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Boston’s Former Industrial Mecca: Fort Point Channel Landmark District

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Street-level view looking northeast of The Fairbanks Company structure a multi story building at 374-384 Congress Street.
Street-level view looking northeast of The Fairbanks Company structure a multi story building at 374-384 Congress Street. Courtesy of The Bostonian Society

This is the ninth in a nine-part series on Boston.com about historic districts in the city of Boston.

When Bostonians think of Fort Point today, they might think of trendy restaurants, expensive loft apartments, and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

But for 150 years the South Boston area was nothing but industry, built and owned entirely by a single real estate developer.

According to the Fort Point Channel Landmark District Study Report, in 1836 the Boston Wharf Company (BWCo) was incorporated to build wharves for docking and warehousing. Like in other sections of 19th century Boston, the first step was to turn soggy marshes into usable land.

“The company filled in the land along the South Boston shoreline, laid out the streets and alleys, and constructed the buildings,’’ Erin Doherty, preservation planner for the district, said. “As nearly all of the buildings were designed by their staff architects, the district has a remarkable degree of uniformity.’’

Fort Point is Boston’s largest and most significant collection of late 19th and early 20th century industrial loft buildings, Doherty said.

The warehouses held mostly sugar and molasses until the late 19th century, due in part to the position of BWCo Director Elisha Atkins, who held stock in the Bay State Sugar Refinery, according to the Boston Landmarks Commission’s report.

“It’s just striking the uniformity of the buildings – that you have buildings of similar height, similar uses,’’ said Sara Wermiel, historic preservation consultant for the Landmarks Commission. “Also since it was industrial, it really wasn’t a place the public went. People went if they had jobs. There weren’t things like street trees or amenities to attract people.’’

According to the Landmarks Commission, the area’s development lasted until the 1880s, when the Congress Street Bridge was built, opening up better access to Fort Point to downtown Boston and giving BWCo the opportunity to expand its markets.

New England Confectionary Co. from bridge, ca. 1898-1907 —Boston Public Library via Flickr Creative Commons

At that time some manufacturers moved into BWCo-owned buildings, such as Chase & Co., which was the predecessor of New England Confectionery Company (NECCO).

The Landmarks Commission report, alluding to the building of “low warehouses and sheds for storing’’ said throughout the 20th century wooden buildings continued to go up but many of which were eventually replaced with brick buildings.

South Station opened in 1898 and soon after the Summer Street Bridge opened up, giving Fort Point better access to a larger area, including South Boston.

Soon a new trade, one that would become the heart of New England commerce, came to town.

“By the turn of the 20th century, the district was the center of the American wool trade,’’ Doherty said, regarding wool storage and production.

Interior of wool warehouse in Fort Point. —Boston Public Library via Flickr Creative Commons

By the 1930s, 60-75 percent of U.S.-grown wool passed through the Hub, according to the Landmarks Commission report.

But the number of mills quickly began to fall in the middle of the 20th century due to lower labor costs in the south, increased use of synthetic fibers, and foreign competition, therefore leaving vacant building space throughout Fort Point.

“Vacancies began to occur and artists were available and willing to take the spaces,’’ Wermiel said.

According to the Fort Point Arts Community (FPAC), which was founded in 1980, some artists began venturing to Fort Point in the late 1970s for studio space after a building they were using in Jamaica Plain burned down in 1976.

Many artists, according to Wermiel, began living in their studios before the buildings were considered residential – which was illegal. But many of the artists began to negotiate with BWCo and eventually negotiated residential leases in the area.

Fort Point Channel, 1963. —Robert Bayard Severy/ Courtesy of The Bostonian Society

Around this same time, Big Dig eventually increased accessibility to Fort Point, making it an easier place to live and work.

“It has a more residential feel, as it was quite hard and harsh,’’ Wermiel said of what Fort Point looks like today.

Some buildings were demolished before the area became a protected historic district in 2009, but the Landmarks Commission found that, “Of the 95 buildings in the area today, only seven date from after 1929.’’

In the early 2000s, BWCo sold all of its buildings in the area and for the first time, buildings in Fort Point were owned by a variety of different people, prompting the community to seek Landmarks Commission protection.

Architectural Styles

Almost all the buildings in this area are loft structures built between the 1880s and the 1920s and “are generally masonry, with simple volumes and flat roofs,’’ according to the Landmark Commission’s study. “Buildings are elegantly proportioned, with classically inspired details concentrated at entrances and cornices,’’ the study stated. The district is known for being uniform in architectural styles. The report states:

“Within the area, Congress Street and Summer Street are of particular architectural significance. Buildings on Congress Street represent the range of architectural trends popular from the 1880s to 1918, including architecturally modest early warehouses, a factory trimmed with Italianate-style ornament, a high-style Romanesque Revival fire station, a building with an early skeleton frame facade, examples of high-style Classical Revival style buildings, and an early 20th century Stylized Classical style wool warehouse of reinforced concrete.’’

Philip Bromfield & Co., metals, iron, rubber in Fort Point. —Boston Public Library via Flickr Creative Commons

Famous Sites in Fort Point

– Congress Street Fire Station: “Constructed in 1891 to the designs of City Architect Harrison Henry Atwood, the Fire Station at 344 Congress is one of a small number of buildings within the district not constructed by the Boston Wharf Company and their staff architects,’’ Doherty said. “The property is a fine example of the Romanesque Revival style. It is now occupied by the Boston Fire Museum.’’

Engine house, Congress Street, Fort Point —Boston Public Library via Flickr Creative Commons

– Melcher Street: Some of the buildings on this street, according to Doherty, were constructed for the New England Confectionary Co. (NECCO), and are now some of the most striking buildings in the district due to their curved facades.

– 302 Summer St.: Doherty said this building is the easternmost building in a row of seven that the BWCo constructed after South Station was opened. “This is an exceptional example of the type of high-style Classical Revival warehouse buildings in the district,’’ she said.

Regulations

The Landmarks Commission’s guidelines for this district are fairly unique, as they allow more room for modern styles and renovations.

“The guidelines allow for contemporary design features,’’ Doherty said. “The commission has shown an interest in modern design that evokes the district’s industrial character while reinforcing the existing historic fabric. This will be especially evident in a new construction project planned for 338 Congress St. and 10 Farnsworth St.’’

She also said the district has two protection areas, which have a lower level of review than the district itself, but prevent buildings that would hinder views from Fort Point.

“It’s a great outcome,’’ Wermiel said. “It’s a special area. There are other warehouse districts in the world and Boston’s is unusually intact and is very rare and special in that respect. It’s wonderful that it’s found a new use.’’

Any questions, concerns, or proposals for exterior change should be brought up with the Boston Landmarks Commission.