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Boston's banner year

A ballpark, hotel, and zoo were just a few of the new additions to the Hub in 1912 that have long since become city landmarks

By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / January 4, 2012
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One hundred years ago, Boston was bustling. The city grew by more than 2,800 acres when Hyde Park was annexed to Boston. The first subway trains rattled through the tunnel between Park Street and Harvard Square. The state poured millions of dollars into developing the harbor.

1912 was a time of growth and prosperity in the city, and a century later, many of the institutions and traditions launched that year have become Boston landmarks: Fenway Park, Franklin Park Zoo, Fairmont Copley Plaza. The Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. (then Massachusetts Employee’s Insurance Association) opened its doors to provide workers’ compensation insurance in accordance with a new state law, and the first members of the Skating Club of Boston moved from outdoor ponds to one of the first indoor artificial ice surfaces in the country.

Boston was the fifth-largest city in the nation at the time, with a population of around 700,000 - more than today - and growing by about 15,000 people a year. The city was a hub of publishing and academics, but manufacturing and mechanical industries were the biggest employers.

New buildings went up right and left.

President Taft laid the cornerstone for the YMCA building on Huntington Avenue, the Parkman Bandstand was erected on Boston Common, and Boston Fish Pier, the largest fishing-boat pier in the world at the time, was completed. Filene’s opened its doors in a brand-new building on Washington Street (only the facade remains today), and construction was underway on the Harvard Club on Commonwealth Avenue and the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, part of today’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Progress was everywhere when you looked around you at that time,’’ said Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “You have the face of Boston literally changing before your eyes.’’

1912 was a time of great change across the country, and the world, with suffragettes marching for women’s right to vote, the Panama Canal under construction, and the election of Woodrow Wilson, the president who would lead the United States into World War I. In January, tens of thousands of textile workers walked off the job in the legendary “Bread and Roses’’ strike in Lawrence; in April, the Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage, killing more than 1,500 people.

The mayor of Boston was John F. Fitzgerald, known as Honey Fitz, the grandfather of future president John F. Kennedy and future senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Writing in the Dec. 29, 1912, Boston Sunday Post, Fitzgerald reflected: “Boston for the year 1912 has moved forward with a stronger industrial and commercial spirit than I have ever known before.’’

Society was changing rapidly. The Boston NAACP received its charter in 1912 - the first branch in the nation - and the first municipal Christmas tree lighting took place on Boston Common. The Christmas tree traditioncame from German and other northern European immigrants - “a pretty big deal’’ in a place where Christmas celebrations were once against the law, according to Drummey.

One of Boston’s most legendary landmarks opened on April 20, 1912, when the Red Sox beat the New York Highlanders, later the archrival Yankees, in the inaugural game at Fenway Park. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series at Fenway that fall, topping the New York Giants.

The ballpark - the first to have a parking lot, electric scoreboard, and screen behind home plate to protect fans - proved so popular that by the fall of 1912, the owners had already begun the tradition of cramming extra seats into the 27,000-seat stadium. But not everyone thought the location, in a largely undeveloped area of filled-in marsh land, was ideal.

“A lot of people thought they were crazy,’’ said team historian Dick Bresciani.

The Fairmont Copley Plaza also opened in 1912, on the former site of the Museum of Fine Arts on St. James Avenue. Wealthy residents who wanted to throw parties in a ballroom and be waited on by room attendants took up residence at the hotel, said general manager Paul Tormey: “This was the height of luxury.’’

The hotel, which is finishing a $20 million renovation this year, is holding 100 days of celebrations leading up to the Aug. 19 anniversary, including meals and rooms at 1912 prices. A special anniversary package allows couples with a receipt from their wedding night at the hotel to pay the room price they originally paid.

Several 100-year-old institutions are holding celebrations at the Fairmont Copley this year, including the Skating Club of Boston and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. In May, the Ford Hall Forum is holding an event tentatively titled “Beantown Centennials’’ featuring experts on Fenway Park, the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and the Franklin Park Zoo.

The zoo opened with 10,000 people in attendance - many of them schoolchildren given the day off by “Honey Fitz’’ for the occasion. They gathered to watch zookeepers let in 14 bears: brown, black, cinnamon, grizzly, and polar.

There are no bears among the 1,500 animals currently at the zoo, but John Linehan, chief executive of Zoo New England, which operates Franklin Park Zoo, said they will return once the zoo can build updated dens. “There will be bears in our future,’’ Linehan said.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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