Brian McGrory has a column in today's Globe about the decision to tear down the columns which grace the entrance of the Franklin Park Zoo. The decision, made by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation has attracted little attention: apparently the Boston Landmarks Commission approved the destruction afew weeks ago with little fanfare. McGrory's main point is a good one. If these columns were anywhere in downtown Boston they would be preserved as a substantial monument. While I don't believe it is racism, as some think, that made the columns vulnerable, I do believe that the decision has everything to do with a significant undervaluation of Boston's history outside of the Freedom Trail/American Revolution story and the location of the columns away from Boston's history nexus doesn't help.
We're coming up on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Boston in 2030. The American Revolutionary era represents 5% of Boston's history--what is Boston (and the Commonwealth) doing to save and intepret the other 95%? Boston profits greatly from its history but a plan needs to be in place to reintegrate the history of Boston's neighborhoods into a larger story. The story of the columns and how they ended up at the Franklin Park Zoo is a natural way to link and interpret several parts of Boston's history, if only the state and city would see it.
The columns at the Franklin Park Zoo are the interior columns which supported the ceiling of the United States Custom House, which was completed in 1847 and designed by Ammi B. Young (see below). The columns, Corinithian in style, are three feet in diameter and twenty nine feet high. The exterior columns, seen in the photo above, are Doric columns of Quincy granite. The exterior columns are single pieces of granite, sixty-four inches in diameter, thirty-two feet high. Each exterior column weighs about forty two tons and cost about $5200. The interior columns were removed from the Customs House in preparation for the addition of the Peabody and Stearns designed tower which was completed in 1915, making it the tallest building in Boston at that time. The columns in Franklin Park are a significant reminder of Boston's seaport heritage--after all, it was the United States Custom House which saw the growth of Boston's wealth and prosperity in the 19th century--and should be preserved.
I encourage everyone reading this to call their state representative and ask what they are doing to help save this Boston landmark.
Edit: A commenter asked who placed the columns at Franklin Park. The City of Boston did, as part of the creation of the "Zoological Gardens," the plans for which were drawn up by Olmsted Brothers. This particular component of the Zoological Gardens was called "Greeting". The cost of repairing the columns for re-use was $13,000. My guess is that the City of Boston saved the columns rather than dispose of them because of their size and value--they had been stored in Franklin Park since 1913. The Boston Globe papers from 14 December 1916 and 14 January 1917 have short stories about the columns.
Edit 2: The more I think about the columns, I am beginning to believe that their appearance in Franklin Park was inspired by the City Beautiful planning movement. While City Beautiful proponents had little effect on downtown Boston (South Station notwithstanding), Olmsted's parks were part of the push for better urban planning and the heroic and monumental aspects of the Customs House columns certainly fit into the style of classical architecture seen in Daniel H. Burnham's White City from 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Peabody and Stearns, the firm which designed the Custom House Tower which made the removal of the columns necessary, had designed the Machinery Hall at the Columbian Exposition.
A website about the Columbian Exposition can be found here.
Ammi Burnham Young (1798-1874), a native of Lebanon, NH worked all over the country. His earliest work can be found in Vermont, where he designed the State House in Montpelier. He designed the Boston Custom House (1837-1847) and many other buildings including Custom Houses in Norfolk, VA and Charleston, SC while serving as supervising architect for the United States Treasury Department. In 1840, his Boston office was at 1 Commercial Wharf.