Although these two street names can be found in almost every city in America, Boston’s Summer Street and Winter Street have their own special identities.
First, they take us once more to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s appellation of Boston as “the Hub of the Solar System,” which later expanded to the Hub of the Universe. And we find it, fittingly enough, right where Summer Street meets Winter Street in the retail shopping section of Boston known as Downtown Crossing.
There, at the intersection with Washington Street, you see a circular bronze-and-granite medallion embedded in the concrete that states, “Filene’s – Hub of the Universe.” The developers of the old Filene’s department store site uncovered it and polished it up, restoring the plaque to its former prominence..
This intersection also marked the point where two older names merged into what is now Washington Street. Between School and Milk Streets and Winter and Summer Streets, it was formerly known as Marlborough Street. South of Summer and Winter Streets it was named Newbury Street all the way to Boylston and Essex Streets. That changed in 1789, when George Washington came to town.
Winter Street: A Short Walk
Although we have no recorded order for the laying out of Winter Street—which means it was probably a cow path—it has had multiple names. At various times it has been called “Blotts Lane,” Bannisters Lane, and “Willis Lane” after notable residents. Like many of Boston’s streets it officially became “Winter Street” in 1708.
Why the change? One of Boston’s many critical wits once wrote,
“The Lord tempered the wind to the shorn lamb, but he did not mean that lamb to stand on the corner of Winter and Tremont Street.”
Of course, that was decades before the Hancock Tower was built, a structure that periodically turns Berkeley and St. James Streets into wind tunnels. I remember walking out of the Park Street T station, crossing Tremont heading down Winter Street when I was in college. An art store on the right sold hippy posters and a roasted nut store next door offered warm smells and wonderful Spanish peanuts.
Two alleys intersect in the middle of the block: Winter Place and Music Hall Place.
Locke-Ober on Winter Place
Winter Street’s most notable landmark once hid down a narrow alley called Winter Place. That’s where Locke-Ober, an iconic Boston restaurant, contributed to the financial, political, and intellectual history of Boston. From 1875 to 2012 it fed the rich and prominent, the famous and infamous, the business movers and shakers—as long as they were male.
I never ate at Locke-Ober because the restaurant didn’t open its doors to women until I had graduated college and left Boston. When I returned, all I remembered was that women were not welcome and I couldn’t afford the prices, anyway.
Locke-Ober was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The restaurant closed in 2012 after 137 years. A fine-dining restaurant called Yvonne’s now occupies part of the Locke-Ober space and luxury condominiums take up the rest. If you want to see the old Locke-Ober, (re)watch Good Will Hunting. Professor Lambeau takes Robin Williams’ character, Sean, to eat there. Fans of Robert Parker’s Spenser novels will remember it as the setting for the opening scene in the 1980 book “Looking for Rachel Wallace.”
“It is Old Boston the way the Custom House tower is Old Boston. The decor is plain. The waiters wear tuxedos. There are private Dining rooms. Downstairs is what used to be the Men’s Bar until it was liberated one lunchtime by a group of humorless women who got into a shouting match with a priest. Now anybody can go in there and do what they want. They take Master Charge.”
Music Hall Place
On the opposite side of Winter Street runs an even shorter alley called Music Hall Place. It marks the location of the old Music Hall Theater, now the Orpheum Theater, designed by George Snell in 1852. The Music Hall held a Great Organ and promoted great men, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Booker T. Washington, who appeared on its stage. The Music Hall originally housed the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New England Conservatory.
A Short Walk: Winter Street is a short lane that runs just one full block from Tremont Street and Boston Common to Washington Street. You can walk its length in minutes.
Summer Street: A Long Stretch
Summer Street was first known as “Mylne Street,” as well as “the south street,” “the broad street from the town towards the water,” “street to Richard Gridley’s,” street to the Sign of the Bull,” Seven Star Lane,” and “South Meeting House Lane.” It became Summer Street in 1708.
Boston’s elite lived along Summer Street until they were replaced by the city’s expanding commerce and manufacturing needs. The Summer Street area housed statesmen and churchmen, Federalists and Jeffersonians, along with the city’s most enterprising and wealthiest “merchant princes.” Edmund Quincy described it as:
“One of the handsomest and most commodious in Boston, with ample stable room and every convenience that was then thought essential to a gentleman’s residence.”
In addition, Summer Street had among its residents:
- Four United States Senators and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
- Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Josiah Quincy, from 1815 to 1820 while he was still in the state Senate.
- Daniel Webster, who lived in a new, three-story brick house at the northwest corner of Summer and High Streets. In the early 19th century, Peter Chardon Brooks purchased Mr. Webster’s house when the Senator left to become Secretary of State. At the time, Mr. Brooks was Boston’s top multi-millionaire.
- As a boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the parsonage of the new First Church at 27 Summer Street.
Politicians and Camellias
The east corner of Summer Street and Otis Streets once sported some famous residents. Horace Gray lived at 57 Summer Street in a mansion built with the fortune of his father, who was the country’s largest ship owner.
Mr. Gray’s back garden, which extended along Kingston Street, housed a conservatory for his collection of camellias and other shrubs. Along with plants from his Brighton estate, where he had America’s largest grape houses, these furnished the first plantings for Boston’s Public Garden.
Edward Everett lived on the west corner of Summer and Otis in a double Federal mansion he shared with his brother-in-law. Like his neighbor across the street, Mr. Everett served as both a United States Senator and Secretary of State. He was also governor of Massachusetts and President of Harvard University. It was a tough block for keeping up with the Joneses.
Fire Box # 52
On the corner of Summer and Kingston Streets, you find Fire Box #52. Here a police patrolman (belatedly) rung the first alarm for the Great Fire of 1872. It began in the basement of a commercial warehouse at 83-87 Summer Street on the east corner of Summer and Kingston, which is now a residential building. This conflagration destroyed 776 buildings across 65 acres in the heart of Boston’s wool, dry goods, leather, shoe, and publishing enterprises. In today’s money, the damage approximated a billion dollars. A five-story Greek Revival building replaced the burnt warehouse.
On the west corner of Trinity and Hawley Streets stood the old Trinity Church designed by George W. Brimmer. He created a Gothic Revival structure made of hammered granite with a lancet-arched doorway in the blocky tower, topped with tall crenellations. It would have looked at home tucked in the English countryside.
Completed in 1829, Trinity Church served as a prototype for other New England churches in both stone and wood. Standing as it did across the street from the hoopskirt warehouse where the Great Fire began, Trinity Church burned to the ground, leaving only a broken tower and crumbled walls.
H.H. Richardson used some of the granite from the rubble or the foundations of the new Trinity Church in Copley Square. The back of the church, facing Clarendon Street, has a granite rosette from its predecessor embedded in the wall near the St. Francis Garden.
A Long Street: Summer Street is a very long street that runs from Washington Street south through the Financial District. It widens at the Rose Kennedy Greenway, crosses the Fort Point Channel, goes through the Seaport, and over the Reserved Channel. Summer Street ends at East 1st Street in the South End. It would take you a long time to walk its length.