Taking A Walk Through Historic Boston

A Walk to the Sea Traces the Evolution of Boston’s Architecture

By Sarah Robertson

Walking near Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston, Massachusetts.
Walking near Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston, Massachusetts.

Many people don’t realize that Boston, like all cities, is constantly evolving.

Living in the city we don’t realize it. We notice buildings being torn down, new ones taking their place, roads being paved, rerouted, and paved again.

What we don’t see is the face of the city. We don’t see it aging and we don’t see the cracks and the dimples that we walk in every day.

Leventhal’s Walk to the Sea

The Norman B. Leventhal’s Walk to the Sea is a celebration of Boston’s evolution from a colonial shipyard into a world-class city. The free, self-guided walk takes visitors past historic landmarks and modern marvels to see the best of Boston.

“The walk does a cross-section of the city from the statehouse to the harbor,” says Ron Grimm, the curator of maps at the Norman Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

“By highlighting the physical changes of the Boston it gives a different sense of the city than the Freedom Walk which sort of wanders around the historic parts of the city.

The oldest public building in Boston, the Old State House, is dwarfed by skyscrapers. Photos by Sarah Robertson.
The oldest public building in Boston, the Old State House, is dwarfed by skyscrapers. Photos by Sarah Robertson.

In just about one mile, tourists will see four centuries of Boston’s architecture and at eight locations.

A free audio tour is available for download on walktothesea.com that guides walkers to each location and provides information about the city’s history all along the way.

The walk follows fresh pavement over the historic ground; it celebrates change while remembering the past. But most importantly it commemorates a great city and the man that dedicated his life to making it that way.

The Legacy of Norman B. Leventhal

At ninety-six years old Norman Leventhal was as much a part of Boston as the buildings he has designed. He still showed up to work each morning, until he died at age 98.

In 1945, after serving as a Naval Architect during World War II, Norman co-founded the Beacon Construction Company with his brother Robert.

A graduate of Boston Latin School and MIT, Norman knows the city and how to make it beautiful. Under his leadership, the company grew to become an award-winning developer and manager of office buildings, hotels, and affordable housing.

A time lapse video from 1630-1950 showing Boston harbor's growth. Photos from walktothesea.com.
A time-lapse video from 1630-1950 showing Boston harbor’s growth. Photos from walktothesea.com.

Leventhal had a hand in the creation of the Center Plaza, Rowes Wharf, South Station, One Post Office Square, and the Hotel Meridien.

The park at One Post Office Square was dubbed the “Norman B. Leventhal Park” by Mayor Thomas Menino in 1997.

The Many Maps of Boston

Norman’s passion for construction reaches far past his own accomplishments. He is as passionate about Boston’s history as he is its future; that is why in 2004 he financed the creation of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

The center is now one of the top ten collections in the country based on the size and breadth of material.

Kings Chapel on Tremont Street.
Kings Chapel on Tremont Street.

“The Boston public library had hundreds of thousands of maps, and they were just sitting gathering dust,” says Karen Ciampa from Walk to the Sea, “So Mr. Leventhal, as a lover of maps, decided to invest and endow the map center.

He gave a generous gift that enabled them to have staff and exhibits that lets the public share his love of maps.”

The map center is located on the first floor the Boston’s Public Library’s McKim Building in Copley Square.

Exhibitions, lectures, interactive digital tools, and children’s games are just some of the ways Leventhal shares his love of maps with the public at his center.

The map center is free to the public and is open October through May, weekdays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and 5 p.m. on weekends.

“Mr. Leventhal was all about education,” says Karen, “If he can shine a light on how Boston has changed to the tourists and even people who live here who don’t really understand what Boston is all about that made him very happy.”

Creating the Walk

Walk to the Sea was a concept inspired by Mr. Leventhal’s love of maps and his eagerness to share them. Using the 200,000 maps from his map center, Leventhal partnered with architect Alex Krieger to design the panels for Walk to the Sea.

Eight locations and ten panels were made for the entire walk. One panel marks each location along the walk with three on Long Wharf marking its end. At night the panels even light up so walkers can learn about Boston under the stars.

Norman worked closely with architect and teacher Alex Krieger to choose maps and design the panels. Krieger designed each panel to feature a contemporary map alongside a historic map that emphasizes how much the area has changed.

