Commercial Point is a tiny peninsula, just 34 acres, on the Dorchester waterfront. It is surrounded by some of the more expensive neighborhoods in Dorchester, including Savin Hill, Clam Point/Harrison Square, and Neponset/Port Norfolk.
The peninsula contains no residences, but it is home to the Old Colony Yacht Club.
The peninsula is dominated by largest copyrighted work of art in the world. Boston is a delightfully quirky city. It's beloved landmarks include a gas station sign (the Citgo sign in Fenway-Kenmore, a former sewage pumping station (the 1884 pumphouse at Columbia Point, and a potentially-explosive liquefied natural gas tank here at Commercial Point.
The colorful tank is a familiar site to the commuters passing (well, idling – the gridlock here is terrible) on the Southeast Expressway. What had been an industrial facility of gray storage tanks was transformed into a massive art installation through the "Rainbow Swash" created in 1971 by Corita Kent (1918-1986) on the massive liquefied gas (LNG) tank. It is 150 feet tall, with a surface area of over 73,000 square feet. To put this in context, the dome of the Massachusetts State House is a bit over 5,800 square feet. And while John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence was large, Corita's signature on the tank is over five feet high and sixteen feet long.
Contaminated land prevents residential development. Today, there is no residential development on the peninsula, because it was formerly a manufactured gas plant site, and the land was contaminated, limiting reuse. As a result of the site contamination and the challenges of co-locating next to a LNG storage tank, Commercial Point has limited reuse potential. One recent project is a sprawling, six-acre solar facility by National Grid.
Considerable fire risk. The massive, 150' tall LNG offer a considerable fire risk, and in event of a fire, the heat would melt steel within a quarter mile, and would cause building damage and second-degree burns within a mile. For the Dorchester terminal, the neighborhoods within a mile radius include: Savin Hill, most of Harbor Point, Columbia Point, Meeting House Hill, Clam Point/Harrison Square, Neponset/Port Norfolk, the eastern half of Fields Corner, and the western half of Marina Bay in the adjacent city of Quincy.
There is no residential development in Commercial Point. The ground has contamination from a former manufactured gas plant on the peninsula, which limits reuse potential.
That said, at one point there had been at least two palatial houses here. Around 1800, two successful merchants Joseph Newell and Ebenezer Niles, built palatial houses in the Federal style on the south side of the point, looking towards Port Norfolk.
The introduction of the Old Colony Railroad to Dorchester in 1844 bisected the Port Norfolk section south of Commercial Point, and marks the beginning of industrial/commercial expansion along Port Norfolk's Neponset River shore line. By 1850, two wharfs and several boat slips flanked the railroad tracks at their point of entry to Port Norfolk.
The area is limited to certain industrial uses, including the protected storage of a massive liquefied natural gas tank, as well as a six-acre solar array for National Grid.
Norfolk Street is the oldest road in Dorchester. It, along with Centre Street, was an ancient native American trail. It led from the waterfront salt marshes at Commercial Point to the fresh water sources inland at Mattapan and Milton.
The neighborhood is not served by a stop on the subway or commuter rail. The closest stop is at Fields Corner.
Commercial Point is a peninsula on the eastern side of mid-Dorchester, just east of Clam Point/Harrison Square. To the north, across the water, is Savin Hill, and to the south is Neponset/Port Norfolk.
The history of Commercial Point has been largely shaped by the development of gas lighting – and later, heating – in Boston. It is one of many Boston neighborhoods that were primarily commercial or industrial – including Fort Point, the Leather District, and the Waterfront – but despite its waterfront location, this neighborhood does not have the architectural legacy that lends itself to a revival in the same way.
At one point, there were several palatial houses on the south side of the point. Two of these were built around 1800 by merchants Joseph Newell and Ebenezer Niles. They believed that the peninsula was well-suited for whale and cod fishing, but the financial crisis following the War of 1812 ended their business speculations.
In the 1820s and 30s, there was considerably shipbuilding and whaling activity – and one of the profitable products of whaling was oil for lighting and candles, a precursor of the gas lighting to come. Throughout the 1800s, Commercial Point housed Preston's chocolate factory, Cutter's heating fuel company, and gradually the coal gas tanks for the Boston Gas Company.
Boston was a relatively early adopter of gas lighting, with the first lights in 1822. However, like most innovations, gas lighting was not always looked upon favorably.
In 1803, novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote to a friend, "There is a a madman proposing to light London with smoke." His description was due to the poor quality of the early gas, which actually did resemble smoke. In 1810, London police urged Parliament to illuminate the streets with gas lighting for public safety. In 1813, Westminster Bridge was illuminated with gas lamps. By 1816, gas lighting had become commonplace in London.
Across Boston, several regional gas companies were formed as early as 1846, and these gradually consolidated by the early 1900s into the Boston Gas Company, which eventually became part of National Grid. As the company shifted from coal gas to natural gas, the area was largely razed for industrial redevelopment.
The rainbow swoosh. In 1971, Boston Gas Works commissioned the noted Pop artist Corita Kent to transform the gray industrial tank into something that would be welcoming and uplifting for Boston and the thousands of commuters who pass it every day. She created an eight inch high scale model, and it was executed at full size by twenty workers hanging from scaffolding up to 140 feet in the air. The final piece required months of work, and over 2,000 gallons of paint. Her rainbow swoosh would become the largest copyrighted work of art in the world. Perhaps more importantly was how she thoughtfully and graciously shared credit: "Close up, these are really not my lines. It's really their painting. It's a painting of mine translated by them."
The original tank with the painting was removed in 1992, to be replaced by a larger one. Residents of Boston and commuters requested that the remaining or replacement tank be painted with the design. Since then, the tank has been repainted every five years in order to refresh it.
Corita Kent's artwork is in the permanent collection of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Gallery of Art, as well as in several dozen other museums worldwide. She was a resident of Marlborough Street in the Back Bay.