Explore Boston's Next It Destination: Columbia Point

For culture and history enthusiasts, there are many things to do in this Dorchester 'hood.

At the time of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Boston’s Columbia Point peninsula was one of the most overlooked and underdeveloped pieces of real estate in the city, and always had been.

Today, that’s changing. People have caught wind of the incredible ocean views. Look right, and Dorchester Bay gives way to the Atlantic and the South Shore coast. Straight ahead is a staggered network of tiny harbor islands, and to the left, the emerging Boston skyline. Columbia Point is situated to the south, cut off from downtown by Interstate 93, the Massachusetts Turnpike and the landmass of South Boston.

In the 1960s, a large housing project, Boston College High School, and a big landfill that was mainly a haven for seagulls occupied Columbia Point. In colonial times, the area was an enormous cow pasture.

“It was isolated,” said Jean MacCormack, the former Chancellor of UMass Dartmouth who grew up in Dorchester and later devoted her career to supporting the peninsula’s institutions. “It was a dump, so it was a place your mother always told you not to go.”

A relocation of University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus was just over a decade away, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s own plans for her late husband’s presidential library at the tip of the peninsula didn't take shape until 1979.

John F. Kennedy Presidental Library in Boston
I.M. Pei's waterfront creation honors JFK's legacy including his love of the ocean and intense desire to promote public service through education. (©JasonParis/Flickr, Creative Commons)

When Kennedy-Onassis looked out on the harbor during the JFK Library’s early stages, she simply thought of the president’s love of the ocean. She hired a young New York architect named I.M. Pei to design the new library even though, he protested, he didn’t have experience with big projects. Nevertheless, the concrete, glass and steel building he created stunned visitors with its uniqueness when it opened on a 9.5-acre plot.

UMASS now has the most expansive presence on the point, including recent construction projects and landscaping that are part of a 25-year master improvement plan that kicked off in 2009. Another revitalization project, known as the HarborWalk, has made the peninsula’s shoreline one of the most inviting stretches of pedestrian-friendly waterfront in the entire city.

Boston anticipates an increase in visitors to Columbia Point now and in years to come, and MacCormack can’t believe the transformation of the ocean-kissed peninsula since her Dorchester childhood.

“It was always kind of a mysterious place,” said MaCormack. “But [today] it’s so active and alive.”

Exhibit at JFK Library in Boston
Exhibit at JFK Library (©Ian MacLellan)

Top Things to See and Do on Columbia Point

Boston HarborWalk: The total HarborWalk stretches 47 miles long along the Boston Harbor coastline; Columbia Point’s portion was completed in 2015. A causeway-type path begins at Harbor Point—a mixed income/luxury development that replaced the old Columbia Point Housing Project—winds through the former calf pastures, past the Kennedy Library and around the university’s campus. Approximately 3,200 tons of stone, much of it unearthed from the Big Dig, was trucked in to bolster the land and build the causeway. 

Arts on the Harbor: Paul Tucker, an internationally renowned scholar and art history professor at UMass Boston, enhanced Columbia Point with an outdoor sculpture park that, in the past, has featured pieces by Willem de Kooning, Sol Lewitt and Dennis Oppenheim. 

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum: This building serves as an archive of the President’s papers and documents, a museum and an educational institute. A current exhibit focused on JFK's younger years and his famous exploits during World War II entitled “Young Jack” shows off a lesser-seen side of President Kennedy. Other attractions range from his inauguration to the space program.  

Commonwealth Museum and Massachusetts Archives: The Commonwealth Museum features four exhibit halls documenting the history of Massachusetts from colonial times. It also houses the Massachusetts Archives featuring a number of rare historical documents, including one of 14 original copies of the Declaration of Independence authorized by the Continental Congress in 1777, and one of 14 copies of the Bill of Rights from the same period.

Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate: Columbia Point’s most recent addition opened in 2015. Ted Kennedy’s dream, like his brother Jack, was to inspire public service by educating the public about the chamber where he served for almost 47 years. Especially interactive, the Institute starts with a full-sized replica of the U.S. Senate chamber. Visitors are encouraged to attend and take part in a program known as “Vote of the Day,” of which, vigorous debate and voting, is a part. U.S. Senators visit frequently to speak about the process, but the slate isn’t restricted to politics alone. Red Sox Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez has also been a featured guest.

Anyone wanting to take in the sights can pick up the MBTA’s Red Line in town and take it to the JFK/UMass stop. From there, a free shuttle brings both students and culture seekers out to the point.

Commonwealth Museum interior in Boston
Commonwealth Museum (©Ian MacLellan)