The Many Delights of Boston for the Historian
Ellen K. Rothman and Jesse Ruskin, December 2000
Cultural tourism is big business in Boston—the city attracted more than 12 million tourists last year, many of them drawn by the city's history. The first week in January is not exactly the peak of the tourist season. A number of attractions are closed—for example, water-based tours are not in operation, and if you are bringing children, they will be disappointed to find the Swan Boats in storage—but there are an almost endless number of activities that should appeal to AHA meeting goers, including some for those who enjoy the out-of-doors in winter.
Almost everything is accessible on the city's excellent—and the nation's oldest—subway system; a few of the outlying museums can be reached by bus or commuter rail. For route and schedule information, call (800) 392-6100 or go to http://www.mbta.com. Driving yourself around Boston—even if you lived here in a previous incarnation—is not recommended. The Big Dig is one of the world's largest public works projects and surely one of the great traffic nightmares. Boston's popular Swan Boat tours do not run in January, but several companies offer trolley tours of the Freedom Trail and other noteworthy sites. Call Beantown Trolley at (781) 986-6100 or Old Town Trolley Tours at (617) 269-7010. Boston is above all a great walking city. A number of historical walking "trails" are listed below. It's also fun (and generally safe) to just wander about the neighborhoods. Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, and the North End are probably the best known of these, but thanks to the mixed blessing of gentrification, Charlestown and the South End are also well worth exploring.
In compiling this list, we have emphasized attractions likely to be of interest to historians. We have used an asterisk to indicate anything that is new in the past two or three years. Unless otherwise noted, all addresses are in the city of Boston.
Trails and Tours
Black Heritage Trail. (617) 742-5415. Walking tour that explores African American life in 19th-century Boston. Maps and brochures available at the Boston Common Visitor Center or the National Park Service Visitor Center at 15 State Street. Tours (five or more people) are by appointment only. Call to arrange a tour.
Boston By Foot. 77 North Washington Street. (617) 367-2345. Guided historical walking tours. Tours offered: Heart of the Freedom Trail, Victorian Back Bay, The Waterfront, Boston by Little Feet (Freedom Trail for kids), Beacon Hill, The North End, and Boston Underground. Minimum 10 people. By appointment only.
Boston By Sea: The Maritime Trail*. 175 Berkeley Street. (617) 574-5950. http://www.bostonbysea.org. Self-guided walking tour of Boston's historic waterfront, from Long Wharf to the Charlestown Navy Yard. Call for maps and information.
Boston Women's Heritage Trail*. (617) 536-4100. Five neighborhood walks—Downtown, Beacon Hill, North End, Chinatown, and Back Bay—presented in a well-researched, illustrated guide to four centuries of Boston's women's history. The expanded second edition of the book is for sale at the Boston Common Visitor Center, the National Park Service Visitor Center at 15 State Street, and at area bookstores.
Freedom Trail. (617) 242-5642. http://www.thefreedomtrail.org. Now more than 25 years old, the Freedom Trail is a 2.5-mile walking tour of 16 sites and structures of historic significance in downtown Boston and Charlestown including Faneuil Hall and the Paul Revere House. Tours are self-guided during the winter. Maps are available at the Boston Common Visitor Center and the National Park Service Visitor Center at 15 State Street. For tours of the Charlestown Navy Yard, USS Constitution, and the World War W II-vintage ship, the USS Cassin Young, call (617) 242-5601, or visit the Navy Yard Visitor Information Center. Free.
Literary Trail of Greater Boston*. (617) 574-5950. http://www.lit-trail.org. Bus tour explores the literary heritage of Boston, Cambridge, and Concord. Stops include the Omni Parker House, Longfellow National Historic Site, Walden Pond, and the Concord Museum. Reservations required.
