History of Kenmore Square

by Bill Tarkulich

CoverPart IPart IIPart IIIPart IVNamesAppendices

Table of Contents

Notes to the 2021 Update


2PART I: Growth. 3

From a Tidal Basin to a Gateway. 3

The Boston Elevated Railway. 7

South Side of Commonwealth Avenue. 12

Newbury Street (West). 15

Auto Row.. 17

Part II: Buildings and Signs. 17

Hotels. 18

Hotel Buckminster (1897). 19

Hotel Kenmore (1916). 21

Peerless Motor Car Building, 660 Beacon Street (1910). 27

Cities Service Oil Company Building, 660 Beacon Street (1940). 28

White Fuel Sign (1939). 30

Hotel Wadsworth (1901). 30

Sheraton (Shelton) Apartment Hotel (1923). 31

Hotel Braemore (1917). 34

Hotel Somerset (1899). 34

Myles Standish Hotel (1925). 35

Hotel Charlesview (1912). 37

Waterman’s (circa 1900). 38

Part III: Decline. 39

Grahm Junior College (successor to the Cambridge School). 39

Boston University. 40

Rathskeller (528 Commonwealth). 40

Drugs, Crime and Scientology. 42

1990’s – The tidal basin slowly turns. 43

Part IV: New Development & the Future. 45

Hotel Commonwealth (2003). 45

Fenway Center (Under Construction). 48

Conclusion Still a Gateway?. 48

How Kenmore Square Got Its Name

Appendices. 49

APPENDIX I – A Concise Timeline. 49

APPENDIX II – Locator Map. 50

APPENDIX III – Development of the Back Bay. 51


Notes to the 2021 Update

While the intent of this piece is primarily focused on documenting much of the pre-internet history of Kenmore Square, some interesting developments occurred recently worth noting.   I have also extended my research to include the original design of Commonwealth Avenue, the Bowker Overpass and Kenmore Square's relationship with the "Emerald Necklace".


 The story of Kenmore Square is a hundred stories.  This piece follows its progression from a backwater swamp to a classy destination, to a gateway, to a crime-ridden square to one which aspires to the same place a hundred years prior.  Much of its history has been lost by time or convoluted by stories passed along one too many times.  Many of these are made whole, hidden stories unearthed, some disturbing and others of humor.  Enjoy! 

Bill Tarkulich, July, 2013


Part I - Growth

PART I: Growth

From a Tidal Basin to a Gateway

In the early 19th century the area now known as Kenmore Square was called Sewell's Point, located at the edge of a  tidal basin called the Back Bay.  It was connected to the rest of Boston by a narrow road that ran atop a Mill Dam running along the Charles River.[i]  

1814 Benjamin Dearborn plan for sewells point annotated.a

Figure 1 Milldam Plan, 1814.  The future Kenmore Square is circled[ii]

 The aim of the Mill Dam was to use the tides of the Charles River to power 100 mills for industrial purposes.   Additionally, the dam would serve as a toll road.  In the end, Dearborn's plan was not realized (only three mills signed up) and a much simpler Mill Dam was built by 1821.  Eventually, this project failed in part because of sewage and wastewater build-up in the tidal basins. This build-up caused unpleasant smells that drifted all over the city. As a result, in May 1855, the Back Bay began to be filled in and developed. “[iii]

The Back Bay was filled in by the late 19th century along with the Charles River dam.  Three busy roads converged at place called “Three Roads Junction”, which was previously known as Sewell's point.  The former “Mill Dam Road” became Beacon Street,  Brookline Avenue and Brighton Avenue west of this junction (renamed as a continuation of Commonwealth Avenue).

1902 Kenmore Square map

Figure 2 Governor Square, 1912 Ward Map


By 1870, three roads merged from the west, Western Ave (Brookline Ave), Beacon St. and Brighton Avenue (Commonwealth Ave.) at a point called “Three Roads”.  The first buildings shown on an 1895 ward map include the Belvoir (corner of Beacon and Raleigh (Kenmore) streets, the row houses/offices (510-524 Commonwealth) and the Westgate, (corner of Beacon and Deerfield).  Also 13-57 Bay State Road had been constructed. The Buckminster Hotel, on the corner of Beacon and Brookline streets was the first hotel to open in 1899. 

