Downtown View:The Filene’s Block

By Karen Cord Taylor

I’m sitting in the sun at a corporate event on Summer Street. Newspaper people often get invited to occasions like this. Millennium Partners are the hosts. They redeveloped the Filene’s block, restoring the 1912 Daniel Burnham Building, named after its architect, and adding the new residential tower built on the hole in the ground that Vornado Realty Trust left when they demolished the 1950s addition to Filene’s. Millennium is rededicating a bronze tablet commemorating the nearby site of the first and second Trinity churches.

About 100 people are here. I’m prepared to be satisfyingly bored. Speeches take place in four versions of Boston accents. The ground shivers as a subway train passes underneath. A police whistle blows. Birds flitter past. Planes climb overhead. Then a vicar says a final prayer. Two children run up to hug one of the speakers, obviously their grandfather, because they are so proud of watching him give a speech. He must be important.

I think I might cry. This is the way things should be. Children delighted with a grandfather. The hubbub of a city street contrasted with a program designed by a buttoned-up corporation. Unlike what might be held by Wells Fargo or United Airlines or America’s other corporate criminals, this program features a vicar from one of Boston’s wealthiest churches praying for justice, fairness and sharing with those who need a hand. I trust his words because Trinity puts its money where the reverend’s mouth is through the Trinity Boston Foundation. I’m proud of these fellow Bostonians and want the world to change so that generosity like Trinity’s is America’s norm, not the cruel, punitive meanness of the US House of Representatives.

This columnist could write many despairing words over the sorrowful plight of our country due to Washington, but you probably think too much about that already.

Instead I’ll treat you to the story of the historic block bordered by Summer, Washington, Franklin and Hawley streets that is being celebrated in this event. You can refresh your sense of history by studying some artifacts Millennium has placed around its perimeter.

Before you start your perambulation, remember that in the first half of the 19th century Summer Street was lined with fashionable houses. By mid-century, commercial encroachment had begun. When the entire block and more was destroyed in Boston’s devastating 1872 fire, the burned-out smaller businesses and remaining residences were replaced by some of the city’s most beautifully decorated commercial buildings. This and the surrounding blocks were dubbed “the Commercial Palace district.”

That fire burned Trinity Church, whose rector decided it was time to move to the Back Bay, the up and coming neighborhood that replaced the stinking mud flats along the Charles River.

Start at the Trinity Church plaque, mounted behind a narrow window near the entrance at 10 Summer Street. The plaque is a bit odd, since it celebrates the founding of Trinity in 1734 with the 1829 Gothic Revival stone building. But the first building was a wood-framed structure. Oh well.

Nip into 10 Summer Street’s lobby to find brackets from the now-demolished 1905 building at 33 Franklin, which eventually became part of Filene’s store. You’ll also find decorative brickwork in a historic motif on the lobby’s back and side walls.

As you head toward Washington Street, you’ll come upon a window that commemorates the pottery firm of Jones, McDuffee & Stratton, founded in 1810. They worked with the Wedgwood and other fine ceramics manufacturers to turn out dinner services, calendar tiles and commemorative plates. The calendar tiles now sell on ebay for between $13 and $75 each, depending on the subject.

As you turn onto Washington Street look up at the old Filene’s building.  A restored glass and iron canopy lies beneath green Deer Isle granite. Above is the decorative façade, including the dark green middle part that looks like iron and is as complex as a cathedral. All is made of terra cotta. You’ll now realize that other buildings in the neighborhood are clad in the same material.

As you walk along Washington Street, you’ll see into Primark through the windows. Burnham designed them in that open fashion, which died out in retailing during the 20th century. Roche Bros. market along Summer Street is now also on display through the windows.

At the corner of Washington Street and Franklin, named after Benjamin by Charles Bulfinch, you’ll find a subway entrance, a small amphitheater and the 1905 clock from now-demolished 33 Franklin Street.

Looking up, you’ll know you’re next to the 60-story Millennium Tower, finished last year. But a few old artifacts  hang around. A short way down Franklin Street, near the tower’s driveway, you’ll find pieces of 33 Franklin repurposed as benches or space dividers. Around the corner, Hawley Street, originally called Bishop’s Alley, reportedly had on it a tavern frequented by Captain Kidd. Now it is lined with delivery bays.

It’s satisfying to live in a city old enough to have pieces to save.

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