New Shawmut station connects past and present

Eighteen-month old Virginia White is pictured on a sled ouitside Shawmut Station in 1924. This image is one of 12 historic panels that now adorn the renovated station.

When the Shawmut T station was first built in 1927, Virginia White's father watched over the construction from his home across the street at 27 Clementine Park. Over the last two years, as work has proceeded on a major renovation of Shawmut, Virginia took over her father's watchdog duties from the same home where she has lived for 86 years.

Virginia remembers when today's Red Line was the Old Colony Railroad, an above-ground streetcar system connecting Dorchester and Boston. It was transformed into a subway in the 1920s, to provide mass transportation into the city for urban workers.

A new public art display on the Shawmut platform features a photograph, taken in 1924, of an 18-month-old Virginia, riding in a sled beside the Old Colony Railroad tracks just outside of her house.

The photograph is one of many that now adorn the Shawmut walls. Twelve 4-by-8 panels have been installed, each devoted to a piece of Dorchester's rich history. Industry, schools, artists, craftsman, homes, and places of worship are featured along with Franklin Park and the Shawmut station area. The historical information, photographs, illustrations and etchings seen on the panels were obtained from the Boston Public Library, the Dorchester Historical Society, Historical New England, and Dorchester residents.

The Shawmut station renovations, part of a massive MBTA preoject to rebuild Dorchester's five Red Line stations, was a collaboration between the Shawmut Community Advisory Committee, the MBTA, the Dorchester Historical Society, and neighborhood residents, who insisted that the building be historically preserved. Between 50 and 70 community members participated in planning the project, which would revitalize the red brick head house, the Shawmut walkway, and the station's platform level.

At right: Virginia White at Shawmut station.

"When they said they would reconstruct, we all said, 'No, you're going to keep it the way it is,'" Virginia said, remembering an early planning meeting. Though the neighborhood faces have changed over the years, Virginia said the buildings are largely the same as they were when she was a child thanks to the efforts of community groups working to preserve Dorchester's history.

Earl Taylor, president of the Dorchester Historical Society, said "the MBTA worked to get neighborhood people involved in what happened to the station." The community asked for a historic, vintage, feel at Shawmut, Taylor said, and that is what they got.

The historic restoration does have some drawbacks, however, said Jenny Moye, chair of the Shawmut Community Advisory Committee.

"Shawmut's renovation is unique, but more complicated than tear down, build-up projects," she said. The building's structural repairs were especially challenging, which explains why the renovations are still going on, Moye said. The Community Advisory Committee has asked for additional work at the platform level to make the cracked support columns and ceiling more aesthetic.

Also in the works are the Shawmut walkway gardens, the product of a $120,000 grant from the city of Boston. The gardens line the asphalt subway cap, previously an eyesore in the neighborhood. The Botanical Medicine Garden, at the end of the corridor, is tentatively scheduled to open in May or June of this year, said Moye. They hope that the garden will serve as a learning tool for area schools and residents.

Though some renovations are still in the works, the installation of the panels is a hopeful sign that the end of the long process, which began in 2004, may be near. Regardless, neighborhood residents are happy with their new station and its striking resemblance to the old one. When asked why the station's preservation was so important to the community, Virginia responded matter-of-factly, "because we live here."