1900 to 1929 was a period of tremendous growth in Kenmore Square.  The newspapers were filled with reports of hundreds of new residential and commercial buildings being constructed in the Back Bay, including Commonwealth Avenue, Beacon Street and Bay State Road.

It was unofficially named Governor Square in 1910.[iv] [v]  The junction was promoted as a “gateway to the city”, where one transitioned from the western suburbs to the city.  Appendix III describes in more detail the progression of events in the development of roadways.

Growth was also fueled by the 1912 construction of Fenway Park, one block removed from the Square.

For the most part, the square always has been a commercial center, with residences wrapping it to the north (Bay State Road) and east (Commonwealth, Beacon and Newbury.)  Other hotels came rapidly after the Buckminster; Wadsworth (1902), Hotel Kenmore (1915), Sheraton (1917) and the Myles Standish (1926).  Outside of the Square were the Somerset (1899) and Braemore (1917).  The Braemore, Kenmore and Wadsworth Hotels were jointly managed.[vi] 

From the beginning, the square was filled with a “quiet elegance”; Stately brownstone residence-offices, upscale hotels, restaurants, clubs doctor’s practices and professional offices.  It was host to major baseball teams, and central to the Longwood medical area visitors.  



Figure 3 Hotel Buckminster, Governor Square, circa 1900, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

The area soon grew with businesses and residences, and it's location with high traffic made it attractive to the hotel industry.  After all, it was called a gateway into Boston for those coming from Brookline, Allston and the western suburbs.  As early as 1926, “Kenmore Square” was the name informally being used to refer to the area.[vii]

With growth came challenges.  In 1926, five neighborhood associations joined forces to drive civic issues such as elimination of begging and peddling, loitering, police protection, highway and sidewalk repair, snow, ash and garbage removal.”[viii]


Figure 4 Governor Square, 1915. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection


The Boston Elevated Railway

Kenmore Square Station Sign

 The Boston Elevated Railway, popularly known as the “El” built the first submerged subway under Tremont Street in 1912.    In 1913-14, the “Boylston Street Subway” was constructed.  This line ran from the Public Garden (At today’s Arlington station) to Kenmore Street.[ix][x] 

There were three schemes presented for the subway to reach its western terminus at Kenmore Square.  “One scheme contemplates an open incline in the embankment, beginning near Massachusetts Avenue and reaching the surface at Charlesgate East, from which point the cars would pass on a bridge, or similar structure, across Stony Brook [Ed. Today’s Muddy river] and connect with the existing tracks on Beacon street, near its junction with Bay State road.”

“The second plan contemplates continuing the tunnel under the waters of Charlesgate and brining the tracks to the surface by an open incline, in the centre of Commonwealth avenue, between Charlesgate West and Kenmore street.

“The third plan also contemplates continuing the tunnel under the waters of Charlesgate and thence along the line of Beacon Street to a point just west of Raleigh Street, brining the tracks to the surface by an open incline in the central part of the broad open space formed by the junction of Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street.  Under this latter plan the westerly end of the incline would be a short distance east of the line of Deerfield Street.”  [xi] 

In the final design, the subway emerged from the underground east of Kenmore square, in the Commonwealth Avenue mall, making its first above-ground stop Kenmore Street.  The subway emerged on what was referred to as an “incline.” It was customary to name subway and trolley stations after intersecting roads. The stop became known as “Kenmore Station.” 

Almost as soon as the subway line was completed, complaints about traffic in the square began.  In 1927, it was reported, “Automobiles, pouring in from Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue where the thoroughfares merge at Kenmore Station were held for 6 ½ minutes.”[xii] 

As an attempt to mitigate these issues, a plan was presented to widen Commonwealth Avenue from Charlesgate East to Massachusetts Avenue (opposite the Hotel Somerset and the Harvard Club).  A bridge between Charlesgate East and West, running from the Fens to Storrow Drive was also planned.

