The Dunbar Associates

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The Dunbar Associates with President and founder, Ernest Collins, in the front row, third from right, and Vice President, Nelson Ambush, to his left

The Dunbar Associates was an African American social club started in 1937 by Ernest Collins who also founded the Dunbar Quartet, a music group noted for their beautiful singing of spirituals. Collins named the group in honor of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a poet, novelist, and playwright in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who received international acclaim for his work including Majors and Minors and Lyrics of Lowly Life. The Quartet performed in churches, at teas and parties, and on the local radio. The Dunbar Associates organization featured other musical groups including the Dunbarettes, a women’s group; the Dunbar Juniors, a singing group made up of boys from the neighborhood; and the Dunbar Serenaders. The club organized sports and recreation teams including basketball and bowling, and they sponsored inter-club whist tournaments. Initially located at 52 Brookline Street, the clubhouse headquarters moved to 185 Franklin Street in 1939 and remained there until the early 1960s. The property had a large yard providing children the only play area in the neighborhood at the time. The clubhouse hosted a variety of events such as weddings, birthday parties, and lectures, as well as a rally supporting John F. Kennedy in his 1952 race for U.S. Senator.

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Ernest Collins seated with his singing group, the Dunbar Quartet

The Dunbar Associates also sponsored dances all over New England, engaging many big-name swing bands, starting with Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald in 1938. Held at the Cambridge Elks Lodge Ballroom, this event was also a celebration of the organization’s first year anniversary. An article in the Cambridge Chronicle credited the Dunbar Associates for bringing to Cambridge “its biggest dancing attraction in history.” In a reminiscence written by Ernest’s wife, Gertrude, she explained, ”the dances in those days were really enjoyable, happy, pleasant evenings, something to take the stress of the days away. It was a time to dance and enjoy each other’s company, make new friends and see old acquaintances.”

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View of 185 Franklin Street, headquarters of the Dunbar Associates from 1939 to the early 1960s

Sources
Di Natale Family Papers
Cambridge Chronicle, May 19, 1938, and May 26, 1938, June 15, 1939, May 1939
Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-laurence-dunbar

 

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The Cambridge Trotting Park: Part 3

This post is the third in a series of four written by guest author, Dan Sullivan, owner of The Book Oasis in Stoneham.


Most of the local stories related to the track dealt with the dangerous riding and driving of the patrons on their way home. It seemed that after spending a day watching others race on the track many people would race each other on the streets of Cambridge causing a safety hazard. To make matters even more scandalous, some of the racers were women! “Their mouths poured forth clouds of smoke, from cigars they were puffing, and boisterous songs, while urging their horse to his speed.” Headlines cried out, “Nuisance” and “Furious Driving.”

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Clipping from the Cambridge Chronicle, 13 December 1849

Police blotters also made mention of illegal alcohol and card playing at the hotels on and near the track. There were also a few prominent stories about fights at the track..

The longest story in the Chronicle that even mentioned an event dealt with Lady Suffolk racing a mile on June 14, 1849. It was stated that: “It was considered a great occasion by those who take pleasure in such amusements…. One of the horses on the Course beat anything ever before heard of – trotting his mile in two minutes and twenty-six seconds!” Not only is the horse not named but she is referred to as ‘he’. Most of the remainder of the article dealt with how congested and ‘dusty’ the roads leading to and from the track were. The Chronicle even reported the highest single-day volume of alcohol ever consumed in Cambridge. It was obviously not seen as a proud milestone for the city!

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Lithograph featuring ‘Lady Suffolk’ and announcing her win over ‘Mac’ Mile at the Cambridge Course on 14 June 1849. Published by Currier, ca. 1849.

A similar coverage was given for the Stetson-Grindell ten-mile race. The paper dealt more with traffic and how much was taken in tolls on the West Boston (now Longfellow) Bridge that day. Volume was so high on the bridge that extra men were called into work.

Even as the property was put up for sale it still caused a scandal as a rumor spread that the property would be purchased by the Catholic Church.

