one single whole,  a multiplicity of governmental authorities with overlapping and conflicting functions . . . prevents . . . reform”,  Friedrich wrote,  constituting what he called “the Boston problem”.  Added Robert Norman,  the scholar who as studied the Harvard Plan for Boston most closely,  “Boston’s fragmented,  personalized,  gang politics contended with suburban parochialism and found no relief in the state legislature.”  It was the same old story.

Seavey Joyce  had meanwhile had rather a more original and positive idea.  What might be called the Boston College Plan for Boston was very different. And as it happens it  coincided with something of a politial revolution, when in 1949 John B.  Hynes,  a career beauocrat,  actually defeated James M. Curley in that years election for mayor of the core city.  Three times Hynes did this.  The result was a new mindset Joyce determined to take advantage of.

The dean’s experience of Boston was in the first place unusually broad.  Jesuit that he was,  instead of the traditions of New England Congregationalism,  which so influenced the development in turn of the New England town meeting,  Joyce was was a priest ministering in the Archdiocese of Boston,  which was spread out over scores of cities and towns — the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School, for instance, was based in Harvard Square in Cambridge —  and  also of the Province of Boston that icluded four states.  Joyce was in fact dean and then president of of a university,  Boston College,  that in the usual way locals used  the word Boston was not located in Boston at all.  In  fact,  Boston College was located inthe City of Newton. Perhaps, too,  Joyce thought to make common ground with Yankee bankers who since the establishment of the Federal Reserve system in 1913 had become used to the fact that the Boston Federal Reserve District included five states and the better part of a sixth.

The past history of institutions and groups founded to bring city dwellers and suburbanites and Catholics and Protestants and Yankee and not and so on were probably also well known to Joyce,  who I suspect may have noticed that the Yankee  and Jewish leaders had mostly founded clubs — the Twentieth Century Club and the Women’s City Club — that did not really succeed in bringing different races and groups together,  while highly  “select” clubs that wanted nothing  of such missions,  thrived on.  Bostonians, Walter Whitehill used to say, are more open to change in large things than in small things,  and in public rather than private settings,  more  open perhaps  to cross-ethnic cooperation, for instance, in settings more academical than social.  In any event,  Joyce founded, not a club, but a seminar —  a “citizen’s seminar” — to raw Yankee and Irish,  Republican and Democrat,  Protestant and Catholic together in aid of addressing Boston’s problems ina public, formal way.  One of his first speakers was Mayor Hynes !

As Lawrence Kennedy has pointed out,  Hynes had run on a slogan —  a  new  Boston — that was drawn directly from the title of the magazine put out by the old  “Boston 1915”  movement we saw here was influential as far away as in Germany and in India but had died a very complete death in the Boston of the 1920s.  The slogan was a herald of Hynes’s good intentions.  Often those remained just that. Several of Hynes’s projects — the Central Artery, the demolition of the West End —  remain infamous to this day for the enormous harm they did to the city and to many citizens.   But Hynes’s successor,  John Collins,  was a visionary leader of great poitical skill,  a latter day Josiah Quincy,  and in his reign  the new Boston came actually into focus,  aided and abetted by the administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,  whose election as president of the United States in 1960 signaled among many things that,  so to speak,  Boston was back.

B O S T O N   I N   T H E   A G E   O F   J F K

It fell to John Kennedy,  who like all of Joseph Kennedy’s sons had been raised  (in Episcopalian prep schools ) to be the Boston Brahmin Ambassador Kennedy himself could never be — so much so poet Robert Frost once advised JFK to be more Irish than Harvard — to heal the ethnic wound in Boston.  At just  the right time,  the height of the Irish Ascendency on the eve of its demise,  Kennedy became after his innauguration the first Bostonian since the two Adams’s for whom the great central doors of the Boston State House  would  swing open to receive him,  these being by immemorial custom  opened only for heads of state — sitting presidents or reigning monarchs (with the significant exception of a departing Massachusetts govenor on his last day in office).