Traffic problems continued to increase during the 20’s.  The square was considered by some to be the busiest in the city, with rush hour jams that had become intolerable to residents, commuters and police. Everyone except the “El” agreed that the conflicts between trolley and automobile were by far the largest contributor to congestion.   Ideas such as one-side-of-street parking, widening Commonwealth Ave, routing light traffic onto Bay State Road and making Charlesgate west into a two way road were considered.[xiii]

To address the congestion, in 1926 the state legislature passed an act allowing for extension of the Boylston street subway, presumably by tunnel under Governor Square.  Mayor Malcolm Nichols continued to pressure the Elevated to take action.  The Elevated refused, saying this was a problem of “motor congestion, not trolley congestion”.[xiv]  


Figure 5 Original Kenmore Station Incline, Circa 1914


Figure 6 1912 - The massive Somerset is in the far distance.  Neither the Braemore or the Kenmore have been constructed.  Notice the Subway Incline is under construction and the Commonwealth mall extended to the center of the square. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

By early 1928, city officials had had enough of an unresponsive Boston Elevated Railway.  Management of the El suggested that the problem could be solved by “subwaying [sic] street vehicles.”  While the city owned all underground routes, many wanted take control and put entire El into public ownership.  [xv]  In 1930, more than 40,000 automobiles were making their way through the square every day.[xvi]

It wasn’t until Mayor James Michael Curley was reelected that pressure was put on the Legislature to move on the issue.   Based on a bill that Curley had originally submitted in 1925, the city agreed to pay any operating losses the El might suffer as result of the Governor Square extension.

In August of 1930, the first of the steel beams for the Kenmore underground station were delivered.  By the end of 1932, the Kenmore subway station began operation.   A business group brought forth a request that the city change the name of the square from Governor to Kenmore since it was already part of the local vernacular.  On December 31, 1932 Mayor Curley signed a bill changing the name to “Kenmore Square.”  Eventually the assets of the El were transferred to an entirely public entity, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1947.

The rooftop vestiges of the now-removed incline remain in the mall, used today for tunnel ventilation. (Figure 5)


Figure 7 Remnants from the original subway incline

The bridge connecting the Fens to the newly opened Storrow Drive over the Muddy River between Charlesgate East and West was opened in 1951.  While traffic necessitated this interconnection, it severed the square’s link to the elegant strip which progressed from the Public Garden.   The bridge was not only a physical separation, but became a social separation as well.  [xvii]

The center of the square, which earlier had included a center mall, was replaced with a bus terminal.  There have been three incarnations of the terminal, a wooden one in the 40’s, one of concrete in 1968 and steel and glass shelter in the 2010’s.  The later was the first to have a direct connection to the subway below.  Until that point the only means of subway entrance and egress was from opposite sides of the square.


Figure 8  Kenmore Square, 1930, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection



South Side of Commonwealth Avenue



Figure 9  500-548 Commonwealth Ave, South Side, 1970’s

The block of buildings on the south side of Commonwealth Avenue, stretching from Kenmore Street halfway to Brookline Avenue (516 to 532) was constructed circa 1900, at roughly the same time as the Buckminster Hotel.  The block was used as medical offices.  With public transportation at its doorsteps, it became an attractive location for medical practices.  Several of these building had residences in the upper floors. 

In the early years, these buildings had small grass “lawns” in front.  In 1936, a new concept fence, the “chain-link” was adopted by the owners to protect the lawns.  The fence was marketed not only as safe, but “neighbor friendly” due to its visual transparency.


1936 kenmore square south side

Figure 10  South side of Commonwealth Avenue, 1936.  The lawns with fencing can be seen on the right, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection


The Brookline Avenue end of the block was filled commercial buildings.  These businesses included a long-standing Auto School, Walton’s Lunch, automotive retail space, National Shawmut Bank (1925), a Chocolatier and the “Haberdasher and Hatter” store (1932).  Kenmore Pharmacy, which opened in 1932 to service the medical community, was originally located in this section (538).


Figure 11  In 1941 the bank touted a new "Drive Through" service, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

After World War II, physicians, and other businesses followed their customers to the suburbs.   These tenants were replaced by small technology companies, proprietary schools, liquor stores, cocktail lounges, Brigham’s, (ice cream shop) White Tower, a salon and a credit counselor. 


