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Olympic dreams: How Boston was shaped by the trophies it didn’t win

The city tried and failed to host the 1980 alterna-Olympics, the 1976 World Expo, and NASA Mission Control. They ended up changing the landscape anyway.

Boston has kicked its civic machinery into gear for a number of world-class prizes: There was the 1885 World’s Fair, the big NASA space center, the 1976 World Expo, and the 1980 Freedom Games.

Globe staff photo illustration

Boston has kicked its civic machinery into gear for a number of world-class prizes: There was the 1885 World’s Fair, the big NASA space center, the 1976 World Expo, and the 1980 Freedom Games.

Last month the United States Olympic Committee announced that Boston had made the short list of four cities for a possible American bid to host the 2024 Summer Games.

To supporters, a Boston Olympics would be a much-needed shot of civic pride, spurring the area to finally spruce up its transit and infrastructure, and re-introducing a vigorous, modern metropolis on a global stage. Not everyone is so thrilled: Critics foresee a traffic and security nightmare for a city hardly in need of international validation—a disruptive boondoggle that would fatten the pockets of a handful of local businesses, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for new structures they didn’t want.

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You might think, from the air of novelty surrounding the argument, that Bostonians hadn’t been down this road before. But we have. Boston has kicked its civic machinery into gear for a number of world-class prizes: There was the 1885 World’s Fair, the big NASA space center, the 1976 World Expo, and the 1980 Freedom Games.

Haven’t heard of them? That’s because Boston didn’t get a single one. Some went to other cities; some were canceled completely. Competing for them, however, changed the course of the city’s development in a number of ways, from neighborhood growth to politics to a new national park area. In many cases, they brought enduring benefits; in some, they fanned divisive arguments.

In a sense, you could see modern Boston as a city shaped by the national and global competitions it didn’t win. It might seem strange to think of a city molded by what didn’t happen here, but the debates that large-scale projects tend to trigger—and the reactions to them—have a way of reframing the civic conversation, forcing residents to decide what kind of city they want to live in. History suggests that the Olympics could end up forging a new Boston, whether or not we even get close to winning them. How, exactly, is a wide-open question.

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Modern Boston is greater in stature than size—a relatively compact city striving to build upon an emerging global reputation. In the Gilded Age, however, Boston was one of the biggest cities in the United States, a commercial and cultural power with aspirations to match.

Infused with this civic ambition, dozens of Boston’s most powerful businessmen assembled under the mansard roof of the palatial Hotel Vendome on May 25, 1881. Perhaps inspired by the Vendome’s elegant Parisian interior, they agreed to undertake a venture that the French capital had already staged on three occasions—a World’s Fair. Beset by infighting and politics, New York City had weeks before abandoned its own bid, which made the idea of hosting the 1885 World’s Fair even more attractive in the Athens of America. “If Boston can go on and succeed after New York has backed out, it will be glory enough to content the modesty of Massachusetts for the rest of the century,” as The New York Times put it.

The Brahmins who met inside the Hotel Vendome had every reason for optimism. Many of them could remember how the city’s business community rallied in 1869 to finance and build the Great Coliseum—a massive structure with a capacity of more than 50,000 people that hosted the weeklong Great Peace Jubilee—in a mere 90 days.

A select committee reported that the city had a sufficient quantity of hotel rooms and enough public transportation capacity—from streetcars to steamships to horse-drawn carriages—to carry as many as 300,000 passengers a day to the planned fairgrounds. They would be built at Beacon Park, a 62-acre parcel in Allston flanking Cambridge Street and fronting the Charles River that had been pledged for no charge by its owner, retailer Jordan, Marsh & Co. (Today the land is the abandoned CSX rail yard, again awaiting a transformation.) Noted Boston architect William Gibbons Preston, who designed the Hotel Vendome and Great Coliseum among other Gilded Age landmarks in the Back Bay, sketched a plan for the fairgrounds that included agricultural, horticultural, and mechanical halls; an art gallery; and a 32-acre main exhibition building.

