Arts & Architecture
The Puritans were spiritual, uninterested in small-minded pursuits like art or music. Despite this, in the 19th century Boston became an artistic center, earning the nickname 'Athens of America.' Boston can thank the Puritans, however, for founding Harvard College, establishing Boston as a learning center. Attracted by the intellectual atmosphere, other institutions followed suit; not only traditional universities, but art schools, music colleges, conservatories and more. Even today, the university culture enhances the breadth and depth of cultural offerings.
By the 19th century, the city’s universities had become a magnet for writers, poets and philosophers, as well as publishers and bookstores. The local literati were expounding on social issues such as slavery, women’s rights and religious reawakening. Boston, Cambridge and Concord were fertile breeding grounds for ideas, nurturing the seeds of America’s literary and philosophical flowering. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were born of this era. This was the Golden Age of American literature, and Boston was its nucleus.
Boston's 19th-century luminaries congregated one Saturday a month at the old Parker House. Presided over by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, the Saturday Club was known for its jovial atmosphere and stimulating discourse, attracting such renowned visitors as Charles Dickens. The prestigious literary magazine Atlantic Monthly was born out of these meetings.
In the 20th century, Boston continued to foster authors, poets and playwrights, but the Golden Age was over. The city was no longer the center of the progressive thought and social activism that had so inspired American literature. Moral crusaders and city officials promoted stringent censorship of books, films and plays that they deemed offensive or obscene. Many writers were ‘banned in Boston’ – a trend that contributed to the city’s image as a provincial outpost instead of a cultural capital.
Boston never regained its status as the hub of the literary solar system, but its rich legacy and ever-influential universities ensure that the city continues to contribute to American literature. Many of Boston’s most prominent writers are transplants from other cities or countries, drawn to its academic and creative institutions. John Updike, Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri and David Foster Wallace all came to the Boston area to study or teach at local universities.
Painting & Visual Arts
Boston began supporting a world-class artistic movement in the late 19th century, when new construction and cultural institutions required adornment. Boston's most celebrated artist is John Singer Sargent, whose murals decorate the staircases at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library, both of which were built during this time. Prolific sculptors Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens also left their marks in parks and public spaces all over town. During this period, Winslow Homer became famous for his paintings of the New England coast, while Childe Hassam used local cityscapes as subjects for his impressionist works.
Critics claim that Boston lost pace with the artistic world in the second half of the 20th century. But the visual arts are returning to the forefront of contemporary cultural life in the new millennium. The 2006 opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) shone the spotlight on to Boston’s long-overshadowed contemporary art scene. Almost in response, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Harvard Art Museums upgraded their facilities for contemporary art with new and expanded exhibit spaces and programming. Artists have transformed the South End and Fort Point into vibrant art districts that feed off the growing and changing art institutions.
After the American Revolution, Boston set to work repairing and rebuilding the city, now the capital of the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Charles Bulfinch took responsibility for much of it, creating Faneuil Hall and the Massachusetts State House, as well as private homes for Boston's most distinguished citizens.
As the city expanded, so did the opportunities for creative art and architecture, especially with the new construction in Back Bay. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Charles River Esplanade and the Emerald Necklace, two magnificent green spaces that snake around the city. Copley Square represents the pinnacle of 19th-century architecture, with the Romanesque Trinity Church, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, and the Renaissance Revival Boston Public Library, designed by McKim, Mead and White.
The 20th century witnessed plenty of noteworthy additions. IM Pei is responsible for the much-hated City Hall Plaza and the much-beloved John F Kennedy Library. His partner James Cobb designed the stunning John Hancock Tower. Reflecting Trinity Church in its facade, this prominent modern tower takes its design cues from Boston's past, a recurring trope in the city.
The century closed with a remarkable project in urban planning – not building, but unbuilding – as parts of the Central Artery were rerouted underground and replaced by a network of green parks and plazas, the Rose Kennedy Greenway. And where the Central Artery is not hidden, it is on display, as it soars over the Charles River on the new Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, one of the widest cable-stayed bridges in the world.
Several new buildings on the MIT campus – particularly Frank Gehry's Stata Center – have made industrial Kendall Sq a daring neighborhood for architecture. Across town, the Harvard campus now boasts a striking Renzo Piano design, housing the new Harvard Art Museums. Meanwhile, the dramatic space for the Institute of Contemporary Art has kicked off a spate of construction along the South Boston waterfront. All around Boston, there is a burgeoning interest in design as an art form that affects us all: the Design Museum Boston explores these questions with exhibits and presentations all over town.
Boston has a tradition of grooving to great music. Classic rockers remember Aerosmith, the Cars and the J Geils Band. (Peter Wolf, lead singer of the J Geils Band, is frequently sighted at celebrity events around Boston.)
The pinnacle of the Boston music scene, however, is reserved for the punk rockers of the 1980s and '90s. Bostonians still pine for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Pixies, the most influential of many B-town bands from this era. Nowadays, no one makes more real, honest hardcore punk than the wildly popular Dropkick Murphys, a bunch of blue-collar Irish boys from Quincy.