A few decades later a local Baptist church, in looking back on its early days and its neighbors, the course and the hotels, recalled a fire at one of the hotels as “the great purifier” for the area.

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Clipping from the Cambridge Chronicle, 26 October 1848

The two boxing events that were held there met with the same disdain by the Chronicle: “We are of the opinion that those whose business it is to look after such matters, will cry ‘enough’ before these persons are allowed to test the skill they possess in pounding each other to a jelly. Let not Cambridge be disgraced by any such proceedings!”

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“John L. Sullivan, champion pugilist of the world. Born in Boston, October 15th, 1858” published by Wm. M. Clarke, ca. 23 November 1883.

Check back next week for Part 4, the conclusion!…

A Cambridge Entry in the Green Book

Today’s post was written by CHC Preservation Planner, Sarah Burks.


You likely have heard a lot of talk recently about Green Book, the award-nominated movie starring Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley, a world class pianist on a performance tour in the southern states during the Jim Crow era. The name of the movie derives from a U.S. travel guide for Black tourists. The Negro Motorist Green Book offered lists of restaurants, automobile service stations, hotels, parks, and other sites that would be safe and welcoming to African Americans traveling for work or leisure. The books were published by Victor H. Green between 1936 and 1967. A new documentary, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, will air on the Smithsonian Channel on Monday, February 25 at 8:00 P.M. The original books have been digitized by the New York Public Library and can be viewed online here.

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Cover of the 1947 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.

Although Boston had a couple dozen sites listed in the Green Books, Cambridge only had one, a “tourist home” at 26 Mead Street with the contact name of S. P. Bennett.

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Detail of the Cambridge entry in the 1947 edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book. Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.

Satyra Pearson Bennett was a Cambridge resident who rented out rooms to travelers in her family home. She worked as a linotype operator for several newspapers and was on the board of multiple charitable organizations and city committees. Satyra Pearson was born in 1892 in Rock Hill, Jamaica to Frances and William Pearson. In 1894, Satyra and her parents departed from Kingston and arrived in New York City. The family moved to Massachusetts in 1903, first residing in Worcester and then settling in Cambridge on Mead Street.

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1916 Bromley map showing the Pearson residence at 26 Mead Street in Northwest Cambridge

According to Satyra’s 1926 Petition for Citizenship, the family arrived in Boston from St. John, New Brunswick aboard the U.S.S. Calvin Austin in 1913.

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Steamboat Calvin Austin in Boston Harbor, ca 1906. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Satyra’s father was an ordained minister and was the pastor for many years at St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 37 Bishop Allen Drive in Cambridgeport.

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St. Paul AME Church in the late 1800s

In 1919, Satyra married Cyril Bennett. Cyril was also a Jamaican-born minister, and following their marriage, Satyra moved with him to Detroit. Together they had one son, George B. Bennett in 1920, but the couple soon divorced. By July 1921, Satyra had moved back to Cambridge and lived with her parents at 26 Mead Street. Satyra advertised her dress-making services in local newspapers, and in 1926 began the process to attain her U.S. citizenship.

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Clipping from the Cambridge Chronicle, 23 July 1921

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Frances Satyra Bennett’s citizenship card, 1933

Mrs. Bennett was a founding board member of the Cambridge Community Center, the Citizens Charitable Health Association, and an officer of the Boston chapter of the NAACP. She died in 1977. Her sister, Mrs. Ozeline Pearson Wise, was the first African American woman to work for the banking department of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She was interviewed in 1978 as part of the Black Women’s Oral History Project. You can listen to their story here and view their entries on the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project.

26 Mead St Cambridge Assessor's photo 2017

Bennett House at 26 Mead Street, Cambridge, MA. Cambridge Assessing Department photo, 2017.

The Cambridge Trotting Park: Part 2

This post is the second in a series of four written by guest author, Dan Sullivan, owner of The Book Oasis in Stoneham.