Even before he was innaugurated,  Kennedy in an address to a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature intoned the words of  Boston’s founder,  John Winthrop,  about  “the city upon a hill”.  It was an epochal political event,  Kennedy’s election,  necessarily in the New England context a more global than local Boston celebration,  and as with Joyce’s Citizen’s Seminar,  it was the academic,  not the political,  world which at once identified its largest significance.  In this case it was   a book,  not a seminar;  a book by the sometime Allston Burr Senior Tutor of Harvard’s Lowell House lately become director of that once Brahmin bastion of the Boston Athenaeum,  Walter Muir Whitehill.  I well recall how it startled in 1966 to read a book by the city’s foremost Brahmin historian that was entitled  Boston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

As it happened both Joyce’s seminars and Whitehill’s book highlighted  the fact that,  afterall,  what had truly mattered in the long run for Boston — far  more than theproblematic inertia Curley/O’Connell era,  the Brahmins’  loss of nerve in the wake of the Sacco Vanzetti case,  or even the Great Depression — was  the way  the centerpiece  of Boston academe  — Harvard Medical School,  MIT,  Boston University,  the Museum School,  Northeastern University, Massachusetts College of Art —  had exploded out of Copley Square down Huntington Avenue and up Massachusetts Avenue to the new Harvard Med and the new MIT,  and then further out to ally with other Boston colleges and universities to create a world intellectual center;  a  center  of which British philospher Alfred North Whitehead in the 1940s in a speech in Copley Square at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences said:  “insofar as the world of learning posseses a capital city,  Boston,  with its various neighboring institutions approximates to the position that Paris held in the Middle Ages”.

At a seemingly more prosaic level Kennedy’s election and his administration’s support for the  “new Boston”  was yet another dimension to the way since the 1900s it was the Federal government that increasingly played the most dynamic  (and from the point of view of metropolitanizers the most positive) role in fostering a new understanding of the rise of the American city and metropolis.  About this most local and even state governments remained stubbornly in denial;  indeed, still do today:  “Boston doen’t grasp that Rhode Island is a part of the Boston Metro area”,  the excecutive director of the state of Rhode Island Economic Development Council  was quoted saying in 2000 in Boston magazine,  “and Rhode Islanders do not grasp,  by and large,  that Rhode Island is a part of Metro Boston.  Ditto New Hampshire,  though Manchester’s airport’s name change to incorporate Boston’s name does at least recognize what won’t be clear in Rhode Island untill the advent of  “Providence / Boston Regional Airport.”

However,  since the 1900s the U. S. Census Bureau has led the way in trying to transcend increasingly meaningless political boundaries in order to discover and identify and define the real communities in which American’s actually live and work. First,  in 1905,  came the identification of industrial districts around New York,  Chicago,  Boston and St. Louis.  There followed in 1910 the concept of the “metropolitan area”  as a unit for the census.  By 1930 one can see the effect already on still active Bostonian metropolitanizers of this new way of sorting and counting.  For instance,  in the City of Boston’s Tercentenary Book of 1930,  Joseph H. Beal’s chapter on  “The Metropolitan District”  made a point of reporting that according to the cesnsus bureau Boston was surpassed in population only by New York,  Chicago and Philadelphia,  which fact,  Beal trumpeted,  “advertised to the country at large the proportions of the real Boston and its true standing among American cities”  in that its metropolitan area — the real Boston —  shades of James Jackson Storrow — was the fourth largest in the nation.

Through the years the Federal authorities have also much refined their categories so that today there is more than one way of measuring the population of Boston more accurately than by  only counting the citizens of the core city.   That aside,  the smallest Boston is the  U. S. Census Bureau’s Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area — the  metropolis —  in which category Boston’ ranks tenth in a country of 366 such areas.  As defined by the Massachusetts legislature and administered by the Metropolitan Planning Council,  this category includes 101 cities and towns and  (in 2009)  3,056,394 people.

The largest Boston is that of the U. S. Office of Management and Budget:  the Boston Combined Statistical Area — the extended family, so to speak,  based on daily commuting patterns — and including,  for example,  Worcester,  Massachusetts,  and Manchester,  New Hampshire.  In this category Boston,  with a population of 7,427,336,  is America’s fifth largest metropolis.  The only bigger ones are New York,  Los Angeles,  Chicago and Washington, D. C.

No longer,  furthermore,  are these figures relegated to the footnotes, as it were.  They now matter hugely.  As  H. S. Shryock Jr., has noted,  figures for metropolitan areas  (SMAs) have been adopted  “by the public in a fashion truly remarkable in view of the fact that they have been established for less than a decade.  Their use far exceeds that of the metropolitan districts that were defined for the censuses from 1900 to 1940”.   Today,  furthermore,   these figures are apt to be cited along with those of the areas economy as a whole.  And here Boston’s  “closet metropolis”  of so many cities and towns is brought into the light of day  in a way that is truly revelatory.

