Central Wharf (Boston)

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Central Wharf
146-176 Milk Street, Boston (2016).jpg
Former warehouses on Central Wharf, now Milk Street
Location 146-176 Milk Street
Boston, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°21′33″N 71°3′1″W / 42.35917°N 71.05028°W / 42.35917; -71.05028Coordinates: 42°21′33″N 71°3′1″W / 42.35917°N 71.05028°W / 42.35917; -71.05028
Built 1815–1816
Architectural style Federal
Part of Custom House District (#73000321)
Designated CP May 11, 1973

Central Wharf is a historic pier in Boston, Massachusetts. Built in 1815–1816 between Long Wharf and India Wharf, it originally extended from India Street nearly a quarter-mile into Boston Harbor. Today, the much-shortened wharf (due to land reclamation on the city end) serves as the home of the New England Aquarium.


Central Wharf was conceived in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when the restoration and expansion of trade created a need to renovate the Boston waterfront and expand the town's shipping capacity. The project was organized by Ebenezer Francis and was primarily financed by several of the same men who had previously built or invested in India Wharf, namely Uriah Cotting, Harrison Gray Otis, James Lloyd, Jr. and Francis Cabot Lowell. Construction of the wharf began on around April 17, 1815, with the store roofs being covered before the end of the following year, and full occupancy was achieved by the beginning of April 1817.[1]

Upon its completion, Central Wharf featured a row of fifty-four warehouses built in the Federal style, with each one measuring four stories in height and three window bays in width.[2] In total, the wharf was one of the town's largest at 1,240 feet long and 150 feet wide, and one contemporary observer noted that "the completion of this undertaking, unparalleled in commercial History, is a proof of the enterprize, the wealth, and persevering industry of Bostonians." Over the next several decades it assumed a prominent position in the town's seaport, becoming the place of business for several eminent merchants and serving as the center of Boston's large Mediterranean trade.[3]

Only a small portion of Central Wharf exists today, with the majority of the site having been demolished in stages over the course of the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. The length of the pier was considerably reduced in ca. 1868 due to land reclamation undertaken for the construction of Atlantic Avenue, which ran through the middle of the wharf, and most of the warehouses were torn down in the 1950s-1970s to make way for several projects, including the building of the Central Artery and the New England Aquarium.[4] The aquarium has since become a major feature on the remaining area of the wharf, having operated there since its opening in 1969.[5]

Of the original warehouses built on Central Wharf, the westernmost eight (at 146-176 Milk Street)[6] have survived into the twenty-first century, although their facades have undergone varying degrees of alteration from their original appearance. These buildings, which form the last surviving Federal-style wharf complex in the city, were added as part of the Custom House District to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.[7]



  1. ^ Seasholes 2003, pp. 46–49; Rosenberg 2011, pp. 229, 145 ff.; Massachusetts Legislature 1823, p. 70.
  2. ^ The design of these warehouses is sometimes attributed to Charles Bulfinch, although his involvement in the project is doubtful. Candee et al. 2009, p. 85.
  3. ^ BLC 1980a; Bunting 1971, p. 42; Rosenberg 2011, p. 229; Snow 1825, p. 327.
  4. ^ Seasholes 2003, pp. 49, 59 ff..
  5. ^ Seidel & Tuite 2012.
  6. ^ MHC 1973. Although there are currently nine buildings in this row, 160 Milk Street is a modern development, having been built in 1978; BLC 1980b.
  7. ^ Candee et al. 2009, p. 85; NRHP 1973; MHC 1973.
  8. ^ Bunting 1971, p. 42.