A Brief History of Fort Point
By Don Eyles
Article Courtesy of: Fort Point Framers
The neighborhood now known as Fort Point lies along the east bank of the Fort Point Channel. To get there from near South Station use the Summer Street or Congress Street bridge. The giant milk bottle on Museum Wharf is Fort Point’s best known landmark. Fan Pier, site of the new Federal Courthouse, is at the northern end of Fort Point.
This land was originally a tidal marsh. “Coarse grass tufted the little hillocks which rose at intervals to relieve the monotony of sand, mud and sluggish sea water captured by the inlets and held in pools at the change of the tides”, in the words of one writer.
The original Fort Point was located on the other side of the Fort Point Channel where International Place now stands. In colonial times a battery of cannon was posted there to protect the inner harbor. As Boston grew, the hill that dominated the point was leveled and the soil used to fill the coves on either side. Neither the point nor the hill nor the fort still exists. “Fort Point” became a name in search of a neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the Boston waterfront, including the Fort Point Channel, teemed with the ocean-going sailing vessels that supported the economy of New England. In 1836, to provide additional wharf space, the newly formed Boston Wharf Company purchased a strip of land along First Street in South Boston and acquired rights to the tidelands to the north. Using earth taken from Nook’s Hill near Andrew’s Square, and later rubble from the great Boston fire of 1872, the Company began to fill in the marsh. Dig and you can find patches of charcoal, twisted ironwork, shoe soles, fragments of old bottles and plates.
Sheds used for the storage of sugar and molasses, imported from the Caribbean to supply the city’s sugar refineries and rum distilleries, were the first buildings on the new land. In the 1880′s, the Boston Wharf Company turned from wharfage to real-estate development and began to construct the masonry buildings that still stand. The first was at 321-327 Congress Street.
During the nineteenth century the area was connected to Boston by the Mount Washington Bridge. This bridge was removed in 1909. A few decaying piles and one vestigial block of Mount Washington Avenue still exist. Around the turn of the century new bridges were constructed at Northern Avenue, Congress Street and Summer Street. Originally all three spans opened to allow vessels to pass through. The only bridge that still opens, the Northern Avenue Bridge, no longer carries vehicular traffic, having been replaced by the nearby, fixed-span Evelyn Moakley Bridge.
By the 1920′s Fort Point had become diversified. A major participant was the wool trade, which moved to the area after the Summer Street Bridge was opened in 1900. Wool from around the world passed through Fort Point on its way to the textile mills of New England. Other goods manufactured or warehoused in the area include iron, glass. brick, machinery, wagons, soap, elevators and beer. In the 1940′s many of these businesses began to more elsewhere and buildings became vacant. Some of the older shed buildings were razed to create parking lots.
The first artist known to have crossed the Fort Point Channel in search of a studio was sculptor Christopher Sproat, in March, 1976. Sproat and other artists had been displaced by a fire at the Plante Shoe Factory building in Jamaica Plain.
Sproat brought back tales of the abundant, affordable space that was available in the sturdy timber and masonry buildings of Fort Point. Sproat and Domingo Barreres leased the fifth floor of 34 Farnsworth Street. Other artists soon followed. The neighborhood’s first Open Studios event was held in 1980. That same year artists founded the Fort Point Arts Community (FPAC) to represent their interests. Today the neighborhood is home to the largest concentration of visual artists in New England. Two buildings, 249 A Street and 300 Summer Street, are owned by artists. In October, 2000 the community will opens its studios to the public for the twenty-first straight year.
At the Millennium the Fort Point community is thriving as never before – while storm clouds of change mass on the horizon.
The neighborhood is pierced by the alignment of the huge Central Artery Third Harbor Tunnel Project, the Big Dig. In full view, in huge excavations flanking the temporary bridge that carries A Street, the highway that will connect the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Ted Williams Tunnel is being built. The bustle of construction is an enlivening influence (despite its many impacts) and the large-scale engineering going on around them has been transmuted in the work of many artists.
A New Northern Avenue, starting at the Moakley Bridge, has become the main thoroughfare serving the new hotel and office buildings that have grown up near the World Trade Center, formerly Commonwealth Pier. The future of the older, iron Northern Avenue Bridge, loved by many, is in doubt. The Federal Courthouse is a reality on Fan Pier, presenting a huge blank wall to the neighborhood to its south, but providing in front a small green space that has become a resource for dog owners and a wharf where tall ships can tie up.
Ground has been broken for the 600,000 square foot Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) that will border the Fort Point neighborhood to the east. To the north, the powerful Pritzker and McCourt families battle over the shape of the enormous developments that will cover Fan Pier and adjacent blocks. A “transitway” is under construction to provide public transportation between this area and South Station. The Institute of Contemporary Art is set to occupy one block within the Fan Pier development.
The venerable and conservative Boston Wharf Company has broken precedent by selling significant holdings. Within the last year Gillette purchased the land between the Fort Point Channel and A Street extending almost to Melcher Street; and Beacon Capital, already the developer of condominiums in buildings on Wormwood Street, bought properties on A Street and Midway Street, south of Binford Street, that are now occupied by numerous artists. Other Boston Wharf buildings have been renovated for lease to Thomson Financial, Fidelity Investments, and internet-related companies.
The threats and opportunities represented by these developments have galvanized the community. New organizations have sprung up, such as the Seaport Alliance for Neighborhood Design (SAND) and the Fort Point Cultural Coalition, an alliance of other organizations such as FPAC, Mobius, and the Revolving Museum. These organizations, and many individuals, have contributed articulate oral and written comments to the public approval process surrounding the various developments. Guerilla actions such as ironic posters and volunteer public art have helped assert artist ownership of Fort Point.
The issues important to the Fort Point neighborhood include public access to Boston Harbor; the size and shape of the Fan Pier developments; the adequacy of traffic and public transportation plans; the shape of the eventual surface grid; preservation of the desirable, mixed-use character of the neighborhood; the necessity for additional, affordable, artist-controlled buildings; and the shortage of green space within current plans – currently limited to a small park off Mount Washington Avenue and a highly speculative parkway running from the Fort Point Channel to the convention center.
We live in interesting times of growth and change. Creativity of all sorts permeates the neighborhood. An exciting future is at hand. In the year 2000 Fort Point is a community with the critical mass, the diversity, the individuality, the energy, and the position of visibility to continue to contribute to the creative life of the City far into the future – if only we can survive the crises of the next few years.