SI Vault
Leigh Montville
May 19, 1986
A 58-year-old art deco hulk, the Boston Garden is a sports emporium at once frowsy and hallowed
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May 19, 1986

And They All Say, 'this Is It?'

A 58-year-old art deco hulk, the Boston Garden is a sports emporium at once frowsy and hallowed

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"This is it?" the visitor from Iowa City or from Laramie asks as the subway trolleys rattle overhead and the commuters hurry past. "This is the place I've seen on a thousand Sunday afternoons on television? Live? From the Boston Garden? This is it?"

This is it.

The poems are written about the baseball park on the other side of the city. John Updike hurries to his den to record thoughts about the grass and the sky and the feeling of baseball rebirth at Fenway. But the Garden? The crew from the television show Spenser: For Hire arrives at this place—to film a shoot-out.

The building is a 58-year-old art deco ark in a neighborhood where Jimmy Cagney very easily could have tipped his hat to George Raft. North Station, on the first floor, is still a working train station. The runs to Montreal and Portland, Maine might have disappeared, but the commuter trains to the suburbs run back and forth. On the second floor, the arena, the Garden—the Gah-den—still is a working big-city arena. Working? The arena is arguably the most famous in America.

"For most of my life, New York—Madison Square Garden—was the center of basketball," Tom Heinsohn, former Boston Celtics forward and coach, and present CBS commentator, says. "I don't think that's true any more. This is the center of basketball. Ask people around the country. The parquet floor. The banners. This is it."

"I think it's the second-or third-best-known athletic building in the world," Garden president Paul Mooney says. "It's no worse than second in North America, behind Madison Square Garden. This is the only building that has an active member of the NBA and the NHL still playing in the place where they started. From the time the leagues began."

Built in 1928 for $10 million by Tex Rickard and a New York group as part of a plan to build six Madison Square Garden replicas around the country—the project traveled no further, in the end, than Boston—the building is a quirky double-balconied survivor. Elsewhere, in city after city, the old has been replaced by the color-coded, air-conditioned new, by arenas that resemble giant saucers, the seats rolling backward forever, a sea of theater-style comfort. Cramped, intimate, for a long while downright dirty, the Garden has weathered countless redevelopment storms, the constant tramp of sellout crowds, five Stanley Cups, 15 NBA world championships and all manner of good and bad intentions.

None of this was planned. Never has there been a great outpouring of civic love, never demands that not one yellow brick be moved, that the building be included on the Freedom Trail along with the Old North Church and Paul Revere's house and Bunker Hill, never pleas that it be regarded as some sort of shrine to the past. Days somehow simply have been added together, one day after another, time moving forward while the building stayed mostly the same. Yesterday—and countless yesterdays before that—somehow stayed alive in the Garden. And somehow the building still is here.

"There are people who work here who have been associated with this place from the beginning," Mooney says. "I see them every day. Working. Eddie Lee was involved with the construction of the place. Kingsley Brown. Winnie Walsh, our night switchboard operator, was here from the beginning. You're always conscious of the past. Every day."

Aimee Semple McPherson once saved sinners here. Billy Graham did the job for those sinners' children. Jimmy Swaggart took care of their grandchildren. Calvin Coolidge spoke here and so did Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. John F. Kennedy held his raucous rally on election eve in 1960 here. "Elvis," an announcer said on another memorable occasion, "has left the building." Elvis left by the same exit as Judy Garland, Rudy Vallee, Perry Como, James Brown, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. Joe Louis fought here. Sugar Ray Robinson. Rocky Marciano. Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

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