Possibly Boston’s most venerated cultural institution, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1881 and is rated among the world’s best orchestras, thanks to the leadership of several talented conductors. It was under Serge Koussevitzky’s reign that the BSO gained its world-renowned reputation, due to its radio broadcasts and noteworthy world premieres. Seiji Ozawa, the BSO’s longest-tenured maestro (1973–2002), was beloved in Boston for his passionate style. James Levine (2004–11) was known for challenging Boston audiences with a less traditional repertoire, though he suffered from ill health throughout his tenure. In 2014, Boston proudly welcomed Andris Nelsons, a dynamic young maestro from Latvia, who brings unbridled emotion and energy to his conducting.
The Boston Pops was founded as an effort to offer audiences lighter fare, such as popular classics, marches and show tunes. Arthur Fiedler, who took the helm of the Pops in 1930, was responsible for realizing its goal of attracting more diverse audiences, thanks to free concerts on the Charles River Esplanade. The Pops’ current conductor is the young, charismatic Keith Lockhart, who has reached out to audiences in new ways – namely by bringing in pop and rock singers to perform with the orchestra.
Opera & Ballet
Boston’s preeminent dance company is the Boston Ballet, founded by E Virginia Williams in 1965. The current director is Mikko Nissinen, veteran of the Finnish National Ballet and the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg, Russia. The season usually includes timeless pieces by choreographers such as Rudolf Nureyev and George Balanchine, as well as more daring work by choreographers-in-residence. And it always includes the classic performance of The Nutcracker at Christmas. The Boston Ballet performs at the Opera House.
The city's most prominent opera company, Boston Lyric Opera (www.blo.org) is currently without a permanent home (even as it recently celebrated its 40th year). Nonetheless, the innovative company stages performances in venues all around the city. In 2013 a second company was founded, Odyssey Opera (www.odysseyopera.org). Striving to present 'eclectic' and 'adventurous' works, the young company has been lauded in its debut.
Siderbar: John Singleton Copley
Boston artist John Singleton Copley is considered the first great American portrait painter: you can see a huge collection of his works at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Sidebar: Carpenter Center
The Carpenter Center on the Harvard campus is the only Le Corbusier building in the country; across town, MIT boasts buildings by Eero Saarinen and Alvar Aalto – emblematic of how these academic institutions have enabled design prowess.
Sidebar: Boston Theater
In recent years Boston has developed as a destination for alternative theater. The American Repertory Theater has made a name for itself with its cutting-edge productions. The Boston Center for the Arts in the South End hosts a slew of smaller companies that stage engaging and unconventional shows.
Universities & Colleges
No single element has influenced the city so profoundly as its educational institutions. Aside from the big ones mentioned here, dozens of smaller schools are located in Fenway. The residential areas west of the center (Brighton and Allston) have been dubbed the 'student ghetto.' Academic suburban sprawl means there are also excellent schools in Medford, Waltham and Wellesley, north and west of Boston.
The Big Boys
A slew of superlatives accompany the name of this venerable institution in Cambridge. It is America's oldest university, founded in 1636. It still has the largest endowment, numbering $37 billion in 2017. It is often first in the list of national universities, according to US News & World Report. Harvard is actually comprised of 10 independent schools dedicated to the study of medicine, dentistry, law, business, divinity, design, education, public health and public policy, in addition to the traditional Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Harvard Yard is the heart and soul of the university campus, with buildings dating back to its founding. But the university continues to expand in all directions. Most recently, Harvard has acquired extensive land across the river in Allston, with plans underway to convert this working-class residential area into a satellite campus with commercial, residential and academic facilities.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
At the opposite end of Mass Ave, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers an interesting contrast (and complement) to Harvard. Excelling in sciences and engineering – pretty serious stuff, by most standards – MIT nonetheless does not take itself too seriously. The campus is dotted with whimsical sculptures and offbeat art, not to mention some of Boston's most daring and dumbfounding contemporary architecture. MIT students are notorious practical jokers, and their pranks usually leave the bemused public wondering 'How did they do that?'
Despite the atmosphere of fun and funniness, these smarty-pants are hard at work. The school has claimed some 93 Nobel Laureates and 58 recipients of the National Medal of Science since its founding in 1861. Some recent accomplishments include artificially duplicating the process of photosynthesis to store solar energy, developing computer programs to decipher ancient languages and creating an acrobatic robotic bird.
The MIT campus stretches out for about a mile along the Charles River. The university has a few museums, but it's really the art, architecture and atmosphere of innovation that make the place unique.
The Best of Boston
Boston University (BU) is a massive urban campus sprawling west of Kenmore Sq. BU enrolls about 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students in all fields of study. The special collections of BU's Mugar Memorial Library include an outstanding 20th-century archive. Public exhibits showcase the holdings, which include the papers of Isaac Asimov, Bette Davis, Martin Luther King Jr and more. The BU Terriers excel at ice hockey, with frequent appearances in the national college championships, the Frozen Four, as well as victories in the local Beanpot tournament.
