The Once and Future Kenmore Square

Forget the rumors—reports of the neighborhood’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Shown here in a rendering, a proposed 300-foot hotel tower designed by the famed Chicago architect Jeanne Gang could change the entire look of Kenmore Square. / Photo courtesy of Studio Gang

Before Eastern Standard’s red awnings went up in 2005, it seemed like Kenmore Square’s sole purpose was to piss everyone off. After all, only a psychopath could have cooked up a traffic pattern where two major westbound arteries—Beacon Street and Comm. Ave.—careen into each other at an intersection so perplexing, the traffic-light cycle is almost two minutes. By foot, leapfrogging from safe space to safe space is pure, attenuated misery. On a bike, grit your teeth and pray. In a car, well, how much do you like your paint job? When the lights turn red, this danse macabre freezes in an exhaust-choked scene from some traffic planner’s hell.

Welcoming diners from the chaos into its dimly lit continental embrace, Eastern Standard turned the neighborhood into a destination of sorts, becoming BU’s de facto faculty club as well as the landing spot for undergrads and proud parents, all of whom came for the smartly curated cocktail menu, consistently good bistro fare that didn’t condescend, and spacious banquettes that invited luxuriating over a saffron-infused moules frites. Countless milestones were feted in the grand, everyman’s upscale joint—including some of my own. My husband and I held our post-wedding brunch in ES’s private dining room and came back for his 60th birthday party. The night after the 2016 election, my best friend and I commiserated at the bar over cocktails.

I say “were” feted because the restaurant group, led by Garrett Harker, lost its leases to ES and its sister restaurants, the Hawthorne and Island Creek Oyster Bar, after shutting down for nearly a year due to COVID. (Don’t worry about Harker. His spinoff Eastern Standard Provisions, purveyor of soft pretzels anointed by none other than Oprah Winfrey, pulled in $14 million in 2020.) Now the iconic restaurant’s grand red awnings are saggy and gray with soot, someone’s reclaimed a corner of the outdoor dining space as a private domicile, and the entire square feels drab and depressed.

Those who thought of Eastern Standard and its siblings as the brightest light in this bleak traffic pit are still in mourning. Even AOC, a BU grad, bade farewell to Easten Standard on Twitter. But is this really the end of Kenmore Square? Some think the restaurant closings signal the end of the neighborhood, an ignominious finale to a 50-odd year slide. They’re very wrong. This mess of urban happenstance isn’t kaput. It’s just gearing up for its next act.

This mess of urban happenstance isn’t kaput. It’s just gearing up for its next act.

Kenmore Square’s problems were baked into its DNA. It began not as a square, but as a boat landing on the Charles River known as Sewall’s Point. (Fun fact: Island Creek chef Jeremy Sewall is a direct descendant of Samuel Sewall, the point’s namesake, better known for his role as the infamous judge in the Salem witch trials.)

Before 1821, the only way to get to Brookline from Boston was by boat, or by carriage via Washington Street through Roxbury. A dam from Boston Common to the point was built in 1821 to power mills with energy from the then-tidal Charles River. The dam was a financial failure. It also blocked the natural flow of water in and out of the marshy bay, causing raw sewage to build up and resulting in a large fetid lake.

The dam found new life as a causeway across the bay linking Boston to Brookline, but by 1857, the foulness had become intolerable and Bostonians cheered on the filling of the Back Bay. The enormous civil engineering project landed at the doorstep of Kenmore Square in 1890. From the marshy New England landscape emerged solid ground and a street grid. Mill Dam Road became Beacon Street.

Because Kenmore Square was developed so late, its many functions over time added up to one messy problem. There was just too much happening at one spot. The Muddy River flows into the Charles River at its doorstep not far from Fenway Park; the Boston & Albany Railroad once cut a noisy, sooty swath through the neighborhood at regular intervals (now the Mass. Pike does the same); and the Back Bay street grid splinters into diverging Brookline Avenue, Brighton Avenue (eventually renamed Commonwealth), and Beacon Street. Adding to the pandemonium, the stately Comm. Ave. Mall stops dead in its tracks when it hits the square.

To solve the problem, Frederick Law Olmsted designed a large pond and park, named Charlesgate, at the terminus of Comm. Ave., giving the Muddy River a proper landscaped farewell as it flowed into the Charles. As soon as this park was built, the area near it boomed. Luxurious apartment buildings, private residences, and five-star hotels, including the Somerset, created an elegant frame around the city’s newest amenity.

