CRM Journal

Book Review

Quincy's Market: A Boston Landmark

By John Quincy Jr. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2003; 237 pp., large format, photographs, drawings, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $29.95.


Since the 1970s, American cities have renovated their historic marketplaces in an effort to revitalize public space, stimulate economic growth, and improve the supply of fresh food. Quincy's Market is an account of this phenomenon in Boston where in 1976 the Rouse Company adapted the magnificent granite buildings and cobblestone concourses of the historic Faneuil Hall Market into space for specialty shops, restaurants, pushcarts, and fast-food stalls. Quincy's Market also tells the story of the colonial origins of the marketplace, its major expansion under Mayor Josiah Quincy (1772-1864) in the 1820s, and the gradual decline and deterioration of the market until it was redeveloped.

Food marketing in Boston had its origins around the Town Dock, where merchants conducted open-air sales for the convenience of the colonists. Door-to-door peddlers rounded-out the city's food marketing and distribution system. Bostonians held steadfast against a regulated market system with fixed locations until 1740, when Peter Faneuil, a wealthy Boston merchant, offered to pay for construction of a combined market house and town hall. Faneuil Hall, named for its benefactor and designed by the Scottish-born painter and architect John Smibert, opened two years later. The rapid growth of the town demanded yet more merchant quarters and meeting space, prompting the city to engage Charles Bulfinch to enlarge the combination town hall and market in 1805.

The greatest single expansion of the market district began in 1823, when Mayor Quincy launched a massive and controversial urban renewal project just east of Faneuil Hall. Quincy commissioned Alexander Parris to design a new granite market house flanked by a row of standardized warehouses. Quincy Market, as it was popularly known, was a masterpiece of civic design and served as Boston's chief food distribution center for the next 125 years. By 1950, the market had noticeably deteriorated as a result of city neglect, suburban flight, and competition from supermarkets. Close to being demolished, it was saved when federal, state, municipal, and private agencies joined forces to redevelop it into one of the country's first festival marketplaces.

John Quincy Jr. tells the story of this familiar landmark with engaging detail and a wide breadth of illustrations. Complementing the text are excellent drawings by architectural illustrator Gary M. Irish that carefully guide the reader through the evolution of the market buildings and district, particularly in its early years. Readers will also find many reproductions of historic prints, paintings, and maps, and shocking photographs of the deteriorated state of the buildings in 1970, along with sketches and models presented to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The author makes excellent use of prosaic material such as 19th-century ledger books, city council minutes, and government reports to make this an engaging read. Particularly graphic is the detailed account of the market's construction in the 1820s, including the water problems encountered during excavation, the transportation of granite from Quincy, Massachusetts, and even the cost of rum for the workers.

This reasonably priced book is handsome and well-designed. Illustrations have clear captions and are placed strategically throughout the book to complement the text and to give the reader a clear visual sense of the market's evolution. The book concludes with a helpful author's note that describes his painstaking hunt for the early 19th-century architectural plans, including his successes and failures, as well as a bibliography with an impressive list of unpublished sources.

The author makes no secret (how could he?) of his familial relationship to, and his admiration for, Mayor Josiah Quincy. Thankfully, however, the glorifying remarks about Mayor Quincy, whose ghost inspires the author "to this very day," are limited to the introduction and conclusion. This reviewer finds it odd that the author fails to recognize, or even mention, Josiah Quincy (1802-1882), son of the mayor who built the market. Although best known as the president of the Boston Social Science Association, Quincy the son was also mayor of Boston from 1845 to 1849. He, too, took great interest in Fanueil Hall Market, defending it against accusations of price fixing and the sale of bad meat. In 1876, he gave a speech at the market's semi-centennial celebration in which he credited the market's success to the vision of his father. Perhaps history has written off Quincy the son because of his less popular opinions, such as his arguments for state ownership of the railroads and his crusade for cooperative banks. Be that as it may, the reader learns little of the market's lively and contentious history during the second half of the 19th century.

Some mention of parallel market projects outside of Boston would have placed the story of Quincy Market in better context. In the 1820s for example, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, like Boston, were also involved in market expansion projects, as were other cities throughout the country. And Boston was by no means alone in the 1970s, when it finally dealt with the future of a declining public market that still held meaning and value to the community. Around the same time, Pike Place Market in Seattle and Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market were saved from the wrecking ball. These institutions chose different paths from that taken in Boston—preserving not only the historic market buildings but also the principal functions of a public market.

Quincy's Market demonstrates that public markets are rich cultural resources for the study of local, architectural, and urban history, as well as for the study of historic preservation. Public markets are more than building types. They are dynamic institutions deeply tied to the history and values of the city. In the 19th century, they were testimony to the dedication of the municipality to ensure healthful food at affordable prices. Their decrepit state by the 1950s and 1960s was testimony to everything that was going wrong with American cities. Today, Faneuil Hall Marketplace may attract tourists, but its rehabilitation has proven to be a limited solution to preserving the true value of a public market.

Helen Tangires
National Gallery of Art