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July 25, 2005
The hulking granite-block sea wall separating land from saltwater at Battery Wharf in the North End was hidden from the world for decades by great industrial warehouses, extending from Commercial Street out onto a thousand wood pilings driven into Boston Harbor.
Now the sun shines on the rugged stone, but only briefly. It is exposed for a couple of years by demolition taking place in advance of construction of a $250 million hotel and luxury residential complex. Soon, once again, the irregularly shaped wall, built in the late 1800s, will become almost invisible, as modern wharves and buildings atop new concrete piling reach out over the shoreline.
But the wall is safe.
"It may not be protected by any city act or anything, but it's part of a heritage and culture," said Francois-L. Nivaud, Battery Wharf's project consultant. "It's not a sacred cow, by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it's how Boston was built."
In three years of upcoming construction, it will barely be touched.
The sea wall at what is now called Battery Wharf about 12 feet high from the mud line on the water side, and shaped crudely like a key, when viewed from above dates back only to 1892, when the owner of the filled land rebuilt and extended the wharf.
Before that, recent research shows, the location had life in the 1630s as Merry's Point, named after a shipwright owner. By 1646 it was Boston's North Battery, securing the mouth of the Charles River. Starting in 1789 it was known as Jeffrey's Wharf, one of 80 wharves and quays in a city that was literally expanding. In 1877, the wharf was being used primarily for the storage of bulk cotton and hay.
In the modern era, Battery Wharf a 4.5-acre site that consists of almost two acres of land, and the rest built over water featured seafood retailer Bay State Lobster, a Dunkin' Donuts, and a meat shop, as well as a small parking lot.
A paper prepared on Battery Wharf's four-century history by the Boston History Collaborative details its rich past. But the sea wall itself which except for the land it holds back is all that is left of those bygone eras is not a designated historic structure. It is neither on the National Registry of Historic Places nor a Boston Landmark.
"It's not protected at all," said developer Harold Theran, who is building the Residences at Battery Wharf and a Regent Boston hotel astraddle the 807-foot sea wall. "It's just old."
Which is not to say the Battery Wharf sea wall could be tossed out on a developer's whim. Almost everything historic in Boston is protected in some way, especially if it has any relation to the city's maritime past.
Battery Wharf won its permits in 1999, under a previous owner, from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees filled land and tidelands through Chapter 91 of the state's laws. The statute requires further licensing if "any substantial structural alteration" is made to what exists on the site.
"It creates obstacles certainly," said Donald W. Birch, senior vice president with Leggat McCall Properties LLC, which is managing construction at Battery Wharf. "We're taking extraordinary measures to bridge the wall."
Though the sea wall zigzags in different directions between the US Coast Guard property, to the north, and Burrough's Wharf, to the south, Battery Wharf's landside buildings and pier-supported structures will appear as one piece when completed.
They will rest on a concrete platform that is supported by deep concrete walls on the Commercial Street side of the sea wall, and by 450 fourteen-inch-square concrete pilings, driven 80 to 120 feet into the mud, on the water side.
An elaborate bridge system of beams will carry the weight over but within less than 10 inches of the sea wall's 5-foot-wide surface. In only two narrow places will the old granite blocks have to be disturbed to make room for structural connections.
"In most cases we've been able to engineer a solution, to bridge the sea wall," said Birch.
Though it is impossible to determine precisely how much it cost to respect the sea wall, rather than removing the top couple of courses of granite and using a more direct means of connecting the wharves and the landside concrete foundations, a rough estimate is $2.5 million.
Even Ben Lynch, chief of the waterways program of the state Department of Environmental Protection, was surprised that so much care was taken at Battery Wharf, when many developers might have proposed dismantling some of the wall.
"Reacting just as a citizen, I'd pose this question," he said. "How much money do we spend to save a resource that the great majority of people will never see?"
Well, a whole lot, if you listen to the people whose job, or whose passion, it is to protect the past.
Battery Wharf's sea wall won't be visible from Commercial Street, the street on which it resides. It won't be visible from the luxury condos, or from the five-star hotel, or from the visitors' center, which will explain a little of the history of the Coast Guard.
Though information stations along the water's edge may relate the wall's history, you won't be able to see it at all while standing on Battery Wharf. The wall will be in shadows, tucked 45 to 60 feet back from the edges of the two new fingerlike wharves, according to architectural plans.
Only when approaching Battery Wharf from the water, and particularly at low tide, will some of its aged and barnacled blocks be viewable.
"You should be able to see it," said Pauline Chase-Harrell, former chairwoman of the Boston Landmarks Commission and president of Boston Affiliates Inc., a historic preservation consulting firm, who calls keeping the wall "absolutely" worth the cost.
"You're coming into a historic port," she said. "These things are part of the amenities of the city and state. It's what makes us different from Kansas City." Antonia Pollak, former director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, now commissioner of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, agrees.
"The historic waterline was created by filing in piers and wharves over many generations," she said. "It really defines the edge of the harbor. It's a piece of Boston's history that should be preserved."
No one interviewed could remember when or why the decision was made to go to considerable expense to respect the sea wall.
"Frankly, it's something I wondered about myself," said Edward Bradford an associate of The Architectural Team Inc. of Chelsea, which is designing the new Battery Wharf, and who was there in the mid-1990s, before Theran took over.
Said Theran, the developer: "I wanted to have it so the lawyers would say, `You're not taking it down, you're bridging it.' That's in the spirit and letter of the Chapter 91 license."
Robert M. Krim, executive director of the Boston History Collaborative, which researched Battery Wharf's past for the developer, said, "We have worked with a number of developers over our eight years, and they have been among the most receptive toward looking at history and how to think about it in the context of the building."
Chase-Harrell called the project "richer for saving and working around the unique history of the area," and said the sea wall's importance is archaeological as well as historical.
That is, even if you couldn't get a glimpse of the sea wall from a boat at low tide, it should be left alone.
"The theory is you leave things where they are in their historic context whenever you can," she said. "Because ages to come may have better techniques of understanding."