Connecting past to future in Upham’s Corner

Jill S. Gross, Special to the Reporter
Oct. 22, 2009

History buffs and area residents strolled through the building where the nation’s first supermarket once thrived, threw balls down the lane of a shuttered candlepin alley, and even took a bow on the stage of the Strand Theatre on Saturday morning.

And organizers of a walking tour of Upham’s Corner hoped that as participants took in the sites where past generations watched movies, worshipped, stabled their horses, and bought their bread, they also would become energized about the neighborhood’s future.

“This is about connecting people to the rich history of the neighborhood, and also what’s happening currently in the neighborhood,” said Zachary Cohen, executive director of Upham’s Corner Main Street, Inc. “It is really about connecting the past to the future.”

Cohen said he hoped that connection would drive people to make even a small difference there, such as picking up trash on the street or contributing to a community organization.

About 15 people took part in the tour, which was organized by the Main Street District and The Neighborhood Preservation Partnership of Boston, a collaboration of the Boston Preservation Alliance and Historic Boston Incorporated.

The tour started at the Strand, the city-run landmark that began as a movie and vaudeville house in 1918 and has benefited from $6 million in upgrades in recent years.

The tour was full of nuggets of neighborhood history – some which have been obscured by time and others that lay in plain sight. Gone are the garden areas that once bloomed in medians and streetcar lines that made the area a haven for commerce in the 1920s.

But in the 1902 Municipal Building, the old indoor swimming pool now houses children’s books as part of the neighborhood branch library. Embroidered towels mark book sections and a life preserver hangs from the railings. In addition to the library, the building now houses the Upham’s Corner Health Center and Bird Street Community Center.

At one time, the building offered hot showers before they were available in most homes, said Erica Lindamood, education coordinator for the Boston Preservation Alliance. She said it also served as a meeting place for veterans of the Spanish-American War and the place where people from the neighborhood went to meet with the draft board from World War I through the Vietnam War,

“I like this neighborhood, and I wanted to come out and see what’s going on,” said Nancy Conrad, who was drawn to the tour because of the painstaking renovations she’s doing to her 1893 Colonial Revival nearby.

Participants saw the majesty of the soaring, curved, wooden ceiling in one part of Pilgrim Church, a Romanesque Revival building completed in 1892, then viewed the water-stained drop ceiling that replaced much of it after a fire in 1970.

As the tour walked past the Wheelock Livery Building – built as a stable in the mid-1800s and now home to businesses including a furniture store and fried chicken restaurant – Cohen explained that he is working with the owner and architect on the building’s signs and some leak issues. The owner is receptive, he said, but as with other buildings on the tour, the cost of upgrades is an issue.

“This building could be a strong anchor for the neighborhood, especially with how close it is to the Strand,” he said.

One of sites on the tour that has seen a major overhaul was the building where two enterprising brothers, the Cifrinos, gradually expanded their business from a vegetable market to a bustling supermarket – believed to be the first in the world, according to the Boston Preservation Alliance. The building, which had fallen vacant and was boarded up after shoppers headed to the suburbs, has undergone an extensive renovation and now houses offices, retail space, and low-income apartments.

At Wheelock Hall, Nicholas Verenis still runs the pool hall his grandfather started in 1931. But the former Fox Hall dance floor on the top level stands vacant, and a candlepin bowling alley where Verenis said former Mayor Ray Flynn used to work as a pin boy has closed.

“That was fun. What a riot,” said Mary Darmstaetter, one of several who bowled a couple of balls when Verenis opened the lanes. Darmstaetter, who lives in downtown Boston and is interested in historic preservation, said she knew nothing about the neighborhood before the tour. After spending the morning, she said she wouldn’t be afraid to come back and scout a little more.

Lindamood said she hoped that the tour helped people see what the neighborhood has to offer and think of it as a place they might visit. She said the tour had achieved one goal of establishing new relationships with people in the community.  “We’re hoping we can use the tour as a springboard to continue conversations about the history and revitalization of the neighborhood.”

Cohen and Lindamood said it is possible that the organizations would work together to offer future tours. 


You can directly blame kevin white and the First National Bank of Boston for red lining the neighborhoods and creating the urban blight that has festered over that past 30 years...they collectively sought to reduce the nieghborhoods to ruins to gain the land through driving the worth down and claiming most of it through eminent domain then make a financial killing re selling once they 'revitalized the careful who you vote for and what they ultimate personal goals are........this can and if left unchecked will happen again.......Tommy? ..... we don't need a mayor for life.......we need term limits....and fresh ideas....step aside your time is over.....time to pass the torch....

Take a sad Song and make it better

Rich Carney