Railings in the South End Reflect Diversity of the Neighborhood

By Beth Treffeisen

The South End is known for a variety of reasons, including the historic brick brownstone row houses, parks and variety of great restaurants. But one detail that many may bypass are the railings that, if one looks close enough, reflect the diversity of those who live and once lived in the neighborhood.

After being denied without prejudice from South End Landmarks District Commission (SELC) this past September from putting a frog motif scroll along railings between 612 – 626 Tremont Street, architect Joshua Rose-Wood set out to find precedent in unique designs of railings around the neighborhood.

What he soon discovered was a lesson in rarely seen history that is right before everyone’s eyes.

The frog motif was thought of to honor the Puerto Rican community, who have called the South End their home for generations. The frog comes from the Coquí, a common name for several species of small frogs that are native to Puerto Rico. They are well known from the mating call that the males make at night.

At this past December SELC meeting, Rose-Wood returned with an entire presentation showing almost a hundred railings that spread throughout the South End that all had unique motifs to them. The assortment of railings included flowers, acorns, symbolic imagery, lions, birds and more.

Demonstrating precedent set throughout the neighborhood, he gained approval for the design.

“You never know if they’re going to like it or not like it,” said Rose-Wood. “I was a little surprised it got rejected the first time too.”

Rose-Wood, who is now a resident of Roxbury, was raised in the South End during the late 1960s.

“It was this really funky, diverse, crazy, wonderful place of all these different kinds of people, racially and economically, which is very unique in Boston,” said Rose-Wood.

Although Rose-Wood was initially denied his design, he said he was kind of glad to be given the chance to go back to his old neighborhood and discover the vast diversity of iron rails throughout the neighborhood. Over a couple of days he took his bike on pretty much every street in the neighborhood and took photographs of the rails.

“I enjoyed it,” said Rose-Wood. “But it was a lot of work to put in.”

He said that he was trying to show off the assortment of designs and influences that made up the iron rails.

“That’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” he said.

One downside to having to follow the rules of the SELC, he said, is the danger of limiting creativity and good design. Often times, he pointed out, architects stick to what they know will get approved, which can lead to a monotonous design.

All of his photographs, Rose-Wood said, will be going to the South End Historical Society.

The history of the South End began as a narrow strip of land, the Boston Neck that connected Boston to Roxbury and was surrounded by tidal marsh. Prior to the 1840s, the area included only a few mansions set in open fields.

In the 1840’s, due to Beacon Hill and the downtown area getting overcrowded, the City added land to the Neck by filling in the marshy areas with earth imported from Needham to form the area now called the South End.

During the 1850s, renowned architect Charles Bulfinch created a plan for the region, which included building connecting brick bow-front townhouses with iron railings and tiny gardens surrounded by iron fences, and scattering small green parks throughout the area.

In the 1960s, the rise of crime and poverty had overtaken the area and many of its buildings and gardens were neglected. In 1973 the South End was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “the largest urban Victorian neighborhood in the country” and named a Boston Landmark District in 1983.

Although the SELC tries to preserve the Victorian neighborhood, Rose-Wood said, “It’s not the funky, interesting South End. To me that’s as important as the people.”

Rose-Wood, who has seen development pop up throughout Boston, said the Landmarks are good at slowing down disruption, but at the same time can lead to gentrification. By making it a landmark, he said it makes everything a little bit more precious.

“[The SELC] have really good intentions, are open minded and thoughtful, but it can still have unintended consequences,” said Rose-Wood. “I grew up in the South End, but none of my friends live there anymore.”

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