The Leather District is a compact neighborhood between Chinatown and the Financial District. At just nine blocks and 13 acres, it is the smallest neighborhood of Boston, half the size of the 25-acre enclave of Bay Village.
The neighborhood's density and historic industrial buildings evoke New York City's Tribeca or SoHo. Much like those neighborhoods, the Leather District has also become one of the most expensive and desirable in its city. It is an inherently desirable neighborhood, with proximity to the dining and nightlife of Chinatown, the picturesque Rose Kennedy Greenway, and the transit hub of South Station.
The small neighborhood, along with Fort Point across the harbor, are two of the most cohesive 1800s commercial districts in Boston. However, while Fort Point's buildings were warehouses, those in the Leather District were designed for different reasons, which affects how they have been reused. The brick and cast-iron buildings were for the leather industry, which combined ground-floor retail with upper-floor offices and workshops. Today, the street-level retail is used for restaurants and shops, and the upper floors have been converted to residential lofts. Because of this lively mix of uses, the Leather District perhaps feels more like New York City than almost any other neighborhood of Boston.
Built on reclaimed land. In the 1830s, the city of Boston embarked on an ambitious program to infill marshes and wetlands of the South Cove in order to create more buildable land. Here, the infilled land would become Chinatown. Part of that land would become, in turn, the Leather District.
Reclaimed land can settle over time, leading to greater risk of horizontal flooding exposure. In addition, as the water table shifts, the wooden pilings on which the substantial brick buildings have been erected can be exposed to air and start to rot.
Developed after Great Fire of 1872, The historic core of the Leather District was purpose-built for leather manufacturers shortly after the Great Fire of 1872, which destroyed 65 acres of downtown Boston. Many of the brick and cast-iron buildings were designed by notable architects, including Peabody and Stearns and Willard T. Sears, heavily influenced by the H. H. Richardson's Romanesque Revival. From the 1880s to 1920s, the real estate market in the Leather District was booming, with leather manufacturers occupying much of the area’s commercial space. In 1983, the neighborhood became a National Historic District (PDF).
90-100 South Street was designed in 1883 by architect A.S. Drisko, and is one of the two earliest surviving structures within the Leather District.
114-122 South Street was also designed in 1883, but by architects Lewis Weissbein and W.H. Jones.
102-112 South Street, designed by Alden Frink in 1883, is the only Queen Anne structure in the Leather District.
141-157 South Street, designed in 1884, is the most distinctively Romanesque Revival building in the neighborhood.
121-123 South Street is a narrow Romanesque Revival structure designed in 1886, with it's second to fourth floors organized within a single monumental round arch.
The Leather District is just blocks from the transit hub of South Station. For those who drive outside the city, it is convenient to Route 93 and the Mass Pike.
The Leather District is in downtown Boston, with the Financial District to the west and Chinatown to the east. The small neighborhood is only about nine blocks bounded by Essex Street to the north, Kneeland Street to the south, Lincoln Street to the west, and Atlantic Avenue to the east.
The land on which today's Leather District was built was largely underwater in the South Cove until the 1830s.
Built on reclaimed land. In the 1700s, wharves were built along the original shoreline, and by 1830, the cove was a thriving commercial area anchored by (heh) the wharves. In 1828, Sea Street was extended across the cove, creating the shortest route to the relatively undeveloped South Boston. This became a pivotal point in the neighborhood's development, as the neighborhood was seen as having several advantages that made it a compelling shipping hub: it was close to both downtown Boston and the harbor, and it had both dry flats at low tide, and a deep water channel for shipping.
In 1833, the South Cove Corporation received a charter to fill in the cove and provide a terminal for the Boston and Worcester Railroad. By 1836, half of the cove had been backfilled, and by 1839, the work was completed, adding 77 acres (including today's Chinatown) to the Shawmut peninsula.
The Great Fire of 1872. On November 10, 1872, this massive destroyed 65 acres of downtown Boston, from Downtown Crossing
Rebuilding for the leather industry. In the 1880s, a section of the peninsula that had been devastated by the fire was rebuilt for the booming leather industry. The buildings were designed with the needs of the industry in mind, with street-level retail and offices and workshops on the upper floors. Business prospered through the 1920s, but mid mid-century, the leather trade was being increasingly outsourced and the buildings were largely vacant or under-utilized. In hindsight, it was not until the 1990s or early 2000s – when the surrounding areas began to become more expensive – that the Leather District began to be reinvented as a centrally-located, architecturally-distinct pocket neighborhood.