THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ORDINARY

Jane - Milton
Entered on November 3, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: legacy, place

Change has always been a double-edged sword for me; I welcome it when I’m the one to initiate it, but am uncomfortable when it is thrust upon me.

For over 20 years now I have watched the Boston skyline transform – sometimes at a dizzying pace. Often these changes are heralded as steps forward, but it doesn’t always feel that way to me.

Every demolition – every addition – to the city alters my sense of place. And though I often come to appreciate a project when it is finished, that doesn’t keep me from missing what is gone.

The Gulf Station is a case in point.

Once located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Harvard Street in Harvard Square, it has long disappeared from the landscape.

Although the building itself did not have any particular architectural merit, its architecture was memorable, nonetheless, as gas stations go.

When I first saw it after moving to Cambridge in 1979, I couldn’t help but smile. Someone had taken the time to add a few details to the building so it would appear to fit in with the grand buildings of Harvard surrounding it. It was a bit like seeing a child parading about in her mother’s high heels pretending to be grown up.

From that moment on, as I settled into my life in Cambridge, the Gulf Station came along.

I began using it as a landmark when giving directions. And later, as high-rises began to pepper Mass. Ave. between Central and Harvard Squares, the Gulf Station became a source of visual relief. When the station finally went out of business, I daydreamed about how I would transform it if given a chance…envisioning its parking lot giving way to a wild landscape interspersed with handcrafted benches and sculptures by local artists; the station itself becoming a gazebo where I could rest on my treks up and down Mass. Ave.

Many times I passed it and never gave it a second thought. But on occasion something at the site caught my attention and I suddenly found myself remembering some event in my life I had not thought about since the day it happened. I felt my past expanding with each recaptured memory and my affection for the Gulf Station growing until it had securely anchored itself in my life and my history.

Years later, when I learned it was going to be torn down and replaced with a hotel, I wanted to save it. And, strange as it may sound, I was not alone.

A small group of people protested its demise, but to no avail. A newspaper headline around that time read: “Despite Protests, Proposed Harvard Square Hotel Just Right.” Included among other observations was a curt dismissal of the objections raised by those who had wanted to save the gas station.

The article’s stridency struck a chord. On the one hand, I understood how silly it must have seemed to the author that anyone would put up a fuss about a gas station. On the other hand, experience had shown me that people form attachments to buildings not only because they meet a criterion of aesthetics or economic need, but because they hold in trust a part of themselves.

The author’s dismissal of this possibility revealed an attitude not uncommon in the design world: an inability to see value in the ordinary, to understand how it creates significance in people’s lives.

On the day the Gulf Station fell, bits and pieces of myself dispersed along with it.

I think we need to hold on to buildings like the Gulf Station every now and then to maintain the vitality and health of the neighborhoods we love. They are the backdrop to our lives, the props of our memories. As E.V. Walters notes in his book Placeways, “The mind includes more than intellect. It contains a history of what we learn with our feet. It grasps the world that meets the eye, the city we know in our hearts, in our guts, in our memories, in our imaginations. It includes the world we feel in our bones.”

And the Gulf Station is in my bones.