I look at the entrance to Boylston Place every week as I wait for the guests to arrive for a Haunted Boston ghost tour. Pedestrians walk by without looking into the short passageway. I must confess that, until recently, I had never walked down it, either. Last week I decided the time had come, so I arrived for my tour in plenty of time to explore and take photos.
Short Walk / Long History
An iron gateway marks the entrance to Boylston Place, a pedestrian walkway in the block that used to be called Piano Row between Charles Street and Tremont Street. Emerson College now owns most of the buildings on this block. Only the Steinway store reminds us of the musical businesses once concentrated here.
Like all Boston’s best hidden passageways, Boylston Place is left over from an earlier time. In this case it’s the mid-nineteenth century. Like many of Boston’s streets, it is a short walk with a long history.
Boylston Place’s Iron Gateway
First, let’s examine the iron gateway, you pass beneath to enter Boylston Place from the street. The gateway identifies the entrance as a public space and invites passersby to enter. Metalsmith Dimitri Gerakaris created this black-and-gold gate with a theatrical theme.
To the left, a bronze frieze inspired by the Bremen Town Musicians, depicts the musical dog, cat, rooster and donkey from that German folk tale. On the right, we find the suspension bridge from the Public Garden, along with a swan from its Swan Boats, one of Mrs. Mallard’s ducklings, and a mounted policeman’s horse.
Lyres span the arch, while a central “keystone” of theater masks mark the street side. Birds have nested, fittingly, inside the mask of Comedy. Piano keys with notes and a G Clef distinguish the inside. The shining gold ornaments stand out against the gate’s matte black structure.
On either side of the entrance, metal curves like the fabric of theater curtains. Really, this gate deserves far more attention and appreciation than it gets from Bostonians hurrying past.
While Boylston Place provides pedestrian access to the Transportation Building, there are things to see along the way.
Number 3: The Ancient Landmark Building
Number 2 Boylston Place is an Emerson College residence hall designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects and opened in 2017. The dormitory replaced Number 1 and 2 Boylston Place and incorporates the façade of historic Number 3. Thus, it fills a modern need while maintaining the passageway’s historic character.
Number 3 Boylston Place, known as the Ancient Landmark Building, was constructed in 1888 as a lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. This unique organization was dedicated to helping impoverished people and it was the first of the lodges to allow female members.
The building has cast-iron ornaments on its arches and shallow copper oriel windows. The red brick masonry, stone, and copper of 3 Boylston Place come together in an unusual combination of Queen Anne and Romanesque revival architecture that is unique in the district. Unlike 1-2 Boylston Place, 3 Boylston Place was worthy of preservation and we are fortunate that Emerson College and Elkus Manfredi chose to do so.
The Dixwell School and Football
When Epes Sargent Dixwell, former headmaster at Boston Latin School, left that institution after a residency dispute with the Boston City Council he opened his own private Latin grammar school on Boylston Place. He built the house there specifically for the prep school, which he named The Private Latin School of Boston. The locals called it simply the Dixwell School.
Author (and Dixell alumnus) James D’Wolf Lovett wrote in his book “Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played” that:
“This institution, recognized as the finest private school in Boston, fitted boys for college. Any graduate who bore Mr. Dixwell’s hallmark was sufficiently guaranteed without further question.”
In fact, Dixwell’s School did such a good job of preparing boys for college that, between 1851 and when Mr. Dixwell retired in 1872, almost 500 of its scholars matriculated at Harvard. Graduates of the Dixwell School included Henry Adams and State Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.
Boylston Place’s Football Connection
Gerritt S. Miller, a student at the Dixwell School organized Boston’s first football game in 1860, using a rubber sphere for a ball. That early football today resides in the collection of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.
While football was not invented here, the first organized football team was. The Oneida Football Club played on Boston Common. The game involved both running and kicking plays. The club developed a more consistent set of rules than prior versions of American football. A six-foot marker near the Frog Pond commemorates the team. Its inscription reads:
“On this field the Oneida Football Club of Boston, the first organized football club in the United States, played against all comers from 1862 to 1865. The Oneida goal was never crossed.”
The Dixwell School’s roster reads like a list of Old Boston names, including Saltonstall, Bowditch, Apthorp, Brooks, Boit, Lawrence, Peabody, Huntington, and John Malcolm Forbes.
Number 4 – 5 – 6: The Tavern Club
Number 4 Boylston Place, on the right, houses the Tavern Club. Founded in 1884 in a second-floor studio at 1 Park Square, this private club is still going strong. The Tavern Club occupies three brick row houses connected by a stucco structure over a carriageway.
William Dean Howells, the club’s first president, described the membership as, “the best and nicest young lawyers, doctors, artist, and litterateurs.” Don’t bother checking their website, though, unless you’re a member, There is nothing for non-members to see and membership is by invitation only.
The Elegant Bear Statue
The club moved to Boylston Place in 1887, along with their totem, a bear. The Tavern Club’s four-foot iron mascot, wearing top hat, tails and an evening cape, stands just inside the gate, holding back the folds of the gate’s metal curtain. The Tavern Club offers dinners, lectures, and musical and theatrical performances for the members and their guests.
Like most of Boston’s private clubs, the Tavern Club refrains from announcing its presence with anything as gauche as a sign. Those people who need to know its location can find it. The rest of us do not and will not. I do appreciate the bear, although I had no idea why he was standing by the gate until I researched this blog post.
The Tavern Club may protect its anonymity but it recently appeared in an (I’m sure unwelcome) spotlight. In Ace Atkins’ new Spenser novel, “Someone to Watch Over Me” fictional Boston detective Spenser pays several visits to a very private club near Boston Common. And now you know.
Number 10: Two Majestic Additions
Number 10 stands tall as an 11-story addition to the back of the Cutler Majestic Theater, which faces Tremont Street. Designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects, it contains spaces for theater work and opened in 2005.
For such a short walk, Boylston Place holds another surprise. Partway down Boylston Place, you will encounter a life-size, street-level statue of TV icon Norman Lear. It was created by Peter Schifrin, a sculpture instructor in the Academy of Art University’s School of Fine Art. The six-foot, three-inch figures stands in front of a 10-foot bronze story wall. Mr. Lear, creator of All in the Family, Maude, and One Day at a Time, graduated from Emerson College. Etched on the wall are characters from Mr. Lear’s shows as well as his own reflections, such as “Laughter is the umbilical cord of connectedness.”
Long before Emerson College, a school dedicated to communication and the arts, occupied most of Piano Row, Boylston Place made its own history in those areas. Dixwell’s School began the passageway’s pedigree in education while the Tavern Club created early theatrical productions and musical performances. The passageway must act like a magnet for the performing arts.