urban planning

So Long, John Nash (Part One)

A view from behind a John Nash-designed Regent Street archway, 2016 (All photos by author unless otherwise noted)

I have come here tonight to praise the former Regent Palace Hotel, just off Piccadilly Circus in London. At 1028 rooms, it was the world’s biggest hotel on completion in 1915. I did not know this tidy little fact when I stayed there for a week in May of 1976. This would have surprised me back then. The hotel had a rounded, impressive Edwardian façade but it didn’t seem especially large. That’s maybe because many of the rooms (like mine) were small and communal bathrooms were in the hall, which was the case until the place finally closed in 2006.


The white-washed ghost of the Regent Palace Hotel in 2016. Seemingly empty save for an Ugg store. Ugh.

So the Regent Palace was not much of a palace, but it did back up to rear of the Regent Street quadrant. That famously curved shopping street was laid out by John Nash, the master architect of Regency/Georgian England. His work also includes Buckingham Palace, the Brighton Royal Pavilion, and Marble Arch. The elegant sweep of Lower Regent Street led into Piccadilly Circus, anchoring London’s West End entertainment district, before taking a sharp turn and proceeding thru a stately institutional area to the The Mall, which of course leads to the Queen’s pad.


For 8 pounds a night, the Regent Palace Hotel was a place where “You enjoy all the amenities of a modern hotel, including telephone, radio and razor point.” (!!)

I’ve always had a thing about architecture and John Nash (1752-1835) is my favorite practitioner, except maybe for American Samuel McIntire, the Federalist architect/carver who’s greatest works were also done in the early 19th century. Sam’s not only a fellow countryman but lived and worked primarily in my hometown of Salem, Mass. Anyway, I cribbed the title for this post from the Simon & Garfunkel song “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” After all, there just aren’t enough tribute songs to famous architects, I mean how much can you say in that format? Even S&G are pretty much reduced to saying how they and ol’ Frank would “harmonize ‘til dawn.” Sounds funny, but city-building can have its own musical richness and John Nash was a symphony-level composer. He found his fame as a patron of the Prince Regent (later King George IV) and his master plan started with a design for Regent’s Park (ringed by his terraces and great-houses) and proceeded south in a grand avenue procession down to Regent Street and the Circus. So very royal, yes, but it also gave London some of its greatest public spaces. But more on all that in a bit.


Ray Davies makes the rounds of Swinging London in this satirical Kinks Klassic from 1966.

I was 18 at the time of my first visit to the city that had so captured my boyhood imagination, mainly stirred by my steady diet of Kinks albums and Chares Dickens novels. This trip to England I had planned for some time, funded by my high-school job as a busboy and by a nice little fund put aside from my godfather that he gave me when I had turned the big 1-8. I had gone with my mom to a local travel agent (remember them?) and the guy, seeing that I was a bright young lad off on his own for the first time, suggested that the Regent Palace Hotel, a literal stone’s throw away from London’s version of Times Square, would be a good base camp. My mom was already nervous about me going but it was quickly a done deal.


Your humble blogger at age 18, captured by a street photographer near my hotel.

Piccadilly Circus in the post-war years became world-famous for its neon-lit nightlife and its giant advertising signs for films, shows and a bewildering array of consumer goods. But ten paces away from these bright lights and rushing traffic, and thru the corner entrance of the Regent Palace it was a different story. The hotel had a certain frumpy charm, it was like a character in a Graham Greene novel, with a certain faded elegance and a hint of intrigue. (I was certainly intrigued by the occasional hooker loitering at a staircase landing). The Circus came to be one of those great gathering places, both for Londoners and tourists, but ol’ John Nash was way ahead of the curve. Lower Regent Street (completed around 1825) featured a covered arcade that kept window shoppers out of the elements and maybe give a chance for sweethearts to have a tete-a-tete, reportedly a consideration in the planning.


Panorama of Nash’s Regent St. quadrant. (Photo by Benh Lieu Song via Wikipedia)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus

Society took over from their and certainly by the 1960’s it was (like Carnaby Street) a place to see and be seen. Many of the nightclubs of Swinging London, hosting future rock mega-bands like the Who and Pink Floyd, were in adjacent areas like Leicester Square and Soho. It was well past the prime of that golden era by the time I got there in ’76. The place was considered tawdry by many, with its illicit street dealings and dignified old buildings covered in advertising hoardings and movie marquees. But it was transformational for me, the spark that started a lifetime of sporadic European travel. So I went boldly where all men had gone before and sat myself on the steps of the Shaftsbury Memorial (see below) topped by the famous statue of Eros though it is actually his brother Anteros, the god of requited love. Either way, point well taken.