Developers continued building grand hotels and nightclubs, moving west into the square itself. When Fenway Park opened across the tracks in 1912, out-of-town players, plus New England’s movers and shakers, gathered at the Hotel Braemore, Hotel Kenmore, and Hotel Buckminster, all built in Kenmore between 1897 and 1917. Slick car showrooms in the square rivaled the hotels in scale and prominence, marking the beginning of the auto mile. Just up Brookline Ave., Sears built a huge Northeast distribution center, called Landmark Center, in 1929.

As a result, Kenmore Square lit up like Times Square. But the failure of Boston’s street designers to fully resolve the neighborhood’s unwieldy intersections would plague the area into the next century.

On a sunny March afternoon, I met Pam Beale, co-owner of the Kenmore Square stalwart Cornwall’s, and historian H. Parker James, a retired Brandeis professor, to get a better understanding of this urban juggernaut. The pair, who have each lived here for about 40 years, offered to take me on a tour. Our first stop was the Bowker Overpass, the unfortunate gateway to Kenmore Square. “It’s sad because this was so beautiful,” said Beale, gazing out at the wasteland under the highway, “and now with the Bowker, it’s like a physical and mental impediment.”

The square’s fate has always been tied to development in and around it, and the story of the Bowker neatly explains Kenmore’s midcentury slide. Boston never fully recovered from the Great Depression, James said, and after World War II, federal, state, and local officials began plotting a comeback for the aging city. Their one-two punch: urban renewal and brand-new highways. Boston’s appetite for elevated roadways proved insatiable. The West End was flattened, and the Central Artery cut a deep, dark gash through downtown. In the mid-’60s, it was Kenmore’s turn for a dose of asphalt.

If you’re looking for a villain in this neighborhood saga, Brookline state Senator and Metropolitan District Commission associate commissioner Philip Bowker is your guy. Like every good American, Bowker loved highways and hated communists. James called him “the Joseph McCarthy of Massachusetts.” Eager to get suburban commuters in and out of the city, Bowker led the charge to break Helen Storrow’s will, which had bequeathed $1 million to the state to protect the Charles River Basin from development. Thanks to Bowker, the sadly named Storrow Drive barreled over the banks of the Charles in 1951, seven years after Helen’s death. With that mission accomplished, Bowker spent the rest of his life advocating for the construction of a mammoth overpass that would pour Boylston Street traffic into shiny new Storrow Drive. The land was there for the taking at Charlesgate. “In those days,” James said, shaking his head, “if they wanted to put in a highway, they’d just grab the parks because it was easy.”

The hulking concrete-and-steel eyesore planted its stout legs into the
Olmsted-designed landscape in 1965, casting a depressing shadow over the Emerald Necklace’s crescendo where the Muddy River meets the Charles. As the overpass was going up, the Globe reported that the highway would “break one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the city.” Two years later, though, minds were already starting to change. The Bowker, a historian wrote in the Globe, “desecrated one of the loveliest city parks in America.’’

With the elegance of Charlesgate destroyed, the Bowker Overpass hastened the area’s devaluation and continues to befoul what was once a city jewel. But the piece of urban blight did do something positive: It would soon complement the new punk aesthetic wafting into Kenmore in the ’70s. In those gritty days, the neighborhood hosted clashing cultures: the rock scene, skinheads, and punks; the BU kids; the homeless and drug users who set up a tent city under the Bowker; a suburban disco contingent; and a nascent gay scene. Up the block, Pizza Pad served alcohol-soaking slices, Strawberries proffered the latest vinyl, and the Army-Navy store sold cheap duds.

As if dueling for the hearts and minds of Boston youth, the Rat and the discotheque Narcissus stared each other down from across the square. When the clubs closed each night, people in various stages of intoxication would mill around. Some were mellow, some were belligerent. Fights broke out. The lowercase-r rat population was abundant. “Kenmore’s where all the students loved to hang out, and where parents wished their kids wouldn’t,” says Gary Nicksa, senior vice president of operations for BU.

If there’s anything that remains constant about Kenmore Square, it’s that nothing ever stays the same. In the late ’80s, the Boston police and Boston University, under the direction of president John Silber, began hustling out the local color and buying up real estate. Among those evicted were the Muddy River Gang—homeless folks who lived under the Bowker Overpass—and Mr. Butch, a.k.a. the King of Kenmore. The Rat closed in 1997; the Middle East and TT the Bear’s, both in Central Square, eagerly picked up the bookings, and the music scene drifted to Cambridge.

