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Land of free, home of strange

Posted by Marcia Dick  July 2, 2010 10:04 AM

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Danielle Dreilinger photos

The Museum of Modern Renaissance: Knock before entering.

When you're a stranger somewhere, everything seems unusual; when you're familiar with a place, everything looks ordinary. Neither, of course, is entirely true. In any city, curiosities lurk in backyards, basements, and even in plain sight. They may be eerie, beautiful or just completely unexpected. Here we uncover a few outposts in secret Somerville.

Follow along and add  your favorite mysterious spots in Somerville to this specially created Google map.


THE SWEET SMELL OF SALT ... AND TALLOW

Talk about going to the beach around Somerville, and people generally think of Revere or Crane's. But until the late 1940s, locals sunned and swam in the Mystic River off Shore Drive between Puritan and Putnam roads, said city official Nick Salerno, who grew up nearby. "The waterfront was just a lovely area," Salerno said, with a "lifeguard and diving board." (It did have a distinctly unpleasant neighbor: Hinckley Rendering, which could smell horrible in the wrong wind.) The city even made plans to build an amusement park. The heyday was before Salerno's time, but "I have a vague memory of the old bathhouse … all rotted," he said. "It was burned out with holes in the floor and water rats." Parents told kids not to go there, but, well. The location's long since been cut off by Route 93, but the developers at Assembly Square promise to reopen the waterfront to fun and frolic.

RED BONES

Back in 1776, locals probably thought the only good British soldier was a dead British soldier. Well, historians believe they didn't get rid of them all — a few are interspersed with the fallen patriots on Somerville turf. One British soldier is buried in Milk Row Cemetery on Somerville Avenue, said Brandon Wilson of the city Historical Commission. An additional handful never left Timothy Tufts's farm near where Ace Wheelworks is now. The 1897 book "Somerville, past and present: An illustrated historical souvenir'' gives a stirring rendition: "Like a rabble rout they came down Arlington Avenue … a confused throng, they turned through Beach [Beech] Street into Elm. At the westerly corner of these streets was a grove, where minute men were secreted, who gave the men a galling fire. The British who fell here were buried in Mr. Tufts's land, just inside the wall."

BUILD A LITTLE BIRDHOUSE IN YOUR HAIR

jerrys.jpg Getting a haircut can be so relaxing - the scalp massage, the conversation focused on yourself, the … birds tweeting in the garden? Jerry's Underground Garden Salon is an idyll in a rather unexpected place: 19 Tufts St., right off McGrath and down the street from a major environmental cleanup site. Stylist and birder Jerry Lauretano used to cut hair in Harvard Square before moving operations back to his own sanctuary. It is, in fact, the first hair salon in the United States to be named a National Wildlife Federation–certified wildlife habitat, boasting (as the sign out front says) "food, water, cover, and places to raise young." Bird feeders overhang a mulched side yard from the branches of a majestic tree. The salon's patio is surrounded by coral honeysuckle. A little painted birdhouse sits on a side stoop. Above it sits an enormously fat pigeon. Well, they're birds too.

EXOTICISM ON COLLEGE AVE.

Once it was an old Masonic hall, turning a dim and dour face to the world. Now 115 College Ave. greets passersby with the face of a … Russo-Mesoamerican beast? With its flamboyantly painted and sculpted façade, adorned with eagles and topped by a sun, the tiki house could be part of a Disney World Polynesia. Its owners call it, loftily, the Museum of Modern Renaissance. Photos from a 2005 Globe story shows an astounding ornate hall. But it's a museum few have entered. Wilson said they tried to get it on a tour once but the timing never worked out. With fans whirring, it sounds like the owners might be home. But see the front door, practically guarded by a painted bull's head? You knock first.

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Look closely and you'll see the tricorne hat sitting on the rocks at Nathan Tufts Park.


COMMEMORATING WHAT?

Two old stone buildings in Nathan Tufts Park at Powderhouse Square testify to the neighborhood's role in the American Revolution. But plenty else happened here as well, and you can see it through a series of figures so small and cunning they're like something out of a British Victorian children's book, or a Monopoly game - kids could practically hopscotch their way through the park following them. Each sits on a flat stone explaining the sculpture's significance. Three embedded bottles indicate the site of the very long gone George W. Emerson pickle factory, which jarred its last cuke in 1892. A grindstone marks Jean Mallet's windmill, which beat General Gage to the punch, closing in 1747; two metal tools mark the Two Penny Brook Quarry, which gave up its goods even earlier, in roughly 1700. A jaunty tricorne hat overlooks the scene from a rock. There's even a sheep, that least warlike of creatures, to represent the Powder House farm.

A GARDEN FOR THE SEA

vinal garden-pool.jpg The most beautiful, or at least the most imaginative garden in the city may just be at 13 Vinal Ave. As much a sculpture as a garden, the site looks like a playground for selkies and sea sprites, with concentric circles of mussel shells and twisted wooden gates. There's a pallet of razor clam shells next to a square, rock-lined pool that can't be more than 18 inches a side. Amulets hide throughout — a snail shell on a stick, big shells filled with flat stones. A few plants weave between the spaces: lavender, coral honeysuckle again, a green-and-white bush. A rose climbs over a wooden arch that looks like the entrance to enchantment. Beyond the garbage pails, who knows where it leads?

Additional thanks to Evelyn Battinelli of the Somerville Museum, local history librarian Kevin O'Kelly, and artists Annie Smidt and Jesse Lonergan.

Contact Danielle at somervillescene@gmail.com.

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Justin Hunt/Globe staff file

Performers dressed in ghost costumes walk through Milk Row Cemetery during a " Ghosts of Somerville" event.

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