Piccadilly Circus, 1976

Across from the steps was the grand façade of the London Pavilion, where the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine had had their world premieres. Currently, the theater’s 3-story high sign was boosting it’s first-run showing of Death Race 2000, the pedestrians-as-points cult film; a die-cut image of David Carradine as the black-masked driver loomed over the square. Instead, I opted for a walk down Coventry Street to the now-demolished Odeon West End to see The Man Who Fell to Earth, the futuristic mind-bender starring David Bowie. The bottom of the Odeon marquee, for all of Leicester Square to see, read “Kinky Sex”—The Evening Standard. Well, your average perv may have been disappointed to buy a ticket based on that alone, but I took up my seat in the balcony (smoking allowed) not unlike the girl in Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?” who’s “hooked to the silver screen.” After having my mind suitably blown, I walked past a Piccadilly pub where an hour later, a few of the Rolling Stones stopped by a drink. I read that the next day in the (wait for it) Evening Standard.

Jumping ahead nearly 45 years, I found out something that I had long suspected, a possible brush with rock and roll history that would have been more significant than catching a glimpse of a few Black and Blue-era Stones. The pre-Sid Vicious Sex Pistols were gigging in Central London the same month in the spring of ‘76 that I was first visited my fabled London. Mainly, they had a Tuesday night residency at the nearby 100 Club. Not that I necessarily would have known what to do with a Johnny Rotten back then (I was more of a Ray Davies and Ian Anderson kind of guy), but I did miss being present at the crossroads of rock history at a time when the band were not yet tabloid fodder. But ten months later the Pistols, now with Sid in tow, the group’s manager arranged a publicity-stunting signing of a contract with A&M Records, in front of the John Nash-designed Buckingham Palace. The competing symbolism was clear, even if the band didn’t release their groundbreaking, vitriolic anthem “God Save the Queen” until several weeks later. After that, they repaired to one of the lobby bars at the Regent Palace Hotel where they were over-served by the staff, according to (I believe) Jon Savage’s definitive book “England’s Dreaming.” Just think, only a gob’s throw away from where I sat in the RPH’s breakfast room, or the Carvery restaurant, whose sliced-roasts station, dessert cart and great big Imperial pints of lager were already legends in my own mind. The group’s drunken hijinks continued over at the A&M office, where their punkified misdemeanors had them booted off the label by week’s end. Twenty years would pass by the time I saw the re-formed Sex Pistols at an outdoor venue I the summer of 1996.

10 Mar 1977, London, England, UK — The punk rock group, The Sex Pistols, are about to be moved by a policeman as they sign a copy of their new recording contract with A & M Records outside Buckingham Palace. The next record to be released is called “God Save the Queen”. The band members (from far left to right) are John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Sid Vicious. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

I would visit London alone again in 1994 and in 2016 with family. I was older and a bit wiser and able to take much better photographs, including those of John Nash’s greatest architectural hits (more in Part Two!). In ’94, I took a nostalgic stroll thru the Regent Palace lobby and out the side door. Also by then, the obstructing sign was down at the London Pavilion and it had been turned into a rock-themed wax museum; there were David Bowie and Mick Jagger effigies looking out imperiously from the revealed balconies. In 2016, the RPH was long-closed when I showed my son where I had stayed in another lifetime. The building, like many others in the Piccadilly/Regent Street area, had been scrubbed of their age-old London grime and white-washed to within an inch of their lives. The “people’s palace” hotel had only ghost of the memories of the lone travelers, wandering-eye businessmen and tour-group tag-a-longs that once issued forth the lobby into the whirlwind of London’s famous/infamous crossroads. But I’m still here to tell you my tale where the secret lives of buildings, people and pop culture intersect and will be back for more in Part Two.
—Rick Ouellette

In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part One: Farewell, “Jean” Moreau

Text by Rick Ouellette, photos are archival except where indicated

When the iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau died last month, I’m sure most obituaries ignored her work in the 1955 film M’sieur la Caille, while lauding her performances in such classics as Jules and Jim and Diary of a Chambermaid. Known in the States (if it was known at all) as No Morals, it seems from the trailer to be at least a half-serious film about the shadowy world of prostitutes and gangsters. It’s even called an “art film” by the YouTuber who posted the trailer. But listen to the titillating, oversold narration that goes with the American sneak preview and you quickly realize this is just the sort of movie that could be peddled across the Atlantic as a sex film in the days before the large-scale production of straight pornography.

