Downtown View: Seeing Boston From The Water

September 23, 2014
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If you’re a traveler and an architecture enthusiast, you may have been on the Chicago River architectural boat tour. It is splendid, with good stories about the Windy City’s fine buildings.

You may be surprised to learn that Boston also has an architectural river (and harbor) trip. You’ll also be surprised to find that you don’t know as much as you think you do about Boston’s development and history.

As a history and architecture buff, I took the tour this summer on the Henry Longfellow with about 80 other people to find out what Boston was all about. The excursion boat is owned by the Charles Riverboat Company, which berths across the river at the CambridgeSide Galleria basin.

The boat was comfortable. A bar offered up refreshments. But the best thing was the guide, a volunteer with Boston by Foot named Terri Evans. She knew a lot more than I did.

As we crossed under the Bunker Hill Zakim Bridge she pointed out the diamond shaped cut-outs that allow sunlight to shine on the water. Apparently without sunlight the alewives will not migrate up the Charles since darkness signals to them the end of upstream.

North Point Park, across from the Suffolk County Jail and the former Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, looks as if it is in Cambridge. But Boston and Cambridge drew a line down the middle of the river long ago to divide the two cities. Cambridge filled in so much of the river over time that a small section jutted over the line, so it is now technically in Boston.

Terri told us that during the construction of the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, the crews discovered ancient buried timbers preserved in the filled land. They unearthed the timbers and now use them for repairs of Old Ironsides and historic structures.

When we passed the Converse company’s sign on its waterside building, now undergoing renovation, Terri told us of a happy coincidence. A man named Mr. Converse ran the first ferry across the Charles near that location. I’ll bet not even the Converse company knows that.

She knew all about ancient tidelands, the wharves, the old canals and the shoreline in the eras of sailing and industry.

Getting a view of the shoreline from the water revealed details and surprises not obvious from the mainland. The underneath sections of the decks of the bridges are lined with dozens of pipes. You probably knew that, but it is still impressive to see them.

Much of the shoreline is attractive, and many fixtures such as the Longfellow Bridge are undergoing renovation. But there are bad spots. The old DCR buildings adjacent to the West End need attention badly. The locks, which the boat goes through, need sprucing up. The Science Museum and its parking structure from the river are, frankly, terrible. With all that waterfront, the Science Museum doesn’t use it. If you were a Science Museum, wouldn’t you take advantage of the outdoor science in a riverine environment? That is first on my list of institutions degrading our shoreline.

But it’s not the only scofflaw. The Aquarium too is a big blob from the water. What are they thinking when an Aquarium ignores the water right next to it? There might be more opportunity to remake this institution to embrace the harbor since Don Chiofaro’s proposed development is adjacent to it and will probably affect it in some way. But right now both of these entities are blights.

From the water, the Northern Avenue bridge looks even worse than it does landside. Harbor Towers juts into your face. Several yachts tied up at the end of Commercial Wharf look positively menacing — are they owned by drug dealers, Russian oligarchs, mafia types? They will give you the shivers. The Moakley Courthouse is rather nice, and the ICA looks better from the water than its blank wall does from land. The people crowding the park in the North End look busy and happy. The new residential buildings along the wharves are fine.

The trip was a lovely way to spend an afternoon and to satisfy my interest in Boston. The tours are partly sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects. They leave mostly twice a day on extended weekends until October 12, so you have time to indulge.  You can book online on the Charles River Boat website.

            By the way, did you know that Boston is windier than Chicago? And did you know that Chicago was dubbed the Windy City because of its bigmouth politicians, not its weather?

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