Like most areas within Boston, the Financial District has no official definition. It is roughly bounded by Atlantic Avenue, State Street, and Devonshire Street. For most of the 17th and 18th centuries this part of Boston was part of the Atlantic Ocean. As the land was filled in a complex pattern of streets emerged that created a number of squares that were usually triangular in shape. Odd-shaped buildings evolved to fill the unusual spaces.
During the 1800s banks came to dominate State Street. The Financial District came to house the headquarters of mutual fund companies, the Boston Stock Exchange, accounting firms, law offices and brokerages. This walking tour will begin at the center of commerce in Boston as far back as 1740, Faneuil Hall...
Congress Street at North Street
In 1740 wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil offered to build the town’s first public market but the acceptance of the gift was not a slam dunk. Pushcart vendors were used to peddling their wares through the streets on their own time and terms and were none too happy with the proposal. Whenthe new market was put to a vote it squeezed into existence with 367 yeas and 360 opposed. Faneuil’s new market was constructed on landfill by the water’s edge and opened in 1742. The benefactor did not bask long in the achievement however; Peter Faneuil died six months later of dropsy at the age of 42. The market burned in 1762 but was quickly rebuilt, including the gilded grasshopper weathervane on its top. Soon the shouts of rebellion were echoing through the stalls and Samuel Adams dubbed the market the “Cradle of Liberty” so dubbed by Adams in between cries of “no taxation without representation.” The weathervane was used as a way to ferret out spies during the Revolution - if you were the least bit suspicious walking the streets of Boston in 1774-75 you had better have known what was on top of Faneuil Hall. By 1805 Faneuil Hall was no longer large enough to serve the city. The renowned Charles Bulfinch, who by then had already completed the new State House, was chosen to expand the hall. It is that building that today, with the exception of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, is the most historic building in America.
CROSS NORTH STREET ONTO UNION STREET.
Union Oyster House
41-43 Union Street
Opened to diners in 1826, the Union Oyster House is considered the oldest restaurant in the United States. The building itself is more than 300 years old, constructed prior to 1714, most probably in 1704. Before it started serving up victuals, Hopestill Capen’s dress goods business occupied the premises. The toothpick was introduced to America at the Union Oyster House. Charles Forster of Maine imported the picks from South America and hired Harvard students to eat at the Union Oyster House and conspicuously request the little wooden teeth cleaners in front of other diners. This was a favorite haunt of the Kennedys; Booth #18 in the upstairs dining room was a favorite of John Kennedy and has been dedicated in his memory. America’s first waitress, Rose Carey, worked here starting in the early 1920s. Her picture is on the wall on the stairway up to the 2nd floor.
TURN RIGHT ON MARSHALL STREET.
Ebenezer Hancock House
10 Marshall Street
The Ebenezer Hancock House, built in 1767, is the only remaining house in Boston associated with John Hancock. He owned the house but it was lived in by his brother Ebenezer, who was Deputy Postmaster General of the Continental Army. Ebenezer Hancock, however, left the house many years before his death in 1819, and by the year 1789 it had become the property of Ebenezer Frothingham, a china and glass merchant, who had his store in the first story. In 1798, Benjamin Fuller, a shoe dealer, also had a shop in the building, and he in turn was followed about the year 1821 by William H. Learnard, who continued the shoe business here until his death in 1886. In fact the country’s oldest continuously run shoe store occupied the building’s first floor until 1963. This is one of the few downtown residences surviving from the late 18th century; John Hancock’s house was located next to the State House, and was torn down in 1863.
RETURN TO FANEUIL HALL.
Faneuil Hall Marketplace, between Clinton and Chatham streets
Mayor Josiah Quincy envisioned an extension to the Faneuil Hall markets in 1824 and the massive granite market house he built cost $150,000, making it the largest single building project Boston had ever seen to that point. Alexander Parris contributed the stately Greek Revival building design. The makeover of Quincy Market in the 1970s set the standard for similar urban marketplaces across America. The market today features three long buildings that function much the way they did when they were built, with individual merchants lined up in stalls. In front of Faneuil Hall a statue stands of Samuel Adams, “the organizer of the Revolution.” On one of the Quincy Market benches sits a likeness of legendary Boston Celtics basketball coach, Red Auerbach.
WALK OUT TO CONGRESS STREET AND TURN LEFT. TURN LEFT ON STATE STREET.