Newbury Street (West)

 As originally planned, the main section of Newbury Street runs from Arlington Street, crossing Massachusetts Avenue and terminating at Charlesgate East.   It then resumes on the other side of the so-called Muddy River, at Charlesgate West and continues to Brookline Avenue.  This second section was originally referred to as West Newbury Street.

West Newbury Street is a little-known abutter to the square.  It is connected to the square by Kenmore Street.    Unlike its northerly counterpart, Bay State Road, Newbury today contains but a few residences.  Before the adjacent Massachusetts Turnpike, “Mass Pike” was constructed, a row of houses stretched from Mass. Ave to a little west of Kenmore St.  These homes were built in 1893.[xviii]  Further down the street, a large building contained an auto sales business in the 1920s, later a cigar manufacturer and an equipment distributor, Perkins Sales.  The Wadsworth Hotel and several other apartment buildings east of Kenmore Street are all that remain today.

The Kenmore Hotel was originally planned to be placed at the corner of Kenmore and (West) Newbury Streets, opposite the Hotel Wadsworth.  For reasons unknown, that plan was scuttled and the hotel was built on the diagonal corner of Commonwealth and Kenmore St.   In 1924, attempts were made to construct a parking garage on that same site.  This never happened. (Figure 14)

In 1965, the extension of the Mass Pike alongside the railroad right-of-way was constructed.   The parallel row of houses on the south side of Newbury St. was demolished to accommodate the new highway.  (Figure 13)






1937 newbury st before the pike 1024

Figure 12 Newbury Street, 1937 – Newbury Street looking east towards Massachusetts Avenue.  Wadsworth Hotel is on the left, Boston & Maine railway right of way on the right.  These homes were demolished to make way for the Mass. Turnpike in the 1965, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

mass pike construction

Figure 13  the Massachusetts Turnpike extension under construction.   Kenmore Square is off-camera to the left.  The Hotel Wadsworth is visible in the middle left.  Newbury Street (left) hangs to the parallel edge of the canyon.   The Prudential tower is under construction[xix]  Photo taken from Brookline Ave.  Circa 1965. , Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection


Auto Row

From 1900 to 1940 a mile-long stretch of Commonwealth, from Kenmore Square westward was known as “Auto Row”[xx].  Over 100 “auto machine” dealers, stores and service businesses were in operation.  Peerless Auto was the first to lease a new, large showroom for a regional office.  The neon signs, Cities Service (CITGO), White Fuel and Gulf were erected in the 30’s.  The post-war period signaled a move to the suburbs by growing families.  The auto-related businesses on Commonwealth Avenue followed their customers.  In time, the majority of the “auto row” came into ownership by Boston University as they drove to integrate their campus.


[i] http://www.bahistory.org/HistoryMillDam.html

[iii] “Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society”, 2013

 [iv]]Tracing the Changing Face of Kenmore SquareTracing the Changing Face of Kenmore Squaree, Patrick L. Kennedy , 01.24.2013, BU TODAYY

[v][v] Matt Hasson, 2013

[vi] Hotel and Travel Department Information Bureau, Sunday Herald Traveler, Jun 24, 1923

[vii] Boston Globe, 3/30/26

[viii] Consider Forming New Organization, Boston Daily Globe, Mar 30, 1926

[ix] Three Sections are Completed, Boston Daily Globe, Mar 14, 1913

[x] Boylston-St Subway Complete, Boston Daily Globe, Sep 27, 1914

[xi] The Riverbank Subway Entrance, Boston Herald, Nov 12, 1907

[xii] Governor-Sq Traffic Delays Continue”, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 22, 1927

[xiii] Working to Solve Traffic Problems in Governor Sq., Boston Daily Globe, Jun 16, 1926

[xiv] Mayor Again Urges Subway Extension, Boston Daily Globe, Oct. 20, 1926

[xv] Foss For Public Ownership of the “L”, Daily Boston Globe, Feb 10, 1928

[xvi] Governor Sq sees 40,000 Cars a Day, Mar 6, 1930

[xvii] Embankment Road Opens Both Lanes to Traffic Today, Boston Globe, Jun 15, 1951

[xviii] Real Estate Transactions, West Newbury Street Operations, Boston Herald, Jul 21 1893

[xix] Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

[xx] http://www.bu.edu/today/2011/a-trip-down-automobile-row/