Decades after it closed, A.G. McVey, a journalist who played on the track as a child, remembered the opening of the track this way: “Hiram Woodruff and his brother William, who ran the Old Elm House in North Cambridge, were appointed to take charge. The soil was of clay composition and the footing was good … races took place nearly every fine day.” The Trotting Park was laid out by the local engineer and surveyor Charles A. Mason. It was said to be as flat as a “billiard-table.”

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“Dutchman” and Hiram Woodruff as printed in Currier & Ives, 1871. Library of Congress.

McVey went on to say: “There was no grandstand, rude seats being made inside the pole by planks nailed on the tops of posts. There was a low fence built around the track and youngbloods drove out in all kinds of equipages from the whalebone buggy to the one-horse shay.” He also stated that the track was never profitable. This is a situation that was made worse by an 1846 article in the Chronicle that mentioned the track was brought in front of the local Police Court twice for charging admission to a sporting event in violation of an existing statute. The facility went through some improvements because another description of the track does mention that it later had a grandstand in front of and slightly to one side of the entrance to the Track House. There was also a judges’ stand.

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Clipping from the Cambridge Chronicle, 30 July 1846

Some of the events could be described as gimmicks. I assume they were created to increase the uncertainty of the betting. A blindfolded man ran the track pushing a wheelbarrow running against time and running into both fences, John Stetson ran a mile pulling a sulky; a horse trotted sixteen miles with an added weight of 41 pounds. One race was a trotting horse against a horse pulling a wagon loaded with 263 pounds. One race was held against two untrained street horses.

In 1855 the property was divided into 275 housing lots and auctioned off. It is somewhat ironic that this enterprise, that was never profitable, would have what was probably it’s most successful day just before it closed. On May 15, 1855, John Grindell of New York and John Stetson from Boston ran a ten-mile race that drew 15,000 spectators.

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Detail of 1873 Cambridge Hopkins Atlas showing the area after the course was sold and divided into lots

So how exactly did the locals view the track? When the property was auctioned off, the New York Herald stated that, according to locals, it “was voted by all good people a wicked concern.” Looking back, in 1893, the Chronicle referred to the track as “anything but a moral centre.”

Check back next week for Part 3…

The Cambridge Trotting Park: Part 1

This post is the first in a series of four written by guest author, Dan Sullivan, owner of The Book Oasis in Stoneham.


Part 1

Just a casual glance at an 1854 map of the city makes it clear that North Cambridge was a very different place than it is today. Now the map is crowded with streets, and the houses on them are built on small lots. Massachusetts Avenue is lined with businesses. By contrast, 1854 shows an area with very few streets. Most business in the area consist of a few farms and the brick industry. The one area that is beginning to show some ‘crowding’ is the village of Dublin, which is made up of Rindge Avenue, Sargent Street, and Dublin (now Sherman) Street. Few landmarks would be recognizable by a modern visitor. The most prominent feature on that map is something that has left little trace on today’s landscape; the Cambridge Trotting Park.

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Aerial view of Northwest Cambridge, 2019

From 1837 until 1855 North Cambridge had a sports arena that often drew thousands of spectators and had such a high level of talent that it regularly generated national news. Famous horses such as Black Hawk and Lady Suffolk raced on the track. The strange thing is, it got almost no coverage from the Cambridge Chronicle, and the stories that did appear in that paper seldom focused on the actual sporting events. Many did not even mention them.

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H.F. Walling & Co. map of Northwest Cambridge, 1854

The course was one mile around and followed a route that was just inside what are now Rindge Avenue, Harvey and Cedar streets, and about one hundred feet beyond Clifton Street. The name ‘Trotting Park’ is slightly misleading. Yes, that was the principal type of event held on the course but not the exclusive type. Besides being the site of multiple types of horse racing, the park also hosted many foot races, or what was known at the time as ‘Pedestrianism.’ I have found descriptions of a greased pig chase, two boxing matches, and multiple mixed event ‘handicapped’ races. In addition to these there was one event that came close to what we would call a track and field meet today. It consisted of a hammer throw, a mile run, and the one-hundred–yard dash with other less traditional events.

