The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum: PART 1 — ALL ABOARD!

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum: PART 1 — ALL ABOARD!

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum: PART 1 — ALL ABOARD!

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By Dan Perruzzi and Cyndy Gibson Murphy.

The new Tea Party Ships and Museum project is, without question, the most unique project our office has ever worked on, for many reasons. First, MPA didn’t fully design the project. It was designed by others who chose not to see the project through to completion. We are the architects of record. We updated the construction documents, and we are now observing construction. That is not a typical role for our firm, and it’s one fraught with its own challenges.

Second, MPA has never worked on a project with the immense historical importance of the Tea Party. This is the event that propelled the Colonies towards the Revolutionary War for Independence from Great Britain. For Bostonians, the Tea Party event is ours. When we go to other American historic sites, those of us who are born-and-raised Bostonians (one of the authors is) can’t help but think of all the events in and around Boston that led to the Revolutionary War: the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s ride, and of course the Tea Party. The first time the British were evicted by force from American soil occurred when General Washington trained Henry Knox’ canon on Dorchester Heights down on British ships docked in Boston Harbor. We were the first ones to take on the British at Lexington and Concord. You’re welcome, America.

Finally, the Tea Party Ships and Museum buildings (there are two buildings) are unique in how they are designed and constructed. The Pier building sits on fixed pilings, while the Barge building floats on, well, a barge. As we reviewed the construction drawings, we had to think about a whole set of issues that we never deal with in our normal practice: How will the tides impact accessibility to the Barge building? (in a major way, as it turns out); What will the micro-climate on the water mean for the building envelope? Besides, it’s rare to see your building float into place the way this one did.

What Is The Tea Party Ships & Museum Project?
This will be a new site commemorating the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. On that evening, a group gathered at the Old South Meeting House (on what is now Washington Street) to discuss what to do about the British ships that were docked in Boston Harbor and laden with tea and other commodities. The British had recently imposed a tax on all tea sold in the Colonies. While this tax alone outraged the locals, they were even more outraged that the British planned to sell their tea without tax, thereby undercutting the local merchants. The crowd at Old South was whipped into fervor by Sam Adams and others, and they decided to board the ships and dump the tea into Boston Harbor.

We may think that this is just a quaint historical event, a relic, but internationally the Tea Party is the one event known by virtually all who study early American history. Those of us who work in the area can attest to numerous occasions of being stopped on the bridge by someone asking, with heavily accented English, “Where is the Tea Party?”

The site for the project is located close to the site of the original event, Griffin’s Wharf. It consists of a structure built on fixed piers, situated alongside the Congress Street Bridge. Connected to this pier building via four gangways is a floating barge with a structure built on it. The pier building will house meeting rooms (made to appear like those at the Old South Meeting House where the original Tea Party was hatched), a gift shop, and offices. The barge building will have a museum on the first level and a tavern on the second level. Both buildings have elevators, even the barge building. The elevator will extend to the hold of the barge. And yes, this is the first time we have ever designed a floating elevator.

Docked around the barge will be reproductions of the three ships involved in the Tea Party event: the Eleanor, the Dartmouth and the Beaver. Two of these ships are being rebuilt/refurbished in Gloucester by Leon Poindexter. Leon was responsible for the ships in the film “Master and Commander”, as well as many other films. He is the recognized expert for period ship reproductions. The third ship will actually be built in place in the Fort Point Channel, around the barge.

The Tea Party Ships & Museum Experience

When you visit the Tea Party Ships and Museum, after buying your ticket, you are shown into one of the meeting rooms in the pier building. You are given an identity and a script to read. You will actually be playing the role of one of the original Bostonians who were so concerned with the presence of British tea in Boston Harbor. After your meeting (where, not surprisingly, the group decides to go down to the docks and raid the ships), you proceed down the gangways to the barge where you board one of the three ships, toss tea crates into the water, and then learn about conditions on those ships. Later, you enter the museum for an audio/visual presentation explaining the event and underlying attitudes. The tavern is available above the museum. As you leave the barge, the gangways take you to the gift shop, located on the ground floor of the pier building.

A Brief History of the Project
Many may recall the original Tea Party commemorative site. A small shack sat at the side of the Congress Street Bridge, essentially the same location as the new site. You paid for a ticket at the shack, then you negotiated a narrow gangway to the small, bobbing barge below, where re-enactors led you through a presentation and a reenactment of the Tea Party event. A portion of the barge was covered by a canopy, but the sides were open. In inclement weather, it was not exactly the place to be.

That site was actually created by a local Boston businessman in 1973. In the mid-80’s, he brought on Historic Tours of America (HTA) to manage the property and in 1998, they bought the site. HTA operates similar commemorative sites in Washington D.C., San Diego, Key West, and Savannah. Almost immediately following their purchase, HTA began thinking about expanding the Tea Party attraction.

Planning was well underway when, in August 2001, the site was struck by lightning. It wasn’t a complete loss, but there was a lot of damage. Some repairs were made, and there were plans to reopen until another fire in 2007 completely destroyed the site. By then, however, HTA had an architect and a scheme for a new site. This would consist of a building on piers sitting on the side of the Congress Street Bridge, connected by gangways to a floating barge, with a building on it. The construction drawings were completed in 2007, and then those drawings sat while HTA went about securing funding. It would take HTA years to find partners to help fund the project.

How MPA Got Involved
In early 2010, MPA was approached by Boston Properties (BP) to become architect of record for the Tea Party Ships and Museum project; BP had been retained by HTA as development manager. Given the breadth of their large project experience, Boston Properties was uniquely qualified to help HTA negotiate Boston’s unique regulatory and construction environment.

The original architect, for reasons still unknown to us, had decided not to see the project through construction. BP asked us to review the drawings, update them for new code requirements (the code changed following the initial issue of the drawings) and to evaluate how much work would be required to produce a complete set of construction drawings. Finally, we would observe the project through the construction process. Other than the original architect, the rest of the design team remained intact.

MPA had worked most recently with BP on a major fit-up within their building at Atlantic Wharf, right next door to the Tea Party site. Our own office, located in the Children’s Museum Building, actually looks down on the Tea Party site. When Boston Properties pitched the project to us, they said:  “Just think: short walks for construction site visits!” We jumped at the chance to work on this project due to its historical importance,  and how much a new Tea Party site would mean to Boston and the Fort Point neighborhood.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we discuss construction challenges and solutions of this amazing project.