Mt. Auburn Cemetery. 580 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge/Watertown. (617) 547-7105. The most famous of the "rural cemeteries" and one of the most significant natural and historic landscapes in Greater Boston, Mt. Auburn Cemetery offers a one-hour interpretive driving tour. Audio cassettes are available for rent or sale in the administrative office. Ten miles of well-plowed roads and easy access on the "T" (Bus 71 or 73 from Harvard Square) make the 174-acre cemetery a great place to walk at any time of the year. Mt. Auburn Street gate is open daily, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Free.
Dreams of Freedom Museum, International Institute of Boston*. 1 Milk Street. (617) 695-9990. http://www.dreamsoffreedom.org. Inaugurated in the fall of 2000, this new exhibit uses the latest museum design techniques to make Boston's immigrant history accessible. A 16-minute multimedia show runs at regular intervals. A rotating gallery offers an exhibit on the diversity of Boston's religious communities. Open daily, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
Museum of Afro-American History/Boston African American National Historic Site. 8 Smith Court. (617) 725-0022. http://www.afroamericanmuseum.org.
Abiel Smith School*. First public school for black children in the country. The site is newly restored, and features interactive exhibits on slavery, abolition, and desegregation in Massachusetts through the 20th century. Open Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
African Meeting House. Oldest standing black church in the country and a key meeting place for the city's African American community. The New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded here. Open Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Old South Meeting House*. 310 Washington Street. (617) 482-6439. Newly reopened 18th-century meeting house located a short distance from the Old State House on the downtown "leg" of the Freedom Trail. Voices of Protest, a multimedia exhibit, explores public debates at this site from the Boston Tea Party to 20th-century free speech fights, while a temporary exhibit, Behind the Scaffolding, tells the story of the ambitious renovation project. Open daily, 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
The Bostonian Society. Old State House. 206 Washington Street. (617) 720-3290. http://www.bostonhistory.org. The closest thing Boston has to an urban history museum, the Bostonian Society occupies one of the most important buildings on the Freedom Trail, the Old State House. Developed in partnership with the National Park Service, the permanent exhibit interprets the events that took Massachusetts From Colony to Commonwealth. There are two temporary exhibits: Burning Issues: A History of Boston through Fire, which focuses on eight different Boston fires, and In Her Own Words: A Portrait of Martha Anne Kuhn, which looks at 19th-century Boston through the journal of a young woman attending Bronson Alcott's school. Open daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
USS Constitution Museum. Building 22, Charlestown Navy Yard. (617) 426-1812. Artifacts, artwork, video productions, and hands-on activities tell the story of Old Ironsides. For people in town on Sunday, January 2, the museum features participatory performances of the "Crossing the Line" ceremony at 12 p.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Open daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Morrissey Boulevard. (617) 929-4500. http://www.cs.umb.edu/jfklibrary. In addition to the permanent exhibit on the life and career of JFK, the museum features temporary exhibits on Robert F. Kennedy's work as attorney general and John Glenn's first space flight. Museum open daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Library is open for research Mon.–Fri., 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Saturday by appointment only, (617) 929-4534.
Charles River Museum of Industry. 154 Moody Street, Waltham. (617) 893-5410. http://www.ultranet.com/~crmi. The museum explores the history of four industries important to the development of the city of Waltham, about 10 miles west of Boston: textiles, watch-making, auto manufacturing, and machine building. Exhibits are built around working machines from these industries. Open Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Museum of Our National Heritage. 33 Marrett Road (Rt. 2A), Lexington. (781) 861-6559. http://www.mnh.org. Owned and operated by the Scottish Rite Freemasons, MONH mounts some of the best temporary exhibits in eastern Massachusetts. There are two permanent exhibits, Lexington Alarm'd, on the role of Lexington in the Revolution, and Initiating America: Three Centuries of Lodge Life, which traces the history of American secret societies from early 18th century to the present. Temporary exhibits on display in January: Stitched Symbols: Quilts from the Museum of Our National Heritage, which will show 18 quilts from the museum's collection, and The Bicycle Takes Off: From Boneshaker to Boom, on the early history of the bicycle. Open Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. Free.