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Beadle’s dime hand-book of pedestrianism : giving the rules for training and practice in walking, running, leaping, vaulting, etc., etc. Together with a full account of the great Weston feat, 1867

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Detail of ‘Running’ section, Beadle’s hand-book, 1867

My principal sources for information for these events are out of state newspapers. Why, you might ask, would these papers cover the events at the Cambridge Trotting Park and yet the hometown paper almost completely ignore them? The answer was an ethical one. You see, the principal activity at the Park was not sports competition, but rather the gambling that took place on those events, and Cambridge in the 1800’s would rather have ignored that.

Check back next week for Part 2…

Modern Monday: Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street

Exterior of Loeb Drama Center_Radcliffe College Archives

Completed in 1960, the Loeb Drama Center at 64 Brattle Street stands as one of Cambridge’s greatest examples of Modern Architecture. The structure is human-scaled, made of regional materials and is a sensitive addition to its residential and commercial neighbors along Brattle Street. The scale of the building was reduced to blend in with adjacent heights and the use of New England waterstruck brick is a nod to the Harvard and Radcliffe buildings nearby. Exposed concrete serves as a sort of frame to the delicate ornamental grille which provides a lace-like effect, enhanced further at night when the light from inside the building shines through.

Exterior View of Loeb Drama Center_night_Radcliffe College ArchivesExterior View: Harvard - Loeb Drama Center, 29 Brattle Street

Architect Hugh Stubbins wanted the theater to be architecturally exciting, while still serving as a backdrop to the purpose of the building, the arts. Stubbins was quoted as saying, “the auditorium should please the imagination in such a way as to release it, not captivate it” and later went on to reference examples of recent museums and art galleries erected by architects to overshadow the art within them.

Interior View of Loeb Drama Center_Radcliffe College ArchivesView of Loeb Drama Center setbuilding_Radcliffe College Archives

The building opens right off the sidewalk of Brattle Street by the way of deep setbacks off the first floor, forming a porch-like or arcade feeling. The sides of the building open to a garden court on one side and a spacious terrace on the other. The travertine flooring in the lobby extends gracefully to the brick-paved courtyard, contained by a red brick serpentine wall.

Exterior courtyard Loeb Drama Center_Radcliffe College ArchivesExterior View of Loeb Drama Center (2)_Radcliffe College Archives

The theater was unveiled as a mechanical marvel as the first fully-automatic and flexible theatre in the United States. The audience’s position in relation to the stage, along with the position and shape of the stage itself could be altered between three main configurations: theater-in-the-round, proscenium, and arena seating, all possibly during the same performance. Yale’s noted stage technician and theater design engineer, George C. Izenour worked with Stubbins to integrate lighting, rigging and staging into an automated and hydraulic lift system, which could be altered and staged by just two people in mere minutes.

The Loeb Drama Center is now home to The American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University, which collaborates with artists around the world to develop and create work in new ways. To learn more about A.R.T. and their upcoming shows and events, check out their website at: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/

1960 color photo_CHC_LOEB

Color slide courtesy of CHC Staff.

Historic photos courtesy of Radcliffe College Archives and CHC slides.

Igor Fokin Memorial Sculpture, One Brattle Square

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Since the 1970s, summer evenings in Harvard Square have featured a vibrant street theater scene. In 1985, a major subway construction project that extended the Red Line subway to Alewife was completed, resulting in major changes above ground, including wider sidewalks and small plazas, that created even more opportunities for busking (Lotman, Harvard Square, An Illustrated History Since 1950, 2009). Performers ranged from jugglers, mimes, tightrope walkers, and fire eaters, to musicians and singers. This dynamic street performance culture continues today.

