In order to really get to know the city of Boston, there are nearly infinite layers that need to be peeled back. Every inch of this metropolis has a wealth of stories attached to it, many of which date back hundreds of years. There's a lot to unpack, and I've found nearly all of it to be a lot more interesting than I had expected.
Today, we're going focus in on a couple of my favorite pieces of Boston. The first is the famous Boston Public Library, and the second is the unusual measuring system that is painted onto the Mass Ave bridge. These have both been the source of some intrigue for me, and are academia-adjacent, so I’m combining them into the same article.
The Boston Public Library
The Boston Public Library sits proudly on the west side of Copley Square, opposite the famous Trinity Church. Also known as the "Library for the Commonwealth," or simply, the "B.P.L.," this iconic library was originally founded in 1848. Believe it or not, that actually makes this place one of the younger landmarks in Boston. In addition to a wealth of electronic resources that have been added in more recent years, this aged building holds approximately 23.7 million volumes, making is the 2nd largest library in the U.S,, behind the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. In an average year, Bostonians check out almost 4 million books (and other materials) from this place, and participate in roughly 10,000 different library-sponsored activities and programs, all of which are free to the public. Not too shabby!
Living in Boston as a college student, this building was a frequent destination for my friends who planned to spend entire days studying. Even though the Boston Public Library was a short T ride away BU (Boston University—my alma mater), I did not come here until after I graduated college. BU had plenty of nice study areas that were a lot closer to home, so I figured I wasn't missing much. Let the records show that I was wrong. The Boston Public Library turned out to be awesome. It's goddamn paradise if you're looking for a cozy nook to do some studying! Younger Peter was a fool, but eventually he got wise.
Today, this is one of my favorite buildings in Boston. I'm in Back Bay at some point nearly every time I visit Boston, and it's always worth a visit, even if it's just to the café. The last time I visited, I brought my camera with me and did a quick photo walk through the BPL's massive campus. Most of these spaces were dead silent, so the sound of my camera shutter opening and closing got my some stink-eyes, but I didn't care. My inner Mass-hole was making a resurgence.
Here's a few of my favorite photographs of the Boston Public Library...
Why Is The Mass Ave Bridge Measured In "Smoots"?
Okay so you leave the BPL, you walk north towards the Charles River, and you go to cross the Mass(achusetts) Ave. bridge that connects Back Bay to Cambridge. If you are not familiar with Boston, Cambridge is most famous for being the home of both Harvard and MIT. It’s also technically its own city, and but if you ever have anybody call you out on that distinction, they’re probably an asshole.
“Actually, I live in Cambridge, not Boston.” PSH!
Anyway, as you walk the Mass Ave Bridge, you will notice that somebody has taken a can of paint and measured the length of this bridge in rather curious units: "Smoots."
As you walk, you'll see the markers.
"69 Smoots" (of course)
And so on and so forth. Here's what those markers look like...
Clearly there's a story here. When this tale was first told to me, this story may have been embellished just a little bit. The first thing you need to know is that MIT's frat's are predominantly on the other side of the Charles River, in Back Bay. As a former BU student, this was common knowledge because some of these MIT frat houses were randomly on BU's campus. Not that BU has much of a campus—it's pretty much just city—but I digress. The point is that every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night... and probably most other nights of the week while school is in session, there are drunk MIT frat bros stumbling back and forth across this bridge.
I was told that, a number of decades ago (1958 to be exact), a troop of these frat bros was returning home for the night, when one of their members just dropped dead (metaphorically) because he was so drunk. This kid apparently passed out just as they were reaching the start of the bridge, so his friends were faced with the task of carrying him home. Merry band of pranksters that they were, they instead decided to, as a practical joke, measure the bridge in units of his body. Because this kid's name was Oliver Smoot, these units were hence forth known as "Smoots."
The Mass Ave. Bridge turned out to be 364.4 Smoots long, "plus or minus one ear." The latter part of that was intended to express the uncertainty of measurement... which is a math term that I wouldn't know much about because I'm just a dumb BU kid.
If you're wondering, 1 Smoot = 5 feet 7 inches. That puts the total length of the bridge at 364.4 Smoots = 2,035 feet = 620.1 meters.
Anyway, that's how the story was told to me in my first year of college. In truth, I don't think drunkenness was much of a factor. It was a sober, pre-meditated prank, and exactly the kind of thing MIT frat boys would come up with. However, it is true that Oliver Smoot got tired after a while, so his friends had to pick him up and haul his body down the bridge a couple hundred times. That’s probably where the tid-bit about him being unconscious came from. In any case, this prank turned out to be so memorable, that the city of Boston puts new coats of paint over these measurements every so often in order to make sure that they don't fade away. In fact, on October 4, 2008, the 50th anniversary of this legendary prank, MIT had an official ceremony for "Smoot Celebration Day." And guess who was the guest of honor.
OLIVER FUCKING SMOOT.
Oh yeah, he's still around. He went on to have a great career in law, eventually serving as the chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) from 2001 to 2002, and then, president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) from 2003 to 2004. He's an old man now, but that doesn't stop him from making cameo appearances events around Boston from time to time. He's a D-list celebrity in this city!
Here are a couple of famous pictures from that fateful night...
I walked across the Mass Ave Bridge on a beautiful day in late spring—I would have been remiss not to take a few pictures of things besides the ground. This piece of Boston is absolutely iconic! The boats from Boston's many universities in the water, with the brick textures of Back Bay and Beacon Hill in the background is one of the most quintessentially Bostonian scenes there is. So here's are a few snapshots to give you some flavor.
Oh, and while I'm at it, here's the iconic MIT dome. This photograph was taken the day before their 2018 graduation.
There you go! These are 2 of my favorite puzzle pieces that make up the historical amalgam that is Boston. However, my FAVORITE story from Boston is still to come. Up next, we're going to cross back into Back Bay and pay a visit to the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It's a cool museum, but more importantly, it was also the site of what was arguably the most significant heist of all time.
Yes, heist. Buckle in.
And in the mean time, here's some music for you. This song always reminds me of Boston (particularly if there is mischief, controlled substances, or MIT involved, mainly because of the movie '21'), so it felt like a good fit for this article. Enjoy.