Close to the heart of Boston

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Close to the heart of Boston
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Wednesday Oct 6, 2010

My father thought Franklin Square looked like the final scene of On the Beach. Or was it Dresden after the bomb? It certainly had that desolation about it, with yesterday’s newspapers blowing around, men sleeping on benches, and a yellow brick public housing project looming up on the other side. An elevated train roared past at frequent intervals.

I was a transfer student to Boston University that fall of 1964, in an era when women students had to live in supervised housing. The dorms were full, so I chose the Franklin Square House at 11 East Newton Street, the cheapest approved off-campus housing. I paid $16 a week, including two meals a day-soon stretched to three.

I’d been to Boston only once before to visit my aunt and uncle, and they had certainly not taken me anywhere near the South End. "The environment is," one study concluded, "unattractive for family living. High volumes of through traffic and truck traffic, excessive crime and vice, excessive alcoholism, excessive juvenile delinquency and other corruptions of youth, extremely poor schools, and dirt, filth, disorder, irresponsibility and social abnormality everywhere are in evidence."

The Franklin Square House was built in 1868 as the St. James Hotel. The largest family hotel in the city and the most luxuriously furnished, its numerous attractions included reading and smoking rooms, clubrooms, ladies’ and gentlemen’s parlors, a telegraph-office, billiard-room, and two steam elevators. Among its famous guests were President Ulysses S. Grant, Johann Strauss, and, possibly, Diamond Jim Brady. A slump in the South End’s fortunes led to the grand hotel’s closing, and in 1882 the New England Conservatory of Music bought the building, converting it into an inexpensive, safe, convenient, "cultured home" for five hundred young women studying piano and voice. In 1902, a local minister converted it into a "home-hotel" for "self-respecting girls" like me. Many hotel amenities still remained: a spacious lobby with a dark wood check-in desk, a tea room, corner library, bowling alley, innovative clothes drying racks, and a "fudge room"-where "the sweet-toothed can always whip up a batch of fudge."

In the ’80s, the façade of the two buildings became famous on the popular TV series St. Elsewhere, which always began with a shot of the El running between Franklin and Blackstone parks toward what looked quite convincingly like a gritty urban hospital, "St. Eligius." By that time, the Franklin Square House, which closed in 1970, had become The Franklin, apartments for the elderly and disabled.

My friend Barbara had a huge room in "the old building," the old hotel. It had, as I recall, a working fireplace. My room was in the much plainer-and cheaper-"new building," added in 1914, so small that if I leaned back in my desk chair, I landed in bed. I looked out on "the pit," an ugly, open area above the ballroom roof. Devil-may-care residents used to fling articles of intimate apparel out the windows, and every morning old men known as porters had to go out on the roof and pick them up. In my second year, I moved to a room with a view of the park.

Although the brochure claimed the Franklin Square House was "located close to the heart of Boston" and showed a photo of respectable young women being welcomed aboard a city bus by a smiling driver, I quickly found out that it wasn’t located close to the heart of much of anything, particularly BU. If I took the Copley Square bus with the smiling driver, I had to transfer to an outbound subway, and if I walked to Northampton Station and took the El, I first had to go downtown and then out on a Commonwealth Avenue car. I found it easier to walk, even though it was forty minutes each way.

My daily trek took me past several rundown bars on Mass. Ave. Years before, these joints had been jumpin,’ but I had no way of knowing that then. Wally’s Café had been Wally’s Paradise-"Beaucoup Variety Tous les Soirs." "Plush inside," according to someone who sneaked in against his mother’s wishes-a big place with dancing to big bands. In Wally’s heyday, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, and Coleman Hawkins performed there-some say Billie Holiday, too. On the rise toward the railroad tracks (now the Southwest Corridor) was Morley’s Café aka Mr. Kelly’s, where Sarah Vaughn had sung and, later, Milt Buckner played an organ twice the size of a piano. Jazz columnist Nat Hentoff, then a Northeastern student, had hung out at the Savoy, rubbing shoulders with Duke Ellington. The Savoy had also been one of Malcolm X’s favorite places, back when he was Malcolm Little from Michigan. Up and down Mass. Ave., other clubs, bars, and restaurants had thrived.

Now, prostitutes in outlandish outfits paraded outside closed bars, bantering with a small group of men. These men began saying "Good morning" to me as I walked past, and I said "Good morning" back. One day, one of them stepped into my path and asked, "Do you walk that fast because you’re in a hurry or is it from nervous tension?" He made me laugh. Pretty soon, Palmer was jogging beside me every morning, pumping his arms in exaggerated fashion. As time went on, he began predicting my future, warning me against involvement with a "bad-foot boy." (By the way, we’re still friends.)

I liked it when people spoke to me, and I found what they said witty, offbeat, profound, poetic, right on target, and never boring. In great contrast, Comm. Ave., where I joined my fellow students for the last leg of the trip, was deadly dull. And every evening, when I crossed back over the railroad tracks, I was thankful to be home in the South End again. For me, the Franklin Square House wasn’t "located close to the heart of Boston," it was right in the heart of Boston.

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