When No Morals landed in Boston, a few years before I was born twenty miles away, it was at the since-demolished State Theatre at a prime downtown location at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets. The top photo is one of a series of images I gleaned from Google that taken together suggest the continual architectural and social transfiguration of an urban center over a century and a half. Going back that far, we find the original venue on that spot was Beethoven Hall. I love that name but by scanning that ads they ran (several are up on Wiki Commons) the programming had little to do with Ludwig Van and a lot to do with late 19th century diversions. There were comic operas, freak shows, minstrel singers and even Greco-Roman wrestling. If there were such a thing as a time-travel bucket list, I would pencil in “The Great English Mesmerist” Annie de Montford and her “amusing entertainments of psychology.”

Even better would be a time-lapse view of the historical transformation of just that one site. The first change came in 1879 when Henry E. Abbey, owner of the Park Theatre in New York, comprehensively re-built Beethoven Hall and named it the same as his Gotham property. The elegant interior space continued for years with the parade of comedies and singing shows under a number of different proprietors, one of whom was none other than Lotta Crabtree. Once dubbed “The Nation’s Darling”, Lotta started in showbiz as a girl in California Gold Rush country after being recognized by Lola Montes for her singing and dancing skills and comedic personality. By the time she migrated to Boston and took over the Park, she was one of America’s wealthiest and most popular performers. So popular in fact, that she felt the need to construct a private tunnel that went from the theater’s basement to the nearby hotel where she lived. Crabtree was also a philanthropist and some of her Boston charities still operate today, 93 years after her death.


I like Lotta a lotta: Ms. Crabtree in the 1870s.

What is less charitable is the fate of the Park Theatre in the years afterward. The playhouse gradually got into the burlesque business (the only local establishment to ever host a Gypsy Rose Lee striptease), then found use as a B-movie cinema as the once-impressive horseshoe shaped interior likely faded and it became The State. The racy fare showing here in a mixed urban tableau pre-dates (but not by much) the city-sanctioned red light district commonly known as the Combat Zone. By the time those lines of demarcation were drawn up, the State Theatre fit snugly up in the Zone’s northwest corner and was showing X-rated features one after another daily.

A forensic study of the top photo displays a transitory peek into an age that was already vestigial by the time I moved to Boston no more than two decades later. The 600 block of Washington Street is a vibrant jumble of visual cues: a second-floor bowling and billiards joint; a pizza joint with a delightfully off-kilter sign, two Civil Defense fallout shelter markers and, to the left of the theater, the Crabtree office building (the name is probably not a co-incidence) featuring the Progressive Clothing shop, where some nice suits can be seen hanging on a rack in the window.

That makes sense because the people on the sidewalk are so nicely dressed in the “Mad Men” style of the day. Even the guy in the outside ticket booth has a suit and tie. Under the boldly projecting marquee, anyone could have a nice look-see at the poster for The Shocking Set (where “men were playthings”!!) or the one for “No Morals” where Jean (sic) Moreau, although she’s probably just looking for love in all the wrong places, is claimed to have “many men on the string.” This double billing seems to suggest some early strain of erotic feminism. It’s a notion may have caught the attention of the shifty-eyed lady in the white coat who is suspiciously close to the ticket booth—if so, that would explain her assumed husband’s sheepish grin. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!


Photo by author

By the time this era (and area) was replaced by the more openly raunchy Combat Zone, the marquee didn’t even bother with titles, never mind enticing phrases, it usually said something like “Continuous Adult Films XXX Shown Daily.” In 1990, the State Theatre was razed in the process of yet another (and current) transformation, brought on by civic improvement (though home video and the Internet had a lot to do with moving the sex industry off the street grid), university expansions and Ayn Randian real estate power grabs. In the photo above, taken on an early Sunday morning in 2016, the State Theatre would have been between the Cathay Bank and the CVS store on the right, part of the blank back wall of a Ritz Carlton complex. At this same spot fifty years ago, you would have been looking out onto maybe twenty theater marquees, and not just the naughty stuff. As lower Washington St. was one edge of Chinatown there wer kung-fu flicks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey played at a now-defunct movie palace where now is the barren frontage of the building on the left. If I live long enough, even this view will become a complete stranger to me.

With No Morals sadly unavailable, my Jeanne Moreau tribute viewing was 1957’s Elevator to the Gallows, the taut film-noir that was Louis Malle’s first major work and a sort of springboard for the actresses’ later exaltation. Moreau is uncommonly beautiful and tersely soulful as the wife of an industrialist who conspires with her lover, one of her husband’s top men, to murder him. The scheme gets foiled when, unbeknownst to her, lover boy gets trapped in a lift. Confused and upset but still imperious, Moreau’s character—her world suddenly upended—famously wanders thru a shifting Parisian streetscape to the Miles Davis’ haunting score, in a fruitless search, lost as if moving thru a dream of a place she thought you once knew. How I relate.

