date published: September 7, 2009

by Josh B. Wardrop and Amelia Mason

If you’ve been to Boston before, or even if you’re a newcomer who’s done his or her research—Fodor’s Guide, Frommer’s or (ahem) the fine publication you’re holding right now—you’ve probably worked out the basics of Boston by now: The Freedom Trail, superb Italian food in The North End, shopping on Newbury Street, Fenway Park and the “Green Monster.”

But beyond the popular attractions that our city has to offer, Boston is also a city rife with oddball history, hidden curiosities and quirky insider stories that you can’t hear just anywhere. That’s why Panorama wants to take the opportunity to answer the head-scratchers that you might ask yourself as you explore the Hub—which leads perfectly into our first question…

1. What’s all this “Hub” stuff?
I suppose most of us regard the city we live in to be the center of the universe, but Boston’s taken it to a new level. In 1858, Cambridge native Oliver Wendell Holmes described the Massachusetts State House as “the hub of the solar system.” Over time, this nickname stuck, and evolved into the even grander “Hub of the Universe” as a description of Boston’s place in creation. Local retail giant Filene’s even erected a plaque outside its flagship store at the corner of Washington and Summer streets, declaring that particular spot to be the actual, geographical center of the universe. (To our knowledge, neither Carl Sagan nor Stephen Hawking was consulted on this.) Sadly, the plaque is today covered by a storage facility. These days, our local delusion of grandeur is mostly restrained to newspaper and magazine articles as a shorthand way of referring to Boston (you’ve gotta admit, it sounds a lot cooler than Beantown).

2. Where’s the (Tea) Party At?
The Boston Tea Party was a formative event not only in our city’s history, but our nation’s history as well, making the site of the famed bit of rebellion a popular attraction for visitors when they come to Boston. That’s why it’s so sad to watch bemused and bewildered tourists stand on the Congress Street Bridge overlooking Fort Point Channel, looking back and forth between the map in their hands and the empty space where the Tea Party Ship & Museum is supposed to be.

From 1973–2001, the original Tea Party Museum and a replica of the Brig Beaver (one of the original ships raided in 1773) could be found in the Channel. Then, the building caught fire in 2001 and was closed for repairs. During the closure, an expansion for the museum was planned, with renovations of the Brig Beaver and the construction of replicas of the other two ships involved in the incident, the Dartmouth and the Eleanor, beginning in 2004. Then, in 2007, the still-damaged museum site caught fire again during renovations to the bridge. After that, the existing structure could no longer be salvaged, and in 2008, the whole thing was demolished. According to the latest report from Historic Tours of Americas, owners and operators of the venue, a new Museum complete with all three ships is now scheduled to open in the summer of 2010.

3. So, What’s with the Lights on the Hancock Building?
Let’s say you’re in the Back Bay for a fun evening on the town, but you forgot to check the weather report before heading out. Sure, you could go to on your iPhone or Blackberry, or you could take the approach that Bostonians have turned to through the years: find the Old John Hancock Building (a.k.a. the Berkeley Building, not to be confused with the modern, 60-story John Hancock Tower on nearby Clarendon Street) and look up. Atop the skyscraper is a weather beacon that uses red and blue lights to clue the meteorologically impaired in on what they can expect from Mother Nature. There’s even a helpful rhyme to keep things straight: “Steady blue, clear view/Flashing blue, clouds due/Steady red, rain ahead/Flashing red, snow instead.”

And if you see the red lights flashing during the summer, don’t panic—freak snowstorms in September are rare, even in New England. During baseball season, the flashing reds simply mean that the evening’s Red Sox game has been cancelled due to bad weather.

4. Why is Harvard University’s statue of John Harvard the “statue of three lies”?
Given how much it costs to attend prestigious Harvard University, we can only hope that the information disseminated to students in those Ivy league lecture halls is a darn sight more accurate than the inscription (“John Harvard, Founder, 1638”) on this famed statue that resides in front of Harvard’s University Hall. Lie #1: The school wasn’t founded in 1638, but in 1636. Lie #2: Harvard was actually founded by the colonial government, and was only named for John Harvard when he bequeathed his library to it. And Lie #3? The statue isn’t even of John Harvard—no authentic portraits of the man himself existed when sculptor Daniel Chester French was commissioned to create the statue in 1884. So, French simply had a buddy of his sit in as a model, and the rest is (false) history.

5. How many Dunkin’ Donuts does one city need, anyway?
There are a few phrases that you’re certain to never hear uttered within Boston city limits: things like “I’m a huge Red Sox fan, but I’ve really got to tip my cap to Alex Rodriguez,” “Remember the good ol’ Central Artery?” or “Those poor tolltakers on the Mass. Pike are grossly underpaid.” But at the top of the list would have to be, “If only there were a Dunkin’ Donuts somewhere nearby!” Folks from outside the Hub might scoff at the coffee-and-donuts titan’s claim that “America Runs on Dunkin’, “ but it’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that goings-on in the city of Boston might grind to a halt if we woke up one morning and found ourselves without the comfort of our pink and orange emblazoned cups of java and our icy cold Coolattas. To ensure that never happens, the folks at DD have established no fewer than 68 shop locations in Boston proper—roughly one shop per 1.4 square miles of land.

