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Life on the Corner, Scollay Sq. Part 1

Scollay Square, circa 1895

Why is Robert Burns in Winthrop Square??

Boston was once the most walkable of all American cities. It was a city of low rise buildings and meandering streets filled with businesses and small shops which led a walker to a number of interesting squares, each with a character of its own. Post Office Square was the business center of the city, Copley Square with the main library was the intellectual center but Scollay Square was the most interesting of them all because it was where the North End, West End, Beacon Hill and downtown intersected. It was truly the crossroads of Boston.

The North End was bounded by three squares; Keaney Square to the West, Dewey Square to the South and Scollay Square to the North. Hanover Street led directly into Scollay Square where it joined Court, Sudbury and some smaller streets.The picture accompanying this article depicts Scollay Square at the corner of Court Street looking towards the West End around 1895 and it tells an interesting story that could only happen in Boston.

The first thing to notice is the busy street activity. There are pedestrians on the sidewalks and in the streets. Horse drawn wagons and trolley cars are bringing pedestrians and products to the various markets throughout downtown Boston. This trolly line was electrified in the early 1890’s and the horse drawn trolleys were retrofitted to run on electricity. Not only were the horses slow but they got tired, hungry and thirsty and had to rest at regular intervals. They also left prodigious amounts of manure in the streets which was unsanitary especially in the summer when it would dry and blow all over the downtown area. A few years after this picture was taken, Boston built the first underground subway line in the nation to ease the congestion in Scollay Square. Many Irish and Italian immigrants helped build Boston’s underground subway system.

As the photo illustrates, Scollay Square had a number of  clothing shops, photo studios, restaurants, luncheonettes, bar rooms and theaters but those are stories for another day. The subject for today is the magnificent statue of John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts, on the left side of the photo. This statue is a bronze copy of the marble original by Richard Saltonstall Greenough which is in the Capitol Statuary Hall at Washington DC. In his right hand Winthrop holds the charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in his left the Bible. Winthrop was a Puritan and left England because he thought the Church of England was too much like the Roman Catholic Church with its “smells & bells.” He famously called Boston a “city upon a hill”, a beacon for all the world and a theocracy where Puritan ideas and values would prevail. Puritans had a peculiar theology and believed in predetermination.  They practiced what amounted to a theology of prosperity similar to that of the great Harlem preacher, the Reverend Ike who told the descendants of African slaves that God wanted them to be rich. In the Puritan world, rich people were wealthy not because of hard work or intelligence but because God chose them to be rich. By the same token poor people were destined to be poor, it was their lot in life based on the divine will and one they should willingly accept. This is, of course, utter nonsense and the financial success of so many poor immigrants must make John Winthrop shudder in his grave. Puritans morphed into Unitarians and these attitudes can still be detected in certain rarified, sections of Boston.

Winthrop’s statue which once dominated Scollay Square is no longer there. It was moved around 1903 when the subway was built and a kiosk was erected in its place. After a brief sojourn in front of the old State House the statue was sold for $500.00 to the First Church on Marlborough Street, the church Winthrop helped found. But here’s where the story gets even better.

Winthrop Square with Robert Burns

In the back quarter of the Financial District where Devonshire and Otis Streets diverge and blend into Summer Street is a small square named after John Winthrop. In the middle of the square is an imposing bronze statue and one would assume that statue would be of John Winthrop. In fact, the statue is of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns with his border collie, Luath. Burns was the author of Flow Gently Sweet Afton and Auld Lang Syne, wonderful poems but they have little association to Boston. This is an odd state of affairs and, like so much else in Boston, involves money, class and social status.

In the early 1970’s Winthrop Square and that entire section of downtown Boston had fallen on hard times. On one side of the square was the back entrance to the Franciscan Father’s Arch Street Shrine, a place where homeless people would gather and beg for food and money. One block away on Washington Street was the Combat Zone and Summer Street had many vacant storefronts as businesses began moving to the suburbs.

In the early 1970’s a local real estate developer named Neil St. John Raymond bought the old Hearst building in the square where the greatly missed Boston Record newspaper was published. Raymond renovated the building into offices and thought moving John Winthrop’s statue back to downtown Boston would be a nice complement to his project. He approached Oliver Ames, a trustee of the First Church but was rebuffed. No, John Winthrop would stay in an obscure nook on Marlborough Street with the Back Bay gentry rather than with the commoners of Winthrop Square.

Well, Winthrop Square is changing. A new skyscraper is being planned to replace the seedy garage, the Combat Zone has moved south to Providence and lower Washington Street is becoming hipster heaven with coffee shops and hookah bars. My suggestion is the city rename the square in honor of former Mayor Thomas M. Menino who was so instrumental in developing the downtown area. They could even keep Burns’ statue and just put Tommy’s name on it. I can see a family resemblance and he liked dogs.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

7 Replies to “Life on the Corner, Scollay Sq. Part 1

  1. Another informative and great column–and superb suggestion.
    Hmm! Now that you mention it, Nick–I see the resemblance.

  2. Nick,
    I love your columns. They are priceless. Well done history. Winthrop’s “bells and smells” line is delightful
    Keep ’em coming.
    Many thanks.

  3. I would have loved to hear Tom Menino recite Burns poetry. Thanks, Nick, for a fine story, as always.

  4. There is a song by the Kingston Trio about the MTA from way back. Scollay Square is mentioned in it. Thanks for the great article Nick!

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