By Suzanne Besser
Last weekend Temple Street got all dolled up.
More than thirty residents came together to sweep away winter’s debris and dress the gently sloped street in its spring finery. Salmon-colored geraniums, white petunias and purple verbena now spill from its planters, while its hand-tilled tree pits sport red, pink and white clusters of impatiens.
And, they’ve been doing this for almost forty years. The first annual spring cleanup and beautification day sponsored by Temple Street residents occurred in the late seventies, immediately after the somewhat neglected street received a much-deserved makeover that transformed it into a brick walkway with wide sidewalks, a curb flush with the street, no parking and little automobile traffic.
“The reconstruction of Temple Street was an early attempt to reduce the dominance of the automobile on a primarily residential street and to recall what an urban neighborhood felt like when people walked everywhere,” said local architect James McNeely. “Fortunately there is now a fresh wind blowing in this country that should reduce the number of privately owned cars in Boston.”
To this day it remains one of the few streets where walkers and drivers share the road in Boston, which Redkin just named the third most walkable city in the country, and McNeely hopes its design will be replicated in other neighborhoods. With its flowering planters and budding trees, it is most likely to be seen with neighbors chatting, children playing and pedestrians crossing its gentle slope between Cambridge and Derne streets.
The street’s transformation was spearheaded by McNeely, who with his wife purchased one of the bow front lodging houses on the street in 1964. The young couple chose the location because of its proximity to his worksite. “The street’s appearance was bleak, unlike Beacon Hill’s South Slope or even the rest of the North Slope,” said McNeely. “Its sidewalks were concrete, the street lamps mercury vapor and the parking reserved for state legislators.”
Susan McWhinney-Morse, another longtime resident, agreed. “It was an awful street, dirty and dusty,” she said. “No one ever paid attention to it. It was in a constant state of disruption because Suffolk was just beginning to construct the Donahue Building.”
Yet McNeely knew that in 1963 state legislators had added the North Slope to the Beacon Hill Historic District and that as a result Temple Street would soon become one of the last streets within the District to be upgraded with brick sidewalks and gas lamps.
It took much longer than he expected. Not much building went on during the recession of the 70s, although Boston did convert several streets into pedestrian ways, including Downtown Crossing and Quincy Market, a project in which McNeely was involved. His experience there led him to propose that Temple Street also be designed as a pedestrian walkway with limited automotive traffic and no parking.
His proposal received a lot of support.
Suffolk University jumped on board, donated funds and persuaded the state to give up its 24 parking spaces to benefit the university from which many legislators had graduated. The Beacon Hill Civic Association and Northeast Slope Neighborhood Association backed it, as did Temple Street residents, ninety percent of whom lived in tenements or lodging houses and didn’t own cars anyway.
The city of Boston engineered and constructed the project using community development block grant funds. The gas and electric companies relocated the utilities to permit the widening of the sidewalk from seven to fourteen feet. The twelve-foot-wide roadway was distinguished by wide banks of brick paving in front of Suffolk and at both ends of the street, which is shared by pedestrians and automobiles.
By December 16, 1977, McNeely’s vision had become a reality. At a ceremony held on the newly restored street, Governor Paul Dukakis, Mayor Kevin White and others dedicated it and dubbed it Temple Walk.
From that time on, the residents turned their attention to beautifying it. The Massachusetts Building Congress, Beacon Hill Garden Club, Suffolk, property owners, tenants and friends of the street donated funds for Sycamore and Linden trees to be planted in its sixteen tree pits.
McWhinney-Morse and Betsy Peterson were two of the early leaders who mobilized other residents on the street to pool funds, purchase plants, tidy tree pits and plant flowers for the sixteen planters and pits. At Christmastime, the neighbors fill them again with winter greens, hang garlands on lamp posts and wreathes on each front door.
“I remember writing handwritten notes about the event and putting them in everyone’s mailbox,” said Peterson, who first moved to Temple Street in 1978. ‘We were always winning gardening awards, such as in the annual Beacon Hill window box contest.”
Temple Park, located across from Suffolk’s Donahue Building, was originally a parking lot owned by St. John the Evangelist Church. By agreement with the church, Suffolk maintained it as a space for its students and neighbors to enjoy. In 2002, when the park was threatened by a pending development, a coalition comprising residents and friends of the street, Suffolk, the Beacon Hill Civic Association and Garden Club and the city of Boston raised funds to purchase the park, which they immediately turned over to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department.
Suffolk, which up until now has helped out by watering the street’s tree pits and container plantings several times a week, also has maintained the park’s trees and shrubs, beautifying it with annual flower each year.
The two annual planting days do more for the street than beautify it, said Peterson. “They are huge in terms of building a sense of community here. They have made it a neighborhood rather than just a street.”
Rob Corbin, whose family has lived there for four years, agrees. “On Temple Street, we’re not just passing our neighbors on the street,” he said. “We all contribute and pitch in to help, even our kids. Our girls, who are four and one, look forward to hanging out with the others on the street.” Corbin said about 30 kids school age and younger live in what he called a unique community.
Besides building community, the neighbors have another reason to be proud. The Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau has installed wall-sized photographs of the pedestrian street, with its budding trees and flowers, bricks and gas lanterns, in several terminals in Logan Airport. There, they welcome residents home and entice visitors to stay a little longer in this attractive, walkable city.