What do Central Park, Boston University, the Ritz Carlton and a Buick Master 6 have in common with each other?
Well, nothing really. But at one point or another they all shared a spiritual home in Packard’s Corner. For decades starting at the turn of the 20th century Packard’s Corner attracted men and women fascinated by Boston’s potential but fundamentally unprepared to deal with this particular corner’s geographic reality: the curse of a population in transition.
But more on that later. If you’ve attended BU long enough (and especially if you are in COM or the “S” in CAS) you may have noticed something odd about the vast majority of buildings owned by BU. Take out the walls (which aren’t original) and replace the older windows (which are plastered over on the backside of Cummington Mall), and your local car dealership emerges. Most of Comm. Ave. just before BU came onto the scene was devoted to car dealerships of all shapes and sizes. The Packard’s Building, which is now called the Atrium, was just another car dealership.
“Just another car dealership” might be more than a little misleading. The company made high end cars, and even people more disposed towards swag-stepping down Comm. Ave. could appreciate the craftsmanship of the machine above. Like most (read: all) other car company’s in the United States, the Packard brand eventually fell into financial ruin, but the building stood as a useful demarcation between the commercial side of Comm. Ave. and the densest residential neighborhoods in Boston: Allston and Brighton.
The only demarcation.
Since the great fire that destroyed much of Boston’s informal residential districts, Allston and Brighton have been among the fastest growing, and fastest changing neighborhoods. Their incredible increase in density drew the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted and Edward Wyner to the city. Olmsted, the master artist of Central Park and the Chicago World’s Fair, envisioned a Comm. Ave. that was wide enough for trolleys and trucks and green enough to attract casual pedestrians. His plan made Commonwealth Avenue the primary conduit for which to commute into the city.
The pace of change at Packard’s Corner did not stop there however. Edward Wyner, owner and manager of the Ritz Carlton hotel, owned enough of Packard’s corner as to have a credible claim to its naming rights. He worked hard to attract the new money that had already made its home on the Kenmore Square side of Comm. Ave. At the same time an influx of immigrants sought to make Packard’s Corner a refuge from a destabilized Europe or even the destruction of the West End closer to home.
By the time Boston University had come onto the scene, Packard’s Corner had a thoroughly unique role as being the gateway to a neighborhood with lots of character, while at the same time resisting any specific character. As BU displaced more and more of traditional Allston it transitioned from the gateway of residential Boston to the last stop of Boston University. It was an imperfect corner, one that told you were you had been but said nothing about where you were going.
But maybe its fitting then, that, conceptually, Packard’s Corner is the westernmost tip of our at times seemingly Jackson Pollacked campus. It shares a history with COM, the Fuller Building, CFA and Cummington Mall. At the same time Packard’s Corner will always be its own. A corner by itself, even if what it corners changes by the day.