Harvard University Art Museums. 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge. (617) 495-9400. http://www.artmuseums.harvard.edu. The university's Fogg Art Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Sackler Gallery all have permanent and temporary exhibits open to the general public. Open Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m.–5 p.m.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 280 The Fenway. (617) 566-1401. http://www.boston.com/gardner. The only private art collection in which the building and the collection are the creation of one individual, the Gardner Museum is worth a visit for the building and courtyard alone. The collection is particularly rich in Italian Renaissance painting but has many other strengths as well. Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt: Art and Ambition in Leiden, 1629–1631 will be the major exhibit in January 2001. Open Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Museum of Fine Arts. 465 Huntington Avenue. (617) 267-9300. (617) 369-3300 for recorded information on concerts, lectures, films, and other public programs. http://www.mfa.org. The MFA has a permanent collection surpassed by few other American museums. No "blockbusters" are scheduled for January, but several temporary exhibits will be on display: Dangerous Curves: Art of the Guitar, an exhibition of more than 120 guitars from the 17th century to the present, and Art and the Camera: The Photographs of F. Holland Day, on the work of the pathbreaking pictorialist photographer. Open Mon.–Tues., 10 a.m.–4:45 p.m.; Wed.–Fri., 10 a.m.–9:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.–5:45 p.m.
Museum of Science. Science Park. (617) 723-2500. (617) 723-2500 for schedule and show times for the Mugar Omni Theater and Hayden Planetarium. http://www.mos.org. The region's largest tourist attraction, the Museum of Science is also an extraordinary educational resource—and a lot of fun. Among the many current exhibits are Natural Mysteries, which gives visitors a chance to use the museum's natural history collection to explore three simulated environments; Virtual Fish Tank, an interactive exhibit that explores how complex living systems work; Gigantosaurus!, which displays the skull of the world's largest meat-eating dinosaur; and The Light House: Beaming, Bouncing, and Bending Light, which explores optics, color, and the nature of light. Museum open Sat.–Thurs, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Fri., 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and Museum of Natural History. 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge. (617) 496-1027. http://www.peabody.harvard.edu. One of the oldest museums in the world devoted to anthropology, Harvard's Peabody Museum houses one of the most comprehensive records of human cultural history in the Western Hemisphere. It collaborates closely with the university's Museum of Natural History, located next door, home of the famous glass flowers exhibit. Open daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission free on Sundays, 9 a.m.–12 p.m.
Boston Federal Courthouse*. Fan Pier, Northern Ave. The dramatic new courthouse building was dedicated in 1998. Located on the edge of the emerging Seaport District, it houses the U.S. District Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals and has a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. Of particular interest are the historical quotations engraved on the building's façade. Open Mon.–Fri., business hours only.
Boston Public Library. 700 Boylston Street, Copley Square. (617) 536-5400. http://www.bpl.org. The historic McKim Building, which houses the oldest wing of the nation's first free municipal library, is undergoing a major, multiyear restoration, but it's absolutely worth the trip. With its barrel-vaulted ceilings, Bates Hall, the main reading room, is a "must see." Don't miss the newly conserved stairway murals by the renowned French artist Pierre Puvis deChavannes, and the spectacular murals by John Singer Sargent undergoing conservation on the third floor. Main library: Open Mon.–Thur., 9 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Print Department and Rare Books and Manuscripts Departments: Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.– 5 p.m. Tours are available by special appointment by calling (617) 536-5400, ext. 2216.
