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GENIUS LOCI: F is for Franklin Street

Boston is a city that leaves clues to its past as much as it may preserve it. They make detectives of passersby, partners in the search for the stories that buildings, pavements, and names wait to share.

Such is the curve of Franklin Street in the heart of the Financial District. Seen from Washington Street, past the steel form of Millennium Tower taking shape behind the old Filene’s façade, Franklin Street reads as slightly ungainly, a pot-bellied spread of asphalt flanked by undistinguished store fronts. The clues start here.

The curve itself tells of Charles Bulfinch, architect, planner, and selectman. He laid it out in 1794 for the Tontine Crescent, a development inspired by visits to London and Bath a decade earlier. The ellipse of 16 townhouses on the southern side of the street featured an arcaded central element, where he offered space to two nascent civic organizations: the Massachusetts Library Society and Massachusetts Historical Society. (A related clue can be found nearby on City Hall Avenue, off School Street. There, the central element of the Tontine Crescent was replicated in the 1930 façade of Kirstein Business Library, now closed and in disrepair.)

Plan and elevation of the Tontine Crescent, Boston, in 1796, engraved by Samuel Hill. Photo: Boston Athenæum

View full anotated Plan and elevation of the Tontine Crescent 

The crescent stood across a landscaped garden from eight semi-detached residences Bulfinch designed on Franklin Place, which he named to honor Benjamin Franklin, who was born nearby. At the center of the garden stood a marble urn etched with Franklin’s name. Bulfinch considered the Tontine Crescent his architectural masterpiece, but a volatile economy, balky investors, and massive cost overruns made it his financial ruin. The houses were demolished in 1858 for redevelopment. Had they not been, they would have met the fate of their successors in 1872, when Boston’s Great Fire leveled 60 acres of the Financial District.

Other clues: the name of Arch Street, which passed beneath the Crescent’s central arch to connect Bulfinch’s development to Summer Street, and a fading plaque and photograph at the corner of Franklin and Hawley streets.

Bulfinch’s ambitions for shaping a new Boston reached beyond residential development. Following the repeal of the Puritan ban on theater in 1792, he drew up plans for the Boston Theatre at the north west corner of Franklin and Federal streets. After the building burned in 1798, Bulfinch designed its successor. Across from the theater site, a bronze plaque at Number 75 marks the spot of Holy Cross, Boston’s first Catholic Church, which he designed in 1803. He lived to witness the demolition of many of his buildings but was spared learning the fate of the Tontine Crescent. His children salvaged the urn he had dedicated to Franklin and placed it over their father’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Franklin Street is also home to younger ghosts. In 1934 Hatch Shell architect Richard Shaw designed a slim Art Deco chapel, now closed, at Number 49. Its heavy glass-inset aluminum doors have been replaced with a more practical entrance for the restaurant that now occupies the space, and the ecclesiastical motif above the door is hidden beneath its sign. Inside, the honeycombed ceiling is one of the only remaining original design elements.

Political ghosts linger as well. Deep in the bowels of the old Boston Safe Deposit and Trust at Number 100, Mayor John Collins met regularly with his brain trust in the 1960s, leading efforts to forge his own vision for a “New Boston.” Officially termed The Coordinating Committee, the group’s meeting place gave them the enduring nickname “The Vault.”