Boston by Foot Shows History Hidden in Plain Sight
Boston by Foot’s tour of Art Deco in Boston’s Financial District leads you through the bustling business district to discuss the rich history of the neighborhood’s Art Deco buildings. Many of us pass by these buildings on a regular basis but do not realize the significance of the architectural style to the city’s history or exactly how these structures came to be. This two hour tour covers almost a dozen buildings in the area, each with its own unique story of how it joined the Boston skyline.
The tour began at our meeting point in Post Office Square, where the guide then lead us to the New England Telephone and Telegraph Building at 185 Franklin Street. This building is one of the older Art Deco buildings in the city and was constructed in the late 1940’s. The building boasts the trademark Art Deco geometric design of a stacked level roof, or ziggurat massing. Our guide pointed out the simplicity of the building’s facade and its lack of adorning features, which is attributed to the decrease in capital that many companies experienced post-depression. The building also displays fluted vertical channels, which is a popular Art Deco feature used to enhance verticality. Many of the buildings constructed from the 1920’s to the 1940’s were taller than their older counterparts, and the architects wanted to accentuate that length.
We then traversed farther back in Boston’s history to discuss what is considered the best example of Art Deco architecture in Boston; the United Shoe Machinery Corporation Building, located at 138-164 Federal Street. This structure was built in 1928 to house the manufacturing for the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, which was the largest manufacturer of men’s shoes at the time. The building has the familiar ziggurat massing and fluted vertical channels, but it is most notable for the fact that it appears to change shape from every direction. The familiar geometric pattern remains present on each side, but each angle reveals new shapes and features. This building also boasts very ornate detailing near the entrance, including a gold grate that pays homage to the technological advances that spurred the revolution in shoe production and allowed the company to grow.
One of our last stops on the tour was the Paramount Theatre at 559 Washington Street. The guide explained that while many Art Deco buildings accentuate their verticality as a metaphor for reaching towards higher technological advancement, there are some examples of smaller Art Deco buildings as well. Built in the early 1930’s, the Paramount Theatre has small vertical channels running down the front of the building as well as a geometric pattern at the top, but is otherwise simple. It also includes the signature carvings of the building’s original owners; a Paramount Pictures seal on the left and a Publix Theatres seal on the right.
Many of the buildings covered on the tour give special insight to the history of Boston over the years. The Paramount Theatre brought world-class entertainment to the city’s residents, while the New England Telephone and Telegraph Building housed the latest technology in telecommunications. As Boston began to modernize and become a center for technological advancement and culture, the city’s skyline grew to reflect this. The Boston by Foot Art Deco in Boston’s Financial District tour gives you a whole new perspective on the things you see but don’t really notice and makes for the perfect summer excursion through your own backyard.