When Harker first conceived Eastern Standard in the raw, just-built Hotel Commonwealth space where the Rat once stood, the former club was still very much top of mind. “The ghosts of the Rathskeller [were] a part of Eastern Standard,” he told Eater in 2015. “It was that punk kind of spirit from the Rat, just a little more polish and a little more welcoming of a sort of wide mix of people….We always wanted to honor, never wanted to just rewrite history of what this square was.”

Kenmore Square might look desolate now, but looks are deceiving. At this moment, the neighborhood and its environs are among the hottest places to sink real estate cash in Boston. Construction is wrapping up on Related Beal’s 282,000-square-foot One Kenmore Square under the glow of the Citgo sign, which the developer has been careful to preserve. The project is on BU-owned land and is being built with BU’s blessing. “Our goal is that Kenmore Square becomes a really robust commercial place next to the campus,” Nicksa says. It’s safe to say Stephen Faber, executive vice president of Related Beal, agrees with him. “We’re incredibly bullish about Kenmore Square,” he notes. “We think the location is really unique, with great institutions around it—BU and Longwood—and MIT across the river.”

Along with the Related Beal project, the McKim, Mead & White–designed Buckminster, Kenmore Square’s oldest hotel, is now in the midst of a gut rehab after closing in April 2020. One block west of the square on Comm. Ave., BU is completing the 17-story BU Center for Computing and Data Sciences. But the most transformational project for the square may be homegrown: Marblehead native Robert Korff of Mark Development, who owns the Citizens Bank property, a triangular site at the Beacon-Comm. Ave. fork, is proposing a new 300-foot hotel tower designed by the highly decorated Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

If this thing gets built as designed, the square’s century-old woes may finally be resolved. City planning guru (and Brookline resident) Jeff Speck suggested that Korff swap his property with the city’s in front of Citizens Bank so the tower could sit deeper into the square. To do this, traffic patterns would get a redesign. Traveling westbound, instead of veering left in the center of the square to take Beacon Street, you’d make a hard left onto a new street built behind Korff’s hotel plaza. Cleaning up that rat’s nest of an intersection would make Kenmore more intimate, walkable, and bikeable. The plan would require a $15 million reconfiguration of the ground plane, which Korff has pledged to finance. “I could have done it the easy way,” Korff tells me over Zoom, “but I took the less profitable path because I’m in my hometown, on the doorstep of the university I graduated from, and I have the luxury of doing the right thing.”

As Beale, James, and I picked our way under the Bowker, I tried to reconcile those developers’ sexy renderings with this wasteland, so close to so much major investment. The pair pointed out Olmsted-period artifacts—including remnants of grand balustrades, a half-buried elegant stone footbridge, and a neglected but beautifully built pump station—and told me about a proposed Charlesgate revitalization project, currently estimated at $16 million, that would create a postindustrial landscape incorporating the Bowker into various walkways, recreation areas, and a dog park. The project is endorsed by several high-profile organizations, including the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, LivableStreets Alliance, and the Charles River Watershed Association.

At the point where the Bowker barreled into Storrow, we worked our way around a fence and up onto a 10-acre park orphaned by east- and westbound traffic. I’d passed this park in a car a thousand times and never noticed it. When we reached the top of the berm, James exclaimed, “Look at the views! Where are views like this on the whole Esplanade?”

Perhaps because Charlesgate is such an eyesore, people tend to blow right past it. We’re so inured to the ugliness of overpasses and highways that we’ve trained ourselves to turn a blind eye to them. Which pretty much sums up much of Kenmore’s recent history. For a lot of us, it was just a place to hustle through without losing our sanity.

But Eastern Standard made us rethink what Kenmore Square could be. Harker and his team had vision, the same kind of ambitious thinking that shaped the Back Bay, the new Fenway, the creation of the Emerald Necklace, and the Esplanade. But damn, do I miss Eastern Standard. Actually, I miss drinking anywhere but in my apartment. I dream of martini glasses, backlit bars, cocktail napkins, and elegant curls of orange rind. At the moment, though, the best I can do is a DIY salute to the passing of yet another Kenmore era. If you’re mourning, too, please join me. Mix up your favorite ES Heritage cocktail (may I suggest the “Starting Gate”—Glenfiddich 15-year single malt, Appleton Estate rum, sherry, and mint?), and let’s raise a glass to Kenmore’s many pasts. And then let’s drink to its future.