To commemorate Mr. Leventhal’s ninetieth birthday and all his contributions to the city, Mayor Menino dedicated the historic walk to Norman, dubbing it the “Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea” in 2008.

Walking to the Sea

The Walk to the Sea begins in front of Boston Common under the golden dome of the State House. On Beacon Hill, walkers will find the first of ten panels that mark the route of Walk to the Sea.

Beacon Hill and the Long Wharf, the beginning and end of the Walk to the Sea. Photo from walktothesea.com
Beacon Hill and the Long Wharf, the beginning and end of the Walk to the Sea. Photo from walktothesea.com

The second stop on the tour takes walkers down Beacon Street to King’s Chapel. Originally built in 1688 as the first Anglican church in Boston, the church was rebuilt in 1750 and remains in its original condition today. Now dwarfed by the skyscrapers surrounding it, King’s Chapel was once amongst the tallest and most recognizable buildings in Boston.

“We have the earliest printed map of Boston that was published in 1722 and it shows the street patterns and at that point, buildings were only one or two-story residences,” says Ron, “The tallest buildings were the churches. Nowadays, there are skyscrapers that tower over the churches.”

The third stop is Scollay Square, a busy intersection between Tremont, Cambridge, and Court Street. Back in the 1960s Scollay Square neighborhood would be busy with the foot traffic of shoppers bustling from store to store.

Old State House on Court Street

Further down Court Street is the Old State House. A popular tourist destination in itself for their Old State House Museum, the State House is included in the tour because it was the city’s center for commerce and culture throughout the 18th century. It is the oldest surviving public building in Boston and the museum inside celebrates Boston’s role as the birthplace of the American Revolution.

Scollay Square in 1942, twenty years before its demolition. Photos from walktothesea.com
Scollay Square in 1942, twenty years before its demolition. Photos from walktothesea.com

Next, the financial district of Boston exists where it does today because it once serviced hundreds of traders and merchants arriving at Boston harbor. At one time the harbor reached all the way up State Street (then King Street) so far that shop owners in the financial district could see ships arriving at Long Wharf. The development has since pushed the city further into the sea.

The Customs House also has been cut off from the harbor. Originally situated on the water’s edge as the check-in point for immigrants, the Custom House has since been built upon and turned into a 433-foot tower that dominated the Boston skyline for a half-century.

Kennedy Greenway

The youngest stop on the tour is the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Completed in 2008, the network of gardens reconnects downtown Boston to the harbor and the historic North End. The “Big Dig” replaced the elevated expressway that scarred the water’s edge and made room for the series of gardens that make up the greenway.

“One of the places that you see the most dramatic change is where the walk crosses the Rose Kennedy Greenway,” says Ron Grim, “The images selected on the panels there show the original Ray’s highway and you see how blighted the area was. Now you have the new maps that show how dramatically that area has changed today.”

Long Wharf

After a long walk down Long Wharf tourists finally reach the end of the Walk to the Sea. The wharf overlooks the harbor where sailboats and yachts play now, but at one time it was a bustling trading hub filled with ships and traders. At the end of the Wharf, there are three illuminated panels that give more information about the history of the Wharf and commemorate Mr. Leventhal for all of his service to the city.

By ending on Long Wharf the Walk to the Sea ties together all the historic elements of Boston. From its revolutionary beginnings to the modern metropolis it is now Boston’s roots can always be traced back to the water. Seeing as Boston began in the harbor it is only fitting that a historic walk through Boston ends there as well.

The Rich History of Boston

The great part about Walk to the Sea is that it is just one of many things to do in Boston. The tour ends right next to the New England Aquarium so families and field trips can easily incorporate the walk into an aquarium visit. Long Wharf is also a short walk from Quincy Market and the North End where tourists can eat and shop at some of Boston’s most historic areas.

Boston is a historic city but history hasn’t finished telling its story yet. It will continue to grow and change as long as the people in it do. It will hold on to its traditions and welcome new ones. It will be resilient. It will build and re-build, pave, and re-pave until time stops. And that is exactly what Norman B. Leventhal’s Walk to the Sea wants to celebrate.

For more information, the audio tour download, and virtual tour of Boston see the Walk to the Sea website: http://walktothesea.com/

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