Consider The New York Times report of July 2001 that  “if Metropolitan areas were countries . . . the economy of the  New York metropolitan area,  measured by its gross output of goods and services,  would have been the 14th largest in the world.”  Los Angeles was close behind,  the 17th largest economy;  and then came Chicago,  the 17th largest.  Fourth among all American metropolises,  Boston’s economy was that year the 24th largest in the world;  larger than Sweden’s ! Nor does it stop there.  When the Institute for Urban Strategies at the Mori Foundation  in Tokyo in 2009 issued its comprehensive study,  “Global Power City Index”,  of the top 20 cities in the world,  11 were European, 4 Asian (and 1 Australian) and only 4 were North American —  New York,  Los Angeles,  Toronto and Boston.  From that Asian perspective Boston was one of only three American cities that took rank as a “Global city”.

Similarly,  Price Waterhouse Coopers ranking of  “the richest cities and/or their metropolitan areas in the world by GDP (gross domestic product)”  would doubtless startle many Bostonians , many of whom are not at all used to thinking of Boston as the 12th richest of all the cities of the world;  its economy surpassed only  (in order of wealth) by  Tokyo,  New York, Los Angeles,  Chicago,  London,  Paris,  Osaka,  Mexico City,  Philadelphia,  Sao Paulo and Washington;  while Boston is richer than — of allplaces — Dallas, as well as Buenos Aires and Moscow. 

There is no question that there will be a political aspect to Greater Boston’s future.  The way the overwhelmed Boston Police Department during the Democratic Natioal Convention allocated sections of the core city to the mega city — this street to the Town of Brookline Police Department,  this square to  the City of Cambridge Police Department and another to the City of Quincy Police Department,  and so on ,seemed to me a striking pre-figuring of the future of the hundreds of seperate police departments of the metropolis . 

However,  if the need of some kind of political metropolitanization is still present,  however at odds with Boston’s historic pattern  of growth through the creation and sustaining of what John Coolidge called  “complementary” satelite towns,  its overiding importance has been overtaken,  historically,  by the way the Boston economy, not Boston politics, is at least among decision makers,  key today to the self understanding of Bostonians,  as it is key as well to the perspectives on the city of outsiders .  That economy is now the only reasonable every-day way to judge of who is and who is not a Bostonian,  and is the vector driving the area toward  — our next two  final columns of this series — the  modern Boston City-State.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Beal, Joseph H.  “The Metropolitan District” in FIFTY YEARS OF BOSTON (City of Boston) 1930

[Brookline, MA]  “Brookline-Boston Annexation Debate of 1873”  U. S. WIKIPEDIA (n.d.)

“Boston College Citizen Seminars”.  www.bc.edu/schools/csom/research/ega/citizen/mar2005.html (March 30, 2005)



Coolidge, John. ARCHITECTURE OF THE AMERICAN SUBURBS (Films for the Humanities/MOMA New York) 1978

[Cheever, John]. See John Leonard.

{Downing, Alexander Jackson]. Quoted in David Rusk, CITIES WITHOUT SUBURBS (Wilson Center Press) 1995

Friedrich, Carl. “Planning for the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area” in PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW (Spring 1945)

Fischer, David Hackett. BROOKLINE (Brandeis) 1986


Institute for Urban Strategies. GLOBAL POWER CITY INDEX (Mori Foundation) 2009

Jackson, Kenneth.  CRABGRASS FRONTIER (Harvard Univ. Press) 1985

Lynch, Kevin. THE IMAGE OF THE CITY (MIT Press) 1960

[Leonard, John]. Collins, Robert G. “From Subject to Object” in TWENTIETH CENTURY LITERATURE (Spring 1982)

[New York Times].  “If U. S. Metro Areas were Countries” (chart) THE NEW YORK TIMES (July 10, 2001)

O’Connor, Thomas H. see Boston College Citizen Seminars.

O’Gorman, James. see Coolidge, John.

Price Waterhouse Cooper Study, (www.uk.mediacentre.pwc.com)

Shrylock Jr., H. S.  “The National History of Metropolitan Areas” in AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY (Sept. 1957)

[U. S. Census]. “Metropolitan Areas” (www.census.gov.hist)

[Updike, John].  Shand-Tucci, Douglass. “John Updike’s Boston” in E-SCHOLARSHIP (February 2008) (www.backbayhistorical.org)

Warner,Jr.,Sam Bass. STREETCAR SUBURBS (Harvard Univ.Press) 1978

Warner,Jr.,Sam Bass. GREATER BOSTON (Rappaport Institute) 2001

[Whitehead, Alfred North]. Quoted in Whitehill, Walter Muir. BOSTON IN THE AGE OF JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY (Oklahoma) 1966

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