6. What’s with the Red Seat at Fenway Park?
Visible among the mass of green seats out in the bleachers of Fenway Park sits one bright red seat. This ruby anomaly—Section 42, Row 37, Seat 21—commemorates the longest home run ever measured within Fenway Park, struck June 9, 1946 by the Boston Red Sox’s legendary Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams. The round-tripper, smacked off the Detroit Tigers’ Fred Hutchinson—without the help of steroids, incidentally—traveled 502 feet and bounced off the head of fan Joseph A. Boucher (legend says the ball went straight through Boucher’s straw hat).

7. Who’s that Statue of?
Cy Young: This monument to the ace pitcher (a) that all aces are compared against (the annual award for baseball’s best pitchers bears his name, after all) can be found on the Northeastern University campus (access via Forsyth Street), on the spot once occupied by the pitcher’s mound at the old Huntington Avenue Grounds. It’s there that Young starred for the Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) in the 1903 World Series.

Kevin White: Located outside Faneuil Hall, this larger-than-life statue (b) honors a beloved, larger-than-life Boston politician. White served as Mayor of Boston from 1968–1984, the second-longest tenure for a Boston mayor, and guided the city through a period of racial strife and the controversial institution of school busing in the 1970s.

Harriet Tubman: The runaway slave who liberated dozens of her compatriots via the Underground Railroad and served as an Army nurse and spy during the Civil War is remembered with an eight-foot tall statue (c) in the South End, at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Pembroke Street.

Red Auerbach: Phil Jackson of the Lakers may have just passed longtime Celtics coach and GM Auerbach as the owner of the most NBA championships, but a statue in Boston is something the Zen master will never have. This memorial to Red—seated on a bench in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, clutching his ever-present victory cigar (d)—celebrates the man who established the Boston Celtics as a basketball dynasty and led the way in the racial integration of the NBA.

8. Can I really Pahk my Cahh at Hahvid Yaahhd?
Only if you want the Cambridge police, a local tow service and, perhaps, the Harvard Crimson football team to descend upon it. Harvard Yard is the green grassy quad that exists between the school’s venerable brick and stone dorms and administration buildings. Future doctors, lawyers and captains of industry are welcome—your Kia Sportage, not so much.

9. Is the Omni Parker House a Breeding Ground for Political Revolutionaries?
The longest continuously operating hotel in the U.S. (established 1855) has always been associated with its celebrity guests. From John Wilkes Booth (who stayed there a week before he shot Abe Lincoln) to Charles Dickens to Joan Crawford to John F. Kennedy (who announced his run for Congress in 1953 at the hotel), famous folks from all walks of life have graced its halls.

However, two of the best-known names associated with the hotel only became famous after their time there—and before that happened, they had to pay their dues like anyone else. In 1913, more than 30 years before he rose to power as the ruler of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh worked in the Parker House kitchen as a busboy and baker—probably working on Boston cream pies, which were invented there. And at about the same time old Ho Chi was choosing the drapes in his presidential office, in the 1940s, future American civil rights firebrand Malcolm X was employed at the Parker House as a busboy. Talk about a place of employment with opportunities for advancement.

10. What’s up with the Giant Tea Kettle?
The enormous, steaming brass tea kettle located at the corner of Court and Tremont streets (hanging, ironically, over a Starbucks location) was erected as a piece of 19th- century marketing strategy when it was constructed in 1875. The kettle was an advertisement for the now-defunct Oriental Tea Company in Scollay Square, and is large enough to hold 227 gallons, 2 quarts and 13⁄4 pints of liquid.

11. Do Bostonians Really Worship the Cod?
Short answer: of course not—what are we, lunatics? Longer answer: “The Sacred Cod” is a five-foot-long pine carving of a codfish (a staple of the early Massachusetts diet and economy) that has hung in the House of Representatives chamber in the State House—and, before that, the Old State House—since the early 18th century. (The current cod, carved by John Rowe in 1784, is actually the third incarnation—the first burned in a 1747 fire and the second disappeared during British occupation during the Revolutionary War.) The Sacred Cod hangs in the rear of the House Chamber, so that the Speaker faces it when he addresses the House, and—according to tradition—the faux fish faces in the direction of whichever political party holds power in the House.

12. Why Does the Harvard Bridge Lead to MIT?
The answer here lies with our old “statuesque” friend, the Rev. John Harvard, who people just apparently loved to name things after—the bridge was named after him, not the school that also bears his name. And at the time that it was built, in 1891, MIT was not located as close to the bridge as it is today (it was 25 years later that the school took up its current residence near the bridge). Today, locals are just as likely to refer to it as the “MIT Bridge” or “Mass. Ave. Bridge.”

All of which puts to rest an apocryphal, but humorous explanation proffered for the naming of the bridge. As the story went, the state offered to name the bridge after the more deserving Cambridge university. Harvard made the case that their reputation as an educational institution was more prestigious, and the bridge should bear their name, while MIT did a structural analysis, found the bridge full of significant flaws and shortcomings, and agreed that it should bear Harvard’s name.

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