Stock Exchange Building and Exchange Place
53 State Street
This was the water’s edge in colonial days and the historic Bunch of Grapes Tavern stood here. It was a favorite watering hole of Revolutionary patriots, reputed to serve the best bowl of punch in Boston. The first Masonic lodge in the country was formed at the tavern in 1733. In 1891 Boston architects Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns, Jr., two of the Gilded Age’s most admired designers, built the Boston Exchange Building, crafting the main floor as a replica of the old counting house that had long stood here. In the 1980s developers began lobbying to replace the Exchange Building with a hulking new tower; they were mostly successful but preservationists intervened to save only a 60-foot L-shaped portion of the pink granite facade facing State and Kirby streets.
114 State Street
Cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material in the mid-1800s. It was easy to form into ornate facades, quick to assemble and inexpensive. Boston had its share but this one of the few iron-front souvenirs from that time. The first five floors were cast in Italy and bolted together after they reached Boston.
126 State Street
Samuel Cunard, a Nova Scotian who was awarded the first British transatlantic steamship mail contract in 1839 and on July 4, 1840 he launched service with a route from Boston to Liverpool, England. Cunard Line would grow into the largest Atlantic passenger line in the world. Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns, Jr. used nautical themes for this headquarters building in 1901; bronze anchors support the lighting brackets at the entrance and heads of Neptune grace the facade.
State Street at India Street
When the Custom House was completed in 1847 it stood at water’s edge, ready to greet incoming cargo ships. The Royal Commissioners of Customs began collecting duty in Boston back in the 1670s and one of the first acts of the first United States Congress in 1789 was to establish a Customs Service. New Hampshire-born Ammi Burnham Young, who would a decade later be appointed the first Supervising Architect of the Treasury, won a design contest to build this new temple of commerce in 1837. Construction, that included four faces of fluted Doric columns of granite, each weighing 42 tons, took ten years. Although Boston had a 125-foot height restriction, the federally owned Custom House was not subject to city law and in 1913 the dome was sacrificed for a 16-story tower that became the city’s first - and most unwelcome - skyscraper. When installed in 1916, the 4-sided marble and bronze clock was the largest in the U.S.
TURN RIGHT AT INDIA STREET.
Central Wharf Buildings
146-176 Milk Street at India Street
Central Wharf was built to the designs of Charles Bulfinch in 1816-1817. There were originally 54 buildings that paraded down the wharf to where the Aquarium stands today; only eight of the original Federal-style buildings are left to reach their 200th anniversary.
Boston Chamber of Commerce/Grain Exchange Building
177 Milk Street
George Foster Shepley, Charles Hercules Rutan, and Charles Allerton Coolidge were the architects who carried on the work of in the shop of Henry Hobson Richardson after the most influential American designer of the post-Civil War era died at the age of 47 in 1886. Here they employed Milford granite to apply their mentor’s interpretation of the Romanesque Revival style. You can look up to see such hallmarks as a profusion of dormers, rough-faced stone, a conical roof and bold arches.
TURN RIGHT ON MILK STREET. TURN LEFT ON BROAD STREET.
52 Broad Street, corner of Milk Street
This warehouse composed of rusticated rough-faced gray granite was one of the few buildings not to fall in Boston’s Great Fire of 1872. Boston architect Charles Edward Parker designed the storage space in 1853, giving it a French Second Empire-influenced mansard roof. In 1988 the Boston Society of Architects settled into the five-story building and insured the existence of one of the town’s rare 19th-century downtown buildings.
72 Broad Street/80 Broad Street
Boston-born Charles Bulfinch is usually regarded as the first native-born American to call himself an architect on his business card and was certainly the most influential architect in New England with three state capitols to his credit. Bulfinch also wore the hats of urban planner, chief of police, and head of the Board of Selectmen. At one time Broad Street was lined with red brick Bulfinch-designed warehouses; these are two that survive.
89 Broad Street
The Batterymarch Building was the tallest building in Boston when it opened in 1928. Architect Harold Field Kellogg used 30 different colors of brick to fashion this Art Deco building, lightening as the floors rise. Although Kellogg decorated his creation with public utility motifs relating to transportation and power generation the building takes its name from a path trod by Colonial troops in the defense of Boston.
99-105 Broad Street
This nine-story mixed-use structure used a standard 19th century commercial building as its core. Look up to see pronounced string courses defining the stories that step up to a bracketed cornice.
TURN RIGHT ON SURFACE ROAD. TURN RIGHT ON HIGH STREET.
Chadwick Lead Works
184 High Street
Manufacturing lead shot in Colonial times was about as low tech as an industry could get - climb into a tower, drop molten lead and watch as it forms shot as it falls. That is what the the square brick tower was used for here. Joseph H. Chadwick toiled in a lead works as a kid and grew up to start his own company in 1862 when he was 35 years old, specializing in his Diamond Brand white lead. Architect William Preston tapped the richly decorated Romanesque Revival building in 1887 which served the iron works until 1901 when it merged with the Boston Lead Company and moved.
United Shoe Machinery Building
High Street at 138-164 Federal Street
Boston lifted its 125-foot height restriction in 1928 to allow taller buildings, provided they stepped back in a fashion to allow sun to reach the street. The result was towers like this trapezoidal Art Deco skyscraper from J. Harleston Parker, Douglas H. Thomas, Jr., and Arthur W. Rice in 1930. The mass of the building rises from a base of limestone and granite into upper setbacks that dwindle in size to a central tower capped by a truncated pyramid of tile. The client was the United Shoe Machinery Corporation that at one time had a stranglehold on 90% of the cobbling equipment made in America. You can still look up and see designs of the shoe trade incorporated into the building.
TURN RIGHT ON SUMMER STREET. TURN LEFT ON BEDFORD STREET.
99 Bedford Street
This is what a shoe store looked like in the 1870s. After the Great Fire of 1872 Henry and Francis Lee hired celebrated Victorian architects Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears to rebuild this retail shoe center. Cummings was a major cheerleader for the ornate Venetian Gothic style that was championed by English art critic John Ruskin and named for him. The most eye-catching hallmark of the style is its use of alternating bands and blocks of colorful stone, executed here with red granite from New Brunswick, Canada, white marble from Long Island, New York and terra-cotta tile manufactured in Philadelphia. A restoration in 1983 has left the Bedford Block looking as good as it did in the 1870s.
RETURN TO SUMMER STREET AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON DEVONSHIRE STREET.
New England Press Building
off Franklin Street at One Winthrop Square
Winthrop Square was a center of dry goods merchandising in the 1800s. The Great Fire of Boston in 1872 started behind the Beebe store on Summer and Otis streets. Carl Fehmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nephew, outfitted this granite newspaper building with corner pavilions that dwarf the classically-flavored central entrance.
89-93 Franklin Street at Winthrop Square
This was the first major commission for the architectural team of were Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee, Walter Thacher Winslow and George Homans Wetherell, raised in 1873 in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1872. The distinctive undulations are the result of the commercial building following the curves in the old downtown street grid and are emphasized by horizontal elements like stringcourses.
TURN RIGHT ON FRANKLIN STREET.
State Street Trust Building
Franklin Street at 75 Federal Street
Thomas M. James slipped a stepping-back Art Deco tower into the cramped streetscape here in 1929. In the 1980s when the Boston Redevelopment Authority permitted the elimination of narrow downtown streets three crenellated shafts were tacked onto the first eleven floors.
RETURN TO DEVONSHIRE STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
International Trust Company Building
45 Milk Street, at the corner of Milk Street
At 7:20 p.m. on November 9, 1872 fire broke out in a basement of a commercial warehouse at 83-87 Summer Street. Before the conflagration could be contained 12 hours later it had consumed about 65 acres and 776 buildings in downtown Boston. Much of the financial district lay in ruins; the $60 million in damage is one of America’s costliest urban disasters. The fire stopped here but melted the iron building on this site. This Beaux-Arts tower from the pen of prolific architect William G. Preston replaced it in 1893.
TURN RIGHT ON MILK STREET. TURN LEFT ON CONGRESS STREET.
John W. McCormack U.S. Post Office and Courthouse
Congress Street at Angell Memorial Park
When the federal government went on a 1930s building spree fueled with Depression Era stimulus funds its favored architectural style was the stripped-down classicism of Art Deco. This Gothic-flavored epic from Ralph Adams Cram is a master of the form. The emphasis is on verticality, seen on the facades executed in New England granites rather than less costly Indiana limestone, despite the hard times. The federal building was finished in 1933 and given the name of John M. McCormack, a one-time Speaker of the House from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in 1972.
CONTINUE ON CONGRESS STREET BACK TO FANEUIL HALL AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.