BOSTON — Fort Point Channel was once nothing but swampland and tidal marsh. In the 19th century, it became an industrial centre, warehousing wool from around New England.
Today the 22-hectare landmark district abutting South Boston has reinvented itself as an artists’ colony, complete with lofts, studios, galleries and museums.
Many of them are located in the distinctive red-and-yellow brick-and-granite buildings that once housed factories.
The revitalization of Fort Point Channel, located near South Station, has brought trendy restaurants, bars and of course tourists, making the neighbourhood a new destination with a long history that even includes a connection to the Tea Party — the original one, that is, from 1773.
Sue and Bob Schmidt, exploring the neighbourhood on a visit from Chicago, sat in a waterfront plaza in the area sipping coffee as a couple of pigeons pecked on crumbs under their table and seagulls perched on a nearby railing.
“It’s very tranquil, very tranquil. As you can see, the birds are going to come up and sit with you,” Sue Schmidt said.
“People are very friendly and everything is quaint and easily accessible.”
Fort Point Channel’s transition from industrial to up-and-coming has taken place over the past three decades.
About 300 artists live in the area now, one of the highest concentrations in New England, said Gabrielle Schaffner of Fort Point Arts Community, a non-profit group run by members of the neighbourhood creative community.
The artists hold simultaneous open houses during the Fort Point Open Studios weekend, drawing thousands of visitors twice a year, with the fall event held Oct. 15 to 17.
In addition to being an attractive destination for art enthusiasts, the area lures families, shoppers, diners, history buffs and others seeking alternatives to the cobbled alleys of Beacon Hill, the Freedom Trail, Faneuil Hall and Boston’s other more-frequented locations.
One of its prime attractions, the Boston Children’s Museum, offers interactive, hands-on and creative exhibits, including a three-storey climbing structure made up of curved platforms rising up a glass lobby with a panoramic view of downtown Boston.
“It’s pretty vibrant and I like the way it’s integrated into the port. You can see out,” said Madeline LaPlante, 24, visiting from Indianapolis.
Nearby is the Boston Fire Museum, which features antique firefighting equipment, along with fire alarm displays, photos and other artifacts, from one of the oldest fire departments in the nation.
One of Fort Point Channel’s newest galleries is located in the headquarters of Grand Circle Corp., a travel tour company. The gallery offers vintage travel posters commemorating the so-called “Golden Age of Travel,” the era before the Second World War when travel was a romantic experience and travellers dressed up for trips on ocean liners and trains. Other exhibits at the gallery include stunning aerial photography by Bradford Washburn, a mountaineer and cartographer whose pictures include some of the world’s most demanding mountains.
A five-minute walk from Fort Point Channel, visitors will find the Institute of Contemporary Art, a waterfront museum conceived as a laboratory for promoting innovative approaches to art, including visual arts, film, video, performance and literature.
In the works for 2012 is a $25-million museum and three replica ships commemorating the Boston Tea Party, when colonists disguised as Indians stormed a British ship and dumped crates of tea into the water to protest taxes. Historians believe the episode took place in Fort Point Channel. A previous museum devoted to the Tea Party was destroyed in 2007 by a fire sparked by lightning.
Fort Point Channel’s culinary scene is booming too. Notable spots include three restaurants from chef Barbara Lynch: upscale Menton, where the standard prix fixe dinner menu is $95; Sportello (the Italian word for “counter”), specializing in simple Italian dishes; and Drink, a laid-back bar known for creative cocktails.
Priscilla O’Reilly, who’s worked for Grand Circle Corp. for 16 years, says it’s a remarkable transformation from the days when the only places to grab a bite or a drink in the neighbourhood included a wild Russian restaurant and bar on a ship docked in the harbour and a bar with peeling linoleum floors and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
That old bar is now Lucky’s Lounge, a popular garden-level hangout with no sign out front, frequented by tourists, artists, stylish singles and others lured by live bands, DJ music, the ambience, food and drinks.
One final attraction is HarborWalk, a broad public walkway with seating, cafes, artwork and access to water taxis and ferries.
Juliane Buettner, 28, visiting with a companion from Berlin, crossed a bridge to Fort Point Channel to enjoy HarborWalk and take some pictures before their cruise ship departed from Boston. “We are just walking around,” Buettner said. “It’s a nice atmosphere.”
If You Go…
FORT POINT CHANNEL: Fort Point Channel is near Boston’s South Station, reachable by Amtrak, long-distance and commuter bus lines, and the T (subway) red line. Maps, calendar and other information at http://www.friendsoffortpointchannel.org/ or http://www.fortpointarts.org/.
BOSTON CHILDREN’S MUSEUM: 308 Congress St., http://www.bostonkids.org or 617-426-6500. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Fridays until 9 p.m. Admission $12 (free for children under 12 months).
BOSTON FIRE MUSEUM: 344 Congress St.; http://www.bostonfiremuseum.com/ or 617-338-9700. Open Saturdays 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Appointments available for group tours. Free admission.
INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART: 100 Northern Ave., http://www.icaboston.org/ or 617-478-3100. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Adults, $15; free for ages 17 and under.
BOSTON TEA PARTY: http://www.bostonteapartyship.com/. Museum and replica ships opening 2012.
MENTON: 354 Congress St., http://www.mentonboston.com/ or 617-737-0099 (standard prix fixe dinner menu, $95).
SPORTELLO: 348 Congress St., http://www.sportelloboston.com/ or 617-737-1234 (dinner entrees start at $20, lunch entrees $16).
DRINK: 348 Congress St., http://www.drinkfortpoint.com/ or 617-695-1806.
GRAND CIRCLE GALLERY: 347 Congress St., 617-346-6459. Exhibit of vintage travel posters. Open Wednesday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
LUCKY’S LOUNGE: 355 Congress St., http://www.luckyslounge.com/ or 617-357-5825.