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Fenway Park and other sacred secular spaces

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, Sunday's Observer column identified I. M. Pei as the designer of the John Hancock Tower. The work was done by his firm, then called I. M. Pei & Partners, but Henry Cobb did the design.)

I see the Boston Society of Architects will sponsor an address later this month at the Boston Public Library about the changing intersection of faith and religious architecture. It's got the arresting title of ''Sacred Places/Sacred Spaces." I was intrigued by the subject yet found myself pondering a parallel universe -- secular spots that are sacred.

Where in Boston are they and what defines them? Is it simply a matter of being old? Does a place have to be drenched in history or will mere beauty do? In other words, is secular sacredness born or earned?

The Observer has thought long and hard about these thumbsuckers and come up with a list of arbitrary judgments that I can say with some confidence will please no one. But if it produces extensive carping, I'll sleep well.

For starters, a sacred place must change you when you enter it. It must emit a spiritual pheromone that alters your sensibilities. For another, it must have character. Beauty alone will not get the job done, at least in the beginning. That's why the Boston Public Garden is a sacred space but Post Office Square, despite its extreme makeover, is not.

There are a million quirky things about the Public Garden, from the monument memorializing the first surgical use of ether to the Swan Boats, that elevate the place above straight pulchritude. Post Office Square, in contrast, is simply pretty. It may yet become sacred.

With the exceptions of battlefields and charnel houses like 9/11's Ground Zero, character must be earned over time. The new Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, however beautiful, is at the end of the day just a bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge is holy.

The most sacred secular space in Boston is Fenway Park. No surprise here. You sense its aura every time you near it. It was not sacred when it opened, but through years of heartbreak and rare success -- life its own self, in the words of Dan Jenkins -- it burrowed deep into our psyche and forged a bond with us more profound than anything else in the city. This attachment transcends baseball.

The second most sacred secular space in Boston is Filene's Basement. Don't argue with me about this. I'm talking the real one in the bottom of the grand store of the same name about to be vaporized in yet another tiresome corporate takeover -- not the tacky suburban franchises.

The Basement is exhibit A in the case against sacred beauty. It seduces us with its gorgeous homeliness and robust urban melting pot. Corporate lawyers and blue-haired old ladies pore over goods like tapirs, sniffing and poking, lost in their pursuit of the deal. And it's not just the deal. It's the hunt for the deal that is sacred.

Copley Square is sacred space, but Kenmore Square never will be, despite the febrile attempts to tart the place up. Copley comes with the architectural trifecta of H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church, I. M. Pei's John Hancock Tower, and McKim, Mead & White's masterpiece, the Boston Public Library. It wears well. Kenmore Square, no matter how high its real estate prices climb, will always be stuck with shabby DNA and, six months a year, the invasion of Red Sox Nation.

Harvard Square used to be sacred space but is no longer, brought down by an infestation of deplorable stores bereft of style or substance. Boston Common lost its spirituality years ago to drugs and crime. It's attempting a comeback but don't hold your breath.

Symphony Hall is sacred space. There's nothing snooty about it. The hall is a beauty that just happens to own some of the best acoustics in the world. To sit in its brutal seats and take in some Mahler is to visit the Elysian Fields. The Museum of Fine Arts, on the other hand, is not a sacred place. It's a wonderful museum but not a sacred one.

Both sides of the Charles River are sacred while the edge of Boston harbor is not. The banks of Memorial Drive are finer than the littoral along Storrow Drive, but both expanses provide rich, modulated beauty. Mem. Drive triumphs because of its unmatched Boston triptych of grass, water and city skyline.

Curiously, none of Boston's historical sites is sacred to us. Perhaps we avoid them because they're tourist draws unworthy of our attention. Pity. That's why Bunker Hill in Charlestown, for which the great Revolutionary War battle was named, is sacred American space but not sacred Boston space. The Freedom Trail is endlessly interesting but not sacred.

Two other sacred places bear mentioning. First is Bates Hall, the great reading room of the BPL, vast and hushed and illuminated with a profusion of green lampshades like fireflies. Second is the most beautiful public room in Boston -- the fifth floor of the Boston Athenaeum that overlooks the Granary Burying Ground in elegant, sepulchral silence.

My great fear is that the Rose Kennedy Greenway above the Big Dig tunnel won't be the sacred space it must be for this city to thrive.

Given the Greenway's tortured history, there is ample reason to fear the worst. Boston: Don't blow this one. Sacred space attracts our better angels.

Sam Allis's email address is

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