Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bulfinch's Boston, the Crescent

Providence, December 13, 2012

The filling of Mill Pond was not completed until 1828 but the English mapmaker and surveyor John Grover Hales already includes the street pattern of Bulfinch's triangular project for the site in his 1814 map of Boston.  That is certainly Bulfinch's most distinctive contribution the urban structure of Boston, but if you look carefully, the architect's fingerprints are, literally, all over the map.

As early as 1793 Bulfinch had designed and built a crescent of row houses in what is now Franklin Street.  Yes, that explains the shape of Franklin Street on either side of Arch Street.  In fact, Arch Street takes its name from the central passageway in Bulfinch's design.

After graduating from Harvard, Bulfinch had spent two years in Europe and under Jefferson's guidance had managed to absorb the best of Neoclassical architecture and urbanism the old world had to offer.  You can imagine how much our young architect--he's 25 when he comes back to America,--like any young architect, is itching to try his hand at what he has learned.  In 1793 he gets the commission for a theater on Federal Street and at the same time gets his family acquire land just to the west, in order to build a crescent.  Look in Hale's map, just two blocks to the right of the Common, and you'll see Bulfinch's project.  Unfortunately he goes bankrupt midway and only completes the southern crescent, but it's not difficult to imagine the project he had in mind: an elongated oval space flanked by three-story row houses with the portico of the theater at one of its ends.

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