Not to be confused with BU, Boston College (BC) could not be more different. BC is situated between Brighton in Boston and Chestnut Hill in the swanky suburb of Newton; the attractive campus is recognizable by its neo-Gothic towers. It is home to the nation's largest Jesuit community. Its Catholic influence makes it more socially conservative and more social-service oriented than other universities. Visitors to the campus will find a good art museum and excellent Irish and Catholic ephemera collections in the library. Aside from the vibrant undergraduate population, it has a strong education program and an excellent law school. Its basketball and football teams – the BC Eagles – are usually high in national rankings.
Located in the midst of student central, aka Fenway, Northeastern is a private regional university with programs emphasizing health, security and sustainability. Northeastern University (NU) boasts one of the country's largest work-study cooperative programs, whereby most students complete two or three semesters of full-time employment in addition to their eight semesters of studies. This integration of classroom learning with real-world experience is the university's strongest feature.
Art & Music Schools
Massachusetts College of Art & Design
The country's first and only four-year independent public art college was founded along with MIT and the Museum of Fine Arts in the late 19th century, when local leaders wanted to influence the state's development by promoting fine arts and technology. It seems safe to say that their long-term goal was successfully met. Nowadays, Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt) offers a highly ranked art program, with specializations in industrial design, fashion design, illustration and animation, as well as the more traditional fine arts.
Berklee College of Music
Housed in and around Back Bay in Boston, Berklee is an internationally renowned school for contemporary music, especially jazz. The school was founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk (the Lee came from his son’s first name). Created as an alternative to the classical agenda and stuffy attitude of traditional music schools, Berk taught courses in composition and arrangement for popular music. Not big on musical theory, Berk emphasized learning by playing. His system was a big success and the school flourished. Berklee’s Grammy-laden alumni include jazz musicians Gary Burton, Al Di Meola, Keith Jarrett and Diana Krall; pop/rock artists Quincy Jones, Donald Fagen and John Mayer; and filmmaker Howard Shore.
Founded in 1880, Emerson is a liberal arts college that specializes in communications and the performing arts. Located in the Boston theater district, the college operates the Cutler Majestic Theatre and the Paramount Center, and its students run Boston’s coolest radio station, WERS (www.wers.org; 88.9 FM). Emerson celebs include Norman Lear, Jay Leno, Denis Leary and Henry Winkler, aka 'the Fonz.'
Feature: A Walk Across the Harvard Bridge
The Harvard Bridge – from Back Bay in Boston to MIT in Cambridge – is the longest bridge across the Charles River. It is not too long to walk, but it is long enough to do some wondering while you walk. You might wonder, for example, why the bridge that leads into the heart of MIT is named the Harvard Bridge.
According to legend, the state offered to name the bridge after Cambridge’s second university. But the brainiac engineers at MIT analyzed the plans for construction and found the bridge was structurally unsound. Not wanting the MIT moniker associated with a faulty feat of engineering, it was suggested that the bridge better be named for the neighboring university up the river. That the bridge was subsequently rebuilt validated the superior brainpower of MIT.
That is only a legend, however (one invented by an MIT student, no doubt). The fact is that the Harvard Bridge was first constructed in 1891 and MIT moved to its current location only in 1916. The bridge was rebuilt in the 1980s to modernize and expand it, but the original name has stuck, at least officially. Most Bostonians actually refer to the bridge as the 'Mass Ave bridge' because, frankly, it makes more sense.
Walking across the bridge, you may notice the graffiti reading: '50 smoots…69 smoots…100 smoots…Halfway to Hell…' and you are probably wondering, 'What is a smoot?' A smoot is an obscure unit of measurement that was used to measure the distance of the Harvard Bridge, first in 1958 and every year since. One smoot is approximately 5ft 7in, the height of Oliver R Smoot, who was a pledge of the MIT fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha in '58. He was the shortest pledge that year. And yes, his physical person was actually used for all the measurements.
By the time you reach the other side of the river, surely you will wonder exactly how long the bridge is. We can’t say about the Harvard students, but certainly every MIT student knows that the Harvard Bridge is 364.4 smoots plus one ear.
MIT computer scientist Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider first conceived of a 'galactic network' in the early 1960s, which would later spawn the internet.
Since 1952, one of Boston's biggest annual sporting events is the Beanpot, a local hockey tournament between Harvard, BU, BC and Northeastern. It takes place on the first two Mondays in February.
Boston is a funny place, and we mean funny ha-ha. Many of Boston's famous jokesters are graduates of Emerson College, which offers scholarships and workshops specifically devoted to comedy.
Feature: Diversity in Accademia
Boston's universities and colleges have long been recognized as a source of vibrancy and creativity. In recent years, the schools are also hubs of diversity, as students arrive from around the world. Unfortunately, the percentage of African American students remains relatively low (5 to 7%) and alarmingly static (practically unchanged since the 1980s), according to a 2017 spotlight series on race in the Boston Globe. This disparity in academia is representative of the persistence of racial inequalities in Boston at large.