igorshowcourtesy of http://www.igorfokin.com

In the early 1990s, one performer stood out as a unique and remarkably gifted entertainer. From 1993 to 1996, Igor Fokin enchanted people with his life-like marionettes that mesmerized young and old alike as they danced, played, and interacted with the audience. Igor hand-carved his wooden puppets who ranged from dancing skeletons, a witch sweeping up the sidewalk, to a puppet named Doo-Doo with a fluted nose, and Satchmo playing his trumpet to the song Mack the Knife. Each puppet, measuring less than 12 inches, was elaborately detailed and truly came to life under Igor’s nimble handling, when climbing up someone’s leg, petting someone’s nose, or sitting on a child’s lap.

castcolorcourtesy of http://www.igorfokin.com

Born in Russia and a graduate of St. Petersburg Theatrical Institute, Igor moved to Cambridge in the summer of 1993 with his collection of puppets, and by the end of the summer he was one of the most popular performers. Igor put on several shows a day, including passers-by in the late afternoon and culminating in the evening with a large audience who purposely came out to see his show. He was always refining his craft and developing new characters for his street performances which he referred to as the “most democratic art form” (Schmidt, The Puppeteer, 2003).

igorandcastcourtesy of http://www.igorfokin.com

Igor performed in Harvard Square until his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 36. Today, at the corner of One Brattle Square, where Igor enjoyed performing the most, a bronze replica of Doo-Doo by sculptor Konstantin Simun is perched on a bollard, a permanent reminder of Igor’s joyful imagination and the delight he brought to everyone lucky enough to experience his magical world.

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Sources
Lotman, Mo. Harvard Square, An Illustrated History Since 1950. Abrahms, 2009.

Schmidt, Chris, and Gary Henoch, The Puppeteer, 2003, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJ2gizaqVw8

http://www.igorfokin.com

Modern Monday: Charter House Motor Hotel

Today’s Modern Monday posting is highlighting the Charter House Motor Hotel (now Royal Sonesta Boston). Completed in 1963, the first tower, with its zig-zag shape was developed by the Hotel Corporation of America, led by founder A.M. “Sonny” Sonnabend.

Charter House Survey photo

Sonnabend decided to locate the company’s first ever high-rise motor hotel in the United States in Cambridge due to its location near transportation routes, businesses, universities and proximity to the downtown Boston area. To stand out from competition, the motor hotel required high quality design, ample parking, and interior amenities including: televisions, radios, air-conditioning, and complete hotel services for all rooms. The word “Motel” was created as a blending of the words “motor” and “hotel” and has since served as a defining piece of roadside architectural history.

Viewed from boat

The Hotel Corporation of America was renamed Sonesta International Hotels Corporation in 1970. Due to the success and location of the Sonesta Hotel on Cambridge Parkway in East Cambridge, the Sonesta Corporation began planning for a renovation and addition to the hotel, doubling the amount of rooms and enhancing facilities for the modern traveler. Architect John T. Olson designed a Post-Modern tower to stand next to the 60’s Modernist hotel. Boston Globe’s architectural critic at the time, Robert Campbell called the original tower an “upended waffle” and noted that the later addition was the region’s first large-scale Post-Modern development.

East Elevation_Window detail zoomed

The Post-Modern tower addition features large expanses of brick and is distinguished by the gabled features at the roof. John Olson, the head architect explained the design and goal as wanting to make a hotel that would look house-like and more domestic than institutional. The triangular gable shape was seen as a symbol for the idea of a house and was repeated both inside and outside of the addition. The pediments over the slightly projecting wings, resemble the long expanses of rowhouses which are synonymous to Boston architecture. Besides red brick, the main cladding material on the building is a green tile, which was selected to resemble the patinaed green copper seen elsewhere in Cambridge and Beacon Hill, just over the Charles River.

Current Photo

The two towers stand proudly at the entrance of Cambridge from Boston and showcase how far architectural taste can change in a matter of 20 years. Globe writer, Campbell stated that “The new wing of the former Sonesta Hotel on the Charles River stands next to its predecessor as if the two were a pair of slides chosen by a professor of art history to illustrate just how far architectural taste can travel in a single generation”. Which wing do you prefer?

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Full view