Directly across from the South Station Transportation Center (FD26), surrounded by train yards and freeway ramps, the six-square-block Leather District is a remarkably intact commercial neighborhood from the end of the nineteenth century. Along with nearby Chinatown, this land was originally the South Cove, filled in the 1830s and developed with low-cost residential and commercial buildings. Boston's shoe and leather industry, devastated by the 1872 Boston fire, gradually recovered and spread to this neighborhood, redeveloping it in the last two decades of the nineteenth century with blocks of five to six stories. Constrained by postfire building codes, prominent Boston architectural firms designed structurally conservative business blocks of uniform size, clothed in highly embellished facades.
Development began in 1880 along South Street with a series of Romanesque Revival commercial buildings, the oldest extant structures are the Frost Building at 90–100 South Street (1883, A. S. Drisko), the Blake-Osborne Building at 114–122 South Street (1883, Lewis Weissbein and W. H. Jones), and the only Queen Anne block, the Tenney-Jenney-Prescott Building at 102–112 South Street (1884, Alden Frink). Their high basements and cast-iron fronts with huge windows provide display space on two levels. Later Romanesque blocks have brownstone and red brick facades with wide arches, arcading carved stone decorations, and oculi; they include 145 South Street (1884, John H. Besarick), 121–123 South Street (1886), the William Simes Building at 116–128 Lincoln Street (1888, Franklin E. Kidder), the J. Franklin Faxon Building at 130–132 Lincoln Street (1889, William Ralph Emerson), the Ellis Building at 146–154 Lincoln Street (1892, Winslow and Wetherell), and the Fur Merchants Warehouse at 717–719 Atlantic Avenue (1901, William Gibbons Rantoul).
Later buildings are classical or Renaissance Revival, larger and characterized by lighter brick, limestone, and terra-cotta; these include the Lincoln Building (1894, Willard T. Sears, 66–86 Lincoln Street), the South Street Building (1899, Winslow, Wetherell and Bigelow, 79–99 South Street), and the Pilgrim Building (1919, Monks and Johnson, 208–212 South Street). The Hotel Essex (1899, Arthur H. Bowditch, 687 Atlantic Avenue) was renovated in 1985–1988 as the Plymouth Rock Building.
The most impressive block, the massive Beaux-Arts Albany Building (1899, 2–32 Albany; currently Teradyne, address now 179 Lincoln Street), was designed by Peabody and Stearns and built by Norcross Brothers. Its two-story base is adorned with swags and cartouches and its fifth floor is topped with a complex cornice. A neighborhood mainstay is the South Street Diner (1947, Kneeland Street, formerly the Blue Diner), built by the Worcester Lunch Car Company and featured in ten movies.
As Boston's prominence in shoe and garment marketing faded in the mid-twentieth century, the neighborhood declined. Colonized by artists and galleries, spurred on by its National Register designation (1983) and multilevel zoning that allowed shops, offices, and residential units within each building, the neighborhood has become an adaptive-use success story. It retains its mixed-use character, despite the subsequent influx of hightech firms and the replacement of James E. McLaughlin's 1917 South Postal Station with the oversized 745 Atlantic (1989, Stubbins Associates).