Documentary Spotlight: “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City”

Director Matt Trynauer’s new documentary “Citizen Jane” is both a welcome film bio of the late author-activist-urban theorist Jane Jacobs and a fortifying reminder of how committed and creative “people power” can be more than a match against monolithic government and business interests when they have negated any sense of human decency. Jacobs was a writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan’s West Village who developed a homegrown value system about what makes cities work best, an ideal of people-centric short blocks with mixed usage and a vital network of safe and productive interconnectedness among a diverse population. This was spelled out in her first book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” first published in 1961 and a work that is still influential to this day.

“Death and Life” was both a celebration of spontaneous urban vitality and an unabashed assault on the doctrinal city planning theories of the day, which centered on the construction of endless rows of monolithic housing towers cut through with multi-lane expressways. All this would be accomplished by first enabling the wholesale demolition of the “slum” neighborhoods that Jacobs saw as vital communities. As per the film’s subtitle, a large chunk of “Citizen Jane” concerns the high-profile contest of wills between her and the imperious Robert Moses, New York City’s powerful city-planning czar.


Not the best of friends: Jacobs and Moses.

Moses in his earlier days was known as an enlightened master builder. His first major project was the populist and popular Jones Beach State Park, opened in 1929. By the Fifties and early Sixties, however, he was firmly aligned with the visionary but abstracted Modernist dictates most associated with Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. Jacobs thought these ideas were poisonous and was pretty blunt about it (the first sentence “The Death and Life” is “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding”). In the trailer below, you can get a taste for Moses’ arrogance. He refers to certain neighborhoods as “cancerous” and insists that his projects will be bulled through at whatever the cost. It was a typical urban renewal attitude at the time and one that Jacobs said made people feel as no more than “subjects of a conquering power.”

That all began to change when Moses wanted to build a road straight through the historic and well-loved Washington Square park in Greenwich Village, for no other discernible reason other than he thought he could and perhaps to extend fashionably expensive Fifth Avenue. Jacobs sprang into action. File footage, period newscasts and TV appearances show a blunt but savvy organizer who could marshal great support (future NYC mayor Ed Koch was one of her early allies) and counteract elitist and sexist belittlement with attention-grabbing tactics (concerned citizens crowding city hall meetings, baby-carriage blockades). When the Washington Sq. road plan was nixed, it was the first setback for Robert Moses, who saw himself as an embodiment of the “Great Man” theory but whom Jacobs breezily derided as being “scared of life.”

There would be other battles to follow and Trynaeur does a pretty fair job of hashing these out for a general audience, with help from interviewees like Anthony Flint (who wrote the book “Wrestling with Moses” on this subject), architect Robert A.M. Stern, architecture critic Paul Goldberger and others. While the presentation here tends to be one-sided, the film does well to trace the gradual ascendancy of Jacobs’ ideas and Moses’ concurrent (and also gradual) fall from grace, with examples like his failure to raze 16 square blocks of her beloved West Village in the name of urban renewal.

For me, the most vivid case history in “Citizen Jane” is the saga of the would-be Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX), a double-pronged Ayn Randian nightmare of a ten-lane highway topped with a Space Age ziggurat on one end. This would have obliterated large chunks of Soho, Little Italy and the Cast Iron district while presumably letting the oligarchs look down on those left behind in the exhaust and neglect, many of them crammed into the long-discredited housing projects that are a prime part of the legacy for Robert Moses and his ilk.


Fountainhead Folly? This proposal for LOMEX dwarfs even the Manhattan Bridge.

New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller finally shelved the LOMEX project in 1971 and for good measure accepted the last in a long line of Moses’ fit-of-pique resignation letters. Today, Jacobs’ insistence that people need to shape cities for themselves is pretty well embedded. Community input in urban planning is much more prevalent and the public realm in New York and other big cities is often safer and more welcoming for residents and visitors alike. Huge problems remain of course with gentrification and income disparity and the same authoritarian attitudes prevalent in America in the 50s and 60s have been exported: one talking head here describes city planning in China today as “Robert Moses on steroids.” But Jane Jacobs’ idea that our cities are an ecosystem that needs to be understood and cared for to be truly successful can also be exported, and reinforced here at home, and a viewing of “Citizen Jane” would be a good place to start.