Taking a look at the unseen

It's a common tale: the journalist, assigned to probe the inside workings of a city, never quite gets around to looking at its outsides. That happened to me in London. After eighteen months I knew more about the members of Her Majesty's Government than about the architecture of the Houses of Parliament in which they met or the streets down which they walked. Delving for intricacies, you can miss the obvious.

So I came back to Boston vowing to pay more attention to outsides. But one thing led to another, and it was another eighteen months before I was finally prodded into action. The prod came in a letter the other day from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, upon which my wife's eye immediately fastened. Starting at ten o'clock on a certain Tuesday, it announced, members were welcome on a guided bus-and-walking tour of historic Boston architecture. She would surely go; would I join her?

Well, what can you say when family pleasures conspire with professional justifications? When long-held intentions coincide with sudden opportunities? When, after all, it might even be fine weather? Scything out a clearing in my calendar, I promised to go - though I confess that my reasons were more intuitive than logical. Had I thought about it in advance, I might have foreseen the gap between expectation and actuality. A failure? By no means: in the end, it proved entirely worthwhile. But it didn't exactly start that way.

I should have suspected what I discovered only upon boarding the bus with my wife: that, apart from the bus driver, I was the only male aboard. Taking my courage in hand, however, I ran the gauntlet of stares (''Poor fellow, he must be unemployed!'') and made for the rear. With due deference, I gave my wife the window seat.

We set out along the Fenway, a park designed as part of Boston's famous ''Emerald Necklace'' by Frederick Law Olmstead. That was pleasant: a bus perches you above the roofs of cars and commands a fine view of horizontal things. Then we turned on to Boylston Street, and somehow got in the center lane. Our guide, whose voice was nearly audible above the noise of an engine that was apparently determined to remain in second gear, pointed out the Institute of Contemporary Art - a converted police station designed in 1886 by a disciple of H.H. Richardson. I looked in the direction she indicated: straight into the side of a pea-green-and-silver delivery truck.

Not her fault, I thought. And the bus, after all, was perfectly nice - except that, by modern standards, it had rather narrow windows.''Notice the checkerboarding on the top of the Trinity Church spire,'' we were told. Heads craned and nodded. Obediently, I stared upward - into the luggage rack.

By then, however, avoiding the obstacles became something of a happy challenge. I'd been past Copley Square many times - usually in a cab, always in a rush, and frequently in dense and tangled traffic. This time the bus meandered slowly along the curb, trying hard to go slower than the cars. You could feel the pace slacken: you could feel the present take over from the future, the great dash forward giving way to an appreciation of the past.

So it was that Charles McKim's 1895 Italianate structure for the Boston Public Library (and the 1968 addition by Philip Johnson complementing the lines and tones of the original) took on new life as we hung suspended at a traffic light. So it was that statues by St. Gaudens and an asymetrical church influenced by Ruskin took shape beside facades in the Gothic and French Romanesque traditions. So it was that even the roaring cement truck that pulled up beside us at a crucial moment could not dampen our growing enthusiasm for Chinese Chippendale wrought iron railings.

For where else but in the Public Garden can you see the smallest suspension bridge in the world, or the famous swan boats operated by the same family for four generations? Where but at the State House on Beacon Hill can you find the first dome in America, originally sheathed with copper by Paul Revere? Where else can you see, almost within an arrow's flight of one another, the Old State House (1712), the Old South Meeting House (1729), King's Chapel (1750), and Faneuil Hall - originally only two stories high and three windows wide, with the different colors of its bricks still showing the division between old and new?

But the best part was the walking tour of Beacon Hill. We did not confess to our guide that we had once spent a whole year living there - smack in the middle of Chestnut Street, looking out at all those houses which, under the influence of her commentary, suddenly took on new life. All those Federal doorways and Greek Revival columns, all those bow-front houses with slightly purple glass (due to imperfections which caused the panes to discolor slowly in the sunlight) , all those subtle distinctions among lintels and pediments - had they been there six years ago? Surely not: we had not seen them, so how could they have been?

How indeed? To the philosopher of consciousness, the answer is simple: they weren't. They were part of the that great body of experience, constantly present but rarely recognized, that we encounter only when we agree to look for it. They were part of the obvious unseen.

And it is in the encounter with the obvious unseen, I'm convinced, that cities are reborn. One hears a lot about that these days - about old mill districts becoming havens of exposed brick and hanging ferns and quiche and Perrier, about derelict buildings yielding up fine resources of fireplaces and fanlights, banisters and balustrades. What is that but the reseeing of the obvious? And what is that reseeing but the process whereby humanity comes to terms with its own history?

So it was, at last, that the bus washed up against the curb by the museum. To the woman who stamped our parking tickets as we climbed down, we were no doubt the same group that had boarded the bus two hours before. But that was just the outside. Inside, we had become strangers in our own city. Its history had taken on a significance usually reserved only for visitors. That which was common had become elegant; the overlooked had become the foremost. I now see why. Most of the time, life in a city makes you look straight ahead. An architectural tour forces you to look up. There's a message in that.

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