Mike the Mad Biologist

charles1
(Click to embiggen)

Don’t worry, I’m not describing Boston Mayor Menino’s latest harebrained scheme. Esplanade Magazine, which is some great architecture/real estate porn (and it’s free!), describes an effort in 1907, during the heyday of the City Beautiful Movement, to build an island in the Charles River. It didn’t happen due to opposition from Beacon Hill residents (naturally…) who opposed what would have been called St. Botolph’s* island. But imagine if the island had been built (from Esplanade Magazine):

It’s May, almost time for Commencement, and you are sunning yourself at the BU Beach–that grassy knoll that looks out over Storrow Drive. You decide to get up and leisurely cross the pedestrian footbridge over Storrow and walk down the Esplanade. As you reach the river, sparkling in the warm sunlight of late Spring, you see the BU DeWolfe Boathouse, with its beautiful turquoise copper roof and Naples yellow clapboards siding.

Bust as you turn to gaze downriver, you don’t see the dome at MIT, or the span of the Mass Ave. Bridge. You can’t see the Zakim Bridge either. Instead, an island looms in the middle of the river–an island that contains a Gothic cathedral and a large civic plaza.

As you face downriver towards the Cambridge side, the buildings on St. Botolph’s Island (now known simply as “the Island”) take up most of the view. The gothic spires of St. Paul’s Cathedral, now over 90 years old, cast a shadow on the Charles. You can seee rowers emerging from the narrow channels between the Island and Cambridge on the other. You idly wonder whether you should wander over to the Island to buy some ice cream…

Both Boston and Cambridge would be very different. The real estate ‘center of gravity’ could have shifted from Beacon Hill, had the plans to include residential housing been enacted (the other option was to have a lot of parks, government buildings and museums). Cambridge might have been less of a biotech hub–or the hub would have shifted northward: much of Cambridge which is now occupied by tech startups and MIT expansion probably wouldn’t have been left as derelict, given the proximity to the island.

In terms of aesthetics, I like the open river (and the fireworks would probably move to Allston), but, of course, maybe, in an alternative timeline, if someone were to blog about Boston’s missing island, that would seem weird too.

*St. Botolph lived in the English city of Boston, and, consequently, more than a few churches, streets, and so on in Boston are named after him.

Comments

  1. #1 Derek
    May 24, 2010

    Boston itself is named after St. Botolph… Boston= St. Botolph’s Town… Bo’s Town… Boston.

  2. #2 alkali
    May 24, 2010

    Both Boston and Cambridge would be very different.

    I dunno. You would think that Roosevelt Island (in the East River between Manhattan and Queens) would be a great real estate success but the fact is that it’s always been difficult to get development going there. St. B’s Island might have met the same fate. (Though perhaps the footbridges would have made a difference — you can’t access Roosevelt Island quite that conveniently.)

  3. #3 Joshua
    May 24, 2010

    Well, Boston itself is named after St. Botolph, too, or at least so goes the supposed etymology. It’s allegedly a contraction of “Botolph’s town”.

    Anyway, as someone who’s been taking advantage of Community Boating, at the base of the Longfellow Bridge, since last summer, I’m fairly glad that the Island never did get built. I think I prefer the unbroken stretch of river as it is. ;)

    Apart from that bit of selfishness, though, it’s a very cool plan. I like the way it ties Boston and Cambridge together a lot more.

  4. #4 MarkB
    May 24, 2010

    Think about this: a smaller, narrower version of the island shown above. It would connect Cambridge to Boston by footbridges. Cafes along a promenade, and a tower you could climb for a view. Keep the building low except for the narrow tower, and no one’s view would be damaged.

    Now think about this – Boston can’t keep the crackheads on the Common down to a dull roar, so what’s the sense. Look at the Greenway – it looks like a single golf hole in the middle of the city. There was a time when this could have been done. That time has passed.

  5. #5 Douglas Watts
    May 24, 2010

    The tidal dam at the Museum of Science needs to be ripped out so the lower Charles can revert to its natural state as a tidal estuary. Even my 12 year nephew can figure that out. The Charles River is the only large river left in New England which still has a dam at or below the head of tide. Why? Because Boston is stupid. I have never seen a city so full of Ph.Ds but so bereft of awareness of their own backyard. As a native of Massachusetts (Brockton), it is pathetic and embarrassing. The Charles River should be the cleanest river in the U.S. Instead it is still the filthiest. Not cool.

  6. #6 Bruce
    May 24, 2010

    Without that dam at the mouth of the Charles R., this proposed island would be underwater in major storms like the blizzard of ’78. I believe the Esplanade and parts of Back Bay were inundated in hurricanes of mid-50′s.