Massachusetts State House. Beacon Street. (617) 722-2000. Hear Us, a new work of art created by Sheila de Bretteville and Susan Sellers to honor the contributions of women to public life in Massachusetts was permanently installed just inside the main doors in October 1999. It uses bronze busts, first-person quotations etched in marble panels, and wallpaper made from a series of official documents, to honor six Massachusetts reformers: Dorothea Dix, Lucy Stone, Sarah Parker Remond, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, and Florence Luscomb. The State House, which also houses a large collection of sculpture, portraits, and murals, as well as the recently restored House and Senate Chambers, is open to the public Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Guided and self-guided tours are available. Free.
American Repertory Theatre. 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge. Box office: (617) 547-8300.
Antigone by Sophocles in repertory with Three Farces and a Funeral: The Proposal, The Bear, and The Wedding Reception by Anton Chekhov.
Charles Playhouse. 74 Warrenton Street. This is the venue for two long-running shows: Sheer Madness, (617) 451-0195, and Blue Man Group, (617) 426-6912.
Huntington Theatre Company. 264 Huntington Avenue. Box office: (617) 266-0800. Amphitryon by Molière.
Shubert Theatre. 265 Tremont Street. (617) 482-9393. Godspell and Boston Lyric Opera's Salome.
Berklee Performance Center. 136 Massachusetts Ave. Box office: (617) 747-2261. http://www.berklee.edu.
Club Passim. 47 Palmer Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge. (617) 492-7679. http://www.clubpassim.com. Local and national folk acts.
House of Blues. 96 Winthrop Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge. Box office: (617) 497-2229. Concert info: (617) 491-2583.
Jordan Hall. 30 Gainsborough Street. (617) 536-2412. http://www.newenglandconservatory.edu.
Regattabar. Charles Hotel, Harvard Square, Cambridge. (617) 661-5000. Local and national jazz acts.
Scullers Jazz Club. 400 Soldiers Field Road, Cambridge. (617) 562-4111. Local and national jazz acts.
Symphony Hall. 301 Massachusetts Ave. Box office: (617) 266-1492. Concert info: (617) 266-2378. Boston Symphony Orchestra (January 4–6): Hans Graf, conductor, and Gil Shaham, violin. Schubert: Overture in E minor, D.648, Brahms: Violin Concerto, Schumann: Symphony No. 3, Rhenish.
Art Film Houses
Coolidge Corner Theatre. 290 Harvard Street, Brookline. (617) 734-2500.
Harvard Film Archive. 24 Quincy Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge. (617) 495-4700.
Kendall Square Cinema. One Kendall Square, Cambridge. (617) 494-9800.
Museum of Fine Arts. 465 Huntington Avenue. (617) 267-9300, ext. 300.
West Newton Cinema. 1296 Washington Street, Newton. (617) 964-6060.
Brattle Book Shop (used). 9 West Street. (617) 542-0210. Brookline Booksmith (independent). 279 Harvard Street, Brookline. (617) 566-6660. Globe Corner Bookstore (travel). 28 Church Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge. (617) 497-6277. Harvard Book Store (new/used). 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. (617) 661-1515. McIntire & Moore Booksellers (used). 255 Elm Street, Somerville (617) 629-4840. New England Mobile Book Fair (independent/discount). 82 Needham Street, Newton. (617) 527-5817. Schoenhof's Foreign Books. 76A Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge. (617) 547-8855. WordsWorth (independent). 30 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge. (617) 354-5201.
In a Category by Itself
Filene's Basement. 426 Washington Street. (617) 348-7900. While the Filene's Basement chain has been struggling with bankruptcy, the separately owned original store, in the basement of the flagship Filene's at Downtown Crossing, continues to offer one the most colorful and unusual shopping experiences anywhere. Open Mon.–Fri., 9:30 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
The Boston Phoenix, a free weekly newspaper, has the most comprehensive guide to arts, entertainment, and culture in Boston. Available wherever newspapers are found, and online at http://www.bostonphoenix.com.
For general tourist information, contact the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, 888-SEE-Boston. http://www.bostonusa.com.
—Ellen K. Rothman is associate director and Jesse Ruskin, administrative assistant, for the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.