Financial District
United States > Massachusetts > Greater Boston > City of Boston > Financial District

The narrow, winding streets of the Financial District feel almost European, and hint at the neighborhood's colonial history. However, much of the neighborhood was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1872, and more during Urban Renewal of the 1960s. Streets that had been scaled for smaller buildings now house skyscrapers on the same lots. Still, it retains a more intimate feeling, as well as a handful of some of Boston's older buildings, including the the Union Oyster House (built c.1704), the Old South Meeting House (built 1729) – where more than 5,000 colonists met to plan the Boston Tea Party – and the Bell in Hand Tavern (1795). The neighborhood is bordered by the Rose Kennedy Greenway separating it from the Waterfront.

The Financial District contains many of the high rises that define the Boston skyline (but not actually the two tallest ones: the Prudential and John Hancock towers are in Back Bay). It is one of several neighborhoods that make up downtown Boston – the others include Government Center, Chinatown, Downtown Crossing, Leather District, Theatre District, and the Waterfront.

Very little activity at night. The core of the Financial District is predominantly offices, rather than a lively mixed-use district. The historic neighborhood was largely redeveloped for office towers during a period of urban planning that did not value street-level activity. As a result, the office towers have massive empty lobbies rather than many small shops and restaurants. As a result, it is not a place that is interesting to explore and it becomes very quiet – even dull – after business hours: "For years, the area between Downtown Crossing and the waterfront would grow eerily silent after 6 pm on weekdays, trafficked only by wayward tourists on the weekends." according to Boston Common.

As Boston magazine aptly put it, "No one back then was worrying about what it was like to walk the city blocks, or whether there were enough first-floor retail spaces to engage the people who worked above. As a result, Financial District towers have huge empty lobbies and no amenities. Without life at the pedestrian level, these behemoths turn a cold, blank face to the neighboring sidewalks, making the prospect of walking among them a miserable experience." There are considerable parallels to Battery Park City and the Financial District in Manhattan, also products of shortsighted 1960s and 70s urban planning.

When Boston was established in 1630, most of the activity and development was concentrated in the North End. At the time, the West End was still primarily farmland known as the West Fields, Beacon Hill was not yet developed, and Back Bay was still a marsh.

The Financial District was previously known as the Old South End, and it was laid out like the affluent districts of London, with townhouses around tree-lined squares. Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) was one of the architects responsible for designing many of these residences. However, much of the neighborhood was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1872 – one of the most destructive in the history of Boston – and it was redeveloped more densely. In addition, many of the replacement buildings were designed in the Second Empire style which evokes Paris under Baron Hausmann's plan. The few buildings in the Financial District that have survived the Great Fire and urban renewal of the 1960s are among the oldest in downtown Boston.

Expanded by infill. The Financial District is one of many Boston neighborhoods that have been expanded using landfill. Faneuil Hall was once waterfront, before the harbor shoreline was extended with gravel to create more buildable land. Just past the Samuel Adams statue in Faneuil Hall Plaza is a marker showing the original shoreline of 1630, and the brick sidewalks marked with wavy lines and fish represent where today's land is built over the water. Similarly, Griffin's Wharf – where the Boston Tea Party occurred in 1775 – is now considerably inland, and is marked with a plaque at the corner of Congress and Purchase streets. Why is this relevant? Because infilled land can sink over time, and as a result can be more flood-prone. Indeed, parts of the Financial District were flooded by rising tides during the extreme storms in early 2018.

Best blocks and notable buildings

Union Street was laid out in 1636, two years after Boston Common was established as the first public park in the then-colony. It was known as the "Common Land" and was used to graze livestock until 1830.

The Union Oyster House (41 Union St.) is one of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in the United States. It opened in 1826 in a c.1704 building. Over the years, regulars included statesmen Daniel Webster and the Kennedy family. A descendant of Louis XIV, Louis Philippe (1773-1850), lived on the second floor in 1796, during his exile after the French Revolution. He earned his living by teaching French to many of Boston's fashionable young ladies, before returning to Paris to serve as king from 1830 to 1848, before being forced to abdicate after another French revolution in 1848. In an 1839 letter, Louis Philippe noted that his time in the United States greatly influenced his political beliefs and judgments when he became king. (Fun fact: While the Union Oyster house is the oldest continuously-operating restaurant in the country, the oldest bar in Massachusetts in the Warren Tavern in Charlestown).

Durgin-Park (340 North Market St.). The first restaurant in this location was opened in 1742, and was purchased by John Durgin and Eldridge Park in 1827.

Custom House Tower (3 McKinley Sq.) is the first skyscraper built in Boston, although it's construction has an interesting twist. While the tower was built in 1915, the original Custom House dates to 1847. The skyscraper addition was designed by Peabody & Stearns, and rose to an unprecedented 495 feet, when the city zoning then prohibited building above 125 feet, according to Boston magazine. The original dome of the building was removed and reassembled in Franklin Park.

Ebenezer Hancock House. (10 Marshall St.) (PDF) Built in 1767 and owned by John Hancock (1737-1793), it is the last remaining building in Boston associated with him - even though it was occupied by his younger brother, Ebenezer, who served as Deputy Paymaster General of the Continental Army. At one point, $2 million of French crowns were hidden in the house, funneled to the United States through the diplomatic efforts of Benjamin Franklin, to be used to finance the colonists' rebellion against England. According to The Bostonian Society, the house is one of the few downtown residences surviving from the late 1700s.

Commercial and retail

The neighborhood is the center of New England's banking and finance sectors, although the Seaport is becoming an increasingly desirable office location. The Financial District is having some difficulty competing with the Seaport in part because the latter offers a livelier street-level experience with more shops, bars, and restaurants, as well as residences that lend itself to activity on an 18-hour cycle rather than just during the workday.

The Financial District contains a significant density of high-rises, but two of Boston's tallest towers, the John Hancock and the Prudential Center, are actually in nearby Back Bay. Some of the prestigious commercial addresses include Post Office Square, Exchange Place, and International Place complexes.

Second Empire and Art Deco buildings. The Great Fire of 1872 destroyed much of the Financial District, and sections of the neighborhood were redeveloped in the Second Empire and later, the Art Deco style.

Strong tourism location. Boston's Freedom Trail and heritage tourism often bring visitors to the Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall complexes. These are the seventh most-visited tourist attractions in the world, with 18 million visitors annually, according to the Boston Globe.

Fanueil Hall was built in 1742 by merchant Peter Faneuil, then the wealthiest citizen in Boston, as a gift to the city. His offer controversial: Bostonians had debated throughout the eighteenth century whether a centralized market was preferable to peddling in the streets. Markets built by the town had been destroyed by a mob disguised as clergymen in 1737. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the large assembly room became a hot spot for fiery speeches in favor of independence, leading patriot James Otis to dub it the 'Cradle of Liberty.' There is a certain irony to this, given that it was financed with profits from Peter Faneuil's slave trading. The Golden Grasshopper weathervane atop of the cupola is a copy of the one on the Royal Exchange in London. It is also the only remaining artifact from the original 1742 structure, which burned in 1763, and was expanded by architect Charles Bulfinch in 1806.

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Retail corridors
Broadway<br>(Battery Park to Chambers St.)


Transportation

The Financial District is well served by transit options. At the northern end of the neighborhood is the Haymarket stop on the Green and Orange lines. For the Blue Line, State Street and Aquarium are in the center of the neighborhood, west and east side respectively. And the southern side of the neighborhood is served by the Downtown Crossing stop several blocks away, as well as the transit hub of South Station.

Boundaries

The Financial District is on the Shawmut peninsula of Boston, with Government Center, Downtown Crossing, and Chinatown and the Leather District to the west; the North End to the north, and the Waterfront to the east.

It is roughly bounded by Atlantic Avenue, State Street, and Devonshire Street.

Before the neighborhood was redeveloped as the Financial District, it was known as the Old South End, and evoked London with mansions and rowhouses along tree-lined squares. Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), the first professional American-born architect, designed a number of these residences. After graduating Harvard, Bulfinch did a tour of British and European buildings that influenced his distinctive Federal style – and his itinerary was suggested by none less than Thomas Jefferson.

As an aside, there's a first for everything if you offer enough conditions like "professional, American-born." A generation before Bulfinch became the first American-born architect, Peter Harrison (1716-1775) was one of the most prominent colonial American architects – but he was born in England. His works include King's Chapel (1749) in Boston; the Touro Synagogue (1759) – the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States – in Newport, Rhode Island; and Christ Church (1761), in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Great Fire of 1872 shaped the redevelopment of the Financial District. There were several 'Great Fires' in the city's history, but this was one of the most destructive – it leveled much of downtown Boston, 65 acres of some of the most valuable real estate in the city, roughly between Summer, Washington, Milk, and Broad streets (or according to the Boston Globe, everything between Washington Street and Boston Harbor, from Summer to State streets).

Though the cause remains unknown, Boston fire chief John Stanhope Damrell all but predicted the disaster after seeing the aftermath of the devastating 1871 Chicago Fire, according to the Boston Globe. Indeed, Damrell had been pleading with the city since 1866 to install new hydrants, a steam engine, and larger pipes, but officials rejected his proposals, according to the Boston Globe.

When the neighborhood's commercial buildings were rebuilt, the factories and warehouses were designed in the Second Empire style, evoking Paris at the time.

Urban renewal and the threat of demolition. The city retained architect _______ to expand Faneuil Hall in 1826 to include the buildings now known as Quincy Market. It thrived for more than another century, but was briefly nearly vacant by the early 1970s. It was targeted for demolition under the misguided "urban renewal" programs that had destroyed so much of the early American architectural heritage.

The mayorship of Kevin White from 1968 to 1984 is credited with revitalizing much of downtown Boston, especially the Financial District and the Waterfront. At the same time that pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs was showing that the basic conception of how cities work was flawed – and ... her successful fights to save beloved neighborhoods like Boston's North End and Manhattan's Greenwich Village from demolition ... It was at this time that ___ Jim Rouse of the Rouse Companies [and an ancestor/relative of actor Kevin Bacon] ... transformed Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into a lively tourist destination. ... redevelopment based on the idea that cities should be fun places, and heritage was one way to __________. MORE.

Through the vision of Jim Rouse, architect Benjamin Thompson and Mayor Kevin White, the dilapidated structures were revitalized, thoroughly changing the face of downtown Boston.

Their 1976 renovation was the first urban renewal project of its kind, and its success showed that it was an approach that could be replicated. Others saw that by saving

Today, the challenge for the neighborhood is ...

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