The converted homes that housed Sky & Telescope's editorial offices for six decades bit the dust yesterday, literally, as demolition crews tore them down.
In 1974, when I joined the staff of S&T, the magazine's official address was "49-50-51 Bay State Road, Cambridge, MA 02138." As I readied to move east from California and pondered my future at this icon of amateur astronomy, I wondered a lot about those strange street numbers. "What a marvelous corporate edifice it must be!" I mused, imagining a trio of sleek glass-and-steel towers connected by walkways suspended over the bustling urban streets below.
Boy, was I wrong! To my shock and disappointment, Sky & Telescope's offices were in a bunch of drab houses tucked along a gritty sidestreet right next to a former landfill. Oh, joy! The basement smelled of the landfill.
I never would have guessed at the time that I'd spend more than 30 years in those confines — writing, editing, fussing, and toiling for the magazine's dedicated worldwide readership. Charlie Federer, S&T's founder, had purchased the properties beginning in the 1950s for his expanding enterprise. Those converted homes weren't fancy — the carpeting was threadbare and the windows sometimes leaked — but for six decades Bay State Road was the hub of the amateur-astronomy universe.
Yesterday, as current and former staffers looked on, a demolition crew first leveled the house at 48 Bay State Road ("50 BSR," which had been Federer's home before he moved out and staff moved in), and then the one next door at the current 50 BSR address. The houses had been vacant for several years, ever since the magazine's offices moved in 2006 to better quarters on nearby Sherman Street. A clutch of condos will go up in their place.
Six decades of collective memories came flooding back, and it's funny which moments stand out in my mind. I vividly recall getting hammered by the incredible Blizzard of '78, which brought our part of New England to a complete standstill for more than a week. The storm's timing couldn't have been worse — it was "ship week" for the forthcoming issue — so I dutifully hiked several miles to the office each day through the drifts, sometimes hitchhiking with emergency crews.
A few years later managing editor Bill Shawcross decided we could save money by doing all the "pre-press" work ourselves, and not long thereafter a moving crew hoisted a big camera, giant drafting tables, and other equipment through an enormous hole in 48 BSR that they'd opened up in its side.
Editor-in-chief Robert Naeye had the first of his three Sky & Telescope stints as an intern in the summer of 1991, sharing an office in 50 BSR with fellow intern Kari Nyren. "I remember being left behind with Kari as the entire editorial staff headed to Hawaii or Mexico to watch a total solar eclipse," he recalls. "The two of us handled all the phone calls from the media, taped the weekly Skyline recording in the basement, and basically had an entire building largely to ourselves."
Alan MacRobert started in 48 BSR "when I was a kid bicycling in every day. There was a maple sapling in the front yard outside my window. I watched it grow into a thick, full-grown tree, and now it's gone too. My job has outlived a full-grown tree. That's pretty unusual these days."
For a time, S&T's staff totaled more than 50, enough to fill both of those houses and a larger building across the street that's now the home of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. We editors were in one house, the art and design staff in the other. On winter days snowballs would sometimes rain down from one building onto the other during "friendly feuds". Design director Pat Coppola recalls a paper cat she placed in one of the windows so birds wouldn't dive bomb into it. The cat was still there when the building came tumbling down.
Between the two houses was a small grassy area that provided a pleasant place to take a break, eat lunch, or have a staff barbecue. My longtime colleague Roger Sinnott looked on yesterday as a backhoe ripped out a solitary Bartlett pear tree in the yard that provided us with quick snacks and make-do lunches for many summers.
We're often reminded that "a house is not a home," but I loved those old buildings through and through. They were the physical foundation on which Sky & Telescope was built for near a half century (1957–2006), and it was sad to see them come down.