Guide to Boston’s Unique Geography and Changing Landscape

Boston Primary Landfill Projects Since 1775

Annotated 1895 Boston Map Illustrating Landfill Projects

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One of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of Boston is how much the land-form has changed over the years.  What you experience today is over 50% landfill.  Places you walk, such as the area around Faneuil Hall, were actually part of the harbor when Boston was founded in 1630.

When the first visitors arrived, they found a salamander-shaped, rocky, hilly, peninsula that was formed by erosion at the end of the last ice age.  Called Shawmut by the Native Americans, it was small, two miles long and only a mile wide.  It’s only connection to the mainland was the low-lying, narrow, wind-swept Boston Neck, which often flooded at high tide and was impassable during stormy weather – meaning the peninsula became an island.  During the siege of Boston, the British troops were effectively blockaded into this tiny island, without adequate food or firewood.

The peninsula was dominated by three hills, hence its early name of Trimountaine, which was later shortened to Tremont – a name that lives on in today’s Tremont Street. There was Copp’s Hill (in the North End), Beacon Hill (which had three summits and was almost twice as high) and Fort Hill (which was located in today’s financial district).

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Today’s Boston was created by a series of land reclamation projects, which started in a small way soon after the Puritans arrived in 1630 (you can see the 1630 water line marked in the pavement near the Samuel Adams Statue behind Faneuil Hall).

The major landfill projects took place between 1807 and about 1900, although some reclamation projects extended until almost 2000. Much of the land for the early projects came from the leveling of Fort Hill and from Beacon Hill. The largest project, the filling in of the Back Bay took, spanned several generations between 1856 and about 1894. For that project, gravel was transported in on a specially built train line from Needham, a suburb about nine miles away.  One of the first of the second generation steam shovels was used to fill the gravel cars for the trains, which ran around the clock for almost fifty years.

For a fantastic website, which was used to create the animations in the video above, visit the Boston Atlas. It is simply the best place to play with Boston’s changing topography, and was a great source for this post. Also visit the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library – a wonderful source of historic Boston maps, many of which were used in the creation of this post and the accompanying video.  For those interested in learning more, there is another interesting post from Professor Jeffery Howe at Boston University; for that post, click here.

Gardner Museum – Venice In Boston

Courtyard at the Gardner Museum

Courtyard at the Gardner Museum

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For those wishing an amazing and intimate taste of Italy while in Boston, a visit to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is a must. Designed to mimic a 15th century Venetian palace, it was opened by wealthy socialite Isabella Stuart Gardner in 1903 to house her amazing collection of European Art. A meaningful visit can take a little as two hours. For the Gardner’s, website, click here.

Isabella Stuart Gardner was born in 1840 in New York City to a wealthy family and was educated in New York and Paris. In 1860 she married John (“Jack”) Lowell Gardner Jr. and they moved to Boston, Jack’s hometown. After the death of their only child in 1865, the couple traveled extensively in Europe. Their favorite destination became Venice, and they were frequent guests at the Palazzo Barbaro, the home of some fellow Bostonians and a gathering place for artistic of American and English expatriates. The Palazzo Barbaro was to become a major inspiration for the Gardner Museum.

After inheriting a large sum from her father in 1891, Ms. Gardner Isabella began to collect art seriously. She and Jack dreamed of building a museum to hold the collection, which was to grow to over 2,500 pieces – including paintings, sculpture, drawings, manuscripts, ceramics, from all over the world. They were unable to accomplish this together as Jack died in 1898.

Soon after the conclusion of the filling in of Boston’s Back Bay, Isabella Gardner purchased land for the museum and, with architect Willard T. Sears, designed a museum that would evoke a 15th century Venetian palace. The museum opened to the public in 1903. Mrs. Gardner occupied a 4th floor apartment above the museum until her death in 1924. She left an endowment of $1 million that stipulated that the collection be permanently exhibited substantively in the manner that she left it. This is what you visit today.

Gardner Museum Nighttime View

Gardner Museum Nighttime View – Old & New

Perhaps the greatest treasure is the old building itself. Certainly, the art, sculpture and other objects are important and fascinating. But, strolling the building, gazing at sculptures and flowers in the pink-hued central courtyard (supplied from their own greenhouses), the substantial yet ethereal sensations you get walking the medieval halls, is a close as one can get Venice and old Europe in the Americas. It is a unique and accessible opportunity.

Boston Gardner Museum's Calderwood Hall

Calderwood Hall at Boston’s Gardner Museum

In 2012 an expansion wing opened, presenting a surprising contrast to the old building. Visitors enter through the new wing – while there, make sure to walk up the stairs and take a quick look at the Gardner’s unique concert venue, Calderwood Hall. Seating only 300 people across four levels, concert goers are never more than one row back from the performers; the acoustics are superb. For concert information, click here – if you can, plan early as concerts are often sold out.