Boston is chock full of historic buildings. But not all of them are immortalized in poems or have plaques that explain why they're historic. Some require digging up research on your own - such as the building at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Beach Street in Chinatown, today home to the Corner Cafe Bakery and a Vietnamese sandwich shop.
To look at it, there's absolutely nothing unusual about the building - except that it's a single-story building in the heart of one of Boston's densest neighborhoods, surrounded by buildings that all have elevators. But the reason the building is so nondescript - and so short - is at the heart of the story it tells.
City records show that the current 62-66 Harrison Ave. was constructed in 1910, although it might have actually been built even earlier, based on Boston Globe classifieds for clerks for Boyajian Pharmacy dating to 1907 there - and a report of a clerk there arrested for cocaine dealing in 1909. By itself, the fact that the simple building has stood for so long is kind of memorable.
When the building did go up, it could not reach higher because elevated train tracks ran right above it, carrying trains on a sharp curve from Harrison Avenue onto Beach Street as part of a waterfront loop that was, for three decades, possibly as close as we'll ever get to a North/South rail link.
The Boston Elevated Railway began planning the el in 1897, even as the Boston Transit Commission was overseeing construction of the nation's first subway, under Tremont Street. As part of an ambitious plan to bring overhead rail to areas as far away as Roxbury and South Boston, the railway built a "road" from Washington Street in the South End up Harrison Avenue, right onto Beach and then left onto Atlantic, where it headed up to North Station to rejoin what the El called the Main Line - and we call the Orange Line (although at first, the Orange Line shared the Tremont Street tunnel; what we now know as the downtown stretch of the Orange Line didn't open until 1908).
A more modern map of the old el (source):
In order to allow for the turn at Harrison and Beach, the railway company had to use its state-granted power to condemn property at the corner, in particular, the multi-story Boston Hotel, which had stood there since at least the 1860s.
Building owner B.F. Shattuck objected to the price the company was willing to pay; in 1902, a jury awarded him $159,71.53, which he had to share with the holder of the mortgage on the property and the man who was leasing the building to run as a hotel.
Beach Street station in 1919; the view is from Harrison Avenue looking down Beach. The building right next to the station still stands - although in the photo at the top it now has red window treatments - as does the taller building down Beach (source):
With frequent service in the downtown tunnel - trains every two minutes in 1919, if you can imagine - and with the decline of wharf jobs and the elimination of the East Boston ferry (after the Blue Line tunnel was built), ridership never amounted to much on the Atlantic Avenue el. The Beach Street station was shut and the rest of the el turned into a North/South station shuttle.
By 1928, the company had restored service from Dudley Square - although Beach Street station remained closed. On July 22, a train derailed on the curve just before the station, sending the train into the closed platform and killing two passengers.
Steam-operated crane was hoisted onto the building to help remove the mangled cars (source):
Boston Elevated shut the Atlantic Avenue el completely in 1938. In 1942, most of it, including the section through Chinatown, was torn down, to be turned into metal scrap for the war effort (some of the metal was kept locally to provide building material should Boston be bombed).
Today, there are two remnants of the el: The one-story bakery building at Harrison and Beach, and the seemingly oddly angled and curved building at Beach and Atlantic, where the el turned left towards South Station:
Where the el once curved onto Atlantic from Beach (source); the building on the left has a more modern building in its place now: