Fort Point is a harborfront neighborhood on the South Boston peninsula, just a short walk over the bridge to the Financial District, Waterfront, and downtown Boston. The neighborhood has dramatic views of the Boston skyline and the harbor, familiar to many from the film The Departed. The once-gritty neighborhood from the film now hosts an upscale Flour Bakery and three spinoff restaurants from the creators of No. 9 Park in Beacon Hill.
Each neighborhood of South Boston has a very different feeling, from the luxury condo towers of the Seaport to the beach neighborhoods of the Eastside. That said, Fort Point is Boston's largest and most significant collection of historic industrial buildings. The historic warehouses and industrial buildings feel cohesive because they were designed by the same architects, within a relatively short period. These buildings have been converted into loft conversions with high ceilings, exposed brick, and wooden beams. In many ways, Fort Point is analogous to New York City's SoHo or Brooklyn's Dumbo – architecturally-consistent, former industrial neighborhoods, with a strong artistic and cultural history, transforming into luxury enclaves.
In 1836, the Boston Wharf Company was incorporated to build wharves for docking and warehousing. And the first step was to transform the marshes into buildable land; Fort Point is one of many Boston neighborhoods built on reclaimed land.
Strong architectural identity. Fort Point feels different from the rest of South Boston, or even the Boston waterfront. The complex of brick industrial buildings has a sense of architectural cohesion perhaps found only in Lower Mills in Dorchester. This is because were built in a relatively brief period, between the 1880s and 1920s, and designed by the same firm and its successors – and a similar dynamic was at play in Lower Mills, as well. In each case, the resulting neighborhood is one of five and six-story brick warehouses with elegant proportions and classically-inspired details.
Residents in the middle and north of Fort Point can walk across the Summer Street bridge to the transit hub at South Station. Those in the southern part of the neighborhood have convenient access to the Andrew Square station on the Red Line.
Fort Point is on the South Boston peninsula, but is one of the neighborhoods closest to the Shawmut peninsula which contains downtown Boston. To the west, across the narrow channel, are the Financial District and the Waterfront; to the north and east is the Seaport; and to the south is the Westside of South Boston, including Andrew Square.
Today's Fort Point neighborhood began as a commercial venture by the Boston Wharf Company, and was literally developed from the ground up. In 1836, responding to strong demand for new wharf space in Boston, a group of ship owners founded the Boston Wharf Company. The BWC purchased waterfront land and began began to fill the mudflats for more buildable land – a process that would gradually continue for over 50 years – and wharves and warehouses were largely erected between 1880 and 1920. As an aside, the space enclosed by the seawall was filled with material from Andrew Square (and became much more valuable, in the process).
The neighborhood was previously known as the South Battery. Both names comes from a fort and waterfront battery of cannon positioned on a strategic hillside (much like Battery Park at the southern edge of Manhattan, or The Battery in Charleston, South Carolina), in order to defend the ships that supported the economy of New England. However, the hill (or "point") was gradually leveled in order to provide soil to expand the shoreline, and what was once a waterfront site is now considerably inland, at the site of the International Place towers. In other words, Fort Point is named for a fort and a point that have both long since vanished.
Fort Point's history has long been evolving in response to changing market conditions. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Boston was the principal marketplace for wool, fabrics, and apparel in the United States, and Fort Point's warehouses connected these with ships for transit. However, warehousing and manufacturing declined in the mid 1900s.
By 1880, the Boston Wharf Company had seventeen sheds for the storage of imported sugar and molasses. Beginning in 1883, however, the refineries began to import and store their own raw materials. Also, several of the refining companies consolidated into a single entity using the facilities of the Standard Sugar Refinery. To compensate for the loss of revenue the BWC began to use its land to generate income from real estate activities. The Company constructed buildings along Congress Street, the first of these identified at 321-327 Congress Street. Some wharf buildings were rented to tenants and others were sold to commercial and industrial concerns.
The artist community in the neighborhood began in 1976, when a fire in Jamaica Plain displaced artists at the Plante Shoe Factory there. The vacant warehouses soon became New England's largest artist enclave. The Fort Point Arts Community manages exhibits at 300 Summer Street and 290 Atlantic Wharf, as well as various public art and floating installations in Fort Point Channel.
The activity from these buildings, in addition to that from Pier 1 and the other docks, increased traffic on Congress Street so much that in 1896 the extension of Summer Street into South Boston was authorized. With the completion of South Station, the Eastern Railroad Bridge was no longer needed and, in 1899, was replaced with the Summer Street Bridge. Many wool merchants moved across the channel from Dewey Square to the new wool warehouses and offices that the BWC constructed for them along Summer Street. By 1930, the district would be the center of the wool trade in the United States.
Farnsworth, Pittsburgh and Stillings Streets were completed in the early 1890's. The warehouses and factories located along these streets had multiple rail spurs from the adjacent railroad yards. Many of the buildings along A and Midway Streets were constructed in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Morton D. Safford and Howard B. Presscott, staff architects of the Boston Wharf Company, designed most of the company's buildings.
In addition to BWC, a number of industries were attracted to the burgeoning wharf district. In 1900, the Fort Point Channel was lined with wharves where ships unloaded coal, lumber, bricks, and cement, among other items. Leather bound for the warehouses adjacent to South Station was unloaded at channel wharves. Ice, sugar, iron, machinery, and beer were also transferred through the many wharves lining the channel.
The Gillette Company opened a factory on West First Street in 1905. The Macallen Company, makers of electrical supplies, built a factory between Broadway and West Fourth Street in 1906; the building is known today as the Court Square Press Building. With the opening of the Fish Pier in 1914, the fishing industry moved to the channel area. Likewise, the Commonwealth Pier in 1911 brought passenger liners as well as large cargo ships to South Boston.
The activity in the channel had begun to decline by the mid-twentieth century, due in no small part to the number of bridges that ships had to pass to reach the wharves. As many as eight bridges at one time crossed the channel, and ship captains had to use all their skill to navigate to their destination. In addition, the ship captains charged a fee for each bridge they had to pass, driving up shipping costs. Also, each time a bridge was opened, all land traffic across that bridge had to stop. As early as 1845, merchants in Roxbury protested the opening of the Old Colony Railroad bridge, concerned that the bridge would interfere with ships heading to their wharves. In 1892, Boston tried to regulate the hours when the bridges could be opened in order to prevent traffic backups, but the Harbor and Land Commissioners blocked this effort, citing the economic importance of the channel and the need to navigate with the tides, which would be in conflict with the hours set by the city. Nevertheless, by 1928, the Broadway Bridge was opened only 922 times, down from the 2381 times two decades earlier.
In a last ditch effort to help save commerce along the channel, the Congress Street Bridge was replaced in 1930 with a new 75-foot drawspan intended to allow larger ships into the channel. The replacement bridge is an overhead trunnion bascule bridge, only three of which survive in Massachusetts. This type of bridge was developed by Joseph B. Strauss, who also designed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
In addition to the bridges, other factors impacted the commerce of the wharf district. Synthetic fabrics and the decline of the New England textile industry severely damaged the wool trade in Boston. Trucking and air freight replaced railroad and maritime shipping. Various enterprises had been filling the South Bay since the early 1800s, and by 1900, the South Bay was only half its former size. As early as 1868, legislative committees were recommending that the South Bay and Fort Point Channel be completely filled. The southern and eastern sections were filled in by 1916. In 1948, only two wharves remained. Most of the rest of the bay was filled for the construction of the Southeast Expressway in the 1950s, although a small channel remained open into the late 1960s. In 1948, the Dorchester Avenue Bridge was fixed in place, ending ship traffic below that point.
As the shipping activity ceased, non-maritime uses moved into the area. In 1963, the Gillette plant replaced the American Sugar Refinery. The U.S. Postal Service built its regional headquarters between the channel and South Station. The channel became an ill-regarded backwater, leading to a deficiency of maintenance. The fireboat house at the Northern Avenue Bridge, for instance, collapsed into the harbor in 1968. Railyards along Fort Point's northern and eastern edges which once served wharf-based commerce, were vacated and replaced by parking lots, material storage and scrapyards.
In the mid-1970's, a group of artists displaced by a fire at the Plante Shoe Factory in Jamaica Plain, moved to the Fort Point area, settling on Farnsworth Street. An influx of artists followed, also seeking the abundant, affordable space available to them in Fort Point's sturdy timber and masonry buildings . By 1980, an artists community had incorporated. Other tenants in Fort Point through the latter part of the 20th century included a number of small businesses, light industrial manufacturing, produce and storage. Gillette Corporation continued to thrive and expand in its facility along the Fort Point Channel.
In the 1980's, public works projects were planned, stimulating interest in the Fort Point area the South Boston waterfront. These projects were underway by the final decade of the 20th century. While a Central Artery highway project tunneled through Boston's downtown, another underground connection tunneled from the Masschusetts Turnpike, under the Channel, the Fort Point district and Boston Harbor to connect with Logan Airport. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority began construction of a public transportation transitway under the Fort Point Channel to serve the South Boston waterfront. A Federal Courthouse was constructed on Fan Pier. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority began construction of a Convention and Exhibition Center at Fort Point's eastern edge.
These and other public works projects, along with its close proximity to Boston's downtown financial district, invigorated private interest and investment in the Fort Point area. In the heated economic climate of the 1990's, the South Boston waterfront was tapped for its development potential in serving as a frontier for commercial development. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, completing a two-year public planning process for the waterfront in 1998, concluded that zoning and planning should manage Fort Point's growth for two distinct functions. According to this plan, a Fort Point Historic Subdistrict would be planned and zoned to evolve as a mixed-use neighborhood including both residential and commercial uses, while a Fort Point Industrial Subdistrict was to allow for expansion of industrial concerns.
Today, the distinctive wharf buildings and seawalls of the Fort Point district serve as a stunningly well-preserved reminder of New England's industrial and maritime past,
Compiled from excerpts from sources including A History of the Fort Point Channel by Doug Terpstra of the Boston Preservation Alliance and A Brief History of Fort Point by Don Eyles. Both texts were excerpted with permission of the authors. © Steve Hollinger 2001
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\t
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.