For more than 30 years, Professor Emeritus Tom Dahill taught students about art through his lectures at Emerson College and summer trips he led to the museums and ruins of Europe and the Near East.
Beginning Wednesday, July 13, Dahill will teach the residents and guests of a new Boston apartment building about the history of New England and their neighborhood through his painting, The Canal That Bisected Boston.
Dahill’s piece, a 10-foot-high by 3.5-foot-wide depiction of the old Middlesex Canal, graces the lobby of One Canal, a 300-unit luxury apartment building that sits on the site of the former waterway, which was built around the turn of the 19th century to bring logs and other goods from New Hampshire to the Charles River in Boston.
“This bit of history, I think, will be unusual,” Dahill, 91, said in an interview. “I don’t think there’s another image of the canal, except on maps. Almost anyone you speak to in Boston, you say, ‘What does the “canal” refer to in Canal Street?’ and they won’t know unless they’re history scholars.”
Dahill knows because he’s a bit of a history scholar himself, as well as a member of the Middlesex Canal Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the history of the canal through its museum in North Billerica, Massachusetts, and through commemoration efforts like the one that led to Dahill’s artwork being included in the design of One Canal.
The canal took ten years of hand-digging to complete, from its conception in 1793 to its opening in 1803. Excavation began at the Concord River in Billerica and went north to the Merrimack River; then the southern portion, from Billerica to Charlestown was finished.
Renowned architect Charles Bulfinch was a Boston selectman in 1803, and had just built the Massachusetts State House, when a fellow citizen asked him to do something about an old Colonial-era mill pond southwest of Copp’s Hill that had become a repository for garbage and dead animals, Dahill said.
“It was bad; it was a health hazard. Someone turned to Charles Bulfinch and said, ‘Charlie, can’t you do something about that stinking mess?’” Dahill said.
Bulfinch had the pond filled in and created a delta-shaped grid of streets known as the Bulfinch Triangle. Through it, he designed a canal that would run from the Charles River to Haymarket Square, and the street alongside it was called Canal Street, Dahill said.
The Middlesex Canal eventually fell victim to the railroads, and there aren’t many remnants of it today, but the Middlesex Canal Association is determined to preserve its history. So fifteen years ago, as the Big Dig was underway and the city was deciding what to do with the land daylighted by the removal of the elevated highway, members of the Association approached the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) about placing a memorial to the canal at the Triangle.
Making a Memory
The parcel the BRA designated eventually was developed, and Aimco, the Colorado-based company managing the property, agreed to incorporate a memorial to the canal into the fabric of the building. They, the architect, and the developer also agreed that Dahill should be the one to design it.
“It’s important for us to continue to show off [Boston’s] talent,” Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said at the grand opening of One Canal on July 13, after acknowledging Dahill’s artwork.
Dahill’s painting shows the canal circa 1816. In the foreground, ships pull up to wharves in front of Faneuil Hall. Bulfinch’s canal shoots straight down the center of the vertical canvas, to the Middlesex Canal and bucolic hills at the top of the painting.
The original was painted in acrylic in Dahill’s Arlington garage studio, then photographed. The photos were blown up to twice the original size and transferred to aluminum plates, which now hang on sandstone tiles between the glass entryway and an etched map of the canal.
“You can see the texture of the canvas on it, and the colors are very true,” Dahill said of the reproduction.
President Emerita Jackie Liebergott, who led Emerson from 1992 to 2011, came to the One Canal opening to support Dahill and admire his work.
“It’s exciting to see this new, wonderful work of Tom’s,” Liebergott said. “The perspective and detail and how it captures the history is wonderful.”
Professor Emerita Charlotte Lindgren, an English professor at Emerson for nearly 30 years, was also on had to cheer on her old friend and colleague. Lindgren and Dahill co-taught a popular course at Emerson, “Myth and Symbol,” and together led students on educational trips to Greece, Egypt, Italy, France, and England during the summers.
Lindgren said she’s been following Dahill’s progress on the painting on Facebook, but was excited to finally see it in person. She also said Dahill has been writing science fiction and that he often asks her to read his early drafts.
“He’s a very talented person,” she said.
Lindgren said Emerson College makes a point of supplying students with an education that goes beyond facts to a lifelong love of creativity and excitement about their work.
“[Many] of the Emerson people are still active in their 80s or 90s,” said Lindgren, who said she’s “older than [Dahill] is.”
“I think that says something wonderful about Emerson, as well as Tom.”