Planners felt confident that the 1885 World’s Fair could turn a profit based on the $3.5 million construction cost, but when it came time for Boston businesses to pledge money, support evaporated. By January 1882, the organizing committee abandoned the project as “impracticable.” But the idea had raised the hunger for the city to do something, and in its stead, the Gibbons-designed Mechanics Hall on Huntington Avenue hosted a scaled-down Foreign Exhibition in 1883. Hundreds of thousands of visitors arrived by carriage and omnibus to see commercial products from around the globe, and also something culturally unique: an exhibit of paintings by Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir that amounted to the first major showcase of the controversial Impressionist pioneers in the United States.

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The sprawling brick auditorium that hosted the exhibition lasted until 1959, when it was razed to make way for the Prudential Center. By then the city was about to set its sights on something new. President John F. Kennedy’s call for the country to land a man on the moon set off a domestic competition almost as heated as the Space Race itself: Dozens of cites across the country lobbied hard to land the prestigious command center for the Apollo program, the Manned Spacecraft Center, and the billions of federal dollars that would come with it. Touting the region’s bounty of young scientists and engineers in their sales pitch to NASA officials, Boston’s political leaders fantasized that the “moon shot headquarters” would serve as the launch pad for a second Industrial Revolution in New England.

NASA

Touting the region’s bounty of young scientists, Boston’s political leaders fantasized that the “moon shot headquarters” would serve as the launch pad for a second Industrial Revolution in New England.

That dream didn’t last long. Boston was bypassed in 1961 for the more abundant acreage and warmer climes of Houston, and the grapes were exceedingly sour: Ephron Catlin, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said the decision “probably put the time needed to get a man to the moon several years back and greatly increased the cost of the whole project” while adding that many scientists wouldn’t want to go to Texas because of their “Jim Crow civilization.”

As a consolation prize, NASA decided to build its Electronics Research Center in a blighted area of Cambridge, once home to a wasteland of dilapidated warehouses and parking lots—Kendall Square. Cambridge granted the space agency 29 of the parcel’s 43 acres for its $60 million research and development center, which was to include a 26-story laboratory tower. Just months after Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind, however, the Nixon administration dealt the area another blow by announcing the center’s sudden closure in December 1969, with eight of the planned 14 buildings still unbuilt. (It remains the only NASA center ever closed.) The US Department of Transportation’s Volpe Research Center filled the NASA campus in 1970, but 10 acres ceded to NASA remained undeveloped.

The decision was a disappointment, but one that ultimately left Cambridge in better shape. “No question that NASA coming to Kendall Square was a blessing,” says Thad Tercyak, who served as the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority’s associate director from 1968 to 1990, “but NASA leaving was also a blessing in disguise. What was a 14-acre private development possibility became 24 acres, which makes a big difference when you are looking for good developers.” It would take years, but the new development near MIT would ultimately become one of the biggest innovation hubs in the United States—and almost certainly more beneficial to Cambridge than if a huge government agency had built out its full space and occupied it.

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While NASA was rocketing in and out of Cambridge, the closest thing to a modern Olympics bid—and a scheme possibly even more breathtaking in its ambition—was also percolating. A group of business leaders led by Gilbert H. Hood Jr., president of H.P. Hood & Sons, once again attempted to welcome the world to the city’s shores. Beginning in the early 1960s, Boston began work on a bid to host the 1976 World Expo in celebration of the American bicentennial.

The grandiose plan called for creating a whole new swath of Boston from the sea, a 690-acre fairground that would have swallowed Columbia Point, Thompson Island, and parts of Boston Harbor with sci-fi amenities such as buildings on floating platforms tethered to the seafloor and a climate-controlled translucent dome for year-round hiking and swimming.

The 1976 World Expo in Boston would have created a whole new swath of Boston from the sea.

Boston Society of Architects

The 1976 World Expo in Boston would have created a whole new swath of Boston from the sea.

To say it provoked debate would be wildly understating it. As Jim Vrabel, author of the new book “A People’s History of the New Boston,” points out, the disruptive urban renewal efforts of the 1960s had primed citizens to react more quickly to potential changes in their city. As plans for the fair developed in 1969, neighborhood political leaders in South Boston recoiled; Louise Day Hicks and Joe Moakley mobilized massive protests and gathered 20,000 signatures in opposition to the World Expo. The streets along the route of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that year were lined not just with green, but with signs exhorting “Expo No!” South Boston residents found unlikely allies in environmentalists concerned that the project would disrupt the tidal flushing of Boston Harbor and spoil the natural beauty and ecology of one of its islands.

