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BSA News

May 18, 2023

An Architectural Excursion via Riverboat

Riverboat on Charles 1000px

Photo courtesy of the Charles Riverboat Co.

Boston has been ranked second among the best walkable cities in the country, and for many, exploring the city by foot is a great way to discover Boston’s rich history. But those with less time to spare can opt for another way to explore the city—via the Charles Riverboat Company’s architecture cruise. “It’s a great way to see a large portion of the city in a small amount of time,” says Melissa Otis, the company’s director of sales.

The architecture cruise came to fruition approximately 10 years ago, after the founder of the company, Russell Cushman, had gone on an architecture-themed cruise in Chicago. Since then, the cruise—a collaboration with the Boston Society of Architecture (BSA) and Boston By Foot—has turned out to be one of Charles Riverboat’s most popular offerings.

An Expansive View of Boston Architecture

The cruise departs from Lechmere Canal Park next to the Cambridgeside Galleria and then makes its way through the Charles River locks. According to Otis, “It’s the only public tour in Boston whose boats fit through the lock system, showcasing both the Charles River and Boston Harbor.” Adds Lynn Smiledge, a historic preservation consultant and architecture cruise tour guide, “In my opinion, the locks are the most unique experience of the tour; people really enjoy going through them.”

A guide narrates the two-hour cruise, as tourists and locals alike take in stunning views of the city while learning of Boston’s architectural history and seeing its evolution play out before them—from buildings dating as far back as 1830 to the glass façades of the city’s more modern 20th- and 21st-century buildings. “The skyline has changed significantly,” Otis says, and tourists see the contrast between the older-style architecture in downtown and the newer development in the Seaport area. Says Smiledge: “It’s an evolution not only of the architecture but also the changing fortunes of the harbor, which have shifted dramatically since the 18th century.”

HL on River

Photo courtesy of the Charles Riverboat Co.

A Bridge Designed for Fish Migration

In addition to the architectural highlights—the John Hancock tower, One Millennium Place, and Marriott Custom House, to name a few—the tour also includes many fun and interesting facts. Harriet Fink, communications coordinator at the BSA, went on the cruise after having just moved to Boston. “It was a great way to get a sense of the city,” she says. On the Zakim Bridge, for instance, are little diamond-shaped openings on the roadbed that allow light to pass through the bridge and reach the water below it. Why is that important? They are for the alewife fish that come in from the harbor to spawn in the Charles River. Fink learned on the cruise that the openings were added “so the fish going through the locks could see the light ahead and be encouraged to continue swimming.” Confirms Smiledge, “The alewife don’t like to swim through large expanses of dark water, so the openings are intentionally in place so the fish are more comfortable traveling under the bridge.”

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Photo courtesy of the Charles Riverboat Co.

Boston’s Diverse Architectural Styles

Many of the guides have varying architectural backgrounds, and each runs his or her respective tour a little differently. On her cruise, Fink says, she also got a primer on architectural styles: “You can begin to recognize what types of buildings they are from the water.” Adds Smiledge, “Boston has probably one of the best collections in the nation of Brutalist architecture. The masterpiece is Boston City Hall—it’s our best example of a Brutalist building.” And then there “is the one building people are really excited about,” Smiledge says: the Boston University Center for Computing & Data Sciences by KPMB Architects, also known as the Jenga building because of its cantilevered design.

Smiledge also describes a color-coded system that helps passengers discern how old a late-20th-century building is. For example, buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s generally will be white or gray (made of stone and concrete); buildings built in the 1980s and 1990s will have shades of red granite; and buildings built in the 2000s will be made of blue and silver glass.

“The tour is something I encourage everyone to go on because you’re not going to feel the same way about Boston again; you’re just going to get a whole different look at the city and at the relationships between its buildings,” Smiledge says.

The architectural cruises run from May 26 to September 3, Fridays through Sundays, at 10:00 a.m. and from September 9 through October 22 on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:00 a.m. Reserve your tickets today!