By September, the Boston City Council had unanimously rejected a $75 million investment in the project. When Boston Mayor Kevin White and Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent traveled down to Washington to make the city’s case before a federal commission, Boston also sent a rival group to Washington to argue against it—the only would-be host city to do so. The 1976 World Expo was as good as dead.

Event locations for the 1980 alternative Olympics that never were.

Event locations for the 1980 alternative Olympics that never were.

A decade later, Mayor White floated another brief, doomed plan, this one to host a kind of substitute Olympics. On March 19, 1980, two days before President Jimmy Carter told America’s Olympians of his decision to boycott the Summer Games in Moscow, an 11-person committee assembled by White released a detailed plan to host a “reduced-scale Olympiad” with athletes from boycotting countries. The plan relied heavily on university dormitories for athlete housing, and it identified sporting venues both predictable—Boston Garden for basketball—and offbeat—the State Police barracks in Framingham for shooting.

Mayor White’s proposal to Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Freedom Games.

The idea that Boston, or any city, could have pulled together an alternative Olympics in five months seems preposterous in retrospect, and the city never got a chance to give it a try. Although members of the USA track and field team joined athletes from 28 other countries in Philadelphia for the two-day Liberty Bell Classic in July 1980, the proposal for a full-blown faux-lympics held little appeal.

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Quickly consigned to the dustbin of history, the plan for the 1980 Freedom Games left little imprint on the city, though its typewritten pages offer an interesting look at how a city could redeploy its existing resources to host tens of thousands of global visitors.

Boston’s attempts to host two World’s Fairs and NASA’s space center left more lasting legacies. The 1880s bid resulted in more than a second-best expo; the business leaders who poured their efforts into the failed venture agreed in February 1882 to continue meeting regularly at the Hotel Vendome and form the Beacon Society, which undertook a mission “to throw light upon all questions of importance to the advancement of the city of Boston.” Three years later, society members also founded the Algonquin Club, where the city’s preeminent business leaders and lawmakers have swapped ideas and brokered deals for more than a century.

NASA’s space center, of course, did a lot for Houston, bringing thousands of jobs and immortalizing the city in the signature phrase “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” But its growth over time to more than 1,000 acres would have been inconceivable in dense Boston—and the agency’s evacuation arguably did even more for Kendall Square, opening up the neighborhood for private development that has tapped into the knowledge base of local universities, and planting the seeds of a technology and life sciences district that other cities are now scrambling to emulate.

As for the 1976 World Expo, its supporters expected their legacy to be the fairground’s conversion to a new waterfront community of 45,000 people. What it did was something else entirely. Hicks used her opposition to the project as a campaign plank, sweeping to victory in a City Council race weeks later and becoming a linchpin of the antibusing movement during the 1970s. On the environmentalist side, citizen activists championed the governmental purchase of the Boston Harbor Islands, giving the area federal protection from commercial development. That vision came to fruition in 1996, with the creation of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

The current Olympic debate reminds us once again that while Boston has been a city built on a foundation of big ideas, we also tend to be world-class fretters about our status. Although the city draws visitors, students, and immigrants from around the world, the constant assertion that “Boston is a world-class city”—recently reiterated once again by Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish, the driving force behind the 2024 bid—seems to speak to an underlying insecurity, one addressed with new dreams from one generation to the next.

The US Olympic Committee could make its decision as early as January on whether to select Boston, or even to mount a bid at all. If it moves forward, the scheme will need to take clearer shape, and will start costing real money. History suggests this will be a moment to watch: The vision will come into view, the line between proponents and opponents will harden, and whatever happens next, Boston won’t be the same place again.

More coverage:

Graphic: How Boston stacks up

Shirley Leung: Give Boston Olympics a chance

IOC and FIFA: Monopoly power makes pricey games

Boston Olympic bid: The motivation we need

Boston’s ‘edge’ for the Olympics

Boston Olympics in 2024 would be a ‘monumental task’

Christopher Klein is the author of “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.” E-mail him at chris@christopherklein.com and follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.
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